This text is submitted to the Flying Fish, the journal of the Ocean Cruising Club, it relates a sailing cruise in the Baltic from Copenghagen to Tallin aboard Cérès, our 40ft sailing boat.


Cérès spent the Winter 2013-2014 in Dragoer, a small resort just South of the Airport of Copenhagen. My wife, Barbara, and I boarded in mid July 2014 and left Denmark after some preparation to cruise first along the South coast of Sweden. The cities there, Ystad, Simrishamn, are pretty, quiet, old, unspectacular and pleasant. Karlskrona  somewhat further East and North is hidden in a dense archipelago. It has been the home of a large part of the Swedish navy since the 17th century. Before that it had been a member of the hanseatic league, like many of the Baltic and Nordic cities. The Character of Karlskrona differs markedly from that of the more Western Swedish cities. One has the distinct impression to be at a transition from a Danish dominated city style  and a truly Northern series of cities  extending to the North of Sweden, Norway and Finland. The  outside architecture is somewhat cold. The city is  organised along perpendicular streets denoting planning ex-nihilo rather than an organic growth from ancient times. Indeed Karlskrona was explicitly developed  in the 17th century with the purpose of being home to the national fleet with all the naval construction and maintenance that goes with that position. Although there is  nothing much to see in the city, except in the central squares, the  development at a given time in history and with a specific aim made for a very homogeneous and harmonious ensemble.

From Karlskrona our route led in excellent winds to the Southern part of the very long island that flanks the East coast of Sweden, Oeland. A very quiet harbour, Groenhoegen, few boats, some motor-homes, a pizzeria some distance away and a scattered set of houses, most probably holiday homes. A supermarket that rents bikes.  A long  cycle ride  led us in the nature to a bird reserve at the very Southern end of the island. On the way, a sunday, we stopped at a cafe/art gallery with armchairs and sofas  in the  grass and a country music band. Families and couples sat around tables, in the armchairs or on the ground drinking coffee or beer. A most peaceful end of 19th century  mood emanated from the premises.

We left  this piece of quiet land Monday evening to cross the Baltic sea by night due South to Poland and arrived in Leba in the late morning. Many shooting stars in a clear sky and a nice wind made for a fast and pleasant crossing . We announced our arrival to the port authorities through the radio, got permission to enter the river leading to the harbour and arrived in a large marina that is being so  quickly filled with mud from the river that  there was only one spot   where  the water was deep enough for our boat. Masses of people seemed to have chosen Leba for their holidays. Thousands were going to and coming back from beaches that extend for tens of kilometers  on both sides of the river. Blaring loudspeakers on boats taking tourists for short cruises at sea every half hour or so made the sound background. People of all ages wander in the streets eating at cheap bars and cafes. We were in the midst of a lively, popular holiday resort.  The coast is monotonous sand, dunes and pine forests  extend in a straight line in  East-West direction seemingly endlessly along the Polish coast, interrupted only every here and there by a river ending in the sea and most of the time hosting a harbour. This configuration makes for a rather dangerous navigation.  No protection can be found, should the conditions become rough, and the harbours in relatively small rivers flowing out in the sea  can only be entered in good conditions.  

Some 10 kilometers West of Leba,  along the sea  one finds a wandering dune of white sand. Many  walk all the way from the city through the pine forest, including small children who seem to be marching without protest, which surprised greatly the parents of small children we had been once. Others, like we, ride a bike there. The landscape on these dunes reminds one  more of the Sahara than what would be  expected from the shores of the Baltic sea. Nothing grows, the sand is an immaculate white, no trace of life is to be seen. The dunes are pushed East by the dominating winds and eat their way through the forest.  I imagine that they will reach Leba in a few centuries

Our next stop along the Polish coast led us to Wladislawowo, a fishing harbour, like the following one, Hel. In both of these places, the Polish regime has built walls, very much in the soviet style, that isolate the harbour from the little town or village around, presumably to prevent people from leaving the country by boat.  Being cut off from the port, the villages look sad, poor and soulless.   Houses are unfriendly, fishing industry facilities on the harbour side of the walls, dating back probably from the 60s, are in a desolate state.  Tents or wooden shelters  have newly been put up to sell pink and blue useless plastic objects to the crowds colonising these places for their holidays. How desperate these villages are when the tourists leave and the Winter winds and cold sets in may easily be pictured. For now, however, the crowds are there, with them life, loud music and lots of cafes for beer and coffee outside. The Summer is hot, the water temperature close to 25 degrees, the sun shines, ice cream melts, beer is an essential element of survival. News from home let us think that the Summer around the Baltic is considerably warmer, sunnier and pleasant than further South in Europe.

