It is exactly a year since the XPRS entered service and Captain Henrik Grönvik is a happy man. In the last 12 months, his ship has ferried 1 470 000 people between Helsinki and Tallinn. He is not apologetic about failing to reached a neat 1.5 million. 1.47 is a lot more than Viking Line expected.
Grönvik arrived in Helsinki from Tallinn at 10:30 this morning and now, at 11:30, is setting off back. The ship will make two more crossings this evening before arriving in Tallinn at midnight.
There are 1500 passengers on board now, pretty good for a spring Tuesday, although she can take a thousand more. She also carries cars and trailers on separate decks. Unloading is fast and far less frightening for the family driver.
The 80-kilometre (50-mile) voyage across the Baltic between the capitals of Finland and Estonia is one of the world’s great ferry crossings. Over 6 million people travelled this route last year. That’s about the same as the combined population of the two countries.
It’s not the world’s busiest route. Each year some 18 million take the Hongkong-Macao ferry and the same number cross the English Channel from Dover. But Helsinki-Tallinn is the busiest Baltic crossing. You can’t count the Öresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark because it takes only 10 minutes to drive over. Helsinki to Tallinn is real sea and sometimes real storms.
The XPRS is just 185 metres long, so she is not in a class with the giant cruise ships of the world. If she were more than 230 metres, she wouldn't be able to pass through the Straits of Gustav’s Sword that guard sea access to Helsinki.
Fifteen minutes out of Helsinki, we’re passing through the straits now. At their narrowest point they are just 135 metres wide. The ship towers over the King’s Gate, built in 1754 of Swedish sandstone.
Viking Line had the XPRS purpose-built for this journey. With a top speed of 25 knots, she covers the distance in just 2½ hours, so she can comfortably manage four crossings daily under any conditions. Even her ice class is 1A Super, meaning that she can cut through sea ice that is 1 meter thick, without needing help from an icebreaker.
For speed, the two catamarans of Linda Line reach Tallinn from Helsinki in just 90 minutes but they take only about 400 passengers each and can’t carry cars or trailers. Also they don't sail in winter or when the sea is rough.
Anyway, 90 minutes is hardly enough time for a relaxed lunch. The XPRS is packed with cafes and restaurants, plus a shop, a pub and a dance pavilion. Baltic cruiseferries are not old rust buckets but shiny palaces.
Compared with the cruiseferries on the Helsinki-Stockholm route, the XPRS has fewer cabins but this is not to discourage extravagance. It’s because Helsinki-Tallinn takes so much less time.
Grönvik used to sail the Cinderella between Stockholm and Mariehamn. The XPRS is about the same size but she’s faster, which makes the Captain’s job more demanding. There’s a lot more traffic in the Gulf of Finland, mainly to ports in or around St. Petersburg, Russia.
At least the Cinderella sounds like a proper lady of the sea. XPRS was originally the concept name, but it later won the public competition for the vessel’s official name. It is supposed to stand for eXcellent Passenger Response and Service but this is a reverse-engineered acronym if ever there was one.
Still, the unfeminine name suits her. She's not “no-frills”, because Nordic passengers won’t stand for it, but the accent is on getting from A to B rather than the joy of traveling. The spires of Old Tallinn are only just coming into sight and people are already starting to line up by the exits.
This is a workhorse of a ship - fast, efficient, and profitable - and people like her that way. In February this year, readers of Condé Nast Traveler guide voted the XPRS the fifth best medium-sized cruise ship in the world. And she’s not even a cruise ship.
Pat Humphreys, 28 April 2009