History sails on Saimaa

There aren’t that many working steamships left in the world. In Savonlinna, though, you might see three in the same harbour: SS Punkaharju, the white-painted SS Paul Wahl and SS Savonlinna. The situation is made even more special by the fact that all three are operated by the same family-owned business. Oy Vip Cruise Ltd, a family business based in Savonlinna, organises hundreds of cruises on their ships each year, offering everybody an opportunity to experience living history on the decks of these restored steamers. Their guests in the past have included members of royal families, heads of state, celebrities and some of the wealthiest businessmen in the world, along with regular folks. There is clearly something about a cruise on a steamship that still fascinates people. Captain Janne Leinonen, partner in the family business, agreed to use one cruise to talk about the importance of steamships in the modern world and why they are centred on Savonlinna.

Steamship captain Janne Leinonen on the bridge of SS Punkaharju, studying the weather forecast for the coming week:

‘Twenty-two degrees! It is starting to look like a good life,’ he exclaims with a grin.

The weather today is nothing to get excited about: grey and chilly with a brisk wind on deck. Despite the weather, the historic SS Punkaharju is sailing over the waters of Saimaa with over a dozen guests on board.

‘We have run this business for over twenty years and we have customers who have returned every one of those twenty years,’ Leinonen tells us.

The Leinonen family business owns two steamships and leases a third one from the Savonlinna County Museum. The first ship they owned was SS Punkaharju, built in Savonlinna in 1905 and still sailing on her native waters. The Punkaharju is an inland water steamship operating on charter and as a cruise ship.

The other Leinonen ship, SS Paul Wahl, is one of the last white-painted steamships built in Finland. Constructed in 1919, the Leinonens operate her on charter and as a cruise ship.

The third ship the Leinonens operate, SS Savonlinna, is on lease from the Savonlinna County Museum. SS Savonlinna was constructed in 1904, but her current exterior was restored to a 1927 design. The Savonlinna is the biggest ship in the Leinonen fleet and operates only on charter.

‘She is a big ship and cannot be driven by just anyone. It can be hard to find a captain for her. Usually it’s up to me and I don’t mind. She’s a grand ship,’ Leinonen smiles.

With these three vessels, the Leinonens spend most of their summers on the water. On average, they have some 300 group reservations or chartered cruises. These may vary from groups of six to cruises with eighty people on board.

‘Once we organised a cruise for 270 people and had to have all three steamers operating,’ Leinonen says.

Having been restored as close to their original design as possible, each of the ships is unique. They are carefully maintained to look as splendid as they do. In spring, every surface is inspected and treated – painted, varnished and oiled, inside and out. Leinonen calls this make-up, as actual repairs are kept to a minimum.

‘Make-up is a good word, because these ships are repaired only when necessary. Properly maintained, they actually ought to never need repairs,’ he explains.

Their fixtures and fittings are not completely traditional, though. These ships include modern electrical equipment, beer taps, refrigerators and modern nautical equipment, with the GPS, radar and VHF telephones required in a commercial vessel.

While explaining the nautical technology, Leinonen simultaneously steers the Punkaharju, relaxed at the helm. You would think that it is a pretty nice feeling to be the captain of such an unusual vessel.

‘Of course it feels nice, it makes me feel very manly! The bigger the ship, the manlier I feel. At the helm of the Savonlinna, I feel almost like a real master. Steering a ship is grander than driving a car – not just anyone can do it,’ Leinonen jokes.

While the basic principles are the same for all ships, they all behave differently. They have a different way of responding to the helm, they differ in how fast they can turn, their turning radius and speed are different and you have to know how quickly they can stop on arrival.

When asked about his favourite, Leinonen does not need to think for too long.

‘This, the Punkaharju, is definitely my favourite. She is superior to all other ships, she’s in the best shape, the most beautiful and she’s the perfect size. There are lots of stories about her, she is called “our ship” in this area.’

With ‘our ship’, Leinonen refers to the Punkaharju’s history and role in the Savonlinna region. The Punkaharju is called ‘our ship’ because until the 1960s she was owned by a large cooperative. She was then bought by a large shipowner, and privately owned in the 1980s. Even now that the Punkaharju is once more privately owned, this time by the Leinonens, she is still considered to be ‘our ship’.  The reason for this is that the Punkaharju has, over the years, carried all kinds of people – common people, workers and even a few well-to-do citizens. Although there has been a clear hierarchy among the passengers, all have been accepted on board. This was not always the case with other ships, such as SS Savonlinna, which had a certain owner who only took on passengers of a certain status.

