History of Väinamere ship traffic
The history of seafaring in Estonia is millennia old. In prehistoric times, mostly dugout boats made from entire hollowed trees were used for seafaring. Seafaring expanded considerably after the introduction of the sail, likely in the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era, and gained further momentum at the turn of the first and second millennia. Evolution of seafaring accelerated particularly after the incorporation of the Estonian territories into Imperial Russia in 1710.
All maritime laws and procedures of the time were consolidated into the Merchant Shipping Act, which entered into force on 25 June 1781 and was still in effect as recently as in the 19th century.
As the Island of Saaremaa has been under the control of quite a number of different rulers, consequently operators of services between Saaremaa and the mainland, too, have been varied.
Organised shipping traffic between the islands and the mainland dates to the 19th century. Services across Suur Väin Sound remained in the hands of the Crown until 1855; it was subsequently handed over to the Oeselsche Rittershaft, a corporation of hereditary nobility on Oesel or Saaremaa. From 1869 onwards, landed estates – Muhu and Tumala – engaged in operation of services. The estates leased out options on the provision of various services, including the Kuivastu Inn, where passengers could have a meal and a bed for the night.
Present-day passengers wishing to travel to Saaremaa or return thence to the “big land” have the choice of a variety of ships and vehicles. Back in the old times, however, traffic was along one route only. Indeed, inhabitants of Saaremaa came by horse-drawn cart to Orissaare whence passengers, along with their horses and carts, were taken across Väike Väin Sound on a suitable sailboat to Vahtna, then travelling by road through the Island of Muhumaa, whence they were taken, with their horses and carts, from Kuivastu to Virtsu across Suur Väin Sound on a similar sailboat. These curious ships that used to ply the Väinameri Sea, carrying passengers across Suur Väin and Väike Väin Sounds, were called väina uisud or “the Sound’s skates”. The “skates” also carried mail.
The “Sound’s skates” were locally built sailboats featuring one mast but no deck. In calm weather and upwind, oars were used. The crew had seven members. A skate had capacity for several carts with horses and, in addition, for cattle. Aft, there was an elevated platform for passengers. Usually, one skate was moored at Virtsu and the other at Kuivastu. To call a “skate” from Kuivastu to Virtsu or vice versa, straw was set alight on the shore.
Usually, “skates” crossed the Sound once daily and more often when the need arose. Each passenger paid 5 kopecks for a crossing. If there were not enough passengers, an unscheduled sailing was done on a small boat – a sloop. A crossing on the sloop cost 3 roubles.
Passages by “skate” across Väike Väin Sound ended in 1895, after the construction of a causeway. The “skates” continued to sail across Suur Väin Sound up until World War I.
The Island of Hiiumaa and the mainland used to be linked by sailboats. These carried mail, with a limited number of passengers admitted aboard as well. The speed of sailing depended on the weather. If there was a lack of wind, oars had to be used. This situation persisted through the end of the 19th century, when a shipping company of the landed gentlemen of Hiiumaa bought a steamer, the Progress, for the Heltermaa- Haapsalu route. As the ship was small and not powerful, after some time a bigger steamer of the same type, also named the Progress, was purchased from Sweden; also collecting passengers off ships in Muhu Sound to take to Haapsalu. In 1910, an additional passenger and freight steamer, the Grenen, was purchased by the Hiiu-Kärdla Cloth Mill from Denmark. In addition to the Heltermaa-Haapsalu route, the ship also plied the Kärdla-Tallinn route.
The first steamer to sail between Saaremaa and the mainland, the Suvortsov, was purchased in 1902, in part financed by the Crown. During World War I, operation of services was restored to the Crown. Ownership of the Suvortsov, too, was transferred to the Crown. Seamen’s contracts with the Crown were concluded for a period through 1920, that is, the time of the Republic of Estonia.
In the early years of the Republic of Estonia, seafaring was administered by the Maritime Affairs Authority formed out of several agencies in 1920, renamed the Maritime Authority in 1929 and the Maritime Office, yet again, in 1938.
The State leased out the shipping services, awarding a concession contract. Up until 1930, services between the islands and the mainland were operated by the Baltic Rescue Society (founded in 1888), which was the second major owner of ships in Estonia in the early 1920s. Subsequently, another operator, Gustav Sergo, with G. Sergo & CO, began operating services on the route, with one ship on the Saaremaa route and another on the Hiiumaa route. There arose competition, as a result of which fares dropped from 75 to 15 cents. On the Kuivastu route, Sergo ran a promotion offering passengers a pot of free beer. As a result, customers stopped using the services of the Baltic Rescue Society, which went bankrupt in 1938.
