Estonians await return of the lodi

  • 2006-07-05
  • By Joel Alas

PROUD TARTU: Tanel Laan has dedicated himself to reviving an Estonian nautical tradition that died during World War II.

TARTU - On a warm summer's day the fresh-cut planks of pine breathe out the intoxicating odor of honey and spice. But Tanel Laan can't smell the wood. For over a year now he has been banging planks into shape with a hammer, leaving him with a calloused hand and an immunity to the aroma. Still, he remains enchanted by the ship he is building.

Laan is part of a 16-man crew which has devoted the past 12 months to resurrecting a piece of history. In a matter of weeks their task will be complete, and a missing link of Baltic naval history will have been restored.
In a work yard on the shores of the Emajogi River in Tartu, Laan and his fellow workmen are constructing a lodi 's a 12-meter wooden barge that resembles a small-scale model of Noah's Ark.
"It's beautiful, I think… I come here whenever I have free time to help build. I think it is very important we complete this… it's a piece of history," Laan says.

Bulky, cumbersome, yet striking and endearing, the lodi once ruled the waterways of northern Europe. For nearly six centuries, the barges were the workhorses of the river systems. They crawled along the rivers and lakes in the hundreds, the same way trucks now snail along the highways.
Historians estimate that about 500 such barges occupied Lake Peipsi, the massive basin that separates Estonia and Russia. At any one time, some 200 of these vessels could be found docked in Tartu, the central Estonian city that was a trading hub until the demise of river transport, and now functions as the country's university town.

Lodis carried everything: salt, beer, wine, spices, furs, honey, wax. On the banks of the river, merchants hocked wood, hay and fish. Large, fat, flat-bottomed and heavy, these ships were ideal for maneuvering through the shallow waters of the river and lake. Handsome square sails often powered their voyages, although sometimes they were towed along by humans and horses, tugging ropes as they trotted on the riverbank.

But the glorious reign of the lodi ended during World War II, when the already-outdated boats were commissioned as military landing craft. Instead of goods, lodis began trucking troops and weapons. In the course of their military service, the barges were destroyed one by one, until none remained. There has been no sight or sign of a lodi in nearly 60 years.

Rolling down the river
When Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty sang about being "stuck in Lodi again," he was talking about a sleepy town in the south, burning with regret and desperate to depart. When Laan talks about his lodi, the reaction is entirely different. He loves the craft with a passion, and gives up his free time to help shape the boat.
"When we started, it was all basically guesswork," Laan says. "There were no plans or instructions about how to do it. We had to study models and pictures and figure it out ourselves."

He stands shirtless and sweaty on the deck of the newly constructed lodi, having just applied a sticky coat of sealing tar to the sidings, still tacky to the touch. After a dozen trying months, the lodi, the only one in the world, is almost finished.
The dream to resurrect the lodi began in 2004 when enthusiasts formed the Emajogi River Barge Society. They passionately discussed the idea, but soon realized the challenge ahead. Not only would the boat be difficult to reconstruct, it would also be highly time-consuming and costly 's almost 1,300,000 kroons (83,000 euros).

Thankfully, the group won the support of telephone company Tele2, which agreed to sponsor the venture. Funds also came from the European Union, the Tartu government and the State Forest Management Center, which were all eager to see the boat return to life.

The boat-builders began researching the design, using the few remaining sketches that existed in the Estonian National Museum, and a number of precise models stored in the Estonian Naval Museum. They were the only documents that could help.
"Our biggest challenge was that there were no boat building masters alive who knew how to build this," Laan says. "They have all died. There are only a few people still alive who have seen these boats."
The team even undertook a research trip to Russia in the hope that a master boat builder from the other side of Lake Peipsi could be found. None could and they labored blindly.

First they constructed the Emajogi River Barge Hall near Tartu 's a boatbuilding yard housed under a stretched roof, itself shaped like the hull of the boat. Underneath their nautical roof the team set to work devising the design of the boat.
One of the biggest hurdles was the curvature of the wooden hull, which bends first one way, then the other.
Laan says the builders weren't sure at first whether the original ship builders used steam to bend the wood, and their desire to rebuild the thing as "authentically as possible" made them unsure how to work the materials. Well it didn't work without steam, so they ended up using it. "There is no evidence one way or the other," Laan says.