To The Sea

"How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is clearly Ocean."

- Arthur C. Clark

I grew up by the sea. It was always there; always present in everything – the air I breathed, the boundary of the land, the work of the people, the purpose of the town. Dover was the busy port, rough around the edges, never sleeping, a constant flow of flotsam and jetsam. In the mornings, more often than not, we were awoken by the roar of the hovercraft, the mournful fog horns, or the cries of the gulls. Folkestone, just up the road, more subdued and whimsical, more the seaside town with a quaint harbour. I can still smell and taste the fish market from a thousand miles away and years left behind. Cockles and muscles, the glisten and sheen of fresh fish on ice, the splash of the sea, the ebb and flow of the tides.

Yet I never engaged with it. I didn’t learn to swim until I was 35, and always saw the sea as a limitation, not an opportunity. It was something to admire from a distance, like a bear; I didn’t want to get to close, and it always felt like it was blocking me in, that I only had access to 180º of the world. The sea was a barrier so I turned inwards to the land, hiking over the South Downs as much as I could.

But I always envied those people at home on the water. All the water sports looked fun, and there was something mystical and alluring about the sea. When you watch the sea, the weather, the tides, the light… it’s captivating somehow. You can’t help but think of how it not only separates us, but connects us, and how we as a species have developed tools to traverse it and live on it.

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With swimming lessons taking away the final barrier, my relationship with the sea could finally change. It’s still something to be treated with respect, but I’ve come to see it as another type of wilderness. It shares some characteristics with land-based wildernesses: their vast potential remoteness, the need to be able to survive on your own, the sparsity of people.

For many years I wanted to learn sea kayaking. Sure, I tried my hand at packrafting, but it wasn’t for me. A packraft is great on a river, but try crossing open water in some wind and it soon becomes un-fun. A kayak, for me, was like the road bike of the sea; a packraft, more like the fatbike – fun, but slow. It’s the speed of a road bike that I love, and the same applies to a kayak - the way it slices and glides through the water, uses buoyancy and pressure to maintain stability and course. There’s a beautiful balance of simplicity and science, and a tactile connectedness to the water as it flows around the boat.

Last year I took a Euro Paddle Pass course to learn the basic paddling and rescue skills needed for me to join my local Marjaniemi kayaking club. It’s a first step and there is much more to learn, but it opens up a lot of more wilderness-style experiences down here in the south. As I’ve said before: adapt and survive. I may bot have access to vast swathes of untouched rolling fells, but there are vast swathes of rolling waves and many islands of refuge in the archipelagos of the southern Finnish coast.

I’m not comfortable going alone yet, as I still need to learn some self-rescue tehniques. But as a beginner I’m always happy to go with a friend, and luckily enough, Tuukka, an old friend from my photography degree days lives nearby. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, both having built artistic careers, but I would never have thought 23 years ago that we’d be a couple of middle-aged guys doing outdoorsy things like backpacking, biking and kayaking. But here we are. People change. Adapt and survive.

We’d been talking about doing a kayak overnighter, but timing is everything on the sea (especially if you are not super-skilled and confident). An eye must be kept on the winds, and after a couple of last minute cancellations, we found a night with calm seas, and planned a trip to Pihlahjaluoto, a small island about 7.5 km to the east.

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Joining the kayak club was a great thing for me. I don’t have money buy a kayak, or space to keep one, and having access to a boatload (ho ho) of really nice kayaks, all the basic equipment, and the knowledge and skills of other members for an incredibly reasonable price is fantastic. There are so many islands it would be easy to plan a trip for several days (weather permitting), but I’m happy dippng my toes in the water and taking it one paddle at a time.

Of course, there are a few equipment considerations when kayaking, compared to backpacking, but not that many. Most of the necessary purchases I already had in my ultralight equipment stash: waterproof bags and pockets for maps, quick drying clothes etc. The water in Helsinki is not the warmest in the world, but temperatures are up to around 15ºC, and warmer closer to the mainland. I did think about getting a short wetsuit, but as we were heading out in calm waters (the winds were 2m/s) and going together I decided to keep that for another day.

