Arriving in Hel on a Saturday was a bit like jumping into a tourist beehive. It was sunny and warm, and the small weekend beach resort town was absolutely brimmed with people, all there to spend fun summertime together with their friends and family. For us, though, coming from the delicately anxious, and carefully social distancing north, the contrast was quite striking.
In fact, we ended up staying in Hel for just a couple of days.
Mainly, because we wanted to catch a good weather window towards our next destination, Lithuania. But partly, because it felt like a good coronavirus strategy not to spend too much time in close vicinity to so many other people.
So, what did we think of the place?
I’m a bit unsure of Charlotte’s sentiments (she was, in fact, a bit eager to leave!), but I did like it, and the children did as well.
Culturally, it was so far removed from our everyday Nordic life, that it actually felt really exotic, like we had sailed to another planet altogether. (Well, maybe we actually had!)
Anyway, here are a few highlights of our stay.
The Seal Station
The Hel peninsula is known for its seal colonies, and right next to the beach we found University of Gdańsk’s marine station aka seal aquarium.
They, like many others, are working to restore and protect the colony of grey seals in the (south) Baltic Sea, and as a part of that, they also maintain a public (and very popular) aquarium.
Next to the seal station, there was a great sand beach. It was too hot for me, so I went out on a walk with Aiko (the dog) while Charlotte and the children had a good time swimming in the water and bathing in the sun.
We had a nice row of food stalls right in the marina. One of them made trdelniks, a wonderfully tasting dessert with whipped cream, chocolate, and strawberries stuffed inside an ice-cream-like cone of cinnamon sugar pastry.
Another fascinating dish was a Polish original called mini melts. Miniature ice-cream balls in a plastic cap. Yummy!
The food was good, too, and the beer was inexpensive and cold.
Hel was the first place where masks weren’t optional but actually mandated. Not outside in the open, but inside, in the stores (and the seal aquarium). They had people watching the entrances, and without masks: none shall pass!
These mask vending machines were funny!
After having spent the weekend as tourists, among a lot of other tourists, came Sunday afternoon and all the other tourists started to leave.
The flow of people on the pier turned to instead of from the large catamarans running between Hel, Gdansk, Gdynia, and Sopot several times a day. The crowd of sailboats started to disperse as well, with one after the other motoring slowly out from the marina.
Quite quickly, there weren’t that many of us left, and what had been a sprawling beach town beehive just a few moments before, it was now all but devoid of bees. In fact, it started to feel a bit empty.
It was obviously time for us to move on, as well.
But there was one thing bothering me, and I was a bit unsure of what to do about it.
The Russia Issue
“Hello. Where do you come from?”.
A man in military uniform was standing on the dock next to our boat.
“Oh, like our nationality? Or?” I asked him. “Well, we are all Finnish citizens, but we sailed from Bornholm, from Denmark to here,” I added, without waiting for his answer.
“Ok. Then no quarantine,” he said, in a proper, administrative and expressionless manner.
Then it struck me, he would know!
On our way towards Poland, I had realized that sailing from Hel to our next destination, Klaipeda in Lithuania, we would actually have to cross through Russian waters. Or take a really long detour, which wasn’t really something I’d like to do. Something I wasn’t very excited to do.
When we were sailing along the Polish coast, we had heard an ominous-sounding Russian coast guard ship trying to hail a couple of sailboats closing in on their waters (“This is the Russian coast guard calling sailing yacht …,” said the monotonic, slightly intimidating voice, making sure we really really knew who they were), and having read some discouraging online accounts about this route, it was something I was a bit worried about.
Officially, there wouldn’t, supposedly, be any issues. The “Russian waters” is divided into several different zones, and only the most inner one, reaching out twelve nautical miles from the coast, was the zone to stay out of.
Still, some people contended that “twelve is not enough”, because this and that boat “was stopped by a warship”. And others recommended not to go at all, and so there didn’t seem to be any firm consensus on the matter.
But he would know! This Polish coast guard person, he would know what to do, I thought.
“So, can I ask you a question?”
(he was just looking at me)
“Yes, so, we are sailing from here to Klaipeda, and I am wondering about sailing through the Russian EEZ. Is safe to do so?”
He smiled at me, for the first time. “Yes yes, no problem!” he said. “Just stay at least twenty miles from the coast.”
So, that was very comforting. Not twelve, not a huge detour, but twenty. A nice and even twenty.
The next day we would sail to Russia. Well, through Russia, to Lithuania. A big adventure for us, again.
I hope your passage went smoothly. We got the same “20 miles out” advice but the wind direction made this difficult. We ended up about 17Nm off when we saw what looked like a block of flats on the horizon. As we got closer we realised it was the conning tower of a submarine. It remained about 1 Nm in front of us, passing backwards and forwards but not getting any closer. After a while we saw another naval vessel approaching at speed. This took up station about half a mile away between us and the Russian territory, and the submarine disappeared. We decided to hold out course as we were not getting any closer to the land. We didn’t hear anything on the radio and once we were passed the headland, the Russian navy disappeared too.
We arrived in Klaipėda the next morning and enjoyed a really great breakfast at the marina cafe.