Stately Baltic ferries
 
Image size 32 Kb

Finland is best known in the world as a land of forests and lakes, but the sea is also an important element that for centuries has provided a road to Europe and the world. There is a long and venerable history of seafaring and shipbuilding. In the 1930s Gustav Erikson of Åland owned the world's biggest fleet of windjammers. Now the island-dotted sea between Finland and Sweden, one of the world's most outstanding natural attractions, is plied by mighty ferries, which carry large numbers of cars and passengers and serve a second role as floating shopping malls and entertainment centres. Finnish-owned Silja Line and Viking Line, which between them carry several million passengers each year, are the kings of this transport realm.

The autonomous status of the Åland Islands has given them a key role in relation to ferry traffic. When Finland joined the European Union she negotiated a special agreement under which the islands, which lie midway between Finland and Sweden, were allowed to retain tax-free sales after they had been abolished elsewhere in the Union. Tax-free is one of the main factors explaining the enormous numbers of people that travel on ferries between Finland and Sweden and also across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia. Passenger volumes on direct services between Finland and Sweden across the Gulf of Bothnia further north are dwindling now that tax-free has gone. Traffic between Helsinki and the Estonian capital Tallinn is so intense that it has been compared to a tram line.

Emigrants needed ferries

The story of the Baltic car ferries began in 1959 when the Viking Line's founder Gunnar Eklund recognised an opportunity. Finland had undergone a radical structural transformation in the years following the Second World War, because the rural areas were no longer able to support their population in the same way as before and the towns and cities were not yet able to offer enough work. Hundreds of thousands of Finns emigrated to Sweden in search of employment. Nevertheless, the living standard of those who remained in Finland was rising steadily and the number of cars on the roads was growing strongly. The sea separated the emigrants in Sweden from their native country and it was in this that Eklund recognised the opportunity that he immediately grasped. He bought an old vessel - which had earlier served as a hospital ship during the Normandy landings - and had a car deck and a few cabins built into it. The first ferry route was between Naantali in Finland and Kapellskär in Sweden. Most of the passengers slept in deckchairs - all that mattered then was to get across the sea with their cars. A demand for luxurious services would arise only later.

Image size 19 Kb The situation today is quite different from what it was four decades ago. The no-frills ferries have been replaced through a process of evolution with floating leviathans tall enough to block out multi-storey buildings behind them when in port. Manager Harri Wikström of the Viking Line's Mariella says his own vessel went into service in 1985 during an unprecedented economic boom. "People were intoxicated with growth in those days," he says. "There was no shortage of passengers paying top prices. The Mariella was the world's biggest car ferry and introduced new standards for cabins, restaurants and indeed everything else. People's reasons for travelling had also changed. Especially in winter, most of the passengers were making a two-way cruise, spending only a few hours in Stockholm to shop or visit a cultural attraction."

Another large shipping company, the Silja Line, saw that the concept was working well and soon brought its own car ferries into service. Now it too has clocked up four decades of experience. Ferries have become a downright institution in this part of the world. The most important ports on the Finnish mainland are Helsinki and Turku, with Mariehamn in the Åland islands as a place where most vessels stop briefly on their way to and from Stockholm. Only a vanishingly tiny fraction of the eight million people who travel with the Silja and Viking lines each year embark or disembark in Mariehamn. There are other companies and routes in the business, but they pale into insignificance relative to the big two.

The biggest company on the Helsinki-Tallinn route is Tallink, which carries over 2.3 million passengers a year. Silja and Viking each carry around 1.3 million on this route. Most of the passengers are Finns. Their trips are called "booze cruises", because most passengers disembarking in Helsinki are carrying four dozen cans of inexpensive beer - the maximum per person that the law allows. Passenger volumes began growing as soon as Estonia regained her independence with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 - from 100,000 that year to a million in 1993. Now 5.7 million people - more than the total population of Finland! - make the trip each year. Some hardly souls make at least one shopping trip per month.

Seascapes and great services the attractions

Baltic superferries to connect Germany with Finland and Sweden

Work on new ferry services that will link the German port of Rostock with Hanko in Finland and Södertalje near Stockholm is well under way and the ultra-modern vessels are planned to make their debut in May 2001.

Travelling at a speed of 29 knots (54 kilometres per hour), the ferries will provide the fastest sea links between Germany, southern Finland and the Stockholm region, with the trip taking 17 or 21 hours. The vessels will be 204 metres long with ten decks and capable of carrying 680 passengers, around 100 cars and large quantities of cargo.

The ferries are being built by HDW AG at its shipyard in Kiel. The first two are due for launch in early 2001, with two more to follow by the autumn.

The Silja Serenade's Cruise Manager Bjarne Solstrand has noted that the passenger profile clearly reflects the four seasons of the year. "There are not many businesspeople in summer, but popular conferences are often arranged on the ships in winter. The passengers in summer are an international group from many corners of the world - Japanese, Americans and of course people from almost every European country. The archipelago between Finland and Sweden is very scenic and a powerful attraction, as are the excellent services on the ships. Finnish families with children feature prominently among the passengers in summer, and in autumn there are many groups, such as pensioners. It is also possible to charter a vessel for a 20-hour cruise, which is nothing more than a sea trip."

Until the 1970s there were still clear differences between the white Silja ships and the red Viking ones where image and passenger profiles were concerned. The Viking Line clearly catered more for young passengers and "ordinary people". Silja, by contrast, attracted older and perhaps a somewhat "better class" of people. Now tough competition has eliminated these differences. Capacity utilisation is very high all year round. Both lines offer services and cabins to suit all thicknesses of wallet. Passengers can satisfy their appetite in the most luxurious of gourmet restaurants or make do with a hamburger. There is live music to suit all tastes. Programmes and play facilities are provided for children. Passengers can spend the evening in a disco or the more subdued ambience of a nightclub. Besides booze and baccy, the tax-free shops offer a vast range of articles from clothing to electronics.

The scenic seas around Finland's shores and the ferries that ply them have powered the growth of a "cruise culture" that is astonishingly strong for a country with such a small population, and which never fails to astonish people from other parts of the world. For the shipping lines it is a success story that only the abolition of tax-free sales could bring to an end.

See also:
WTF-O Ships tell the Turku tale