In May I joined EXCELSIOR at L.ngedrag just south of Gothenburg (flight to Gothenburg c/o Ryanair for less than Åí30). This was one of those periods when schools do not book EXCELSIOR, because of STATS in this instance, so those joining were an adult group including a couple of graphic designers, a costume designer, and a clothes manufacturer. Two had sailed Excelsior before and had persuaded friends to join them to explore the Swedish and Norwegian coastline northwards towards Oslo.
Here the shallow waters of the Baltic to the south have given way to a rockier deeper-water topography that gradually morphs into the fjords of Norway as you go north.
Skipper Gavin Taylor was keen to let go and get some miles behind us, so after the usual safety briefing we got under way and started making sail. Having crossed the open water and the shipping lanes in and out of Gothenburg we put into .ckero for the night for gentle acclimatisation. .ckero is still an active commercial port which fortunately had a bar open in the evening which is something that is not guaranteed in Scandinavian communities where prohibition was nearly imposed last century!
The next morning the wind was fair – that is in the right direction, and having made sail, watch-keeping was started and everyone fell into ship’s routine. It was bright and sunny and there was enough wind to make steady progress through the hundreds or possibly thousands of islands that line this coast.
Closing the coast is one thing but going through Albrektssunds Kanal is something else. You can almost touch the rock on each side at the same time!
This cleft in the rocks is the Eastern approach to Marstrand which is an island surmounted by a prominent castle that has commanded these waters for centuries.
The town eventually became a Royal watering hole and so the architecture is much grander than usual for Scandinavia, but not ‘over the top’. The Royal Summer Palace is one of many architectural gems that drift past conveniently close by, but rather than join the tourists we are bound for an old fishing port on the Island of .stol a little further north.
The harbour is surrounded by so many wooden houses that there does not seem to be much of the island left! As in most of rural Scandinavia the material used in the new construction is the same as that for the old (i.e. wood) so there is not the clash of modern materials against the indigenous that mars so much of Gt. Britain. Astol originally had a population of more than 500, but today most houses are holiday homes although there was an amazing ferry service to the mainland that operated halfhourly between around 6.00 am and midnight. Commuting is therefore feasible and there was a noticeable increase in passengers in the evening and morning ‘rush hour’. At the ferry terminal were trollies which are the only form of transport other than shank’s pony.
The next day the wind still held fair but with occasional rain and increasing wind, so we held on through the night to gain our northing.
As you go north finding places where the bottom is near enough the surface to anchor becomes more of a problem. One suitable place is a bay on the east side of Oslo Fjord at a place called Hvitsten, which means White Stone. It is an anchorage where over 200 sailing trading vessels were owned until relatively recently by locals that included the Olsen family. The current senior Olsen is Fred who, having switched from owning ferries to container ships, is one of the world’s wealthier people yet he still lives in the family home overlooking this anchorage. (Perhaps they do not have Britain’s crushing estate duties in Norway!)
Oslo Fjord is surprising long and varied which is why so many huge cruise liners include Oslo in their itinerary. After another day of sailing we spent the night at anchor in a magical lagoon called Sandspollen that is within easy reach of Oslo and consequently very popular, but not spoilt. Any further into the season and we would not have found room to anchor, but here such popularity is not seen as something to exploit and thus destroy. There was no visible habitation, bars, or cafes, and no franchises for gift shops or ice cream parlours – just a sauna. After some exploration ashore the barbecue was rigged on deck and no doubt the peace was spoilt that evening as it was this group’s rather boisterous last night.
The next group were Norwegians who had connections with EXCELSIOR’s past and Harald Stensland managed to secure us a fine berth on one of the piers right under the castle that overlooks Oslo city and harbour.
Harald’s father, Bjorn Stensland, brought EXCELSIOR from Lowestoft in 1935 and converted her to a motor coaster, and we were later joined by .yvind B.ufsen whose father and uncle had latterly owned her renaming her SVIN.R after the island where EXCELSIOR was kept. Christopher Hoelfeldt-Lund, who had owned another Lowestoft smack called the JOHN BROWNE (sadly subsequently lost) also joined.
