Finnish icebreakers lay down Baltic lifeline

  • 2003-01-23
  • Paal Aarsaether
Gulf of Finland

When the Nordic winter lays siege to Finland's icy coast and temperatures below minus 30 Celsius cause the Baltic to freeze over, the task of keeping shipping routes open becomes positively daunting.

The ice situation in the Baltic has not been as severe since 1979, after a cold spell in December sent the mercury below minus 30 degrees Celsius for over a week across the region.

And with 80 percent of Finland's trade carried by ship, it is hardly a luxury for the Nordic country to do what it takes to ensure that its mobile phones, timber and paper products reach their destinations around the globe.

And what it takes is a fleet of nine ocean-going, super-fast, high-tech icebreakers.

This is in stark contrast to the situation in Russia, which has only three icebreakers serving St. Petersburg, its commercial hub and second largest city. As a result, some 50 ships are now stuck in the ice on their way to and from there.

"Companies don't keep stores any more, now everything is on wheels or keels," Pekka Taehtelae, captain of the icebreaker Voima said, referring to the "just-in-time" logistics systems used by modern firms.

Charging ahead at 11 knots through half-meter thick ice while towing the fully loaded coastal tramper Carina 1, he was at the same time trying to get the cargo liner Finnoak loose from the ice.

"If we don't help her, the International Herald Tribune will soon have no paper to print on," he pointed out with a laugh.

Navigating alongside Finnoak at high speed, with only a couple of meters separating the two, Taehtelae succeeded in his plan to rock the Finnoak free with the waves whipped up by the Voima.

Taehtelae and his crew of 30 are charged with keeping fairlanes open to the eastern ports of Loviisa and Kotka, between Helsinki and the Russian border.

Together with eight other icebreakers they keep 23 Finnish ports open year-round, working in relay, passing on outbound ships to the icebreaker further down the coast, which hands over inbound vessels to them.

This winter the icebreakers will assist over 10,000 ships, with the Voima alone assisting some 10 to 20 vessels a day, taking the weakest in tow, in a service funded by the fares paid by all vessels using Finnish fairways.

"Voima, Voima! 'Nordic Frost'," the radio set besides Taehtelae suddenly called out.

He replied and soon the voice of the captain of the Nordic Forest - a small coastal tramper - could be heard.

"I left St. Petersburg on Dec. 31, but have been stuck in the ice since, and now we have no fresh water left. I have tried repeatedly to get icebreaker assistance from the Russians, but no help is coming from that part," he said, his voice changing between despair and resignation.

"Now we are hoping for some help from more civil people," the Nordic Forest captain pleaded.

"Fourteen days stuck in the ice, on a voyage that normally takes only six hours," Taehtelae commented, shaking his head.

Only the day before he had taken the Voima into Russian waters to assist a ship that had been stuck in the ice there for so long that it had to divert to a Finnish port to refuel and replenish provisions after it was rescued.

For Taehtelae it is an endless triage of economics, with first priority going to big cargo liners sailing on tight schedules to and from Finland, while smaller coastal trampers come second. Ships not calling on Finnish ports have the lowest priority of all.

"But of course, if someone calls out 'mayday, mayday', we drop whatever we do and go there at full speed," Taehtelae stressed.

A few hours later, when darkness fell, Taehtelae ordered on four long-range floodlights, enabling him to see some 800 meters (half a mile) into the night. Ahead were two large modern cargo vessels stuck in the ice.

"These are the ones I'm worried about, they are bigger and have more important and expensive cargo than the Carina 1, which carries only timber," he pointed out.

Leaving Carina 1 in the ice for the Helsinki-based icebreaker Sisu to help her further along the coast, Taehtelae took charge of the two liners instead, soon getting their cargo of European consumer goods into port.

Later, while towing a Greek vessel named Ice King — the irony not lost on him — Taehtelae broke a fairlane close to the hapless Nordic Frost, thereby enabling her to get loose.

"If not they would have had to wait until they got help from a Russian icebreaker or spring arrived, whatever came first," Taehtelae concluded.