the baltic blog
A journal about Baltic travel and voyaging, by Pat Humphreys
The love boat of the Baltic is the MS Nordlink. There may be brighter, louder ships that cruise this sea, but the Nordlink sails 19 long and lonely hours from Gdynia, Poland to Helsinki, Finland. If love is on your mind, this is the ship for you.
Captain Merrill Stubing, who steered the Love Boat across our televisions in the 1970s and 80s, was forever encouraging holidaymakers to find romance on board. I expect Captain Kjell-Arne Svensson of the Nordlink would encourage you to bring a partner with you. There were only 100 other passengers on my sailing and most of them were lorry drivers.
For tourists not in love, there aren’t many other distractions. As we sailed out through the sea defences of Gdynia, the cormorants basking on the breakwater were the last signs of life till we reached Helsinki. At first the Hel peninsular was on the port side but its beaches were too far away to see. From then on it was just sea. This is a utilitarian freight route.
The operator of the route, Finnlines, has begun marketing it to tourists, too, but we sailed with only a fifth of our capacity of 500 passengers. The fault may have been in the season, late September, and the destination, Helsinki. The port of departure is certainly convenient.
TRI-CITY AREA Gdynia itself is little more than a harbour but the resort of Sopot and historic Gdansk are only 20 and 40 minutes away by electric train. This part of Poland is also a short drive from Germany, which provides the commercial logic for this route. Gdynia-Helsinki is the fast way to the north, and saves a drive of 1000 kilometres (600 miles) through the Baltic States.
What about passengers without cars? Gdynia station is so close to the port that I could see the ship from the railway bridge, but walking towards it was a mistake. I first needed to check in at another building in the opposite direction. From there I was driven onto the ship in a Finnlines minibus. A few large signposts would have helped.
It was my first indication that non-motorists are an afterthought on this route. As I found later, things are even worse at the Helsinki end. I just managed to be on board before the Nordlink sailed at 11.00 a.m. She had arrived early in the morning from Germany.
Finnlines operates five ships on the triangular route Germany - Poland - Finland. Some sail direct between Germany and Helsinki while others call at Gdynia in both directions. It's a shame that even fewer people use the route from Germany to Gdynia. The tri-city area of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia has rich connections with Germany.
On board, you see what makes these ships special. They are big, and so is the accommodation. For once, a ship’s cabins deserve to be called staterooms. There are no balconies but I had a full-size window and the real double bed. The shower room had space to swing several cats. There was a television and even a trouser press.
The television was the least useful. Although the Poles buy lots of British and American tv programmes, they dub them all into Polish. To save money, the same gravelly-voiced actor reads all the parts, from torrid temptresses to wise old grandmothers. It stops being funny really fast and you don’t mind when the ship moves away from land and the signal peters out.
PEACE & QUIET At the same time, GSM signals from land cease, but my phone didn’t stop working. These ships have their own satellite connections so you can continue to make and receive calls. It’s expensive – nearly 3 euros a minute to and from Europe and the States, and 70 cents just to send an SMS – but you just have to ration yourself.
Another great joy of these ships is what they lack: noise. There are no constant announcements in the cabins, no piped music in the cabins or corridors, no disco in the restaurant or bar. It’s glorious to be able to hear what your companion is saying without straining. As I said, a real love boat.
In other respects the restaurant and bar were less wonderful. You can’t order à la carte so all the food is buffet. It is predominantly heavy stuff. The other Baltic cruise ferry lines are far ahead with their cuisine and variety.
I understand that a down-to-earth freight operator doesn’t want to hire a lot of prima donna kitchen staff but they could lease part of the kitchen to fine chefs and ethnic restaurants. It would make more money for the line and please passengers at the same time.
The same is true of the bar, where a franchisee would happily bring round drinks, mix cocktails and even drum up business. There were a lot of people sitting at empty tables. Service on the Nordlink was not proactive.
It’s in hardware that these ships excel. Enormous saunas, great jacuzzis and a modern gym are available at no extra charge, and the journey went rather quickly. If the food had been lighter, I’d have arrived in Helsinki in better health than when I left Gdynia.
EARLY START The next morning – Saturday - I got up at six to have breakfast before the ship arrived at seven. I should have stayed in my fine bed for another hour because, just as you can’t walk on in Gdynia, you can’t walk off in Helsinki. The minibus couldn’t collect the non-driving passengers until all the lorries had disembarked. We waited more than an hour.
