To become a pilgrim is at first, to become a stranger, and to find yourself in a strange place with other strangers. In doing so, everything becomes open. You open yourself to meet with and share with others, be that through conversation, eating together or sleeping in the same room. Being adaptable to the people you meet and your surroundings is at the very essence of the pilgrim journey. Becoming a pilgrim and making a journey into the unknown has its obstacles, but these are also shared. Helping others (and receiving help it seems) is a natural and integral part of making a pilgrimage.
Back in June, I embarked on a mini pilgrimage across land and sea along the St Olav Waterway – a new pilgrim route aims to link Finland with the existing pilgrim routes of Sweden and Norway. Along with a group of journalists, photographers and bloggers, I spent a few days test sailing a small section of the new trail – beginning in Turku in Finland and ending among the Åland Islands between Finland and Sweden.
St Olav Waterway – A pilgrimage across the sea
My mini pilgrimage began in England, taking two trains to Gatwick Airport and then flying to Stockholm where I would meet my fellow pilgrim hiker and good friend Angeliqa. Together we travelled via sea to Turku in Finland with Viking Line overnight, sleeping onboard the ferry in a small cosy cabin. Arriving in Turku bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to begin our adventure.
We travelled by bus to Nagu, an island in the Turku Archipelago. Small ferries transported us from island to island until we arrived at the marina. Albanus, a 30 year old two-masted schooner, was a sight to behold waiting for us next to the quay and it was to be our home for the next few days. We slowly gathered onboard, introducing ourselves and exploring below the deck. To my surprise I found that it housed twenty-one small cabin beds, a kitchen, toilets and dining area. Next to Albanus in the harbour, was the more modest but just as beautiful sailboat ‘Tjutt Tjutt’, which we would also travel on during the week, giving us a chance to test both options for the route.
Living among thirty others onboard a ship brings some unique challenges to the pilgrim journey; the first of which involves food. Cooking for 30 people is a big task, so I wasn’t surprised to find myself washing potatoes on deck with two of my fellow pilgrim sailors not long after boarding. Over the next few days we would all play our part in making the ship run smoothly, helping to cook, clean and sail under the expert eyes of our head chef and sailing crew.
On this first night I was to sleep on land due to our group being larger than the available beds on board Albanus. This gave me a chance to experience the types of accommodation that might be available to pilgrims along the trail, with Albanus being one of the more packaged experiences of the trail, providing accommodation, transport and food. A small part of me was glad of a proper bed, due to the travel fatigue that was creeping up on me from the past two days, however I was eager to experience sleeping on a ship in the days ahead.
A misty morning onboard Tjutt Tjutt
In the morning, I awoke to a thick fog outside the window, hiding the surrounding islands. We boarded Albanus for a typical nordic breakfast of porridge, jam, breads, cheeses and ham. After a reading from a Bishop that was travelling with us on board, we prepared to set sail, which found me leaving Albanus again to spend my first day on Tjutt Tjutt.
This was the longest sailing day from Nagu to Kökar, so we were relying mainly on wind to power the boat, using the engine sparingly when needed. Tjutt Tjutt has only a small enclosed area that a man can lay down in, so it was important to wrap up warm for the foggy morning on the water. We put on our life jackets and hats and set off into the mist – soon the boat was surrounded by greyness and Albanus appeared and disappeared like a ghost ship as it overtook us.
After a couple of hours, we stopped on the tiny islet of Alenskär to stretch our legs. On a map, this snippet of land was miniscule. I wandered around with a feeling of awe at the beautiful terrain and plant life on the island; juniper, cloudberry plants and cotton flowers, surrounded by endless lichens and mosses.
To be on this tiny island conjured feelings of wonder. How many people have stepped foot on it? I would love to say that there was no trace of human life on it, but I was shocked to discover a large piece of thin black plastic washed up on its beach. I balled it up and took it back on board Tjutt Tjutt with me. This highlighted a terrible reality for me, that even uninhabited remote areas of land such as this are not immune to being littered with our rubbish.
Back on Tjutt Tjutt we ate a lunch of cold smoked salmon with a delicious potato salad and in the meantime, the fog began to lift. The islands came into view again, reorienting us, giving us back our sense of place. The sea turned a deep shade of blue and as the sun shone down, we passed our time talking with each other, helping to sail, making tea with honey and looking out for birds and moose on the islands.
