I shall start at the beginning and that was the call from a friend inviting me to join a mixed team of rowers in a long boat race in Finland. It sounded like a challenge and came on the back of an earlier experience of training for a cross-Channel row back in 2014.
My good friend Gianni and I would be prime candidates to enter the race having trained together for the Channel row, and why not make the trip to Finland on motor bikes? – Well I asked myself this question and the answer came rapid fire: for Gianni it coincided with GCSE exams for his daughter.
So I began fishing around for a partner on this epic motor cycle and rowing event, found one mug who was keen at first but then had cold feet as the planning started to take shape!
I’m teaching the night before departure and haven’t packed the bags after class. Just as I am getting ready for the task, in walk my two sons and daughters-in-law with Marley and Raya.
It’s truly amazing to be holding these two little angels and then embarking on an odyssey that will take me away.
They depart very late and I begin the task of putting everything I need into saddle bags. It’s now 5am and I see there is no point in heading to bed since my ferry from Dover leaves at 10am. It’s a 2 hour trip to Dover with plenty time to relax.
On my way!
I am on board the Dover Seaway after a wet trip down the A2 and the buzz in my head is loud from excitement. A kid on his first school journey comes to mind.
You get the feeling at Dover that all is well and there isn’t a mass hoard of refugees scrambling to get into the UK. I present my passport to officials who don’t look at it and I’m waved through to the ship as if boarding my local bus.
My motorcycle is strapped to the floor and I can just sit back and doze for 2 hours. I am too excited to properly doze though and soon enough I’m in the saddle and begin the second leg towards Delft in The Netherlands.
Moving from ship to land is seamless but my iPhone is not charging from the bike’s system so I find a quiet spot off the motorway to investigate and sort it out. I have a paper backup but would rather look at a screen than unfolding maps on a busy road.
The Netherlands are flat, flat and flat but my spirits lift at the sight of dykes and waterways, and knowing that this land is a feat of mankind’s ingenuity.
I arrive at my daughter-in-law’s parents’ home in Delft and am greeted with love and affection. I am fed and we swap stories and thoughts about our roles as parents and grandparenthood.
Next morning, I say my goodbyes to Juuls and Flip (who leads me to a petrol station) and I’m on my way.
I pass the magnificent causeway that is the Afsluitdijk which was hand built from 1926 -1932. It is 32 kilometres long and has the North Sea on one side and Ijsselmeer fresh waters on the other.
A chance meeting
At the halfway point I stop and a chance meeting with two other motorcyclists leads to conversation, coffee and a lunch break. We form a mini convoy and head for a ride on the back roads towards a place called Assen and a small place called Gasselternijveenschemond – a small town with a big name.
I follow Gijs (Harley Davidson, Netherlander) and Sune (Triumph cruiser, Swedish), both seasoned motorcyclists. We are heading to Gijs’ place which is a motorbike campsite situated on a former farm surrounded by acres of cornfields. The place doubles up as a live venue, restaurant and bar. It is also an animal farm.
The man on the left is the engineer of the Indian and also the constructor of the Totem Pole at front of the campsite Barn house.
The bunkhouse is arranged like a penitentiary cell, each cell with a number of bunks. Outside there is plenty of space for camping. We are now joined by two other seasoned bikers, one on a vintage Indian Scout bike (made in Milwaukee, US in 1942). Its rider was born in 1943. The other man is a similar vintage and his bike a Honda from the1960 period.
I take my hat off to these two men because of the knowledge and wisdom they share so openly and the fact they have travelled to the Artic circle and back again on their vintage machines.
That evening I am served steamed Salmon and roast vegetables by my host Gijs. Over a glass of peppermint tea plucked from the garden, we swap stories of doom and gloom then back to happiness again. A log fire crackles away in the background accompanied by strains of Dire Straits and The Eagles. Hey I’m in a time warp and it’s fun.
Next morning we are all packing and getting ready to head in our different directions. I’m heading for a B&B some 260 miles away, just north of Hamburg. It was highly recommended by Sune, my friend on the Triumph cruiser.
