There's no place like no home.
John Paul Bichard
I really didn't want to come home, stood on a tiny beach in a sheltered bay with granite rising out of the glassy water to the left and right, kayaks pulled up to the grass, our tent a little way off in the clearing. It was Friday morning, day 5 of a magnificent adventure that had seen us paddle some 120km of wind swept seas, stopping off on tiny uninhabited islands, some not much more than lumps of granite with a few trees and enough of a slope to disembark and pull up our kayaks. But that wasn't the end of the week, Louisa and I still had a 20km hop to Bullando, and the start of the second Stockholm Canoe Marathon; a 40km trek through shipping channels and open sea into the heart of Stockholm, but that was tomorrow, right now the adventures and experiences were still swimming around.
Day 1 - We got off to our usual organised but slightly chaotic start from the island of Resaro just north east of central Stockholm. Our intended 6am start was a little ambitious and the realisation that we hadn't any fuel meant a slight change of plan, so without ceremony, the boats, followed by the kit piled high in a wheelbarrow, were promptly taken to the put-in point. After much re-arranging of gear, we were packed and ready to head out - into a very windy Monday morning. Quick stop at Vaxholm for fuel must have been a little odd for the residents, not only seeing the two of us in our paddling gear, but also Louisa strolling along wielding her diving knife, cutting the backs off a pair of padlocks we would need later in the week.
The boats were great, we had hired two Point 65 K1XPs; 18’ long, sleek, v-hulled, very fast and reassuringly twitchy - pigs to turn but they tracked 'as if on rails' as the old saying goes. The wind was high but for the moment it was behind us - it was a blustery 3-4 which stayed with us for most of the week and really put the boats, and us, through their paces.
The Helsinki ferry is very large, but from a kilometre away, looks like it is hardly moving. Our 1km dash across the shipping lane looked simple enough but distance is deceptive on the open water and kayaks don’t move as fast as ferries. Its not surprising that 58,000 tonnes of brightly painted steel encourages a brisker than normal paddling technique and as we stepped up a gear, the huge megalith glided behind us. Some deft navigation between islands and another mini-crossing as the wind picked up meant we could catch the surf to speed our return to the beautiful island of Grinda for a late lunch stop. We were last there 9 months ago to the day. This time it was a sunny afternoon in a force 4 westerly, then it was a beautiful snow covered morning two weeks after we had first met. A wind swept lunch of rye bread, salami, cheese, pic'n'mix, dried fruit and nuts (our staple diet for the week) and we set off into the wind with full belly’s and an idea of our destination. We were getting used to the boats and navigating the maze of tiny islands and passages and as the wind died and the sun sat low in the sky we pulled up to our home for the night; a tiny island/rock at the end of Aspon Island - quick recce, a bracing dip, tent up, meatballs and potatoes and a very well earned sleep.
Day 2 - Got up early and explored the island (all of about 15 minutes) to find that there was a huge rock with a human size 'nest' on it and numerous little 'parcels' of toilet roll, there was a broken toilet bowl not far away and a large battered whicker basket, which contained another broken bowl and dozens of dried turds - we had stumbled across 'toilet island' - I swear I could hear a lone banjo playing somewhere in the distance! Cold potatoes and caviar for breakfast and a rather slow but careful re-pack of the kayaks in preparation for what was to be a rather tough day. The sun was up and shining, accompanied by the ever present and steadily building wind, which shifted further east as we threaded our way through the archipelago to Moja. Lunch was on a very small rock, sheltered and scorched by the sun - what a life!!!
The afternoon's crossing was a long one by our standards - 15km non-stop with 10km of open water and two busy shipping lanes to cross. With an easterly wind and a south westerly bearing, this was to prove great training for the marathon with the relentless sideways push of the waves and numerous boats cruising past. Literally into the sunset, we paddled up to Stavsnas and found ourselves a beautiful granite island with a well appointed west facing plateau - cooking to the setting sun and the sound of boats passing close bye can only be described as ‘terribly civilised’.
