It’s August Bank Holiday weekend. At home in Notting Hill the steel bands will be tuning up for the Carnival as up to a million people prepare to descend on my neighbourhood, further south my best friend is fighting for a patch of sand on the Italian Riviera.
I’m lying on the deck of the “Ichi Ban”, a Swan ’65 and the Rolls Royce of sailing yachts, basking in the hot sun as a gentle breeze powers us through the Swedish archipelago. Sailors on neighbouring boats are straining for a closer look at our magnificent vessel in full sail. I’ve never been much into cars but I imagine it’s the same feeling a Ferrari owner gets when he’s ogled by man in a Skoda. Swan Yacht catalogues are sailor’s pornography of choice, and the ‘65 features in most yachtsmen’s wet dreams. The Ichi Bans owner Jan Malmström is at the helm and below deck his wife Kerstin is rustling up a meal of baked fish and wild rice followed by a Strawberry Pie (that no one will refuse seconds of).
I can’t help feeling smug. Here in the far Northern Hemisphere we’re enjoying peace, tranquillity and the great outdoors in a Mediterranean climate. Across Southern Europe the end of August holiday hordes are probably doing battle for their last sun soaked moments. Looking around at the tranquil sea where gulls circle above small painted fishing boats and white sails dot the horizon I wonder how the Vikings ever mustered up the enthusiasm to leave.
The Swedes are keen sailors and we were aboard the mother of all ships, designed by the Finns and sailing in her native waters. As we sailed out of Stockholm harbour we effortlessly left the Saturday morning flotilla of small family boats in our wake. On the Ichi Ban we didn’t so much float as glide, the hull slicing the water like a sharp blade. The Swedish Company named after their flagship vessel the Ichi Ban has eight of these sleek yachts available to charter. Luckily for me we were the only boat out in the bay that day so I got to experience undiluted envy. The Ichi Ban has even had a few feet added, creating more space and greater passenger comfort. The mahogany and cream leather interior wouldn’t disappoint a Wall Street billionaire but when you’re sailing you want to spend your time on deck.
The 24,000 islands scattered outside Stockholm that make up the archipelago have been kept pretty quiet by the Swedes. It’s no coincidence that generally speaking you won’t find your Svens and Ulrikas battling for sunbeds on the Cote D’Azur in the peak of summer, unless there’s an Italian on the scene. Instead they’re in the archipelago with their fellow countrymen; jealously guarding their corner of this sparsely populated wilderness. If like me you haven’t experienced the Baltic Sea before you’re in for a treat, out of a mermaid green ocean the islands pop out like molehills. Some of them are almost as small. A brightly painted tongue and groove cabin, a couple of deck chairs and if you’re not careful you’re in the water. A Swedish mans cabin is his castle and in this country of nature lovers luxury is sniffed at in favour of the outdoors. It’s high summer here in the archipelago and swimming, hiking, sailing, sunbathing and dancing to local bands playing U2 cover versions are the order of the day. We weren’t sure in what order, but we were looking forward to joining in.
Our destination was Sanhamn, Sweden’s answer to Cowes, on the island of the same name. One of the largest in the archipelago it’s an hours ferry ride from the mainland or a pleasant five hour sail. As we entered the sheltered harbour we faced a scene unchanged for a hundred years. A cluster of painted wooden houses spanning the waterfront, in front of which, a medley of boats, small and large, were moored. Sanhamn is on the edge of the long ribbon of islands that makes up the archipelago. Beyond, the Baltic Sea stretches past Finland and across to Russia. On the trip over from Stockholm Jan had whetted my appetite for his favourite local cruise. A week spent sailing from Stockholm to St Petersburg during the famous white nights. I can’t think of a better way of arriving in that most romantic of cities than under full sail. In fact I was already looking forward to next years Ichi Ban reunion when we reluctantly waved goodbye to our boat and returned to landlubber status. As the yacht pulled away I acknowledged the stares of the envious yachtsmen pottering around the harbour front with what I felt was a gracious regal smile. “Cut it out” my boyfriend muttered, “You look like a half–wit”.
I wiped the grin off my face but when I saw our lovely room at the Sandhamn Hotel it quickly reappeared. Set on the edge of the water the hotel provides everything from snacking facilities for day-trippers to a full gourmet residential stay. It’s one of only two hotels on the island and only a handful in the entire archipelago. Our suite boasted a cosy wooden floored living room, a small bedroom with a lovely big quilted bed and a bathroom with a whirlpool bath and our own pint-sized sauna. The pièce de résistance was a wooden balcony overlooking the harbour from where we could watch the boats come and go. It was Saturday night and the sleepy little fishing village had quadrupled its population. Holidaymakers and weekenders from the city were looking forward to the last night of the summer season. To work up an appetite we took a wander through the sand-covered streets, past the painted clapboard façades of the local bakery and the couple of seafront cafes and bars. The Royal Swedish Sailing Association built their clubhouse here in 1897 and I imagine it hasn’t changed much since then. Sanhamn may not be a metropolis but it’s got a charming, seductive, laid back ambience and it’s utterly unspoilt.
In twenty minutes we’d done the town. I’d been looking at the sea all day. Now it was time to take the plunge. A half hour stroll through moss carpeted pine forest and we’d reached the other side of the island. On a rocky beach I perched on my chosen launch pad, a lovely smooth rock and prepared to jump. It was proving difficult to psyche myself up for the masochistic slide into the jade green, freezing water. Finally I could resist no longer. Mainly thanks to the audience of bemused Swedes beginning to gather. With a bloodcurdling shriek of pure fear I jumped in. I nearly scalded myself. The water was warmer than your average bath and I’m sure contributed to the rush of blood to my face. Extracting me proved to be a much longer process. In an effort to regain some dignity and get into the rugged, sea-faring lifestyle I rubbed myself down with my T-shirt, threw my shorts back on and headed back to the bright lights. Well, light actually.