06 October 2012

The Ships and Shippers of Åland

On the western shore of Mariehamn, the capital of Åland island in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland, a Viking Lines ship idled patiently in the water.   Big and fast, Marianne waited to fill its cabins with excited passengers and whisk them off on an overnight booze cruise to Helsinki.  The gambling machines dinged and clinged in empty halls, the carpeting looked at itself in thousands of mirrored and super-buffed surfaces, bracing for another night of absorbing heavy, unsteady steps.  On the eastern shore, 'österhamn,' things were a little more low-key.  Karolina, a historic brig, was being worked on by this man.  She was built in 1874, saw a little bit of action between 1901 and 1905, then began her much longer stint as a stylish relic.  A piece of history.
Sjökvarteret or "the Maritime Quarter" as the neighborhood in österhamn is called, is part recreation and part functional homage.  This is where nearly 300 wooden ships were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Nowadays, there is a working blacksmith, some men actually repairing and building boats, picturesque storehouses and boat sheds in rows of weathered wood on stilts.  Newer beauties sit around, a swarm of nice yachts dock here in the summer.  Amazingly, this small, weathered stretch sits at the northern end of Scandinavia's largest harbor.  In the high season, people take boat tours in some of the antique ships being repaired this time of year.  In early October, the historic Albanus looked just as it would have at the start of Autumn in its heyday.  Crates of apples filled its deck, in from orchard-filled Geta in northern Åland.
People on Åland island have been traversing the Baltic in both directions for centuries.  To Stockholm they'd set sail with fish, meat and dairy from the farms that covered Åland.  They would return with goods like clothing and salt.  Then, began the big trips.  Boats grew larger, as did the crews that manned them, and shipping journeys took Ålanders around Cape Horn for Chilean nitrate and around the tip of South Africa to Australia for grain.  The Åland Maritime Museum tells the tale of this period through the stories of Mariehamn's locals.  There is the captain who is on his very last trip - he's promised his wife.  There are the men who have signed on because they want to travel or shirk their responsibilities on the family farm.  There was a gallery of ship portraits, the work of local artists as commissioned by local shipowners.  Our hotel room has a hard-bound "Who's Who in Åland," complete with photos.  So, you can see just how up close and personal their excellent maritime museum was.  
Perhaps the most influential person in the shipbuilding history of Mariehamn is Captain Gustaf Erikson, who took it upon himself to continue buying and repairing beautiful wooden windjammers as the rest of the world switched to steam power.  The fleet he accumulated right in these harbors competed competently with the shipping steamers right up until World War II.  Erikson was a man who understood the value of those sailing ships, the importance of tradition and even had a hunch that Mariehamn could still find an industry on the water even after their major shipping days were done.  "Many modern people long for peace and quiet for a couple of months in the bracing sea air," he suspected, starting the first business in the area to sail people across the Baltic simply for the experience, not the necessity.   The pleasure cruise.
The figurehead above is not Erikson, it's just the gentleman who used to be set onto the prow of the California.  Most other figureheads were women dressed in white Athenian or Victorian garb, hand held to heart (and their thoughtfully sculpted bosoms).  But Mr. California here's chin is not held as high, his gaze is less assured, his hand, a little lower, clutches at a jacket lapel like a man bracing himself. What an odd choice.  There were all sorts of curios on the Åland Maritime Museum.  Black and white photos taken by Peter Karney, a young Brit who volunteered aboard one of Mariehamn's ships on a journey around Cape Horn, offer extraordinary glimpses into life on the sea.  Men doing handstands for exercise or playing with their pet pigs.  A captain looking gruff.  The museum space itself has the feeling of a ship's interior and little stuffed mice are humorously stashed in corners for you to happen upon just like the rats on the windjammers of yore. 
Since the collections in the museum were provided by locals, there's some really great, personal stuff.  Souvenirs brought home from sailings around the world included a postcard from Seattle, some truly garish glass art from England, figurines from South Africa, a coconut.  There was even an authentic 18th century pirate flag with the iconic skull and crossbones, one of only two in the world.  Another room was dedicated to Viking Lines, an Åland company, and included excellent 1970s disco cruise photos and a newspaper clipping quoting an excited passenger.  "It's like a city on the water!"  A knot-tying station, with instructions, let you feel really inept at trying to recreate the rope wonders above. 
Everyone around here can probably tie at least a few of those knots.  Navigation is no longer part of elementary school education as it was in 1854, but you get the sense that not knowing how to sail around here would be a little like not knowing how to drive a car in California.  This bearded fellow brought a gorgeous sailboat into the wharf in Sjökvarteret.  He did so confidently - elegantly, really - and then lit a cigarette once he'd hopped on land.  As he stood and stared at the beauty, the man who'd been working Karolina came over to join him.  There were more puffs than words and then the two walked off together.
"Pears!" the bearded man called to us when we ran into the two men a little while later.  He was barely visible within the leaves of a short pear tree, jabbing at the branches above him with a stick&bucket contraption.  "Do you want one?" the other man asked and we all stood around waiting for just the right angle.  One, then a second small, hard pear was bagged and tossed over to us.  We thanked them, commented on the taste, chewed and then realized that small talk wasn't really going to happen.  Oh, those strong, silent seafaring types. 

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