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.
St Olav Waterway – A pilgrimage across the sea
Back in June, I embarked on a different kind of pilgrimage to the one I made last year – a mini pilgrimage across land and sea, along the St Olav Waterway. Beginning in Turku in Finland and ending among the Åland Islands between Finland and Sweden, I spent a few days test sailing the new St Olav Waterway pilgrim route which aims to link Finland with the existing pilgrim routes of Sweden and Norway.
In a way, 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 Angeliqa. We travelled via sea to Turku in Finland with Viking Line overnight, sleeping onboard the ferry in a small cosy cabin. We arrived in Turku bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to begin our adventure, meet with our fellow pilgrims in Nagu and spend our first night on the beautiful ship Albanus.
We travelled by bus to Nagu, taking small ferries from island to island until we arrived at the marina. Albanus was a sight to behold waiting for us next to the quay. We slowly gathered onboard, introducing ourselves and exploring our home for the next few days. Below deck we found twenty-one small cabin beds, a kitchen, toilets and dining area. Next to Albanus in the harbour, we also found the smaller but just as beautiful sailboat ‘Tjutt Tjutt’, which we would take turns to sail on by day, giving us a chance to test all 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 before the boat left the harbour. 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.
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.
A misty morning onboard Tjutt Tjutt
The first night I slept 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 who choose not to stay on Albanus. A small part of me was glad of a warm proper bed, due to the travel fatigue that was creeping up on me but I was also eager to experience sleeping on a ship in the days ahead.
In the morning, I awoke to a thick fog outside the window, hiding the surrounding islands. We boarded Albanus for a typical scandi breakfast of porridge, jam, breads, cheeses and ham. After a reading from the Bishop on board, we prepared to set sail, which found me leaving Albanus to spend my first day on Tjutt Tjutt.
This was the longest sailing day from Nagu to Kökar, 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. We put on our life jackets and soon the boat was surrounded by greyness. Albanus appeared and disappeared like a ghost ship as it overtook us.
After a couple of hours, we stopped on a tiny islet called Alenskär to stretch the legs. I wandered around in awe of the beautiful terrain and all the fantastic plant life on the island. There was plenty of juniper, cloudberry plants and cotton flowers to be found, surrounded by endless lichens and mosses.
To be on this tiny island was an amazing feeling, wondering how many feet have stepped foot on it, wondering if I’d ever step foot on it again. I would love to say there was no trace of humans on it, but I was shocked to discover a large ragged piece of plastic washed up on its beach. I balled it up and took it back on board Tjutt Tjutt with me. This highlights the terrible reality that even uninhabited remote areas of land such as this are being littered with rubbish and we must all make every effort to put it right.
Back on Tjutt Tjutt after a lunch of cold smoked salmon with a delicious potato salad, the fog began to lift. The islands came into view again, giving us back our sense of place, the sea turned a deep shade of blue and the sun shone down on us. We passed our time talking about all sorts of topics, 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 boarded Albanus for another delicious meal. Life on Albanus gives a sense of luxury to the pilgrim experience that’s for sure! Over dinner we shared stories from the day with our fellow pilgrims who travelled on Albanus. We then took a small hike to visit the traditional pilgrim accommodation being built here and to visit a church and museum situated on one of the most picturesque spots I have ever seen. We listened to some history of the island in the church and I discovered that many churches in Åland have these beautiful ships hanging in them, each with their own story. This ship is said to represent a Turkish pirate ship that hijacked a merchant vessel which was being sailed by an islander named Olle in the 1700’s. He crafted the ship himself and gave it to the church.
Near to the church was a beautiful spot which I could tell would be perfect to watch a sunset from. If you look carefully, you can see a sundial etched into this rock facing the sun.
After wandering back to the beach, I decided it was a great evening for a swim – but 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 a 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 church and to the magnificent sunset viewing spot to catch sundown (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 there also, silhouetted against the skyline, stood in quiet contemplation. After sundown and being eaten by mosquitos, we raced back to the boat and crept back on board where everyone was already asleep. The late sunset was playing with my sense of time, it felt like it should be only around 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 than I thought it would be at night, with so many people. 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 than i’d imagined it would be.
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 their people – the influences of Russia, of war and how this has shaped life here. 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, chatted to the owners about their thoughts on 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. 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.
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 through the trees softly and the sounds of night creatures awakening.
I felt tears appear in my eyes walking through a particularly beautiful fairytale part of the forest. White moss was everywhere, the trees gnarled, romantically covered in lichens – in an abundance that you just don’t find in my part of England. 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, reflecting on the water and in the distance you could hear a seabird call.
As we arrived back at the ship, we heard sounds of singing in Swedish, laughter and of an accordion being played. 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 the 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 with an icecream from the shop – I chose a Finnish favourite of Lakris (Liquorice) because I love to try weird flavours and because when in Finland.. (Note: Åland has Swedish as a language but is an autonomous part of Finland, which can get a little confusing!)
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 based 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.
We dropped most of our fellow pilgrims off at Långnäs before continuing on to Mariehamn. 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.
The remaining few of us on board felt the emptiness for the remainder of the journey as the trip was drawing to a close, but made the most of our last leg. 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.
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 it 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.
A particularly nice thing about St Olav Waterway and being on a boat, was that the sailing parts enabled you to rest while still making progress, still journeying. Spending time with others but still having room for contemplation, which is welcome for the body and 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 fraud in some way. When actually that isn’t the case at all. This highlights that it is about the experience as a whole, you cannot single out the act of walking as the thing that makes a pilgrimage. If it wasn’t for my bad foot, I wouldn’t have experienced as much of the kindness that I did. Human interaction transforms the experience. 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 should be ready for the first hikers, bikers and sailors from spring next year.
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 journey using a mixture of the following: on foot, by bike, via ferry, kayak or by the beautiful ships pictured here. Although named St Olav Waterway, there will still be plenty of walking or cycling!
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. 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 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.
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.
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 Facebook Page, Twitter and Instagram!
Thanks for reading and let me know if you plan to visit St Olav Waterway next year!