3:45 am. I don hat, base layers, foulies, boots, head torch and neck gaiter before stepping up on deck. There I am greeted by a fiery sunrise rising above the fierce vertical cliffs of western Gotland, and a very sleepy Scotsman still wearing a pair of shorts (turns out that, no matter how many years you’ve been sailing, you can still get your gear choice wrong sometimes!).
The boat leaned to the lee as we sailed dead downwind through glasslike waters in a new breeze. We were on the rhumb line to the mark off Visby, threading a gap between Karlsöarna and Lilla Karlsö. The previous watch had overtaken three yachts; our suspicions had been proven correct that the surprisingly enormous spinnaker was Spica’s secret weapon. Freshly brewed coffee in hand, I beamed from ear to ear. This was the sailing I was addicted to.
In 2019 Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson of 59° North bought Spica, a Norlin 34, as a family boat for their now 16-month-old son Axel to grow up sailing in.
This 1970s balsa-cored design was originally built with the Gotland Runt race specifically in mind. Despite plans for sleepy cruising around the Swedish archipelago, it was inevitable that this iconic race would soon lure in the ocean sailing couple.
The Gotland Runt is the largest annual offshore race in northern Europe. It takes place each year on the first week of July, just after the much-celebrated midsummer festival in Sweden. The sun sets at 2200 and rises at 0400, hence the early hours get dark enough to put the instruments on night mode and to grab a head torch, but the haunting effect of pure darkness never fully sets in.
The racecourse is 350 miles long. In contrast to the traditional 600-mile offshore races, it feels like more of a sprint than the long slog of a light wind Middle Sea Race or heavily tidal Fastnet.
The winds in the Baltic at this time of year are predominantly gentle, and we were lucky enough for our year to fit this trend with glorious weather, and conditions no heavier than a Force 5. Even if it had been a gale, I think the unusually short nature of the course would have made the bad weather easier to handle.
I fell in love with this race on the first go. The light conditions, the 24/7 daylight, and the shorter course were all part of the charm, and certainly, make up perfect ingredients for this to be a starting ground for anyone new to offshore racing. But the real magic for me was the balance of the race.
“The special thing about this race is it provides an opportunity to compete with yourself over the years, at the same time that you are competing with others,” our trimmer Johan, summed up the Gotland Runt ethos.
This is a race that Swedish sailors return to again and again. Last year’s Covid cancellation was the first time the event had been paused since World War II. The 2021 edition sold out in a matter of minutes. The course, the atmosphere, and the spirit areas I learnt – very typically Swedish: humble, hospitable, egalitarian, serious, and focused, but never taking seriousness too far.
Strategically the race can be split almost 50:50 offshore vs inshore. An initial close quarters battle through the archipelago leads into two offshore legs, heading first south and then north around Gotland. Marks at both the southern point of the island and another inshore turning point on the west coast then add another layer of inshore tactics, with localized weather, shoreline currents, and sticky navigation to contend with. The questions posed on board were whether to head inshore or offshore? If so, how far? And would the island’s sharp shoreline mean a wind shadow or an acceleration zone?
The crew had worked up to the wire getting the boat ready, as well as squeezing in a quick test sail just before the start day. It was the first time on the boat for us all except Andy, and the first time he’d ever hoisted a kite on Spica after a few gentle family cruises last summer. It was also the first time ever working with asymmetric spinnaker for our bowman Steve – an ‘in at the deep end’ few days for him, and all of us.
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