The other bad news is that the Finnlines ships use Helsinki’s freight harbour. If you arrive in Helsinki from Stockholm, you sail right into the south harbour, almost in the centre of town. But if you come from Poland your berth is in Vuosaari, 16 km (9 miles) away.
You have to catch a bus to the nearest metro station before you can take a train downtown. It’s only a ten-minute bus ride but the buses aren’t very frequent. On Saturday morning, they are every half hour.
Admittedly, there’s not much to do in Helsinki before nine on Saturday morning, but you don’t want to kill the time at a bus stop by a freight harbour in the rain. Why couldn’t the minibus have taken us all the way to metro station, asked my fellow passengers, visitors from Germany?
I suppose the answer is that Finnlines expects most of its passengers to be motorists, but unless you’re continuing to some other destination in Finland, there’s no point bringing a car to Helsinki. My bus-stop companions had left theirs in Gdynia. It’s a shame to end on such a low note, but that’s how our journey ended.
25 September 2009
A cruise on the Saimaa Canal seemed like a good idea at first. I imagined waving to people strolling down the towpath, watching farmers bring in the autumn harvest and sipping a gin & tonic as we sailed leisurely from one lock to the next.
After a while, it’s a bit too leisurely, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Half of the route passes through Russia so you can’t get off and flag down a bus. From one end to the other is only 40 kilometres (25 miles) but it still takes five hours.
It's not all canal. You also travel through various lakes, which are rather scenic. Much of the time, though, you are sailing through forests. A tree is a tree is a tree.
We passed only one ship all morning, a freighter registered in Holland called the Diamant. The canal was designed for cargo rather than people but it’s not getting much in the present recession. What's more, there’s no one to wave to on the towpath when it’s pouring with rain.
It's the destination that makes this cruise worthwhile. Most cruise visitors to Russia go to St. Petersburg, with its great avenues, squares, palaces and 5 million people. But between it and Finland is a very different place. Vyborg is a Russian town on the Baltic that few people have seen.
If you look at the map, it seems to be on an estuary. In fact, there’s no river at the end of the bay but there used to be. The ancient Vikings sailed up from Vyborg to reach the great lakes of Ladoga and Saimaa. It is a very old settlement compared with St Petersburg.
No disrespect to Tsar Peter I, or to the people of his city, but the marshes of the River Neva were a foul place to build. Even Peter’s first wife thought so, although being divorced and shut up in a nunnery may have left her with some bitterness about her husband’s planning.
Certainly the builders of St Petersburg thought it a dreadful job, especially the ones that died in the process. They say that constructing St. Isaac’s Cathedral alone killed off sixty thousand workers, praising heaven and populating it at the same time.
In contrast, the Bay of Vyborg has natural beauty and a healthy climate. The town is a bit dilapidated compared with other Baltic towns, but it is fairly neat compared with most Russian ones.
VISA FREE The quick way is to get there from the west is to take the train from Helsinki, but if you arrive by train you must obtain a visa in advance. If you travel by ferry, you don’t need one. So at the start of September, I took the only ferry route into Vyborg, down the Saimaa Canal from Finland.
Finns like to visit the place because it used to be in Finland. It was once a cosmopolitan trading centre, with Germans, Jews, Karelians, Ingrians and Tatars as well as Finns, Swedes and Russians. Today, its population of 80 000 are mostly Russian.
Sweden built the first fortress there, when Finland was part of Sweden. The border with Russia moved back and forth a few times until Finland became independent at the start of the 20th century, taking Vyborg with it.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Vyborg was Finland’s second largest town and, by many reports, a lot more fun than Helsinki. That has changed since it became part of Russia at the close of World War II , but it’s still well worth a visit.
The canal cruise starts from the Finnish town of Lappeenranta on Lake Saimaa. We steamed away from the quay at 7:45 past a great paper mill and, by about 8:30, we were entering the first lock of the canal.
When the Saimaa Canal was built 150 years ago, it was 15 kilometres longer and there were 28 locks to descend from Lake Saimaa to the Baltic. They named it the Canal of the Tsars. It was to have a bright future, connecting the economy of inland Finland to the outside world.
It had a bright beginning, too. At its inaugural celebrations in Vyborg in 1856, the fireworks set fire to the castle tower, which burned down.
Halfway to St Petersburg
No Baltic cruise or ferry lines currently go to Vyborg. I asked the people at the town hall if they had tried to attract any.