The next port of call in our cruise is  Gdansk, Danzig. A short sail from Hel leads to the entrance of the Motlawa river where we are duly allowed to enter after a call to Gdansk traffic control. The first monument on the East bank of the river is the Westerplatte fort, where the first shots of the second world war were fired. A monument is erected there and passing boats and ships are expected to salute by lowering their national flag while sailing by, which we dutifully did. There follows miles on end of port infrastructure, coal heaps, naval repair and construction facilities. This is the home of Solidarnosc, the independent union led by Lech Walesa that played a crucial role in the liberation of Poland from the Soviet rule and thus in the disintegration of the Soviet empire. All these facilities are partly in a desolate state, but partly very lively with ships charging, discharging and being repaired. The scene changes drastically few hundred meters before reaching the yacht harbour in the centre of the  old city. 20th century industrial landscapes all of a sudden yield to medieval houses and the large crane that symbolises Gdansk. We tie Cérès in the midst of this medieval city and go exploring.

Gdansk is a wonderful city. It has been thoroughly destroyed during world war II, but very artfully reconstructed. The first impression of the old town is   a sort of joyful and coloured Amsterdam. Many facades are decorated, the whole gives a very homogeneous, albeit varied impression. A real discovery. We had not expected to find here as well preserved buildings, witnesses of a rich history extending all the way to the hanseatic league.  Our expectation was more that decades of communist regimes had erased the past brilliance of the city. We realise that the iron curtain that shut Eastern Europe from the West has deprived  western Europeans  of our generation, people who went to school before the end of the 80s, from knowing the riches of cities like Gdansk, as well as  from many chapters of European history and a large part of our cultural heritage. Indeed school programmes did not invest much effort in these regions, with very few exceptions, linked in my memory with the 30 years war and the reformation.

From Gdansk, where Nicolas Moget joined Barbara and I,  we sailed back to Hel, where we spent  a night, before leaving the European Union towards Russia, to the city Kaliningrad, which forms with the region around it a Russian enclave in the European Union. The Polish custom and immigration officers were on board at 5am, filled their forms and saw us off for a navigation of some 40 nautical miles to Baltijsk, the Russian military port at the entrance of the channel leading to Kaliningrad. As we approached the coast and got within reach of phone communication, a message from our son Fabien reached us letting us know that his son, Milan, our grand child, had a had a bad accident, planting a cactus thorn deep in his chest all the way to the heart. A second message minutes thereafter let us know that Milan was between life and death and would be operated shortly in Toulouse.  While these emotionally difficult messages were exchanged, we contacted the Baltijsk port authorities, announced our arrival and were allowed to enter to the berth where Russian immigration and customs would meet us. Meanwhile the operation on Milan was proceeding. Mixing Russian custom administration with the deepest concerns for the survival of Milan was a strenuous exercise, to say the least.  Four officers were waiting for us, immigration, customs, and two less easily identifiable, probably port authorities and navy. The were smiling, made us fill a number of forms, asked for copies of boat documents and passports, went away and came back half an hour later satisfied. We were allowed to proceed to Kaliningrad after having notified the Baltijsk traffic controllers.  We learned that Milan's operation  had been successful. News reached us little by little that the most acute danger was passed.

The channel from the sea to Kaliningrad is 20 nautical miles long, it is partly within the river Pregolia and partly in the large lagoon, the "Frisches Haff",  formed by the river behind the dunes of the coast. These large lagoons are a generic feature of the coast in this region, they form when rivers meet the sea in shallow environments. We passed along the oil terminal, an important industrial harbour and many miles of rather undisturbed nature.  Two small cargo ships overtook us along the way. Rain caught us in the afternoon and we arrived in Kaliningrad under some moderately heavy thunderstorms.  

