A Summer in the Baltic

Nicholas Hill


Introduction Lithuania and Latvia Westward Ho!

Note — this was written in 2006, and from many points of view is now very dated. However, these were my experiences at the time.

The story of how I came to buy a new boat and sail it round the Baltic.

Having decided to take early retirement, the next question was: what now? I had a boat with which I was very happy, had spent a lot of money on, and which sailed well. It was ideal for spending a fortnight over in the Channel islands or round Brittany. But for living on board for perhaps two or three months at a time – well, that was another matter. Yes, it could be done, but it would be uncomfortable, and what the point of being retired if you're going to be uncomfortable? What I wanted was that rare compromise – a boat that sailed well, but yet had all the comforts of home (well, nearly). Most production boats today are aimed at the charter market, or at the weekend sailor, who will cruise from marina to marina. A lot of my sailing is like that – but not all of it, and I wanted a boat which I could trust in the worst of weathers. One snag was that quite a bit of my sailing would be singlehanded, so the maximum length would have to be not much more than thirty foot.

One obvious possibility was a Westerly Fulmar, a boat with a very solid reputation. As it happened, there was one just along the pontoon from me, and I had a look over one day. There were two snags. A Westerly or a Moody carries quite a premium on its price tag, simply on the name alone. Also, boats of this sort are becoming a touch long in the tooth these days, and it would be nice to have something new. But the new boats on the market didn't really appeal. The review for the Hunter Mystery certainly interested me, and I'd seen it a couple of times on the water, where it looked very impressive, but looking around below during a Boat Show rather put me off – and the price tag was distinctly steep. Then one day I was reading through the latest copy of PBO, and saw something else which seemed attractive: the Polish built Huzar 30. I read the article several times before going to the Southampton Boat Show. The Sadler 29 also had had rave reviews, but I didn't quite like the interior, nor the price list – which at first glance looked good, but there were a lot of 'optional extras' which weren't really optional. I did look at Bavarias, but then walked away. The Hanse 30 looked a good option, but in the end, I went back to the Huzar, and arranged a test sail.

I had a week free in October, but the weather wasn't playing ball. We managed to find a window between the gales, but it was a dull, misty, murky sort of day, with only the lightest of breezes. Still, we sailed as best we could, even if it was rather slow and damp. I'd effectively made my mind up by then, and ordered one for delivery at the start of July.

I poured over the spec to see what else I'd have to get. It might seem trivial, but things like ropes and fenders are fairly essential. Another difficulty was that I wasn't sure what was available in the way of chandlery in Poland. So one fine June morning I went down to the Marine SuperStore at Port Solent, and spent nearly £1000. It's amazing how it all adds up – fixed GPS, rope, radar reflector, lifebuoy, flares, and so on. Then later I bought lifejackets, pilot books, handheld GPS, a NASA Navtex that would interface to the laptop, charts ... the list went on and on. And finally July and my retirement date came round.

Godalming to Gdansk is over a thousand miles by road, but I chose to drive out rather than fly, since we (a friend had volunteered to come over to help out) could pack the car with all the bits and pieces we would need for a few months on a completely new boat.

True to form, we arrived for the ferry at Dover two hours early, and hung around in the dim dawn light until we could get aboard. Arriving at Calais, I had to remember to drive on the 'wrong' side of the road – which I did with success most of the time. T junctions were the main problem, and more than once my passenger had to shout, 'Other side!'. The motorways were more straightforward – particularly when it was a matter of following the vehicles ahead.

One of the surprises to an English driver was the amount of heavy commercial traffic. Almost all the motorway in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany was two lane, which was another surprise. The Germans don't seem to have discovered cats-eyes, either. Mixed with the heavy lorries were cars intent on driving at high speed: if you were in the second lane when one came up behind you, it sat on your tail in a very aggressive fashion.

We stopped at a hotel near Hannover, and left at midnight to the accompaniment of a heavy thunderstorm: these would become a frequent sight. The heavy rain made the absence of cats-eyes even more irritating. Near Berlin the navigator made his only slip of the journey, missing a turn off, but we were able to retrace our steps and get back onto track.