The relaxation of visa regulations in the spring seems to have taken many of Russia’s own officials by surprise. “It was better than we had dared expect,” said Olga Kareva of the town's economic committee.
"New port infrastructure will be needed but fortunately our port has been listed as one of those with high priority."
The new law has already been good for Vyborg, I was told by another Olga - the general director of Vyborg Port, Olga Lukina. So far this year, about 18 000 visitors have arrived by water.
That means 50% more than last year. But they all came down the Saimaa Canal on the same small boat that I took.
You’d only need a few visits by a cruise ship or cruiseferry to double the number. Cruise ships might have to use tenders to bring passengers ashore, but it works for Nynäshamn, Sweden, and Vyborg has a lot more attractions of its own.
It's a bit farther from St Petersburg than Nynäshamn is from Stockholm, so it wouldn't be an alternative port of call, just an original, curious and inexpensive town to see on the way.
Ferries, meanwhile, would avoid the long, narrow navigation channel to St Petersburg. Passengers bound for St Petersburg could jump on a train and arrive at its famous Finland Station within a couple of hours.
Since the canal was rebuilt in the 1960s there have been just eight enormous locks. To my mind it's a bit tedious after the third one, but other passengers were sitting back and enjoying the ride and a fine meal on the way. We finally arrived at Vyborg passenger terminal just after 2 p.m. local time. You sail in past the shipyards, which are now the main local employer.
The contrast between Vyborg and St Petersburg could hardly be greater. If you’ve taken a summer cruise to St Petersburg, you’ve experienced an immensely busy town where groups of visitors are shuttled by bus from one queue to the next, under the watchful eyes of guides. But in Vyborg, the groups break up soon after passing through customs and everyone does their own thing at their own pace.
LOCAL ATTRACTIONS Of course there’s far less to see than in St Petersburg , but Vyborg has a medieval castle (rebuilt after the fire), fine churches, elegant avenues and good cheap restaurants. To the northeast there is even a spacious park, Monrepos, laid out in the English style.
Monrepos was created from the end of the 18th century onwards and, although the manor house is closed, the grounds and follies are very pretty. In the 19th century it was a favourite place for Finnish artists to go and paint. They exaggerated its grandeur, which confirmed its reputation.
Transport is no problem in Vyborg. Almost everything is within walking distance. Monrepos is a hike of 45 minutes from the centre so I got a taxi back. The driver asked for 100 rubles, and any local would have laughed at his audacity, but it was cheap for me at just over 2 euros.
Vyborg’s other big plus is shopping. In St Petersburg this is a rather overwhelming experience and many visitors leave again without finding anything useful and affordable. Vyborg is full of friendly shops.
In the very centre is its market hall, a treasure chest of produce, clothes, souvenirs and intriguing junk. Most sellers don’t speak anything but Russian, plus the Finnish words for “try” and “buy”, but pointing works fine.
There are several hotels. Admittedly, Hotel Druzhba, where I spent the night, is not top of the range but it was inexpensive. Druzhba means friendship and hundreds of hotels of this name were built in the old Soviet Union. In truth they were very unfriendly places but Vyborg’s Druzhba was revamped in post-soviet times and is now clean and modern.
The rooms on one side have a view of picturesque Salakka Bay, with its fountain. My room was on the other side, overlooking the railway yard, which was actually a lot more interesting. Druzhba’s receptionists speak foreign languages, which is not common in Russia, and the bar staff manage to hide their boredom, which is truly exceptional.
It would have made better sense to return by train, only two hours all the way to Helsinki, but Russian regulations say that you have to go both ways by ferry if you don’t have a visa. Next time I’ll get a visa.
On the interminable homeward trip, many of us passed the time Finnish-style, by drinking too much. At least it softened the blow when a customs official in Lappeenranta confiscated my souvenir bottle of Putinka vodka.
“This can't be right,” I said. “I’ve only got that bottle and some wine,” but it was sparkling wine, which is counted differently. EU border regulations can be as daft as Russian ones.
“Am I going to have to pay a fine, too?” I asked plaintively
“No,” he said, “we’re not that petty.”
I did suggest that, if he wanted to be really big about it, he'd let me hang on to the vodka, but that was a step too far.
5 September 2009
It’s a crisp May morning and I’m bound for the busiest cruise port in the Baltic. You’re thinking Copenhagen, where about 300 cruise ships dock each summer. Or maybe St. Petersburg, the goal of most Baltic cruises. But it’s neither.
