Finnjet houses Katrina evacuees
Finnish passenger ship used as temporary student dormitory
By Jyrki Raivio in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Matthew McCabe, a first-year dentistry student at Louisiana State University, quickly gathers his belongings in his room, which looks exceptionally neat for a student dormitory. His afternoon lectures are starting soon, and before that he needs to take a shuttle to the parking lot and drive to his lectures from there.
At the moment, the classes are not being held at the impressive LSU campus in New Orleans on the shores of the magnificent Lake Pontchartrain, but rather at the second campus of the Medical School in Baton Rouge, nearly 150 kilometres away.
McCabe's own apartment is in the centre of New Orleans, which was badly damaged by hurricane Katrina. He has lived almost the whole autumn in exile in Baton Rouge on the renowned Finnish passenger ferry, the Finnjet.
Finnjet rushed at top speed to the Mississippi for a humanitarian mission five weeks ago, after Katrina had wrecked the LSU campus in New Orleans on August 29th.
The medical school was threatened with closure. There were ready teaching facilities in Baton Rouge, but the 2,800 students had to live somewhere. Finnjet came to help, and now about 700 students live on board. Many of them are living in trailers provided by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and some have found an apartment in the booming housing market of Baton Rouge.
The large passenger ferry, which became familiar to tens of thousands of Finnish tourists over a period of nearly 30 years, looks rather small moored on the Mississippi. Low tide has brought the ship down so low that only the upper decks and smokestacks can be seen above the pier.
The roar of cars on the Interstate 10 freeway bridge can be heard from above.
The ship's captain Juha Rautavirta and chief engineer Calle Stenius are satisfied at least for now with their exceptional mission. Their departure to Louisiana was set in late September when there were only a few more scheduled sailings from St. Petersburg via Tallinn to Rostock.
After that, the Finnjet was to have been laid up at Falmouth in Britain.
The ship is on sale "for 18 million dollars, according to information that has been made public", as Stenius says. Neither believe that she will return to service in the Baltic Sea, which has been where Finnjet has been sailing since she was built in 1977.
When the contract was signed with LSU in September, the crew began to prepare to cross the Atlantic. An Inmarsat satellite tracking device was added to the navigation system, plenty of supplies were loaded onto the car deck, and the Adam and Eve statues in the nightclub were tied down in case of rough seas.
The ship sailed with a skeleton crew of 28 to the Gulf of Mexico via the Azores and the Bahamas, and then up the Mississippi to Baton Rouge. She reached her destination on October 5th.
"It was certainly the fastest transatlantic crossing ever on a Finnish ship", Stenius smiles. The average speed was 24 knots.
The rest of the crew got on in the Bahamas; now there were 89 of them. Rautavirta says that 21 were Finns. The largest group were Filipinos - 65 members. The ship sails under the Finnish flag, and the crew get paid Finnish contract wages.
The work shifts continue as normal, although the vessel remains in dock. The Finnish crew work for six weeks, and then get six weeks off.
"It has not been boring - there is quite a bit of work with officials", Rautavirta says.
Little fuel is used - about ten tonnes a day. At sea daily fuel consumption was up to 300 tonnes, depending on the speed.
"Great people, their noses are always in their books, and there are never any disturbances", Rautavirta says, praising his current customers. The students get full room and board on the ship, and the cafe is open, although it is used primarily for studying. The ship is both smoke-free and alcohol-free. The doors of the nightclub are kept tightly shut.
This does not bother Matthew McCabe. "Nobody wants to party here. We take care of partying in other places. This is an excellent place to study, above all because you can't watch TV here", he says.
LSU had tried to get its campus in New Orleans running by the beginning of the spring semester, but the attempt did not succeed. Now they are continuing in their temporary facilities at least until next spring. This should mean that the university will want to discuss the possibility of extending the contract with Finnjet.
An extension would be welcomed on the bridge of the ship. "This is a good and valuable conclusion to Finnjet's illustrious career with Silja Line", Stenius and Rautavirta say.
Buyers have not exactly been crawling all over the ship in Baton Rouge. Perhaps one reason is that the ship will remain a student dormitory well into the spring. The crew of the Finnjet have also grown quite accustomed to buyers.
"Finnjet has been on sale throughout its whole existence - close to 29 years", notes Stenius, who has sailed with Finnjet during the ship's entire lifetime, and who will soon retire. Rautavirta has served as the master of the gas turbine vessel for eight years.
At some point the ship will leave her mooring in Baton Rouge, but not at any old time. The water in the river can rise as much as 12 metres in the spring, and if this happens, Finnjet will not fit under the bridges spanning the Mississippi in New Orleans.
On the journey to Baton Rouge, the tallest antenna had to be dismantled to keep it from hitting a bridge.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 12.12.2005
More on this subject:
FACTFILE: Finnjet services sold cheap
Previously in HS International Edition:
Silja Line´s Finnjet to provide emergency housing for Louisiana medical school (19.9.2005)
JYRI RAIVIO / Helsingin Sanomat