In the late afternoon we arrived at Kökar and re-boarded Albanus for another delicious meal. Life on Albanus gives a sense of luxury to the pilgrim experience for sure! Over dinner we shared stories from the day with our fellow pilgrims who travelled on the bigger ship. Afterward we made an excursion – a small hike to visit the traditional pilgrim accommodation being built on the island, and to visit a church and museum – situated on one of the most picturesque spots I have ever seen. We learned the history of the island and I discovered that many churches here have beautiful ships hanging from their ceilings, each with their own story. This ship is said to represent a Turkish pirate ship that hijacked a merchant vessel sailed by an islander named Olle in the 1700’s. He crafted the ship himself and gave it to the church.
Wandering back to the beach, I thought that it looked like a great evening for a swim. As I entered the ice cold water I managed to slip on a rock and injure my foot (which I now know fractured it in two places!) so I limped back to shore for some first aid and ate Kanelbullar in the sun with Angeliqa instead. As the sun began to set (at almost 11pm) a lovely man from the campsite shop next to the shore offered Angeliqa and I some bikes so we could ride back to the magnificent spot by the church to catch the sunset (perfect transport for two injured hikers).
We raced to the church and (gingerly) walked up to the viewpoint, mesmerised by the view. Stefan, a fellow pilgrim was already there, silhouetted against the skyline and stood in quiet contemplation. After sundown, being eaten alive by mosquitos, we raced back to the boat and crept back on board where everyone else was already asleep. The late sunset was messing with my sense of time, it felt like 6pm but it was almost midnight!
Sailing from Kökar to Sottunga on Albanus
The next day I awoke in my cabin bed next to the kitchen, porridge already bubbling on the stove and the breakfast crew for that morning already up, dressed and preparing food for everyone. It was much colder on the boat then I imagined so I made a mental note to layer up more for my second night and arose bleary-eyed to join everyone at the breakfast table.
Today was a hiking day and although probably not very wise, I popped a painkiller, re-bandaged my foot and laced up my hiking boots, determined to not miss what would surely be a beautiful hike across the island. A very kind fellow pilgrim gave me her walking poles so that I could take some weight off it, but as I walked my foot surprisingly loosened up a little and walking became easier.
We walked along bright red granite road, over rocky terrain, through trees and along open fields. Learning along the way the history of the islands and the people that live here, and the influence of Russia, of war and how this has shaped life here. We discovered the remains of seal hunters huts – just a few stones in a circle on the ground could be seen amongst the grass.
Part of the way through the walk, we came across a Cidery, where we sampled some delicious gooseberry cider and chatted to the owners about the pilgrim path and life on the island, before continuing on our way.
Albanus had sailed without us around the island, to meet us at the end of our hike, which is what it will offer to pilgrims when the path opens. We were back on the boat by lunchtime (after a quick stop in a ‘Loppis’ or second hand shop by the water) ready to sail in the afternoon to Sottunga while we were eating.
It’s surprising how quickly you fall into a rhythm as a pilgrim, on sea as you do on foot. You walk, you eat, you sleep, you make time for encounters as they happen. Being on board a ship gives more time to get to know each other, as you are all moving at the same pace and the experience becomes a unified one which you all share in. You leave the ship to walk together, board the ship again to sail, eat and sleep together and so the rhythm continues.
After dinner, we took turns in small groups to use the sauna located near the harbour. Us ladies collected young birch branches (‘vihta’) to whip ourselves with in the sauna – a finnish tradition to stimulate circulation and revitalise the body. I’ve experienced Swedish sauna before – so am accustomed to the nakedness, but the birch whipping was a new experience! It was messy but certainly did its job (and smelt amazing).
In the evening a few of us went for a short hike through the forest to the coast. The path was incredibly beautiful at dusk, with light filtering softly through the trees and the sounds of night creatures awakening.
Walking through a particularly fairytale-esque part of the forest almost brought tears to my eyes. White moss was everywhere, the trees gnarled – romantically covered in lichens in an abundance that you just don’t find in my part of the world. I always feel a little sad when I visit somewhere so beautiful, knowing the moment wont last forever, and that I may never revisit the same place again in my lifetime. On reaching the coast, we sat for a few moments in silence to watch the sun over the water. A small sundog was visible, reflected in the water and in the distance you could hear the call of a seabird.
It was difficult to tear myself away from the view, but the promise of another beautiful walk back through the forest helped. As we arrived back at the ship, we heard sounds of singing in Swedish, laughter and the jovial sound of an accordion being played. It was a wonderful way to end the evening.
Sottunga to Långnäs to Mariehamn – saying goodbye
In the morning we attended a short meeting in the church on Sottunga, learning about the history of this island before our walk across it. Much of the walk was along the trademark red granite roads of Åland, in beautiful sunshine, stopping along the way to to view a midsommer pole and a potential pilgrim accommodation on the island, complete with shop and hen houses.