‘But that doesn’t diminish the value of any other ship. SS Savonlinna is a great ship that was built to carry wealthy guests from Lappeenranta to Savonlinna casino and spa. She was the Titanic of her time, with lovely wallpaper and furnishings,’ Leinonen says.

On the other hand, the interior of the Punkaharju, intended for ordinary people, is made of birch plywood and simple surfaces.

‘It still looks nice, though,’ her captain clarifies.

Leinonen talks about the ships with emotion, and he clearly appreciates them and their history. He does not dwell in nostalgia, however.

‘We are part of the ship’s history, and knowing that history is part of the ship’s present. For me, that’s not living in the past. But I do hope that guests who may see a cruise as a nostalgic trip to their childhood, when they used to sail this ship to their grandmother’s house, experiences it that way. On a cruise, some people relive the 1930s and that is part of the experience – it’s completely OK and even welcome,’ the captain muses.

Throughout their history, steamships have indeed touched almost everybody, regardless of their social background.

Historic vessels

People do not always understand the importance the steamships had in the past. Their golden era was in the late 1800s, when they offered the fastest way to travel before highways and cars became common.Steamships would carry people and goods. These vessels were ideal for Finland’s narrow inland waters, and they soon started offering regular services. Steamships were particularly important in local traffic, and piers were sometimes only a short distance apart.

Tourism started growing in the late 1800s, leading to demand for more comfort and facilities for steamship passengers. Cabins and salons were built for that purpose. After the turn of the century, regular services started losing ground, however, first to the railways and then to motor vehicle traffic. Tourist travel continued to flourish during the first couple of decades of the 1900s, but then slowly became less popular and important.

Steamships may have fallen behind the times and perhaps their importance has lessened, but their history is still alive. This is in concrete evidence on SS Punkaharju.

A few years back, Leinonen had been restoring the captain’s cabin. He removed plywood and wallpaper, revealing an old wooden wall. One wall board bore the text, written in pencil, ‘SS Punkaharju Savonlinna 1905.’

‘This was a piece of history and we had to leave the writing in place. It’s not the original cabin, but it’s still pretty nice. One has to wonder who wrote it back then,’ Leinonen says.

Steamships used to be of enormous importance to communities. They offered the fastest – sometimes the only – way to get to hospital or other services.

‘As a captain, I have met people whose lives were saved by this ship when they fell ill with tuberculosis as a child, and the ship took them to the hospital when the local doctor was away. A horse and carriage would not have been fast enough to get them to a doctor in time,’ Leinonen says.

Today, steamships no longer have that life-or-death significance, but rather their value has more to do with image and publicity. The ships’ history still attracts.

‘On these ships, history and culture go hand in hand and are important to people. Why shouldn’t we take their story beyond Savonlinna, even overseas? We should let people know that these ships still exist and are taken care of,’ Leinonen muses.

Family of sailors

Oy Vip Cruise Ltd, the operator of the steamships, is a family business, founded in 1989. It started from the vision of captain Kari Leinonen’s father. Kari’s father had been working on tugboats so his son was familiar with that part of the shipping world. While he worked as a doorman at Hotel Tott, he would look at the harbour and realise that

Savonlinna had no service that organised meetings and seminars for businessmen and companies that could be held on Saimaa. Vip Cruise was established to fill that need.

And that is how the business took off. Their first ship was a Dutch steel cruiser which they used to operate chartered cruises. Steamships were introduced in the 1990s when Kari Leinonen had an opportunity to buy ships. In 1999, he bought the first steamer, SS Punkaharju. The Paul Wahl followed in the mid-2000s, and SS Savonlinna was added in 2008 on lease.

After the Leinonens, other entrepreneurs have started running chartered cruises from Savonlinna, but the product was originally developed by the Leinonen family. Nobody else organises steamship cruises.

‘There are fine cruises all over the world, but they don’t have our Saimaa or the traditional steamers with great service and customised packages. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience, offered nowhere else,’ says Leinonen.

