Breaking the ice: Urho will soon go on station in the Gulf of Finland
When the safety rafts are in place and provisions have been acquired, Urho will set off from Katajanokka for its annual winter shepherding task
By Riitta Vainio
”It’s only strong enough as yet to support the weight of a fox”, says Timo Jeskanen, Master of the 7,525 BRT icebreaker Urho, describing the current ice situation off Helsinki.
Old seafarers have a special name for such ice: näätikkäjää. Even the passenger ferry over to the fortress island of Suomenlinna can cope with such thin ice without assistance.
But the winter, which has been a long time coming, is now strengthening its grip.
This week even the south of the country can expect some genuinely cold nights and days, as a high pressure area over Russia sweeps down into the Baltic region and beyond, ultimately making life extremely uncomfortable for people less well-equipped in countries like Romania and Bulgaria in Eastern Europe.
There is a 10-cm layer of snow on the deck of Urho, and an ice-cold wind is blowing from the sea. The vessel is being prepared for a departure.
On the bridge of the icebreaker, officers Veli Luukkala and Sampo Tammiala are updating maps and learning how to use top-notch new radars and monitors.
A new day is dawning in the city. Helsinki’s Uspenski Cathedral on the starboard side of the vessel is caught in the "blue hour" just before the sun makes an appearance. The commuting traffic is crawling slowly along Pohjoisranta.
Urho’s tasks for today include repairing machinery, changing pipes, cleaning valves.
Four brand-new rafts are placed on the lifeboat racks.
A load of carpet rolls arrives by noon. Dozens of metres of new black carpet is unrolled on the corridors.
Everything is ready for the icebreaker’s departure.
The Kontio and Otso are already on station at the north end of the Bay of Bothnia, towards which Otso set sail on Wednesday last.
The next to start their Wärtsilä diesels will be the icebreakers Sisu and Voima.
Once they have left, Urho will be transferred to the Gulf of Finland.
”Within a couple of weeks, we will be ready to sail”, Jeskanen estimates.
The countdown will start when a phone call or an e-mail is received, reading: "Start the engines and get ready".
After a preliminary warning, the crew of around 20 will be called together, the ship will be loaded with provisions, and 12 oil trucks will bring fuel.
The galley will be opened.
The crew will get to the sea and start real work, which everyone has been waiting for.
”There have been no strikes for a long time. However, people always associate us with strikes”, Jeskanen grunts with some dismay.
”People say that in the winter you are on strike, and in the summer on holiday”, Jeskanen adds.
There is no mood for strike action here - quite the contrary. The crews of Finnish icebreakers are proud that they can keep the shipping routes clear in order that Finnish exports would not lose steam.
Even if the ice situation were not too bad, icebreakers would also be needed in the Gulf of Finland.
Around 50 vessels were coming and going in the Gulf even yesterday - Sunday.
As the cold weather continues, these ships will soon need the help of icebreakers, particularly to keep the shipping lanes open.
”The Gulf of Finland froze good and proper last winter. During the worst jam, a hundred ships were standing in front of the island of Gogland (Suursaari in Finnish) for several days”, says First Officer Timo Aaltonen.
The largest nuclear-powered icebreaker in the world, the 23,000 tonne Russian 50 Years of Victory, is also operating in the Gulf of Finland this winter.
The Urho also has some relics from the past decades.
When signing the guest-book on the saloon deck of the vessel, one has to bow deferentially in front of the photo of Urho Kekkonen, the godfather of the vessel, as the photo has been placed at a certain level and the book lies directly beneath it.
Invited by the vessel's godfather, many dignitaries have visited the icebreaker, starting from the President of the United States himself.
Gerald Ford went aboard and sampled the Urho's sauna in 1975, during the CSCE gathering in Helsinki, and the following year's guests included Prince Philip, while Queen Elizabeth II was apparently occupied elsewhere.
Last summer, Arctia Icebreaking, the owner of the icebreakers, also started to rent out the vessels to companies and private persons.
Previously, the interiors of the icebreakers had been closed to the general public.
When the icebreaker Urho is in port, it can be used as a venue for celebrations or meetings.
The rental fee for a full-day meeting with catering services would amount to slightly less than EUR 100 per participant. Among those who have held meetings onboard Urho are for example ambassadors accredited in Finland.
A maître d' who has retired from the Presidential Palace and a waiter serve guests onboard the vessel.
The tableware with its impressive stamps used to belong to the former Finnish Maritime Administration.
The vessel also has some works of art, including for example large reliefs by sculptors Eila Hiltunen and Ben Renvall.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 30.1.2012
Previously in HS International Edition:
More than 60 vessels stuck in ice in Gulf of Finland (17.2.2011)
Icebreakers will remain at their current quay in Katajanokka (27.9.2011)
Tough ice situation in Finnish waters is finally easing off (21.3.2011)
Russian nuclear icebreaker is working around the clock to clear vessel jam in Gulf of Finland (7.3.2011)
Icebreakers busy assisting ships struggling in winter ice (3.3.2011)
Threatened strike may freeze all icebreakers (16.2.2010)
Icebreaker Urho (details in Finnish, plus pictures)
Baltice.org - Current Ice Situation (interactive map)
RIITTA VAINIO / Helsingin Sanomat