Norwegians are immediately at home in a traditional vessel like EXCELSIOR and wanted to get in as much sailing as possible, which is just as well because there were many miles to be logged in the next voyage back south to Copenhagen. Miraculously the wind had changed to the north and once clear of Oslo fjord EXCELSIOR made a very satisfying 8 knots from time to time. Sufficient progress was made to be able to close the coast to savour some more of the inshore passages along that beautiful coastline.
Now there are effectively no tides in this part of the world and Norwegians think nothing of sailing close and ugly to rocks we would normally give a quarter-of-a-mile wide berth to! Smart jibing was called for in navigating the twists and turns of these passages, much to the satisfaction of the Norwegians, and a credit to the seamanship of the crew.
A transmission problem had been developing and was causing sufficient concern to warrant attention, because the Kiel canal cannot be traversed without power. It was therefore decided to put into Grenaa on the Danish mainland as it was half an hour’s drive from the main gearbox spares stockist. Entering Grenaa marina without power again called for good seamanship but EXCELSIOR was designed to do just this, and after anchoring, her winch was used to haul her into a berth – just as in Lowestoft before the War! The Norwegians were suitable impressed, and so were the locals who, over the next couple of days, came down in a continuous trickle to see the British smack that last came to Grenaa in 1936 to have an engine fitted!
The trouble turned out not to be the gearbox, but in the shafting between the gear box and propeller shaft. A local firm of engineers put in the time over the weekend to put things right and by getting the next group to take the train up from Copenhagen, disruption to the programme was minimised.
The next group were students from University Technical College Norfolk, and with an extra 80 miles to make up no time was lost getting under way. Grenaa is in the Kattergat which narrows down into two routes through Denmark to the Kiel Canal. These are called the Belts. The Little Belt is the most scenic but is too shallow for EXCELSIOR so we headed into the Great Belt.
The northerly wind still held, so good progress was made to Kiel where there had been a Festival of Sail and many participants were encountered the further south we went. Traditional Sail Training is a big industry in the Baltic, but no British vessels seem to participate.
The Kiel Canal is impressively large but even so, one wondered if the BISMARK could use it! (Answer: Yes!) The land is so low-lying that there are only lock gates at either end and they are probably only there to prevent a tide race that would otherwise scour out the canal and sever the Jutland peninsula! Many shipyards along the canal were derelict, but not demolished as in Britain. However, having passed through the western lock at Brunsbüttel the Elbe was noticeably busier than when I last went down the Elbe in 1971!
When we set sail at Grenaa into a comfortable 5-6 the commonly asked question was: does it get any rougher? to which the answer was obviously: Yes, wait until we get to the North Sea! Now the answer to the same question was: Yes! if the wind strength increases. A noticeable swell from the northwest while the wind was north-easterly told us there was stronger wind about and gradually the wind increased to give some 9. knot sailing with the whole ship alive and thrumming as she powered through the increasing waves. By force 7 the helm was getting too heavy and canvas needed to be reduced, but once this was achieved EXCELSIOR becomes very comfortable and down below you would not be aware of the size of the sea running. Twenty-four hours of Force 8 built some of the waves up to an impressive height with only the occasional crest coming over the top of the bulwarks and slopping onto the deck, but everyone was well enough kitted out not to get too wet. This is relatively tough sailing, even for 15-16 year-olds, but they never missed a watch in spite of some sea-sickness and did themselves proud!
In these conditions only the professionals are out and about and thanks to EXCELSIOR’s AIS (Automatic Identification System which also reveals position, course and speed) modern fishing boats like to go out of their way to see a Lowestoft smack at 9 knots in a gale of wind, which incidentally Lowestoft smacksmen called ‘a bit of a blow’!
A wind that is slow to rise is slow to die down and Lowestoft Harbour was going to be reached a day early because we had had plenty of wind and from the right direction! However, you cannot enter Lowestoft in heavy weather if there is any east in the wind, so skipper Gavin shaped course for Harwich with the wind moderating all the time.
The next day a comfortable sail to Lowestoft brought the voyage to an end and the gang from University Technical College Norfolk left ship walking 2” taller – no longer school boys but young men!