Only one place in the Baltic Sea receives 22 cruiseferries per day, almost every day of the year. It's Åland and Åland is all about ships. It lies between Finland and Sweden, closer to the Swedish mainland but administratively a part of Finland.
This is an archipelago of 65 000 islands and skerries, just counting the ones with names. In a full year, millions of people sail through these beautiful islands, although most never see them. Today I plan to be an exception, a visitor with my eyes open.
The reason so many ships go to Åland can be told in two words: duty free. In 1999, the European Union abolished tax exemptions for shopping by passengers travelling between member countries but, when Finland had joined the EU four years earlier, it negotiated an exemption for the Ålanders. Spain has a similar get-out for the Canary Islands.
By calling at Åland, a ship can avoid adding taxes to on-board sales of wine, beer, spirits, tobacco and all the other things that make life worthwhile. I suppose airlines could do the same if they routed their flights via Åland, but planes are for people in a hurry to arrive. A cruiseferry is for enjoying the journey.
Rocks and wrecks
Ships have always sailed these rocky waters and many have fared badly. Six hundred sinkings have been recorded and at least 50 wrecks have been explored.
It’s detail that makes a wreck good, says Christian Ekström, who arranges scuba dives to it. Most of her main mast is still standing, and divers can peer through the skylight into the Captain’s salon. The rule is that you can look but you can’t touch.
This sea is a treasure trove of wrecks. In saltier waters, old timbers are eaten by the ship worm, teredo navalis. In the cold Baltic, where there is no tidal movement, wrecks age very slowly. Often they just look a bit dusty.
The ill-fated Plus had had a narrow escape in the southern Baltic eight years earlier, when she collided with a Swedish trawler in thick fog. That time the trawler went to the bottom, although the crew were rescued.
Luck ran out for the Plus on 14 December 1933, when she hit a rock in a violent storm. She was sailing home from London with only ballast. If it had not been snowing so hard, Mariehamn would almost have been in sight. The wind was 32 metres a second.
The captain dropped anchor but she listed, making it impossible to get to the lifeboat, Christian Ekström says. So that the lifeboat could be launched, the anchor was released, but then the Plus flipped over immediately. Of her crew of 16, only four survived.
In the summer, Christian operates from a base at Kobba Klintar, an old pilot station just south of Mariehamn. He took me out there in a rubber dingy. The rain bit into our faces. Despite a vast life jacket and Christian’s smiling round face, it was not a cozy ride.
“Doesn’t it get lonely?” I asked when we were sitting later in his kitchen. As if in answer, an enormous Viking Line ferry sailed past the window, almost close enough to touch.
Everyone who sails into Mariehamn by day marvels at Kobba Klintar, a strange green three-storey house on a few rocks. It was built in 1861. Åland has 6500 named islands. All the others are called kobbas but, as the pilot station became more important, it got a name after all.
Now it’s no longer needed and Christian and his wife lease it from the city and run a summer cafe there. If you visit, try their own special rum. It is called Kobba Libre, of course.
With all the ships that call, it’s not hard to get to Åland. The problem is to do it at a reasonable time. Passengers don’t have to go ashore to be eligible for tax-free concessions, so many ships arrive in the middle of the night and stay for about 20 minutes. The evening ferries from Helsinki to Stockholm get there at four in the morning. It’s not the best time to look around.
This is why I was standing at Helsinki Central Railway Station at 5:45 this morning, to catch the first train to the west coast town of Turku, where the first ferry leaves for Åland. After stopping at Turku Central, the train comes right down to the harbour, by Turku Castle.
Turku faces Stockholm across the south end of the Gulf of Ostrobothnia, and Åland lies between them. It’s a historic voyage, along the route of the first long-distance Baltic ferries. Hundreds of years ago, sump boats travelled regularly from Turku to Stockholm, transporting fish in their sumps to the fine restaurants of the Swedish capital. Ordinary folk who wanted to go to Stockholm would hitch a ride. You needed to allow about a week for the journey.
Today Viking Line and Silja Line each have two departures daily, in the morning and evening, and cover the distance in about 12 hours. Roughly halfway they call at Åland, where I will be getting off. I’m taking Viking’s Amorella, which leaves Turku half an hour after Silja’s Galaxy and follows it all the way.