Near approaching the Polish border, the road suddenly became incredibly bumpy. The road had been made from blocks of concrete years ago, and these had subsided to make a very uneven surface. Arriving at the Polish border, we showed our passports for the first and only time in the entire journey. The roads continued to be as bad, or worse, which had me worried, as we had over two hundred miles still to go. However, a lot of work was been done rebuilding bridges and resurfacing, and we soon got onto a two-lane road through open countryside, which looked very peaceful and verdant in the hot sunshine. However, the road was two-way, and many Polish drivers were less than patient. Double white lines didn't mean a great deal, apparently, nor did the signs specifying no overtaking, and for the first hour or so, I think I was more scared than I have been for years. Eventually, I began to adjust to the local driving style.

We arrived in Gdansk in the mid-afternoon, about fifteen hours after leaving Hannover. We were both hot and tired. The old city has been magnificently restored after being razed in 1945, but at that stage, we were interested in finding somewhere to sleep. The Tourist Information Office found us beds close to the town centre. The only snag was that we couldn't get in to the place before 6 o'clock, and were left to kick our heels for a long, hot afternoon. I was exhausted by this stage, and probably looking fairly disreputable. We sat on some stones steps watching the passers by, and I started to nod off – then was woken by a brusque Polish voice. I looked up to see two policemen, who obviously took me for a local drunk and down-and-out. Well, fair point. But I stood up, smiled, and tried to talk to them – difficult, since, I spoke no Polish and they no English. I was 'moved on'.

We got there eventually, and had a welcome night's sleep. The next day we moved to an excellent hotel, the Dom Musyka, which is associated in some way with the local music academy. Then we discovered where and when the boat was to be put into the water.


Soon after launching - EM Yachts begin the final fitting out.

We arrived at the Jachtklub Stoczni Gdanskiej, which is on another of the branches of the Vistula, early the next morning, but just too late to see the boat being launched. For the next day or so, we had to tread carefully, since the boat was still the responsibility of EM Yachts, who were still setting up the rigging and putting the final touches to the boat, and probably wouldn't appreciate our breathing down their necks. They certainly worked hard, and seemed to make a good job of things. Late on the second day, we went out for a test sail – there were seven of us on board: four Poles, the UK rep, myself and my crew! Still room to spare in the cockpit, which says a lot about the boat.

Finally, the boat was ready, and we were left on board by ourselves. Next door – literally – was a rather more upmarket yacht club - nay, almost a marina - and we decided to move round. First time out by ourselves. We cast off cautiously, and began to move away from the quay. I was more concerned about getting the feel of the boat, and wasn't looking at the instruments. Suddenly – crunch ... well, not quite crunch, more of a bump. We had gone aground on a shoal in the river in less than three minutes of taking out the new boat! Still, no tide, falling or rising, to worry about, so we carefully made our way into deeper water before going round to our new berth.

This was at the new National Sailing School (75% EU funded), and the facilities were almost up to English South Coast marina standards. The cost – 100 zlotys (or £17) for five days!

That night we had another thunderstorm – probably one of the heaviest downpours we experienced. We did find one leak – one of the screws for the ventilator on the hatch in the main cabin. This wasn't a problem, though – I took the screw out in the morning, smeared some sealant onto it, put it back, and it was fine.

One thinks that with a new boat, one can just go out and sail it. Not so! You can spend a day or three simply loading it with the necessaries: ropes, fenders, and the like. Then you have to remember three hours later exactly which locker you stored the whatsit in. But the next morning I thought we'd try our first sail, one to sort out the ropes and lines. We cast off at 0830 and went out into about 3 knots of wind. This was ideal: we could fiddle with pieces of string at leisure. After an hour of two of very gentle sailing, the wind picked up to a F2, and we turned round to come in. As we came onto our pontoon, we saw a gentleman in a rather military getup, standing waiting for us. He was from Polish Coastguard and Immigration – a Border Guard.

Unfortunately he spoke little nor no English. He had found out the name of the boat – presumably from the bosman of the marina – and now wanted to know where we'd come from. 'Gorki,' I told him. 'No, no.' He drew a little sketch on his piece of paper, showing the coastline, the river, and marking Gorki. 'Where you come from?' 'Gorki.' Another shake of the head. He drew a line out into the distance and jabbed it repeatedly, obviously wanting to know where we'd been before. As we hadn't, this was a little difficult. 'Gorki,' I repeated. He was not happy with this answer. Eventually an interpreter was found, and we managed to explain that boat had just been launched here. Where was it built? Here in Poland, we told him, which made him even more amazed. But after showing him our passports, he seemed happy enough, and went away. Next time, however, before we left harbour, we were to call him first on VHF Channel 06.

