Today is our second day in the wonderful Åland Islands. The island archipelago is at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia and sits between Finland and Sweden. Although inhabitants speak Swedish, they carry Finnish passports, and the islands are officially part of Finland. Like all lands around the Baltic, these islands have been under the control of several other countries over the past several hundred years.

On our second day here, we enjoyed three morning options: a nice long nature walk, a bicycle ride across the island, or a Zodiac cruise to Kobbaklintar, a small island that is the site of the original pilot station. The station was built in 1863 to house the ship’s pilots while they awaited incoming ships to help guide them through the rather dangerous channel leading to Mariehamn. The entire archipelago contains thousands of small skerries and submerged rocks, which make transiting its waters quite challenging. Without a pilot on board, it can be pretty dangerous. The area was smoothed out by the immense glaciers that covered the entire area 18,000 years ago.

On our Zodiac cruise, we transited south down the now well-marked channel. We arrived at the small island of Kobbaklintar and docked at a small pier. We met a local resident who is working to restore the pilot’s house and outbuildings that were abandoned in 1972 when the pilots moved to Mariehamn. At its height, the pilots’ house would have supported a chief pilot, a few senior pilots, and several junior pilots, all waiting for the many ships that visited Mariehamn every day. Today the conditions were perfect, sunny, and clear; in the winter, the site can be whipped by the Baltic winds, or totally obscured by pea soup fog. After WWII, the pilots installed spar buoys along the sides of the channel. Originally made of wood and now replaced by steel channel markers, the buoys make the channel much easier to find. When the weather turns bad, however, pilots are still used and are mandatory for occasional visitors like National Geographic Explorer. Under the guidance of one of the local preservationists, Rune, we visited the pilot house and its gigantic foghorn.

After our wonderful visit to Kobbaklintar, we returned to the ship. On our way, we took our time to observe the many interesting birds swimming along the skerries that line the channel.

We returned for lunch and then visited the Stallhagen Brewery in the afternoon, which everyone enjoyed.