After two nights in Hanko the winds had abated and we were off again destination Örö.
Örö was a closed military zone for over one hundred years and only re-opened to the public in 2015. Again very popular for cruisers and we were lucky to take the last spot on the pontoon (although they managed to squeeze a few more into any sort of gap that could be found).
The journey of 26 nautical miles (with the wind again right on the nose) motoring into it for almost 7 hours (averaging about 4 knots) seemed to contain all seasons in one day, even mist & fog as the visibility reduced down to 0.5 miles as we were approaching Örö, always the way when coming into a high traffic area and ferry route path – sigh.
This island has regular ferries running day trippers or people staying in the accomodation available to the island, back and forth to the mainland. It is set up with a cafe on the rocks above the harbour, flushing toilets, a sauna (of course), a couple of great walks as well as a restaurant located a short walk inland (housed in the old military barracks).
The wonderful combination of nature and history on this island make it so interesting. Displays in the large warehouse buildings and two 5+ km walks around the island take you to all the significant military sites including its historic barracks and different kinds of defence stations from the days of Tsarist Russia until present day, as well as the other drawcard being its preserved natural forests which are now home to concentrations of threatened species and habitat types.
The island still has some closed zones as it still has surveillance equipment operating on the island and on occasion is used for military exercises. We did spot a couple of defence personnel while on the island, they were riding black bicycles that looked as old as the island itself, but ideal for getting around on.
A little snippet of the military history on the island; a system of naval fortifications was constructed along the Bay of Finland in the 1910s, the reason for this massive building project (at the time the worlds largest) was the fear of a German attack on St Petersburg Russia situated at the end of the gulf of Finland.
What makes Örö unique is its four heavy Obukhovskii 12 inch (305 mm) guns that are a historic rarity even in international terms. The guns were first fired in 1916 and each shell weighs almost 500kg, with a firing range of nearly 45km. The gun barrels needed replacing after 200 shells were fired from it, as each shell wore away some of the metal on the inside surface – this is no easy task given the each barrel weighed 50,000 kilograms and is almost 36 meters long.
The period of Russian occupation was short lived and the Russian soldiers left Örö in 1918 and it then became the property of Finland Coastal Artillery Regiment.
As the threat of war grew imminent again in 1939 several hundred men were stationed on Örö. The fortress was attacked by the enemy on several occasions during the years of war and it also played a role in battles against the Soviet naval base in Hanko at the beginning of the Continuation War. The fortresses heavy guns were often used to distract the enemy by directing artillery fire towards the Hanko Peninsular which had been leased to the Soviet Union. Örö’s guns also contributed to the Battle of Bengtskar in July 1941.
The second battery on the island is the 6 inch gun battery built on the southern tip of the island. It was home to four 6 inch guns and was used for training until the Second World War when it contributed to battles during both the Winter War and the Continuation War. The battery was dispersed towards the end of the 1960s and the four guns were modernised and relocated to various points on the southern part of the island. Advancements in artillery technology and time have made these guns obsolete but they still remain in position albeit deactivated. The latest addition to the islands artillery are the 130 mm turret guns which are still in use.
Anyway back to our adventures, the afternoon/evening cleared nicely and we walked the northern walking route (about 6km) and were delighted to meet the locals – sheep, who took a liking to Maree as well as stopped for the obligatory photo of Phil with his 12 inch gun – in his dreams! (what the pictures don’t show is that he took a few goes to mount, I mean climb up on the gun).
The island has a very diverse landscape with dense bush, grazing paddocks, large granite rock beaches and on the other side small pebble beaches as well as a rifle range shooting gallery which the path walks straight through, lucky there was no practise that day.
The next morning we woke to drizzle but it didn’t put us off doing the southern (5km) walk of the island. We were the only people up and about walking and got a peak at a local deer on our walk. We also found native sea kale growing on the foreshore which tasted delightful – very fresh. (Well, Maree enjoyed it, and Phil’s comment was “I am not a rabbit”). This walk also took us past the 6 inch barracks and guns where Maree posed for a “Cher” photo on the gun! (If I could turn back time … I would not have let him take that picture!)
We didn’t leave Örö until the afternoon and only motored a short 12 n.miles and spent the night on anchor off Hummelholmen which is still part of the national park (we didn’t go to shore).
The following morning we motored another short leg of 16 n.miles, again into the wind, but also with the added bonus of choppy seas to the mix (the wind had been building overnight) however it was fine and sunny and not too bad at all. We were heading to Björkö where we knew there would be shelter.
Björkö was also to test us with yet another first, a stern anchor berth, this being where you drop a stern anchor out the back of the boat as you motor into the shore and then tie the bow off to rocks on shore (usually with metal rings embedded in the rocks) then tighten the line out the back to the anchor holding you straight in line to the rocks.
