We are standing in the Maritime Quarter by Mariehamn’s eastern beach. In other words, this is the right place if you want to learn something about maritime shipping in Åland in former times. What is done here is to preserve small cargo boats – or rather the knowledge and expertise involved in building, maintaining and sailing them.
Small cargo boats have been highly significant for prosperity in Åland. This was something that some real enthusiasts felt was too important to be forgotten. So bit by bit the Maritime Quarter (“Sjökvarteret”) was built. A maritime oasis by Mariehamn’s eastern beach.
“The jewel in the crown of the Maritime Quarter is the galeas Albanus that is owned and run by the Albanus Ship Association. You could say that the building of the Albanus was the start of the Maritime Quarter,” says Kristian Öberg, operations manager at the Albanus Ship Association. The plan now is to transmit knowledge and expertise about navigation, ships and the sea in general to new generations. The Ship Association’s youth activities enable the “prentisarna” (“apprentices”) to sail on the Albanus for a very modest sum of money. They just pay for their food. The word “prentis” comes from the English word “apprentice”, and that is what it means. This is how new generations get up to speed so that the Association can live on. The lad who is the skipper on the Albanus now started as an apprentice when he was 12. He saw the career potential. He has been the skipper on the Albanus for three years now and is on his way to new challenges on a ship in the Mediterranean.
“So the Albanus works as a sort of training ship, then?”
“If we compare the Albanus set-up with other small cargo boats around the world, then the Albanus is quite unique,” says Kristian. “What is special about it is this combination of the commercial operation and the youth aspect. We’re trying to be a bit like Robin Hood. Take from the rich and give to the poor. The surplus is used for educational activities. It’s always been a strain to secure the greater part of the funding we need, but we do it somehow. And the Albanus is unique as well.
“The Albanus has been operational for 25 seasons. The planning and building started in 1986. The lorries came here with the timber for building the ship and unloaded it directly on to the lawn. Then it all went surprisingly quickly. In 1988 it put to sea. There was one of the largest gatherings of people in Åland ever: 5,000 people. Since then it’s chugged along. We got it right straight away and broadly speaking the concept today is the same as it was then.”
“But is it time for a successor ship now?”
“Yes, it is. The Albanus was built the way small cargo boats used to be built. It was built to last between 10 and 20 years and now she’s been sailing for 25. Maintaining the Albanus the way we do today is not financially viable in the long run. That is why the Ship Association has decided to build a new small cargo boat. The new boat, which will be called Emelia after the original boat, is not going to be very different from the Albanus. What will be different is its adaptation to meet new requirements from the National Road Safety Office. It will have a new hull shape. Another division under the deck owing to the fact that one of the things it has to have is watertight sections. This will make it three metres longer and it will also have a deeper draught.”
“Is it just the size that distinguishes the Emelia from the Albanus?”
“The catchword for the Emelia will be environmental sustainability as well. This means that it is hardly likely to use regular diesel. The heating on board will probably to a large extent be by wind power from land. Large accumulators are used for propulsion.”
“A mixture of the traditional and high tech, then?”
“The biggest challenge is to be able to assess how technological developments will look in, say, eight years’ time. There have been discussions as to how to accommodate future technology. Presumably the technology will only become an issue in the last two years. Currently we reckon that there will be about 26 berths for guests, but some may disappear in favour of future technology. Then we have the aim of getting it to be as easy to maintain as possible. The Albanus requires a lot of maintenance. That must be reduced.”
“How long will it take to build a small cargo boat that size?”
“The building phase of a small cargo boat is a happy time. We see no reason to rush. The construction process should be a public operation, a tourist project and a tourist attraction. It is therefore important that the construction period is long. The launch of the Emelia is planned for 2023-24.”
“Is that rather like the slow beer that the Ålander brewery Stallhagen talks about? It’ll take as long as it takes?”
“Yes, that’s about right. We have intern and trainee activities to think about. They can keep the traditions going. It is also about financing, about money. The aim is for the small cargo boat to be free of debt when it is launched.
“Of course, we could also build a small cargo boat within two years but then we would lose a good opportunity to pass on the tradition, knowledge and expertise. We hope the construction will be really open, and really visible. We reckon that the construction is going to bring the whole of the Maritime Quarter to life. The ship building hall is ready and waiting. People will be able to go and see how the work is progressing. There will also be a whole load of smaller activities around the construction site that are connected to shipbuilding. More visitors should mean more companies and craftspeople, such as artisans belonging to SALT.