Sergo purchased a ship, the Polaris, subsequently renamed the Viire. He also bought up all ships in offshore traffic and operated services up until 1940, when nationalisation took place. All business related to the ships (including arrangements for repairs) was handled by the ships’ masters; ticket sales and freighting or chartering were done by agents. Sergo’s onshore staff included just four employees. To operate services, he borrowed money from the State, as it was very advantageous at the time.
After occupation by the Soviet Union, Sergo was forced to hand over his company to the aggressors. He subsequently made a living sewing sails, until he was deported to Russia.
From 1940 onwards, operation of shipping services has been in the hands of the State once more. After World War II, ships sailed under the flag of the Estonian National Merchant Navy. Ferries 1, 2 and 3 were unusual. Of the three, only No 1 remained in use after the War, sailing until 1958. Essentially, the ferry was two pontoons joined by a bridge. A wheelhouse and four engines were situated aft. In spite of its primitive design, for years the ship helped inhabitants of Saaremaa to stay linked to the mainland, albeit in fair weather only. It began sailing between the mainland and Hiiumaa in 1946. Subsequently, ferry No 1 remained in operation together with the Merkuri, a motor ship, between Virtsu and Kuivastu, while the ferry Kuivastu and the steamer Gustav plied the Rohuküla-Heltermaa route.
For the national economy of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, good transport links to the islands were very important. Old post-war ferries could not meet the ever increasing need for transport across the Sound. In 1956, new larger ferries built in Leningrad – the Sõprus, the Viimsi, the Suurupi and the Severodvinsk – were put into service in order to maintain transport links to the islands. Yet during cold winters, when the Väinameri froze over, these, too, were unable to maintain transport links. New and powerful ice-proof ferries, to maintain transport links between the mainland and Saaremaa, were designed by naval engineers in Leningrad and built by shipbuilders in Riga. The ships bore the names the Tehumardi (1973) and the Koguva (1979).
Up until then, transport links to the Island of Vormsi, however, had been rather erratic. From December 1975 onwards, the Vormsi, a ferry built in Volgograd, began to ply between the island and the mainland.
The Vohilaid (1983), the Harilaid (1985) and the Kõrgelaid (1987), ferries of the “Laid” type, also built in Riga, were even larger and more comfortable for passengers, with capacity for as many as 35 passenger cars. The Harilaid and the Kõrgelaid continue to ply the Virtsu-Kuivastu and Rohuküla-Heltermaa routes to this day. A typical feature of the ships of the “Laid” type was that they were built for transporting heavy vehicles and military equipment.
The only ferry built outside the Soviet Union was the Hiiumaa, built in Norway in 1966 and set apart from the other ships considerably by the comforts of its passenger deck. That said, it had been built for transporting passengers rather than Soviet-era heavy vehicles. The Hiiumaa continues to be a seaworthy ship to this day and, if needed, will sail the Rohuküla-Heltermaa route.
From October 1994, the operation of ferry services in the Väinameri was handed to a private company, and AS Saaremaa Laevakompanii began to operate the services.
In 1997, the Regula, the first large ferry, was introduced on the Kuivastu-Virtsu route, ushering in an entirely new stage in ferry services – working to improve crossing conditions and comforts for passengers. Subsequently, in the years that followed, Saaremaa Laevakompanii introduced four more large ferries on its routes: the Ofelia, the Scania, the Viire and the St. Ola, all of which have improved the quality of crossings significantly. The Soviet-era ferries – the Koguva, the Kõrgelaid and the Hiiumaa – underwent major repairs, too, and the sailing conditions aboard even those ships compare to those aboard large ships.
Since October 2006 Väinamere Liinid (subsidiary of Saaremaa Shipping Company) is operating on the Rohuküla - Heltermaa, Kuivastu - Virtsu ja Triigi - Sõru routes.
On 24 August 2007, Saaremaa Laevakompanii and financial partners of the company concluded an agreement to build three new ships. As a result, 2010 and 2011 saw the arrival of three new ferries – the Muhumaa, the Saaremaa and the Hiiumaa – on the ferry routes in the Väinameri.