Day 3 – Flower Wednesday! The need to travel back into Stockholm to sort out the flowers for our wedding. We found a small bay with a derelict villa and sufficient beach to pull up our kayaks and hide them in the long grass (this is where the padlocks came in).
A quick water refill and we headed off by bus and train into town a little bemused and very tired. Really good meeting and a grim but necessary Burger King to replenish my rapidly dwindling fat reserves and we headed back to our hideout and our real clothes! The wind was howling a force 4 but we were heading into it, so a quick but very energetic hop took us the 12km to Wednesdays home - Moss Island. This must rank as the most luxurious nights sleep ever - 10cm of soft moss, a thermarest, sleeping bag, silk liner and another sleeping bag as quilt - sheer opulence. The island was larger than our previous outcrops, covered in trees and carpeted by an amazing variety of mosses from tight green clumps to soft grey springy balls. At dusk it felt like we were strolling through some eerie alien landscape. Our mossy palace beckoned.
Day 4 Up bright eyed and bushy tailed, we set a target of around 35km, taking us to the edge of the outer archipelago and a fair way further south. The wind soon picked up to a steady force SE force 3-4 which would mean a whole day of paddling into then across the wind. The archipelago has no tides or currents but sustained wind had whipped up the surface into an erratic collection of small breakers and occasional deeper troughs. Waves breaking over the boats made for an exciting but rather wet ride. By now we had developed a supremely efficient routine of packing and unpacking our gear, able to put a hand to everything when needed, a process made easier as the food diminished and the boats grew lighter (tip, don’t buy ripe tomatoes and expect them to stay in one piece in a tightly packed boat). A smoked mackerel lunch joined the now familiar banana chips, chocolate and jelly sweets, to fortify us for a long afternoons paddle.
The second leg of our days paddle was to head west and back to the mainland. The boats had handled well in the morning heading straight into the wind but a relentless southerly meant an afternoon paddling across the wind which was pretty hard going. A busy shipping lane crossing had us resting between two passing racing yachts, much to the amusement of the crews; we were getting used to judging how fast and where craft were headed and how to make ourselves visible enough to be avoided. We headed for a small sheltered bay for our overnight stop; a beach between two granite outcrops, a birch and oak glade and, back to where I started this account. We stoked up a fire on the beach and ate a mountain of chorizo stew and pasta. This evening marked the transition between the exploration part of our trip and the preparation for the marathon.
Day 5 – Friday was rest day. A huge breakfast over the camp fire, with baked potatoes, stew and cheese, followed by a leisurely stroll around the rocks to discover some wild blueberries. Sunshine and little wind meant an opportunity to dry our clothes and get our kit in order for a mid afternoon burst to marathon central; the Bullando marina. With a light wind behind us we made the 18 kilometres in 2 hours - these boats were fast. We cruised past the endless rows of yachts, to our campsite; a well tended lawn at the back of the marina, already dotted with tents and kayaks. It should be noted at this point that all ants are not equal – as we unpacked the tent, my amusement at having stirred up a huge ants nest turned to agony as the soldiers made a frontal assault on my mosquito bitten legs – nature hurts! Here's the mosquito that didn't get away.
As night fell, the number of paddlers and excitement grew; polite nods turned into lengthy discussions about boats and previous experiences and already the personalities were emerging; Carl Gustav the Finn, a fine old gentleman with a soft rich voice and a twinkle in his eye, veteran of several Arctic Sea races; The Norwegians, one with a bright yellow Inuk, the other with a 40kg, ice-breaking monster of a boat; the guy who had built his own racing kayak, a sleek wooden dart, carefully laid out in front of his tent with his wings neatly to one side; the two 70s looking guys with a small ridge tent, lilos and nylon sleeping bags, a charming contrast to the hi-tech geodesic tents and technical gear that surrounded them…
Day 6 – Marathon day – The Second Stockholm Kanot Maraton and our last paddling day. It was raining on and off and blowing a strong South Westerly – this meant practically the whole marathon would be paddled into the wind – some prospect. Pasta and stew for breakfast washed down with blueberry soup and we managed to arrange for most of our kit to be transported to the finish line (thanks to Carl Gustav’s sister and brother in law). Water sacs filled, seats adjusted (the comfortable inflatable variety… of course!!!) ballast trimmed, food bags packed and we set off for the start line. 15 minutes to go and it felt like we had been hit by a monsoon – torrential rain and strong winds. 5 minutes to go and the sun broke clear of the clouds. The long sleeved cag had to come off, speedily. Find a space amongst the hundreds of other paddlers and… GO… the sound of nearly two hundred paddles digging deep into the water in a dash for the first, tight right hander...