We headed to the club around 4pm and picked out out kayaks. There are many to choose from, and I’d already tried a Skim Beaufort (beloved of Peter at Yetirides), but found it a bit nervous, so I thought I’d play it safe and take a Wilderness Systems Tempest, deisnged for touring and hopefully pretty stable for someone like me. Tuukka took a very nice looking Tiderace Xceed.

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After we loaded the boats and filled up with water (always important, as most of the smaller islands have no water sources), we headed off. A couple of people a the club were practicing solo reentries, and I paid careful attention. They made it look easy, but I suspect I’ll need quite a bit of practice to get that good.

It was a beautiful, sunny, calm day, making padding easy going. There were no waves as such, just the odd rolling wake from a long passed ship. At one point, some guy in a small fast boat decided to buzz by, throwing up some fun waves to paddle through. I was sure he did it deliberately, and a few minutes later he returned for a slightly closer pass. I don’t know… maybe he thought we’d fall. We didn’t, and he soon left us to slip silently along.

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These were kind of ridiculously calm conditions, but I was fine with that for my first overnight trip. We took it pretty easy, stopping every now and then to check we were heading to the right island – they have a habit of hiding behind one another – or then powering for a moment across a shipping lane. It was calm, uneventful, and lovely.

It’s funny with maps and the sea. For some reason, I get north and south a bit confused when travelling east. I look to my left and thing that’s south, then on the map of course it isn’t. It feels like it’s somehow landlubber related, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it.

After about an hour and a half we arrived at Pihlajaluoto and picked our way past a couple of rocks in the shallower water. There’s a small islet off the SE tip that’s restricted for nesting birds, and the alarmed squawks of gulls were loud as we passed.

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Tuukka had visited this island here before so he led the way to a good landing place. Kayaks are remarkable boats really. To be able to gently manoeuvre between rocks in really shallow water is incredible. You wouldn’t think it was possible sometimes, but it’s surprising how you can float in just a few inches of water.

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As we scouted around the tip looking for places for us to pitch our shelters (Tuukka had a Hennessey hammock, me, my trusty MLD DuoMid with a set of RotaLocura carbon poles I ordered for bikepacking), we found three nesting pairs of Barnacle Geese. It’s the height of nesting/hatching season here, and they let us know with their hisses that we should pick another spot. We found something far enough away not to disturb them, and set about pitching.

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We have a lot to thank the birds for. Without them, the islands would be pretty sparse, but there’s plenty of pretty flowers and trees, and finding a soft spot to rest on wasn’t hard once the pine cones had been redistributed.

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By the time we’d finished it was 19:30, and time for dinner. I know with kayaks it’s traditional to take ovens and the kitchen sink with you, but my ultralight principles are hard to shake off. I’ve come with my JetBoil Sol Ti and a packet of Chile. I did, however, bring my AeroPress for a decent cup of coffee.

With food cooked, we settle on the rocks to enjoy the scenery.

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It seemed that we’d have the island all to ourselves – a remarkable change compared to my previous trip – and another thing to relish when you stop to think that we’re within sight of our local water tower, and just 15 km from the center of the capital.

We chatted about this for a bit, and Tuuka commented on our fortune and privilage. I teased him that he meant white privilege, but there’s an element of truth in it. The number of times I’ve seen anyone in the outdoors in Finland or Lapland with anything other than white skin is precisely zero. This was largely true also in the US (although not exclusively, and I was mainly in the midwest), and I flinch at the thought of “the great white wilderness”. It leaves me uncomfortable.

As we relaxed with a cup of tea and a non-alcoholic beer, a small plastic boat appeared and seemed to have some trouble landing (there’s probably a better term for that, but I’m not that nautical yet). Tuukka went to help while I sat and did nothing.

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With the guy and his tiny dog safely moored (there’s the word!), we took off to explore the rest of the island. It’s pretty small, maybe 400m long. There’s some dense forest in the middle, and the northwest end is “private” (though we snooped around muttering about Everyman’s Rights). More nesting birds let us know they were not happy about our trip, this time a very agitated oystercatcher.

On this trip, I just took my iPhone for pictures. I’m not yet confident enough to take my D850 to sea and risk giving it a dunking. But the best camera is the one you have with you, as they say, so you’ll have to make do with what the iPhone can manage.