All the Baltic Boats are set up to do this (just as they are well set up for Stern Buoys), however we are only visiting for a short time and rather than investing a few hundred euros to get the kit (almost like a snatch strap tape on sleek hose reel arrangement secured to the stern of the boat, that you attach either your anchor or stern buoy hook to and which then feeds out very nicely) we have chosen to make do with what we already have and use heavy duty line (two lengths joined) shackled to chain and spare anchor (for stern anchor) and a floating line with a hook for stern buoys) it works fine, but looks a very home made (it is) and it can be quite busy in the cockpit setting it up threading it each time we use it around the dingy which is attached to our stern. You will however be pleased to read that we nailed it! Anyone watching for sure would have thought we had done it before (nice!). Maree steered in while Phil dispatched the anchor over the stern and fed out the line slowly (trying to set it but give us enough length to reach the shore), then Maree went forward to throw some bow lines to shore – very thankful to the neighbouring boats who took those lines and tied us off as it was a couple of meters jump straight down off the bow either into the water or onto the rocks – not something she was totally keen on (after many, many knee operations). Again all the Baltic Boats have a bow ladder to assist, but not us. After securing we angled the boat to ensure we had a largish rock to help assist the climb up and down from from the boat and also dropped the anchor 30 cm or so to act as a step/climbing point. Nice Work!
Björkö is unique as it is an island with a lake in the middle (taking up the majority of the island) and the lake sits higher than sea level. We did the obligatory walk around the island/lake and even used our “Every Australian’s right in Finland” to pick some wildflowers to take back to the boat.
One of the things we have noticed and is of concern, especially to Phil is the lack of critters (other than tic’s). With all the walking and exploring we have been doing on these isolated islands we have yet to see any lizards, small mammals, or any sea critters in the pools of water around the island edges. To us it seems very strange, as both of us as children (and even now) see a rock pool and immediately set to picking up the rocks looking for critters. However not here, and we guess it does make sense, as there is no tide in the Baltic Sea so any rock pools are the result of rain (freshwater) or boat wake washing up onto shore. So not a living habitat. Its a shame really. Oh, and we can’t seem to catch a fish either! We have been told that we won’t unless we use a net, so at least its not us doing anything wrong. They catch Perch and White Fish (both fairly small) but have to use nets to get them.
The highlight of the journey from Björkö to Jurmo was that the wind wasn’t on the nose, because there wasn’t any! Not to worry, getting quite used to the motor boat we have with a big useless mast attached! Can’t complain as it was a very tiny journey of 7 n.miles (could have swam it really) but it had been recommended by multiple people as an island with a very different landscape to the other islands in the archipelago, well that was enough for us to take a look – diversity is always a good thing.
As we made our way towards the island we passed a dozen boats coming out, so at least we were confident there would be room for us. We entered an almost empty harbour at noon, but come 4pm it was absolutely full to bursting. Boats even started to park in the ferry berths (they had finished running for the day), so a very popular spot. From what we can gather the reasons for its popularity may be because the island had a very small little shop and cafe. It sold beer, coffee, fresh smoked fish and had a couple of shelves with pasta, cereal and some stables, as well as milk, cheese, butter etc. The shop also handle the bookings for the sauna, as we found out when inquiring about showers. We were informed that you can only use the showers when the sauna isn’t booked (as they are part of the sauna) and the sauna is currently booked out all day until 2am in the morning – I told you they love their saunas!! I really just don’t get it.
The landscape was very different to any of the other islands we had visited, very flat and low lying, hardly any trees just shrubby vegetation and thousands of rocks, but not the huge boulders we have been used to, these were pebbles, you know the kind that are really hard to walk on. We did a lap of the island on foot, and being a very warm day Maree duly carried her towel along in the hope of finding a good swimming spot – not to be however too pebbly and uncomfortable. We did get ourselves a picture of the other kind of Finish snake however, the black one (don’t worry he isn’t poisonous, unlike the adder which we saw on one of the first islands).
It turned into one of the hottest days we have had so far, hot enough for us to get the sun shade out and erect it over the cockpit during our afternoon lounging.
The following day brought gentle winds, but enough to sail – very exciting! Shame we were only moving 11 n.miles, but an enjoyable 11 n.miles it was with the main sail and genoa taking us along at a very leisurely enjoyable pace. In our magic Baltic book Aspö was detailed to have spaces for 20 boats on stern anchor to the dock, and on approach it already looked very full (couldn’t see the dock at all) yet there was a beautiful bay 300 meters off, sheltered and picture perfect just waiting for us to drop the anchor in 6 meters of water – lovely (we are most comfortable on anchor anyway and it is SO MUCH easier).
We really enjoyed Aspö and is one of the places we would recommend to others. It is a small functioning fishing village and we met a couple of the local fisherman, one of them was even kind enough to give us a white fish from his days catch, he even filleted it for us while we were chatting, he said (via his wife who could speak english) that we had travelled a long way to visit Aspö so we were welcome to the fish – so kind.
The other local fisherman (responsible for a family of 5 and therefore half the islands population) works as a pilot for the commercial boats passing through the region, one week on one week off. They all enjoy the 6-8 week sailing season as it brings many visitors to their island. They smoke fish daily and sell them to visitors as well as having a very small kiosk (beer, coffee, daily pastries, ice-creams and crisps). Of course the sauna on the island is popular also (most of the islands visited since the first one have a charge for the sauna, usually around 15 Euro for an hour – needless to say we haven’t bothered).