Which, the day after, we did. Someone came out from the office, and we told him we would be back in a few hours, and he seemed happy with that.

Gorki Zachodnie

The new marina at Gorki Zachodnie

This time, we intended to be more ambitious, and stretch our legs a little more, so to speak. To begin with, the wind was around northeasterly F2, and we sailed along steadily in the direction of Hel. The log seemed to under reading somewhat, compared to the GPS. It was bright and sunny, and progress was good. When we were perhaps half a mile away from Hel, we turned south to Gydnia, with the wind almost dead astern. I goosewinged the jib. The wind was still only between F2 and 3, and I was impressed to find I could leave the helm for quite some time, and the boat would hold its course quite happily. Near Gydnia, we turned round, back for Gorki, with the wind on the beam and perhaps up to F3 by now. We were making 6 knots on the GPS from time to time, and, passing near Gdansk, saw a Delphia 40 some way ahead. We were able to draw level with him, which was rather pleasing.

The sea was a little lumpy coming past Port Polnocny, but we were soon enough back into the river, where we started the motor and lowered the sail, then made our way back to the berth. About five or ten minutes later, we saw the Delphia come in – it was good to outsail a forty footer in a thirty footer.

Back in Gorki, we met another of the Baltic weather patterns – sometimes it will blow up to Force 6 or 7, but instead of the usual Channel cloud and rain I associate with this, the sky was bright and the sun shone. We had enough to do on the boat while waiting for the wind to drop.

There was an hotel on the top of the marina building, and we met a Dutch couple who were staying there – Agnes and Basil. They too were having a boat built in Poland, but apparently their builders were taking their time over things (unlike EM Yachts!). The wind had now gone to leave almost a flat calm, so I suggested that they come with us on a recce of the river up to Gdansk city centre.

It is certainly worth doing. From the entrance up to the marina in the city centre is four or five miles, past the Kapitanat Portu and Border Guards at the entrance, ferry terminals, huge war memorials, mediaeval forts with moats, then ship repair docks, ship yards proper, a factory belching out indeterminate white fumes, crumbling communist concrete, and finally an almost rural section up to the city. We had a quick look at the marina (which we'd already seen from our stay in the city), then motored back out. There was a little wind once back in Gdansk Bay, and Agnes helmed us back to Gorki.

Now it was time to go further afield. We had to collect an accessory for the autohelm from Gdynia, so rather than go round by car, as we had done before, we would make it our first proper outing. We set off to find the wind dead on the nose, so headed out on a long tack into Gdansk Bay. The wind was quite brisk, and it rose as the morning went on. Eventually it was probably a good F5, and the boat was feeling overpressed. Time for a reef. Not as easily said as done, however. The reefing line has a lot of friction in it, and we had probably dropped the main a tad too much. In any event, it was a struggle winching in the line, and this was obviously something I'd have to investigate later. But, with a double reef, she sailed more comfortably, and still quite quickly. Gdynia was directly to windward, so we had to put in two or three tacks, before finally motoring up to the entrance. We were put on the concrete wall on arrival, but later moved to a pontoon berth.

Gdynia – or that part of it – is a holiday area, and rather tacky. We had a meal in a small cafe, and were underwhelmed. Berthing was not that cheap. We cleared the harbour the next morning to go to Hel (with the many jokes that go with that name).

We could just make it on one tack, and the wind had dropped, making things more comfortable. Again I could leave the helm for minutes at a time, which was re-assuring. Having an autohelm is fine, but if it ever packs in ...

Hel was very straightforward, and there are some new pontoons in one corner. They are a little on the short side, but we fitted in nicely. This too is a holiday town, with ferries bringing day trippers over from Gdynia and Gdansk, but it had a nicer atmosphere to it. The main street was filled with bars and cafes, and the Poles, like most other Europeans other than the Brits, seem capable of enjoying themselves without getting raucously drunk.

Leaving the next morning was more exciting than I might have wished. I'd fixed a slipline on the windward side to stop us being blown sideways as we came out. Unfortunately, the boat next door also had a line through the hoop, and our line jammed as we were nearly out. The boat slewed round rather desperately as we struggled to free the line, but luckily we got away without any major disaster.

Once more back in Gorki, my crew decided it was time to go back to Britain (or that he'd had enough of the skipper). I now wanted to head out on some longer trips, and although he enjoys being on the boat, and seeing the local scenery, he's not really into long distance cruising.

Introduction Lithuania and Latvia Westward Ho!