We were offered a nice sunset, and greatfully accepted it. As we crossed the island through the thickets, we heard a deer running away. Tuukka confirmed he’d seen one before here. They can swim between islands, and are quite common along the mainland coast. It’s surprising how much wildlife roams near the city. This winter we even had a wolf wandering through our neighbourhood, something I never saw during 15 years in Lapland!

Anwyay, enough talk; sunset photos!

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Only two photography graduates would spend an evening photographing stagnant pools…

Only two photography graduates would spend an evening photographing stagnant pools…

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The major port of Vuosaari is not far to the south… I mean north… dammit!

The major port of Vuosaari is not far to the south… I mean north… dammit!

Back at the camp, we retired for the night. It was peaceful, with only the lapping waves from passing boats and the calls of birds breaking the silence.

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I slept well, with only some avian kerfuffle waking me as the geese fought amongst themselves. As it was a warm nigh I was able to sleep with the doors of the DuoMid open, giving me all-night-long views. There were a few mosquitoes, but they were kept out by my OokWorks inner.

The sun does set in Helsinki, but it was never really dark, and it rises early around 4:00. I’m conditioned by a 7-year-old and a decrepit dog to wake around 6:30, and nothing changed that. I don’t mind the early mornings; the light is different and I got the chance to welcome the new day.

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During my exploration around the tip of the island, I scared away a gull, revealing two dark brown eggs in its rocky nest. I moved away, so the bird could safely return.

On the other side, I found an edible chive-like plant that Tuukka told me isn’t called a Sea Onion, although obviously it should be.

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My breakfast was a traditionally Finnish meal of TomYum noodles. Maybe next time I’ll bring the saucepans and make waffles and real porridge, but I figured this would be enough to give me energy for the paddle home.

Fortunately the boats were still there.

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Tuukka wanted to get back to finish off a book he’s working on, so we packed up and left, once again taking advantage of the absurdly calm seas. There were a few ripples on the water, but mostly it was duck pond calm.

I was quite happy with the Tempest kayak. Its rather dramatic name belied a planted, stable ride. It was good enough for a newbie like me, and I felt pretty comfortable once I’d adjusted the backrest (most of the back rests, it seems, are too low for me, coming in more as butt rests). I’m not yet confident enough to try dramatic edged turns, but I tried a couple of subtle ones, and it turned nicely. Tuukka seemed pleased with the Tiderace Xceed, and said he might even use it on future trips. I was keen to try it too, as it loooks so damn cool, so I took it out myself yesterday for a short spin near home. My goodness, it felt like driving a Cadillac! It was big and graceful, rolled over the waves with aplomb and just kind of, well, floated along as if I was driving a car with luxurious full suspension. I guess it’s a little wider and longer than average but it felt very smooth. Watching Tuukka paddle the sleek, seamless white boat I thought again about our conversation the night before, and decided to name the boat “The White Privilege”. It seemed somehow appropriate.

We took a meandering route back to check out a few of the smaller islands to nearer the coast. First, Kalliosaarenluoto, a bird nesting island, then around Voirasia and through some shallow, rocky water past the tip of Kallahdeniemi.

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It was strange to see the little hut and picnic table at the tip of Kallahdenniemi where I sometimes bike. It’s funny how familiar places look different from the sea.

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After a quick look at the map to check our bearings we slipped by Iso Iiluoto, and on past Malkasaari, where there’s a public sauna.

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We got to the point of Rammsinniemi before I realised it. These new angles from the sea catch me out; I can’t see the boundaries of land and the landmarks are unfamiliar, but it will all come with time.

My shoulders had begun to ache a little with the use of new muscles, and sitting in one position never does my back any kindness, but I hope this teething pains will also work themselves out as I do more.

As we neared the harbour, we talked of possible future trips and going a little further each time. I think I could easily do 15 km a day with a lunch break, maybe even a little more, but so much depends on the weather. When I did the kayak course we had 8 m/s winds which is about the limit of desired excitement for me at this point. I’ll need to improve my skills before heading out in that kind of weather, but it’s hard to find courses beyond beginner level in English. But hopefully I’ll find something or someone willing to help me learn, as this is something I find I enjoy very much.

I no longer fear the sea, though it still commands respect. Now that I find myself living next to it again, it’s nice to not have the feeling that it is a limitation. instead, it now represents a realm of opportunity and the promise of new adventures.