We refreshed ourselves with an icecream from the shop – I chose a Finnish favourite of salty-sweet Lakris (Liquorice).
When we reached the water again, we had the fun experience of rowing out to Albanus, who was waiting for us in deeper water off shore. After a hearty lunch of rice soup and bread, as much time as possible needed to be spent soaking in our last few hours of sailing before we all said goodbye.
At the beginning of this post I talked about what it is like to become a pilgrim. You become like a family in a short space of time, sharing in everything – meeting as strangers, parting as friends. It was sad to say goodbye.
Most of our fellow pilgrims disembarked at Långnäs before we continued on to Mariehamn. The remaining few of us on board felt the emptiness for the remainder of the journey as the trip was drawing to a close. We landed at Mariehamn in the evening and wandered a little in the city together, resting in a warm pub for a few hours before our last night sleeping on board Albanus in the harbour.
Pilgrim Sailing vs Pilgrim Hiking
Having spent thirty days along a pilgrim trail last summer, I was unsure of how a pilgrimage that was partially via boat would alter the pilgrim experience. Especially when many of us think of pilgrim trails as long, possibly arduous walks, not relaxing moments on board beautiful ships. It is important to remember that this experience was only a taster of the full route and we experienced just a few travel options from a test perspective, but the key things I remember from walking a pilgrim trail were still there.
Most importantly, the meetings with strangers. These meetings are less fleeting than those along a walking trail, due to the nature of sailing together as a group on a boat – which, for someone who hates saying goodbye, is a good thing. The notion of helping each other and receiving help was present still, in the lending of walking poles, cooking each other dinner and helping with other tasks on board the ship.
Another thing that St Olav Waterway offers due to parts being by boat, was that the sailing enabled you to rest while still making progress and still journeying. Spending time with others but still having room for contemplation, was good for the body and the mind. This aspect made me think back to when I walked St. Olavsleden last year and I hurt my foot, so had to skip some sections by taking the bus.
At the time you feel like that’s cheating, that you’re not completing the trail and that you’re a failure in some way. When actually that isn’t the case at all. This highlighted for me that it is about the experience as a whole – you cannot single out the act of walking it all as the thing that makes it complete. And, if it wasn’t for my bad foot, I wouldn’t have experienced as much of the kindness that I did along the trail. It’s the human interaction that transforms the experience from a hike to a pilgrimage. Walking in solitude, walking together, sailing, cycling, sleeping in a tent every night, having a warm bed – there is no right way.
St Olav Waterway FAQ’s
When does the St Olav Waterway trail open?
The St Olav Waterway trail is due to open officially on the 24th of May 2019. You can hike it now but information about the trail is limited and more work is currently underway along the route to make it ready.
How long is St Olav Waterway?
The full St Olav Waterway route will take you from Turku in Finland, through the Åland Archipelago and over to Hudiksvall in Sweden (625km) where you will be able to connect with other pilgrim routes to Trondheim in Norway (1200km).
What modes of transport can be used along the St Olav Waterway trail?
You can hike the journey and use ferries to cross between islands. You can also cycle, kayak or take one of the beautiful ships discussed in this post to make the crossings between islands. Although named St Olav Waterway, there will still be plenty of walking or cycling along the way.
Do I have to be religious to travel along St Olav Waterway?
‘A pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance’ according to the reliable sources that inform wikipedia. I have talked with many about this and the general consensus is that you do not have to be religious to use a pilgrim route.
People start walking for different reasons; some to get some distance from every day life, to escape life, to challenge themselves, to learn something or just to experience the world from a different perspective. These are all perfectly okay reasons to start along a pilgrim trail. You don’t even need a reason to start, but when you finish, you will have developed yourself in some way, which can only be a good thing. This said, the framework around pilgrim trails is usually connected with faith and religion. You will probably encounter people of faith, religious history and places of worship. There is a lot to be gained from respecting and embracing all that the trail gives you.
The best quote I have heard on this subject is that ‘people start as hikers but finish as pilgrims’ and in short, this sums up my experience of when I hiked my first pilgrim trail exactly. This does not mean that I became religious, but it does mean that the trail was more than just a walk for me. It changed me. It gave me space reflect and taught me much in the process – about the world, about others and about myself. Things that I didn’t expect.
Where can I find out more about St Olav Waterway?
Visit the St Olav Waterway website st-olav.com and use the google translate browser extension if the site is unavailable in your preferred language. Also, feel free to ask me any questions using the comments box below and I will do my best to help you! You can also keep up to date with developments on the St Olav Waterway Facebook Page, Twitter and Instagram!
Thanks for reading and let me know if you plan to hike and sail St Olav Waterway!