No sooner than I’ve covered 50 miles, the heavens open. I would much rather get wet in daylight than attempt to ride at night with rain, so after an hour break following five hours in the saddle and a 50 minute ferry over the river Ems, I’m back in the saddle praying my phone signal remains constant so GPS can take me to my destination. It does and I arrive safely to warm greetings. I give thanks for finding courage and strength.
No food here but my host has his niece drive me to a local Italian restaurant for my evening meal and when I call she returns and takes me back to the B&B.
What service! My host keeps going on about Fawlty Towers as if his plan is to be the complete opposite to Basil Fawlty and he is! He offers suggestions on not riding the whole journey but taking a ferry or two, which will sweeten the ride. This will also help me conserve energy so come time to race the longboat, I’m not knackered before I even start!!! Brilliant!!!
As I leave the B&B on Saturday the clouds have formed and I refuse to put on the waterproofs in defiance, so I spend the morning chasing the sun over the horizon with angry sullen clouds spitting droplets on to my visor and mocking my futile attempts to escape another drenching. Just as I am about to increase my tempo to try and outrun the waters, a little heat wave strikes me and I relax with the warm glow of sun on my face. Aaaah!
Not long after I cross into Denmark and head to the port of Fynshav for a 50 minute crossing to the island of Fyn. I can now ride to Copenhagen via bridges across the Straits and the mega bridge Oresundsbron, which spans 8km (5 miles) and has a tunnel 4km (2.5 miles).
A friend and student of mine has a daughter in Malmo who has offered me her sofa bed. This gives me a chance to check out the town and meet Susie who is returning to the UK after living and working in Sweden. In Malmo there is regular collection of food waste from all residential and commercial property, which is converted into gas that runs their buses.
Quest for the perfect ride
I’m still in search of the perfect ride: dips and turns, switchbacks and stunning scenery. So leaving Malmo I head towards Stockholm, stopping overnight at the island of Oland – a 200-mile leg. I try to stay close to the coast and off the main roads, riding through small towns, woods and farmland. Quite a few of the farms and homes have ancient windmills on their grounds.
This route gives me some of the thrills a biker seeks: steady movement with leans and turns, various speeds and the occasional flat out. This I hope will become more the norm. Stockholm here I come!
On Oland I’ve booked a simple shepherd type hut for the night and it is in the grounds of an old village school which also doubles up for accommodation and the main hall/art and performance space.
My host is John an expat from Ireland. He has been living here for the past 15 years and raising his young family on an island of 40,000 that caters to about 1.5 million visitors every summer.
Oland is quite a popular island but even with that influx you get a sense of space and quietness, which is good for the soul.
Spanners in the works!
I hit the sack hard as this bike riding demands fitness and proper rest. My yoga practice also has to happen come what may. The next day I begin my practice around 7am and finish around 9.30 or was it 11.00am – the daylight starts early and finishes about 11.00pm. I fix a late breakfast and shower in preparation for exploring the island. I start the engine and warning lights go on. A sinking feeling starts to swell and I remember the phrase Joy and I had in a discussion and it rang out loud: Equanimity!!
So holding onto that phrase, I call my Yamaha dealer in London and after 30 minutes of him not answering, my equanimity is waning. I get through and Ashley tells me there’s no issue because if something catastrophic is going to happen, engine management would switch it off. I relax then the monkey on my shoulder whispers “you wait and see I’ll get you yet”.
I respond and call the RAC. They send a tow truck in 30 minutes to this “remote” island and the driver is a biker who reckons there’s no problem, just a sensor gone absent without official leave. To be on the safe side, he recommends taking a 145-mile diversion to a Yamaha dealer who has a computer able to talk with my bike’s computer to find the root cause.
By now my head is spinning and I think I’m about to have a headache or is it a migraine?
I’ve blown my day trip round the island and I’m frantic trying every trick in the book to stop the onslaught of a migraine. I force some food down the hatch desperately trying to hold it down and go to bed early, praying the gods have mercy on me.
It’s now 3am the next morning and I have a shadow of a headache so I want to make an early start. First things first: find Equanimity. I pull the yoga mat out and run through a Vinyasa sequence described by Dona Holleman. This works a treat. I’m sweating and ready to shower and eat my gruel.