We did not know what to expect in terms of berthing facility in Kaliningrad. Our documentation mentioned facilities to moor boats as close to the centre of the city as possible. Arriving there we did find the place, saw, however, that the "marina" was woefully inadequate for a twelve meter sailing yacht. Only short motor boats were moored there.  In absence of any other possibility, we tied at the extremity of the peer, protected our hull against rough edges and immobilised Cérès as much as possible to prevent damage, hoping that no severe weather would meet us there.



The marina in Kaliningrad. Cérès was not easily accommodated in the facilities.


A ladder hanging half in the air with an improbable angle led  from our pontoon to     a former industrial dock on which a shabby hangar with some old boats and parts stood together with a gigantic dock crane. Electricity was available, no drinking water and toilets that are better left undescribed. Across the river from Cérès there was a large, well arranged, quantity of wood probably waiting to be loaded on a cargo ship. A set of reservoirs of some  unidentified chemicals  stood a bit further,   on a section  of the dock to which a small cargo vessel flying the "A" flag signifying a dangerous cargo came twice during our stay. Somewhat further  heaps of coal waited to be loaded. I estimated the volume of the coal to be of the order of a hundred(s) thausends cubic meters. The coal  was carried by colossal cranes moving in a loud roar of chains, metal shocks and cascades of coal falling from the buckets. One can imagine that few parts per 10 000 are lost in coal dust fuming into the air each time that the coal is moved. Dust that follows the winds and  lands everywhere, including on Cérès that darkened quickly.  A few meters downstream from us a small tanker in a state that looked of another age was probably used to fuel ships along the docks. Watching the activity and listening to the noise of this heavily industrial surrounding was fascinating, so far from our experience of the lakeside of Geneva,  a city that is not so much smaller than Kaliningrad.



The heap of coal across the river from Cérès in Kaliningrad


Kaliningrad was Koenigsberg before world war II, it was a Prussian city, and had been a hanseatic city before. It had had a lively commercial activity and  had been a very pretty old town, testifying of this long and rich history. At the end of world war II, the city was, like so many others  including Gdansk, largely destroyed by bombings. Contrary, however, to many cities of rich architecture and history, again like Gdansk, Koenigsberg was not re-built, the ruins were leveled, the surviving population fled or was evacuated and the Soviets built a new city in the style of that time and people. A four lane expressway crosses   10 meters high on a bridge the river and the island that used to be the centre of the old town. Only the church, the Dom, was rebuilt as a concert hall in the 1990s by the sheer will of a retired Soviet colonel, so were we told. The Dom is also the seat of a small dusty museum that shows some images, paintings and pictures, and a model reconstitution of Koenigsberg up to the 1930s. Comparing this model with the  reality we had seen walking between our berth and the Dom was a chilling experience. Seeing images of a city destroyed by bombings and re-built gives a feeling for the harshness of the life and the presence of death in war, but also for  the quantity of work needed to rebuild the premises and the tenacity of the inhabitants to re-create their living frame.  It gives evidence that life can again be happy. Seeing the same destruction images in a city that was wiped out of existence, which population was eliminated and replaced by a new one, and in which the new city is deshumanised by large roads, cars and heavy industry leaves an impression of  endless despair. It shows in a raw manner the human capacity to destroy  and eliminate, without the comfort of reconstruction.

Koenigsberg was also the city of Kant. We paid a visit to his tomb, behind the Dom. A set of square columns built in 1924 with no soul and  a plaque is all there is to see. The museum in the Dom has a level devoted to Kant, but actually more to Russian and Soviet literature about Kant than about the man himself.

