One last odyssey around the 'sea of peace'

  • 2000-07-06
  • By Jorgen Johansson
It was hard to imagine that a small, crisply tanned pensioner from
Sweden is doing something no one has done before - paddling a full
lap counter-clockwise, in a kayak named "Baltic Odyssey," around the
Baltic Sea. A trip of 5,500 kilometers or almost five laps around

On April 8 Bengt Hansson waved family and friends off in Stockholm
and sat down in his five-meter- long kayak. He grabbed his
double-bladed paddle, the only force to propel him forward, and went
to work.

"I want to show that it is now possible to move around more freely in
the Baltic Sea, which I have heard somebody call the 'sea of peace,'
still I don't want to make a statement of it," Hansson said.

At first it was difficult to maneuver through the ice in Stockholm's
archipelago, but as Hansson put some kilometers behind him, ice
became a rare sight, and his hands thawed along with the water in his
drinking bottle. Two weeks later, he reached the island of Oland on
Sweden's east coast.

Hansson is not a stranger to paddling over long distances. He has
already paddled from Stockholm to Abo in Finland and back again. He
has paddled in Norway and also paddled the entire Swedish coast.

"When I was celebrating Easter on Oland, I saw a bumble bee, a sure
sign of spring," Hansson said.

Continuing his odyssey, he passed Denmark and headed south towards
Germany and the continental European spring. The original plan called
for paddling 30 kilometers per day. Still, Hansson cranked up the
pace to 40 kilometers per day.

"When I came to Germany and wanted to set up my tent, I met this
really militant man who was pointing with his whole hand. He was
directing me, pointing and saying, "tent there," "kitchen there,"
"kayak there." Later in the evening another man came up to me and
told me the same thing, except he did it in a polite way," Hansson

A normal day for Hansson starts around 6 a.m. with breakfast, usually
sandwiches and coffee or tea with a cap of rum. An hour later he
breaks up his little camp and climbs into his kayak. During the day
he takes two or three breaks lasting for 30 minutes up to one hour,
if the weather is nice.

"The first thing I do when I hit the shore is to take a leak. One can
actually hold it longer than one would think, still in worst case one
would have to pee in the pants. So far I haven't had to do that. I
have a small foldable toilet with me. Basically it is a Tetra-pack
left from juice, that I use when I really need to," Hansson said.
Dealing with hygiene during adventures can be an adventure in it-
self. Hansson does not have a lot of clothing from which to choose. A
few sweaters and T-shirts, some underwear and socks, a pair of jeans
and shorts. It is also difficult to know when there will be an
opportunity to take a shower.

"I tend to save clean underwear for the times I am meeting up with
ambassadors," Hansson said and laughed.

Tied up and blindfolded

Paddling along Poland's shoreline, Hansson noted several leftovers
from the Soviet empire. Old watchtowers lurked unmanned among the
trees. The watchtowers in Kaliningrad, however, were not unmanned,
quite the opposite.

"When I raised my tent, people in uniform showed up with Kalashnikovs
(automatic rifles) pointed at me. I was forced to take off my
clothes. I had nothing but shorts left on. Even the bandage I was
wearing around my arm for my tennis elbow was removed. They tied my
hands behind my back and blindfolded me. Then we started walking.
Suddenly another man turned up and started talking to the men
watching me. The ropes and the blindfold were taken off me and I was
escorted back to my kayak. Everything from my kayak had been searched
and was lying on the beach. I had to put it all back by myself, still
that was probably for the best," Hansson said. "It turned out that I
was in a military area. Still, I did not see any signs when I was
paddling. The whole situation was so absurd I didn't have time to be

Hansson left the conscripts some cigarette lighters and Swedish flags
to show that no harm had been done. They became very friendly and
escorted him to a place where he could set up his tent, right next to
a watchtower.

"During that night there was storm, and I was given an armed
conscript to look after me and my equipment. Next morning I noticed
that all the money that I had had in the kayak was gone. I was
standing on the beach waving with my fist to show that I was angry.
Obviously they understood, because the military filed a report with
the police. They [the police] showed up with an interpreter to
conduct an investigation. I had no hopes of ever seeing my money
again. Later, down in the police station, the money turned up.
Apparently the conscript who had watched over my tent took it,"
Hansson said.

Hansson is not a stranger to tricky situations. For 20 years he has
been climbing mountains in Norway and Sweden. The Alps, the Caucasus
and the Dolomites also have their share of mountains conquered by
Hansson. Before he retired, he worked as a fitness trainer for
military officers and civilians in Sweden.

"I had to give it up because of the risks involved. I have children
to think about now, and I have close friends who have died in
climbing accidents," Hansson said. "The whole family is behind me on
this trip I am doing now. They know it is important for me. It is
something one does once in a lifetime. My daughter said 'way to go
dad. Do something I can brag about.'"

Paddling for miles and miles is not only wearing the body down, the
mind is also getting soaked. If the weather is bad with heavy rain or
strong winds, one could get stranded for days.

"I plan ahead when I get bored, and everything is hard. I think also
about how nice it will be when this is all over. Sometimes, when it
rains, I get homesick. Then I sing to myself. One can holler whatever
one wants. There is nobody who will hear it," Hansson said.

A real sucker for candy

Hansson got caught by a storm just outside of Klaipeda and was
stranded for two days. The food supplies were growing thinner and
thinner. Hansson, although, is quite experienced when it comes to
kayaking. He has already practiced his Eskimo rolls, so he knows he
can handle it. With his kayak fully loaded, it totals some 100 kilos
of food, water and equipment. Hansson misses fresh bread and Danish
rolls the most. He mentioned he is a real sucker for candy.

"When the sun is shining, everything is nice and dandy. Still when it
rains, I have to cook inside the tent, and all my clothes get wet. It
is all about judgment. How far is it to the next port? When can I buy
food next time? If I get stuck somewhere, my food supply goes dry. A
family was helping me out in Klaipeda. They gave me some sausage and
bread. We exchanged addresses, and I will send them a postcard when I
get back to Sweden," Hansson said.

Pulling into harbors around the Baltic Sea is not always easy with
all the documents one needs have filled in. Sometimes the questions
on the blanks have been really strange for Hansson.

"In every port the customs have to come and stamp my papers and check
my visas. The kayak is treated as a boat or even as a ship sometimes.
I have had to fill out crew lists, if I have weapons on board or
radioactive substances even, still it is different from port to
port," Hansson said.

Along his journey Hansson has already made friends and good contacts
with people sharing his passion for long-distance paddling. Hansson
is, after all, a member of Brunnsviks Canoe Club in Sweden where he
has been paddling since 1984.

"I am a bad tourist. I don't have much time to see things when I am
ashore. It is mostly all about re-packing the kayak, planning for the
next stretch, sending packages and picking up packages. I would love
to come back later, but right now I have to concentrate on my
journey," Hansson said.

Hansson is planning to be back in Sweden by the first week of
October. This Baltic Sea odyssey will be Hansson's last big adventure
in life, he said. He is thinking of writing a book about it, but he
is not too sure.