It’s 5am and I’m ready for the road. With no intention to divert course, I’m heading for Stockholm. Just before I leave I call the RAC and tell them my plans. I ask them to find a Yamaha dealer in Stockholm and text me their address.
Back on track!
I’m off and the sun is shining. My body is glowing with energy from my yoga practice. Equanimity is the order of the day but with a strong leaning to the thoughts of giving thanks for the blessings we all have.
I have spoken too damn soon as the horizon starts to dull and it’s storms clouds ahead. I can hear the drumming of the raindrops on my helmet so moving with speed, I find a lay-by to don my waterproofs. I scramble to the side of the road and squeeze into the black and yellow plastic trousers and jacket.
The water is coming down in bucket loads and it’s so early that there is nowhere is open to offer a biker a shelter. I dart off the main drag in search of a haven and end up returning to the drag strip towards Stockholm. I pass another biker sheltering under a bus stop so I open up the throttle in an attempt to find a clearing but it isn’t there. Even with the faulty warning light glowing at me, the bike is stable and doesn’t lose a beat. It responds to my every demand, no faltering.
Somewhere the sun is shining and sure enough I enter the warmth of the sun’s embrace as the miles are eaten up and I reach the gates of Stockholm. I park up, open my phone to an address sent to me by the RAC and follow the direction to the “Dealer”. The people at RAC have a screw lose as the address turns out to be a motorcycle clothing and accessory shop but I need some chain oil so buy this and ask the sales attendant to look-up the nearest Yamaha dealer.
This is simple and sure enough I reach the dealer and they plug the bike into the computer and tell me it’s a component fault, which will not stop the bike from completing the whole trip. Phew!! It can wait until I return to London.
Towards the long boat race
So I’m on board the Tallink Galaxy, which will take me from Stockholm in Sweden to Turku on the south west of Finland. This journey takes eleven hours. I stash my belongings in the cabin and head off to find a relatively quite space. As I walk along the outside deck, the islands off the coast of Sweden are just beckoning the weary souls from the maddening crowd of modern living.
Once we have docked in the port of Turku, I ride for a distance towards my Air BnB house, some four hours away near Sulkava. I’m uncomfortable since it’s early morning and the temperature is not what I consider warm at all. I stop briefly to don my waterproofs, which helps insulate and bring warmth to my body.
The roads are empty for much of the way and I stop at a service station. It is derelict and abandoned. I hope this is not the pattern as I will need to make regular stops to refill the tank on the bike. It’s not the case and petrol and food are at regular intervals so I can relax and enjoy the ride. At one of my stops, I call the house to check that my apple map is taking me in the right direction and to find out if there is a more scenic route. The answer is yes but be prepared to take twice as long to arrive.
My instant reaction is to stick to the mapped route but temptation takes over and I select a diversion onto a parallel road, or at least it starts out parallel then suddenly darts off at perpendicular angle. I instinctively know that unless I correct this angle I’m heading into wilderness or an area far away from my final destination. But you get a sense of adventure on the roads which twists and turns so much that the internal compass is totally screwed up, and so I have to pray the mobile signal is still with me and I can plot a way back on the main highway.
One of the bikers I met while boarding the ferry said to look out for speed cameras but not to worry as they take a picture as you approach and in so doing, they get no license plate number. As much as I am an upstanding citizen, an open road straight like an arrow with no other vehicles in sight is too much of a temptation.
So many speed camera flashes later, I am back on route 5 with lakes on either side bound by pine trees and the occasional farm. I’m homing in on Juuva and the lake Sulkava and it’s now turned into a 6-hour journey.
Resting my weary limbs ahead of the longboat race
By the time I reach the house it’s late afternoon and tiredness is creeping up but there is still a buzz from the ride. My host Eeva greets me and her husband leads me around the house showing me the facilities and most importantly, the log-burning sauna. He duly lights this and leaves me with a key. I only have one thing in mind, and that is a hot shower then a sauna.
Eeva has stocked the fridge with enough food to prepare a meal so I spend the rest of the day in a cosy house with food and sauna. There are views into a field with a lake just hidden by a crop of mustard cress or something similar.