One way or another, Leinonen has been participating in the family undertaking since he was a little boy. Since 2005, he has been a partner. His own sons often sail along, but it is too early for him to say whether the boys, aged 8 and 13, will take over from him.

‘We don’t know what the world will be like. Who knows: Saimaa may be Europe’s most popular travel destination, which would make this a real gold mine. But our business is not relying on having my boys as unpaid labour,’ Leinonen jokes.

The Leinonen business is taking tender care of three historic steamships, which is a good-sized concentration for a small town like Savonlinna. However, Leinonen does not want his family business to take the credit for the strong concentration of steamers in Savonlinna. He thinks that the city has always been a centre for steamships. This may be part of the reason why other locations have not become as interested in them as Savonlinna has. Another reason, according to Leinonen, is the central location of the harbour in the city. In Savonlinna, you simply cannot avoid going to the harbour.

‘Demand, of course, is a deciding factor. You might have one ship as a hobby or as therapy, but three or four are too many for that purpose,’ Leinonen chuckles.

Royals and storms

Over the years, Leinonen has served as the captain for some high-ranking people, sometimes in perilous conditions.

In summer 2011, his guests included a royal party and the President of the Republic with her security entourage, all on the same cruise. Leinonen will remember that particular cruise for other reasons as well, for how it was organised and how it came out.

As there had been so much to prepare for and organise, Leinonen had started out behind schedule. There were other delays along the way, and things were getting really tight. Leinonen finally arrived at exactly the same moment as the guests, who believed that the arrival had been timed just for them.

‘At some point, I broke out in cold sweat thinking about what would happen if we were late. But in the end, it seemed like a well-planned part of the programme when the guests saw the ship arrive at exactly the right time, just for them. On top of everything else the weather was perfect, with a placid lake and temperatures of 23 degrees. Everything was spot on!’ Leinonen laughs.

Another unforgettable guest from summer 2011 was Mr Forrest Mars. One year eariler, Leinonen had received an enquiry via a friend to help with the travel plans of an unnamed person arriving in Savonlinna. Leinonen began to plan and organise. A little later he was told that the guest would arrive on their own boat and had asked if he could arrange a berth for them in the harbour. Leinonen responded that it would not be a problem and asked what type of boat they had in mind so he could arrange for a suitable berth.

‘I was told that it would a 55-metre boat,’ the captain chuckles.

‘Slowly, we came to understand that these guests would be among the wealthiest in the world and that it would be a party of some hundred people. Well, no problem, for a few days the city saw some really good parties,’ Leinonen remembers.

In summer 2007, when the centennial anniversary of our parliament was celebrated, Leinonen and his ships were subjected to an inspection by the police and the Finnish intelligence agency. First, a meeting of the Nordic prime ministers was held on the Punkaharju, and the police inspected her before the arrival of the guests. Later in the summer, the speaker of the parliament, a former president and his delegation visited the Opera Festival. Leinonen’s ships were again inspected by the police.

‘Only a few days later, the president herself came on board. That’s when the police said that they wouldn’t bother to go through the ship again, they knew that everything would be as it should. That was fine by me,’ Leinonen laughs.

The presence of high-ranking people does not change the operation of the ship, however. Everything runs as usual, it is simply part of the job.

‘It doesn’t create any pressure. We just double-check that everything is shipshape. When it comes to sailing a ship, it doesn’t matter who is on board. We are responsible for everybody on board, no matter who they are. It’s always a human being we are responsible for,’ Leinonen explains.

He believes that the human touch is exactly what makes their family business and operations unique.

‘It’s a big part of our operating model. That’s what we emphasise to our staff, too: that we, as a family business, don’t welcome our guests as formally as they do at the Hilton. We treat them as our guests, no matter who they are,’ Leinonen emphasises.

Besides unforgettable guests, Leinonen also remembers a cruise that almost ended badly. Storm Asta was blowing in July 2010 as Leinonen was taking SS Punkaharju on a charter cruise. He was returning to the harbour where the ship would have to be turned around. However, because of the storm, the ship could no longer be turned. Leinonen had just come to the narrow passage in front of the harbour where a ship as large as the Punkaharju could not possibly be turned around. On top of everything else, the wind was blowing into the harbour.