The race consisted of 5 sections, each with very different conditions; the first was a 17km dash due west along a shipping canal, through a tight lock (the first banana stop) then a tight left / right chicane (the second banana stop) all directly into the steady force 3-4wind. A right turn into the wide open and very exposed second section of the race meant following winds and erratic choppy waves north to the first marker, left turn into the full force of the wind, west across the bay and then a turn south to join the third section, another west-facing channel. The going was tough but not too grueling, the worst part had been around the 15km mark and the realisation that there was still 25km to go, but after the more open crossing, and some meaty water, energy and flagging spirits lifted.
The third section was pretty uneventful and by now everyone had settled into a pretty steady rhythm. It was here that we started passing the 20km starters, and a flotilla of inflatable single seaters who appeared to be going backwards (smug grin allowed). The forth section was on reflection the easiest and definitely the ‘calm before the storm’, a 5km paddle with the wind up a beautiful if busy shipping channel.
Disaster!!! As our strategic avoidance of the last banana stop, and gain of 4 places was lost with an untimely pee stop (next time I'm taking a cup!) and getting tangled in my spray deck (remove all extraneous strapping before embarking on a marathon!). But we weren't here to race, this was day6 of our adventure and an exhilarating personal challenge.
The organizers are to be commended on saving the best to last: the final stage of the race, a 5km paddle up the main shipping lane into Stockholm city centre. What looks fascinating from the shore is a cacophony of speed boats, yachts of varying size and speed, old passenger boats, medium sized and full-on passenger ferries. The wind was up to a strong, head-on force 4 and the wash from the boats made for a very exciting, wet and challenging paddle. Teeth gritted, we dug deep and pulled on all our resources to power our way up the channel. Light relief in the form of a couple of 6 foot waves from a passing ferry before crossing the channel into the last kilometre of the race, the peaceful canal through the Djurgarden park, a bizarre contrast to the last stretch. Then, around a quiet bend, the finish line, two orange buoys that marked the end of a thrilling adventure. Crossing the line side by side, an immense feeling of pride, exhilaration, and relief flooded over me. We had completed it!
As we carried our boats from the water, a medal was place over our heads, nice touch. Then, to add some well deserved icing to an already rich cake, we found out that not only had we paddle the marathon in 5 hours 20 (our target had been 5.30 in good conditions) but Louisa was second in the Ladies long K1. Wooooo Hooooooo!!!! What a superb moment as Louisa stood on the podium to receive her trophy. A modest celebration snack of muesli bars, banana chips and olives was washed down with whisky and the half bottle of champagne we had carried with us. It only remained for us to collect our kit (all 50+ kilos!) and get the bus and train back to Louisa’s gran’s. What a day!
Results are here - a few quick stats - we came in joint 97th out of the 177 40km finishers - Louisa came 2nd out of 3 in the Women's Long K1 - I came 33rd out of 50 in the Men's Long K1 - fastest time was 3 hours 28 minutes!!! (pics of Louisa, John, Carl Gustav and the trophy ceremony - plus the journey home).
On reflection, the race wasn’t as grueling or as physically demanding as I had anticipated. I was expecting sores, aching muscles, the odd injury or two, but all that was needed was plenty of hand-cream and bucket loads of food. Not taking Nurofen, or bathing my ass and hands in surgical spirit didn't make a difference, the biggest barrier was the psychological one; we had prepared well by putting in endless circuits of the reservoir in 'sea slugs' (aka sealion) and by paddling throughout the week (around 140km), had proved to ourselves we could sustain a good pace in tough conditions. The week and the marathon did change something deep down inside - and it set Louisa and I well on our way to our next big adventure.