Next day I explore the town of Sulkava, which is a 15-minute ride away. Somehow I manage to ride pass an area associated with the longboat race, including a full stage for live music and a market place, which would be selling street food and items of clothing. I have a web page and various impressions which all have hundreds of boats lined up with hundreds of people about. This set up is far too quiet and small to be the starting point. Where are the boats?
So I’m off into the wilderness seeking a carnival of boats and people but the further I go, the more remote the terrain. According to my phone map, I’m heading towards the Russian border. I’m in trail bike territory, slipping and sliding all over the place. Although the bike is not designed for this terrain I’m having a blast playing with the throttle and gears as I dance the bike on the tracks.
I see a local man gardening by the lakeside and ask for direction. He points to where I have just come from and so I retrace my tracks and end up back in Sulkava. After further toing and froing, I suss that the small stage and associate buildings are part of the course, the finish and presentation stadium and food halls.
Having got a feel for the place I find the local supermarket where I load up with food and head back to the house and another session in the sauna followed by a cook-up.
Meeting The Team
The next morning I head over to school in Sulkava and meet the team. They arrived the previous night and bedded down in the classrooms. This looks quite cosy but very basic as they are all on mattresses laid out on the floor. I try not to go on about the house and comforts I have at the AirBnB!
We head down to the practice boat and are pleasantly surprised at how light and easy the boat and rowing feels compared to the Thames Clipper we use in London. We are out on the lake for a little over one hour making sure not to expend too much energy before the big race tomorrow.
Later that night Eunice and John arrive with Debbie and Clive in their rental car from Helsinki after flying in from London. I prepare a meal for us all and then Debbie and Clive head off to their hotel near the town of Sulkava only to return some time later as their hotel is locked up and their is no response from their hosts.They bed down on the camp beds upstairs, so it’s a full house with five of us but never mind, there is enough food and we put together a breakfast fit for an Olympic team.
We use the hire car and head down to the school to meet the team and take the coach to the start area, a few kilometres down the road.
At the starting point, we see a sea of boats of differing shapes and sizes: single canoes, two-person boats and all numbers up to our 15-person longboat. Our boat looks good except John our cox is busy bailing out water that has accumulated. Hopefully we have not sprung a leak!
The Race Begins!
We start our race at a steady pace and hope we can reserve enough energy to see us to the finish line. I’m partnered with Charlotte in the bow section and thank god for this position as I have a moment when my bladder is about to burst. We have a one-minute break, so I scramble to the Bow to take a leak and hope the crew are all looking the other way. In fact I don’t care – I need relief!
I’m back in position and ready to row. I resolve not to take on too much water as we head off again and manage to pass a few boats that had set off earlier.
We get to stop at intervals spaced out evenly over the 60Km run and at one of these, we beach the boat on to an island and half the crew run to find a secluded spot to take a leak. Blessed relief.
At the fifth hour I feel my bottom as if it is red hot and pray we are near the end but this is not the case. With the energy drained from us all, we are struggling to maintain form. I keep clashing oars with Angela who is in front of me until I manage to get a grip and regain form.
It’s now approaching the six-hour mark and the finish, which we eventually reach after an epic six hours and 15 minutes. We can barely get out of the boat and stand. Our legs are wobbly and we need to pull the boat out of the water. This feels like the straw that is going to break the camel’s back. We do it and someone appears with a bottle of bubbly to celebrate our finishing or is it our survival?!
One of our crew is on his back spread out, so first aid is called. He is stretchered off and administered with intravenous fluid. I get a lift back to the house where I can recover in the shower and sauna before preparing a meal. I am in no condition to hang around for presentations and medals! Endurance is an area I know I will need to work on but give thanks and praise for a finely tuned body.
After recovery and a belly full of food, I don my bike gear and head down to the pub and concert area to see the team and swap stories of our survival on the lake. As we talk, the sky is changing. It’s 11.15pm and we still have daylight – the sun is just beginning to set.
It is a beautiful and heart-warming scene as I say my goodbye to the crew and friends and ride home with the memory of Sulkava firmly etched in my memory banks.
Tomorrow I will take a ferry to Travemunde in Germany and make my way through to the Netherlands, Belgium and France. It’s a 28-hour journey but less arduous, in fact quite luxurious!
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