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Stockholm Archipelago

Tim Walker

Photo: Tim Walker

Sandön's village of Sandhamn is the epicenter of the Stockholm sailing world, about a half-hour from Grinda by ferry, toward the outer edge of the archipelago. The Royal Swedish Yacht Club (the KSSS), which runs one of Sweden's largest sailing schools, is headquartered here. (More than one person has pointed out to me that for Sweden's 9 million people, there are 6 million boats.) Had we arrived two weeks earlier, we would have witnessed the Gotland Runt—an annual 500-mile regatta from here to the island of Gotland and back. But all season long, the harbor is busy with boats.

Appropriately, Sandhamn is where we'll meet the skipper of our chartered boat. He won't arrive until the next morning, so we spend the afternoon lingering on the docks. Petra spots Olof Stenhammer, who, she says, is known in Sweden not only as the founder of the OM Bank and a friend of the king but also as the man who led the failed campaign to bring the 2004 summer Olympics to Stockholm. In a threadbare Polo pullover and Docksides loafers, he looks like any seasoned sailor. Younger types in Henry Lloyd sailing parkas (chic Sweden's offshore brand of choice) coil ropes, swab decks, chat with the neighbors. Later, we see many of the same people at Dykarbaren ("the divers' bar"), a hipsters' hangout with techno spilling out of the sound system. The sky is cloudy, but an orange-red sunset illuminates the windows. If I can trust the single adage I remember from my childhood sailing days on a Colorado lake—"Red sky at night, sailor's delight"—then we're in for a break from the overcast weather of the last few days.

After a morning stroll around Sandön and a stop at the island's 150-year-old bakery, Sandhamns Bageri, for some "sailors' buns"—swirled with cardamom, raisins, and butter—we head to the docks. There we find our skipper, Gustav, and his first mate, Joel, busy arranging ropes and winches on the deck of the Josephine, a 46-foot Swan. Gustav and Joel are both in their twenties, reserved, almost formal. Joel, tall and blond with determined features, extends a hand to help us step aboard; Gustav wastes no time showing us where things are—the life jackets, refrigerator, CD player, TV. The idea of sitting belowdecks watching TV seems absurd, but I suppose it might be a welcome diversion on a rainy day. "You wouldn't want to miss Ally McBeal," Gustav says dryly.

He and Joel are industrial design students at a university in Sweden's far north. Both spent summers here when they were growing up, and Gustav was stationed in the archipelago while in the navy. As it happens, the Swedish Navy's two gorgeous double-masted schooners, Gladan and Falken, were anchored in the harbor overnight; this is a rare sight, I'm told, since they're almost always training on the open ocean. As we cast off, Petra and I wave at the fetching naval apprentices. We get a few salutes in return—and a ribbing from our own two-man crew.

In a couple of minutes we're out on the open sea, skimming past small islands that are barren but for clusters of red cottages, each with a Swedish flag hoisted high in front. Petra thinks the ubiquitous flags signify not a deep-felt patriotism but a general appreciation for good design—the simple beauty of a yellow cross on a blue background. Suspecting some kind of collective color consciousness, I ask why the cottages out here are invariably red, whereas the large houses on islands closer to Stockholm are almost always yellow. My Swedish companions surprise me by knowing the answer, which is disappointingly simple: in the early 1900's, red paint was the cheapest; Stockholm's nobility saved the more precious yellow for their châteaux, closer to the city. Of course, nowadays it's far more chic to have one of these red fishing cottages—the more rustic and remote, the better.

Eugen Wikström, a third-generation resident of the archipelago, is the owner of Thindra Charter, guardian of our Josephine. It was Eugen's grandfather who helped found the Royal Swedish Yacht Club and organized the races in the 1920's that evolved into the Gotland Runt. After a career as a music producer and manager of the eighties rock band Europe, Eugen started Thindra Charter in 1987. The latest addition to the fleet of luxury yachts and speedboats is an 80-foot racer that has been sailed by the Olympian and America's Cup winner Robbie Doyle.

"I wanted to offer an authentic experience," says Eugen. "Sandhamn and Vaxholm are what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans, or Fisherman's Wharf is to San Francisco. I wanted to take people to places they couldn't get to otherwise, where they can water-ski or just stop for a sauna on a private island." One such outpost is Stora Husarn, where we're headed for a sauna and lunch. We're joined by Eugen's wife, Malin, who used to be a professional wind surfer, and their six-year-old son, Edgar.

The island belongs to a physician friend of Eugen's, who could have inspired the main character of one of Sweden's most popular TV dramas, Skärgårdsdoktorn ("archipelago doctor"). In the show, Samuel Fröler (who starred in Ingmar Bergman's Best Intentions) is cast as a dashing medic who races around in a speedboat saving lives and resolving messy entanglements. Alas, the real doctor's not in today, but we still get a look at his 19th-century wooden house.


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