The present population of Kaliningrad cannot be held responsible for either the bombings of Koenigsberg, nor for the removal of its population, nor for the soulless set of houses and roads that replaced Koenigsberg. They are children or grand children of populations that were also displaced by political decisions largely taken under Stalin. They now live there, some well, like Alexander who owns the only sailing boat in the harbour, with which he sailed down the Volga to the Black and  Mediterranean seas. He saw us waiting for a taxi at the harbour, and  took us along for a tour of the city to show us parts of town  we would not have have discovered by ourselves, villas outside the central part of the city, new and old, testifying of a re-developing middle class.

During these days Milan started recovering, but it was important for  Barbara to be  with  him and his family when   he would get home from the hospital. It seemed difficult to leave from Kaliningrad, so we decided to sail in one leg from Baltijsk, where we had to clear customs to leave Russia, to Riga, the capital of Latvia. This is a 300 nautical miles sail along the West coat of Lithuania and Latvia and down the large gulf of Riga. Barbara departed from there by plane and left Nicolas and I to continue towards Estonia and Tallinn.

Riga was, like Karlskrona, Gdansk and Koenigsberg, a hanseatic league city, it has a lively old city, thousands of tourists, cafes and restaurants en masse, some of them excellent. Riga is, however, also a city that developed in the first decades of the 20th century. Its architecture is dominated in large parts of the city by buildings of that time. They are characteristic of  the "art nouveau" or "Jugendstil". These buildings have been very nicely renovated. They are joyful, large, coloured and decorated with figures and symbols certainly related to their first owners. These were obviously happy to show who they were and what made them tick. These buildings now host a number of embassies, they are located right in the back of the small marina where we had tied Cérès.



Jugendstil house in Riga. The architect behind several of these buildings was Eisenstein, the father of the famous Soviet filmmaker.


To reach Riga from the sea one sails up the Daugawa river for about 7 nautical miles. This we did upon arrival in the dark of the night moving from a lighted buoy to the next, without seeing anything of the surroundings. By day one realises that the river is an active industrial harbour, exporting wood, and lined, again, with heaps of coal  that dwarf those seen in Kaliningrad.

Since we sail in Northern Europe we have seen many wind farms, but also a large number of coal transport in ships, barges, and heaped on docks. Not to mention the tankers our routes crossed over the years on the oceans. Heaps  of coal have a density of 850kg/cubic meter and an energy density of some 24 MJ/kg ( The hundred thousand  cubic meters of coal we had in direct sight in Kaliningrad therefore corresponds to some 2 10**15 Joules. An large offshore wind turbine produces in yearly average some 1200kW ( An offshore wind turbine should therefore function for some 70 years in order to transform wind energy into electricity for the energy content of the heap of coal we saw in Kaliningrad, or equivalently 70 such turbines (the equivalent of a reasonably  a large farm) for one year. This illustrates the major difficulty with renewable energies. The energy transformed  per square meter of land use, per unit time, per mass is a small fraction of what may be gained from either fossil or nuclear fuels over the same periods and areas. Our societies must face this difficulty squarely, if we are to be free of nuclear power plants and stop feeding green house gases generated by fossil fuel burning into the atmosphere and therefore influencing in a lasting way our climate. This will require not only looking for technical elements of solutions, but also, probably mainly and certainly in western societies, to revise our ways of life.

The gulf of Riga is closed in the North by a set of (Estonian) islands some 80 nautical miles from Riga. These are low islands separated by shallow water expanses. The route towards Tallin therefore follows well defined channels between these islands and needs be sailed precisely and  in good weather conditions. Since the forecasts announced strong winds, rain and thunderstorms for an extensive period, we hurried somewhat to reach this passage, which we crossed in excellent conditions, but for fuel problems on board, the day before the weather turned bad. We reached a small harbour, Dirhami, where we waited for the depression stagnating over Norway to move out of our way. This took few days during which nature generously poured rain on the region and let winds blow. Several boats had also taken refuge there, some crews desperate to see the wind turn so that they could make some way westwards. We left the last day of wind, heading East to Tallinn, sailed in a force 6-7 in which  Cérès behaved very well and reached the old city marina of Tallinn, ready to explore another wonderful town along the South coast of the Baltic sea. Tallinn is where Cérès will spend the Winter 14-15. Next year will see us probably on the shores of the gulf of Bothnia.