There’s not a lot to write about a voyage through the Finnish archipelago on a limpid spring morning. After Turku Castle faces into the mist, we pass the island of Ruissalo and, behind it, the great silhouette of a cruise ship being built in Turku Shipyard. The Oasis of the Seas will be the world’s largest passenger vessel when she’s ready in November this year.
From here on, the view is just islands, hundreds upon hundreds of them. This part of the Baltic is called the Archipelago Sea. Some of the islands are just a rock. Some are big enough for a forest and a few houses. Twice a motor ferry crosses our path, carrying cars between island villages. Occasionally we overtake a yacht. Mostly, the company is just seagulls.
As we get farther from the Finnish mainland, the channel becomes wider and the islands smaller and sparser. About three hours out of Turku, we cross a great expanse of blue sea with no islands and pass from Finland Proper into the Province of Åland. Then the islands begin to thicken again, until the Port of Mariehamn comes into view.
It’s just after 2 p.m. when I disembark. The sunny morning has turned into an overcast and ominous afternoon. Some of my travel companions have booked cycles for the afternoon and are wishing they hadn’t.
LOST FORTRESS Others are setting off on an expedition to Bommarsund, a great fortress built by Russia in 1832, when it controlled these islands. Bommarsund was destroyed by Britain twenty years later, during the Crimean War. I’m giving it a miss because, judging from the photos, the British force did such a good job that there’s practically nothing there.
If I want to see what the British left, I'll visit the Orthodox Cathedral in Helsinki. The Russians gathered up the undamaged bricks of the ruined fortress, shipped them along the coast and used them to build a great church. It's the brickiest church you ever saw. I'm not sure if it's an example of triumphalism in defeat, or a subtle reproach to the Almighty for letting the wrong side win.
As my companions head off to look for ruins that are no longer there, I make my way to the Archipelag Hotel, down the main avenue of Mariehamn that connects its east and west harbours. The town was founded soon after the fall of Bommarsund, in a more defensible place, and named after the wife of the tsar of Russia at that time. Mariehamn soon became a popular spa.
Apart from its grid and some tombstones in the graveyards, there’s almost nothing left from the Russian era. Mariehamn looks like any small Swedish town, except that it’s even more remote. Most of the houses are wooden, few buildings are over two storeys and all the streets and gardens are meticulously cared for.
The colours of the houses, trees and gardens were softened by the rain that was now falling. There were hardly any cars and only a few people to be seen, most of them pulling wet and reluctant dogs. Despite all those ferries calling each day, it felt like a long way from everywhere. It would be even more subdued in autumn, I thought, and utterly bleak in winter but, at the start of summer, it was just a simple place where nice people live a quiet existence.
That evening, as the rain dripped down outside my hotel room, I was to receive a phone call to say that my father had died in a London hospital, a thousand miles away. I’m sorry he’ll never see Mariehamn. Or perhaps that’s what it looks like where he is now.
18 May 2009
It is the end of April and exactly a year since the XPRS entered service. 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.
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, though one suspects that some Finns and Estonians have been doing a lot more travelling than others.
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 cruiseships 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 – over 3 feet – thick, without needing help from an icebreaker.
The fast cruiseferries of the rival Tallink shipping line make the crossing in only 2 hours, but Tallink uses Helsinki’s inconvenient West Harbour while Viking’s terminal is within sight of Market Square in the very centre of town. 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.
Looking for an extra million
I envy Andres Gross. When you're managing director of your own shipping line, you can name a ship after your daughter.
I haven't always envied Andres. Last year Linda Line had a baptism of fire. Selling a gas-guzzling hydrofoil, the Laura, seemed like a good idea, until the replacement, a trimaran from Korea, failed to arrive.
"We became experts at crisis management last year," Andres says. Of course, he ought to be okay at it. This Estonian businessman is a psychologist by training. Pacifying passengers can't be worse than nursing neurotics.
Now Linda's back on top. Its new Karolin has arrived and there are a million extra passengers up for grabs. That is the number previously carried on the high-speed craft of SuperSeaCat and Nordic Jet Line and the helicopters of Copterline, all of whom have ceased services between Helsinki and Tallinn.
This year the two ships of Linda Line are the quickest way to cross the Gulf of Finland, 30 minutes faster than Tallink's ships and beating Viking's XPRS by an hour. During the summer Linda has seven departures in each direction daily.
"We'll be happy if we get just 15% of the extra million," Andres says. An enviable situation.
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.