We spent a good hour or so talking to a lovely elderly local lady (her husband gave us the fish) who was telling us about life on the island, in her words she has “only lived there for 40 years” but we considered her enough of an expert. There are 11 residents who live on the island all year round, and there is a public ferry running 5 days out of 7. The children on the island leave on a Sunday to go to school and return on a Friday. Winters involve a lot of snow and ice, and when the ice gets 20cm thick they are able to drive their cars on it across to other islands! Incidentally it hasn’t been thick enough the last two years.
We of course went off and and did their island nature walk, which for Aspö was a case of follow the white dots painted on the ground, rocks or trees, which as one would expect lead to the can on the highest point of the island. It should be noted that Maree got there first, however Phil stood on top of the can and crowned himself king of the castle.
At both Jurmo and Aspö we have seen the islands midsummer maypoles, they are as tall as a flagpole and decorated with colourful crowns, flowers and foliage (albeit a little brown now). Old records/documents about local midsummer poles are date back to the 1700s. The villages used to compete with each other about the title of the tallest and the most glamorous pole. The maypoles are always raised on Midsummer’s Eve and they remain standing all year, until the next midsummer when it’s taken down and dressed for the new celebration. Such a shame we were a week late getting to Finland as I imagine these summer celebrations would be really great, especially on one of the small community islands.
A great sunny day made it hard to pull up anchor as it was picture perfect in Aspö’s little anchorage but West we must travel so off we went. Österskär another small fishing village that was recommended to us was 12 n.miles away and once out of the bay we enjoyed F4 (17 knot winds) from the South East meaning we could sail (you little ripper) and sail we did, zooming along averaging 5 knots. Felt like we were flying after all the motoring we have done lately.
But all good things must come to an end, and the wind which was so fantastic in allowing us to sail wasn’t so helpful when coming into berth at Österskär, we were blown a little off the approach and the boat hook was needed to grab the stern buoy to get the hook on it, and the stern buoy then decided to keep the boat hook – it was well and truely stuck fast, at least on the positive side so was our hook and line, so in we went and tied off to the dock. Once secured you can guess who got the job of going swimming to retrieve the boat hook – yep! I must admit despite the wind and overcast weather the water was actually an ok temperature and it wasn’t at all unpleasant. (Don’t tell Phil that however).
Also as a side note, when we were leaving the next morning the gentleman on the motor boat beside us, was on deck watching us leave (code for standing on his deck to protect himself incase the wind blew us into him) and after we got clear, pulling off the perfect extraction from the dock he commented “you two are professionals – well done!” If only!
After the fishing village of Aspö being so enjoyable due to talking with the locals, we found quite Österskär not such a highlight. We explored and enjoyed the stunning views and spoke to other boaters who arrived but didn’t see any signs of life on the island. There were houses and of course a working sauna (leave your money in the box) but seemingly no persons about. Not to worry our next destination were are told is a must visit location and has been described to us as “heaven on earth” now that has us intrigued…
A 14 nautical mile passage (motoring into the wind) was to take us to the described “Heaven on Earth” giving us plenty of time to ponder what we could expect in such a place. Phil was adamant that there would be free ice-creams I was a little more realistic in that there would be beds and pillows made of fluffy white clouds and pony rides for everyone, with Johnny Cash playing his guitar and singing. We were both excited to say the least.
We arrived and again preferred to anchor in the end of the bay rather than stern anchor to a rather full pontoon. Our anchoring location was very pleasant, and before launching the dingy to head to shore to explore we heard some wildlife, well that was exciting in itself as we really think that is what the islands are missing – wildlife.
When I say heard wildlife, we actually head some cow’s moo-ing. It sounded pretty close however and upon investigation turns out the local heard had wandered into the water to freshen up and grab a snack of green vegetation from the shallows. Well of course we shouldn’t have been surprised that there are cows in heaven – after all there are free ice-creams aren’t there, so of course they need cows for the milk, to make the ice-cream!
We launched the dingy and explored. It is a decent size island, that must be said and it certainly lends itself to being more sustainable than other islands as we discovered large granite boulders into the water, bush and vegetations, crops, and grassland, cattle (both cows and sheep), orchard like areas (growing birch trees), currently being mowed then grass raked by hand, as well as beaches on the other side of the island.
The shock was yet to come, as we also found not one but two artillery guns – now that we were not expecting to find in heaven. Research told us that the island declared its self as neutral (during world war II) but just as a back up installed these as self defence.
More wildlife was to be found, just as we were fluffing around the shoreline near the beach contemplating a swim we spotted a couple of locals (snakes) that were just returning from the shallows with a fresh catch for lunch! Bit sad when the snakes are catching more fish than we are, not a bad size either!
What did we think of heaven on earth, well it was nice, pretty and enjoyable but in all honestly we could think of other places we have visited that better suit the title, after all there were no ice-creams to be found.