End of a Baltic Summer

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‘That is the only church built in Russia during the Soviet era,’ the guide said, pointing at a bleak white building near the shoreline. A few more yards and we could see the full sweep of the Baltic from one promontory of Tallinn Bay to the other. The water had a steely look to it. This was the venue for the sailing events in the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the grudging attempt at church-building was meant for those athletes who valued prayer. The skyline was a profile of what history has done to this Estonian city: blocks of soulless high-rise flats from the Stalinist era, a clutch of small-scale skyscrapers and docked cruise liners dwarfing the old part of the city.

I had taken the coach from Riga to Tallinn. The landscape was flat; spruce and pine trees; sheets of water; storks ponderously struggling into flight. The border with Latvia was open, policed only by flocks of house martins in the eaves of the border crossing’s roof. I dozed, catching up on the sleep I had missed the night before when I had been reading till two in the morning. Then I had been sailing into the Bay of Tallinn in a 30-foot ketch, tacking into the wind, heading towards ‘the three ships of the Estonian Grand Fleet and the rock and spires of Reval, dim in the rain’. There had been a crew of three – four including me – and the year was 1922. The yacht’s captain was Arthur Ransome; Reval was the old Germanic name for Tallinn; and the book was Racundra’s First Cruise (1923).

I had bought my Travellers’ Library blue hardback copy for 40 pence years ago; my diary tells me I read it for the first time in February 1984. In those days I slept better, but there was compensation lying awake in Riga in the early hours with Ransome at the tiller, the ‘Ancient Mariner’ – ‘a very little man, with a white beard and a head as bald as my own’ – and the ‘Cook’ whom Ransome, without a glimmer of guilt, believed ‘was the one who worked her passage’

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About the contributor

Richard Knott has sailed infrequently and usually with cabin-boy status.

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