Only on the last sailing of the day do the cabins get much use. Instead of disembarking in Tallinn at midnight, passengers have the option of sleeping on board and going ashore at 7:00 in the morning. For Finns, it allows an extended mini-cruise, with 11 hours in Estonia before departure back to Finland at 6:00 in the late afternoon.
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. Today, though, there’s not a tanker or freighter in sight, probably a sign of the recession.
At least the Cinderella sounds like a proper lady of the sea. XPRS was originally the concept name for the design, 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 a motorized waiting room, 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 really a cruise ship.
28 April 2009
It's March and, to celebrate the last wintry moments of the year, I went for a walk over the Baltic. There weren't many people out there; just a few old men dressed up in thick, padded overalls, angling for fish through holes they'd drilled through the ice. The wind was blowing snow into our faces. It was a bit extreme.
Continuing due south from Helsinki, you'd eventually come to Estonia after about 70 kilometres (40 miles) but, even with a flask of hot soup, I couldn't have made it. There are so many ships plying along the middle of the Gulf of Finland that it never has a chance to freeze solid. Things haven't always been so. People have been skiing between Finland and Estonia for centuries.
In the late 19th century, when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, defectors tried to get out that way. In March 1947, an Estonian called Heino Mikiver set out on his skis from Pirita, just east of Tallinn, and reached Suomenlinna, the fortress just off Helsinki, two days later. The Finns arrested him and sent him back, but many others continued to try until the 1990s, when Estonia regained its independence.
Some winters the sea doesn't freeze at all. This winter began like that. The high-speed catamaran ferries that sail between Helsinki and Tallinn usually stop in the autumn but services didn't cease until the middle of February this year. It was a well-timed pause because temperatures fell sharply almost immediately.
For a few days we had conditions that skaters dream of. The sea was covered by clear ice but with no snow on it. The National Hockey League plays on rinks that are about 60 metres (66 yards) long, and even in Olympic speed skating, the oval is only 400 metres. Imagine the exhilaration of a natural rink that's so long that the end is over the horizon.
Snow came at the start of March so now we either have to trudge across the sea or put on skis. In either case it's quite safe. Just ten centimetres of clear, solid ice will easily bear the weight of a man. All the coastal islands are now just a stroll away.
It's true that people fall through the ice every year and some of them drown. You don't always know how thick it is. When there's snow on top, you also can't see whether it's clear and strong — what the Finns call teräsjää, steel ice — or weak, porous stuff. But if the weather has been really cold for weeks on end, you're okay.
The Kronstadt Rebellion
Russian sailors from the island fortress of Kronstadt fled across the ice to Finland after the failure of their rebellion in 1921. Kronstadt, 23 km (14 miles) from St Petersburg, was the base of Russia's Baltic fleet.
The Bolshevik leaders had other ideas. It was late winter and the sea was still frozen, so they sent the Red Army across the ice to put down the rebellion.
With the ice quickly melting, the escape over the sea was a waking nightmare. Thousands drowned or froze to death. But thousands more managed to get ashore in newly independent Finland.
Some went back to Russia after they were offered an amnesty, only to be sent off to the first Soviet prison camp, on the desolate Solovetski Islands in the White Sea. No escape from there.
The descendants of those who wisely left Kronstadt when they could and wisely decided against going back still live in Finland.
When in doubt I wait till someone else takes the same route, preferably someone really big. Then I follow at a respectable distance. Penguins in the Antarctic do the same thing when they want to go swimming but fear there may be killer whales in the water. In fact I've heard they don't wait but try to push another penguin in front of them. I don't go that far.
When the ice is solid and 15-20 cm thick, it will take a car. Thirty centimetres will support a loaded lorry. Driving over the sea might seem the ultimate death wish but when the ice is thick enough, there's no hazard. Until 1986 there even used to be a public bus route in winter between Helsinki and the island fortress of Suomenlinna.
At 80 hectares (200 acres), Suomenlinna is a big place. In its early years, it contained more people than Helsinki. But fortress is a misleading word; it was useless in times of war. In spring 1808, when it was attacked by the Russian army that had already taken Helsinki, it surrendered after just two months. The defenders marched out of the fortress, over the ice, and the Russians marched in the next day. Bribes probably changed hands.
The spring equinox comes next week. After that, the days will be longer than the nights and the sea ice will start melting fast. I'll bet that, at the start of April, there will be only a few floes left in the green water. When the first cruise ship arrives at the start of May, sea ice will just be a distant, and faintly incredible, memory.
9 March 2009