As Leinonen became aware of the situation, he immediately told the engineer about the unusually high winds and asked him to wait for further orders. The deck personnel came to ask what to do. Leinonen ordered everybody to the lower deck, closing all doors so water could not get in. Then he started thinking about how to minimise any damage. He was certain they would not get away without some loss. He had to minimise any bodily harm and also try to ensure that they didn’t lose the ship in its entirety. Leinonen based his action plan on these goals and decided to take the ship alongside the footbridge in the market square. He thought that there she would not get bumped to pieces or topple over, which would be dangerous for both people and the ship. All the while, Leinonen had to be careful not to hit anybody as there were dozens of boats in the harbour.

‘But trying to avoid every rowboat in that situation would have been the last thing to consider. It wasn’t possible either, not with this ship,’ the captain thinks.

At the end, everything worked out OK. Leinonen managed to steer the ship to the place he wanted her without causing any human or property damage – apart from a few broken champagne glasses. Leinonen received grateful calls hours after the event.

The next morning, he was back on the bridge.

‘That’s life when you have a business to run. If an aeroplane pilot has to make an emergency landing, he immediately gets six months’ sick leave,’ the captain quips.

Leinonen admits that although he was able to maintain a cool head and think clearly in the situation, it did have an emotional impact and kept him awake at night.

‘But you have to be able to concentrate. Somebody else might have lost it completely. I was lucky it didn’t happen to me. I have always said that you have to respect nature when on board. Nature is always stronger than the ship or the crew. You know that something like that can happen. It did happen and we got over it, without suffering any traumas,’ the captain muses.

Customers the best part of the job

Our scenic cruise on Saimaa is coming to an end, and Leinonen steers the Punkaharju past Olavinlinna so the tourists can admire the castle and take photos. Leinonen’s handling of the ship shows experience, and to a bystander it might seem that the work of a captain is quite exciting and even difficult. But Leinonen sees it differently.

‘Driving the ship is the easy part. There are plenty of drivers – even good ones – and some are quite handsome, too. Not quite as handsome as I am, but almost,’ Leinonen jokes.

What then is the best part? The captain finds the question difficult and ponders on his answer for a while.

‘Positive customer feedback really feels good. When somebody comes to say thank you, you know that you have fulfilled their wishes.’

The whistle announces the steamship’s arrival, and Leinonen guides the Punkaharju to her berth in Savonlinna harbour. Captain Leinonen steps out onto the pavement, and more than one of the passengers thank him when leaving the ship. As I step on land from the deck of the Punkaharju, I feel like I am returning from a historical time back to the modern day. A little wistfully, I plan to return to time travel come next summer.

SS Paul Wahl

SS Paul Wahl is one of the last white steamships built in Finland.  She was built in 1919 in Varkaus and was initially named SS Maaninka. Prior to her current name, the Paul Wahl has also sailed under the names SS Paasikivi, SS Joensuu, SS Mikkeli and SS Vehmersalmi. She was given the name SS Paul Wahl in 1982. The Paul Wahl operates as a charter cruiser and, in summer time, also runs scenic cruises from Savonlinna harbour. The ship can carry about a hundred people and measures 26.5 m long, 6 m wide and 2.1 m deep.

SS Punkaharju

SS Punkaharju is an inland water steamship, built in 1905 in Savonlinna. She is the only remaining passenger steamship built in Savonlinna. She was originally built for the landowner cooperative Punkaharju. She was first intended for passenger traffic along the challenging Saimaa route from Punkaharju to Savonlinna. The ship burnt in 1926, but was rebuilt the same year. The current Punkaharju has been restored to her 1926 design. SS Punkaharju has previously sailed under several different names: SS Osuuskunta I, SS Kerttu, SS Punkaharju and SS Taimi III. The Punkaharju can carry 75 people and measures 22.5 m long, 4.95 m wide and 2 m deep.

SS Savonlinna – ‘The Saimaa Express’

SS Savonlinna, originally built in 1904, is a true steamship. Her current exterior was restored to a 1927 design. This centenarian is still fuelled with metre-long birch logs. She is 27.8 m long, 6.6 m wide and 2.4 m deep and can carry about a hundred people. The Savonlinna operates only on charter and is used today for meeting, training and entertainment cruises. The ship is owned by the Savonlinna County Museum, which leases her to Vip Cruise.

Reeta Toivanen

More information on ships and cruises is available at www.vipcruise.info.