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Three days on the Baltic: the ‘Hansa run’ in winter

The heavy Russian syllables tumbled out one after another as the guard at the gate pointed down the road of the container shipping terminal. All I managed to decipher was ‘Ro-Ro’ and ‘three kilometres’. The rest was a complete mystery. But set off I did in the direction of his outstretched arm, pondering all the while whether he had said, ‘turn left, left again, right, do a u-turn and swim across the harbour’.

St Petersburg portThankfully it was not to be, for the rough road led me on, past trucks, containers, railway carriages, piles of ice, cranes, dirty puddles and tumbling warehouses. Most terminals simply won’t allow idiots to meander around a busy site. Instead, you need to wait for a shuttle bus or an official car to take you to the ship. Thankfully, the Russians are more relaxed and creative concerning such matters.

Eventually I reached the ‘РО-РО ТЕРМИНАЛ’. Shouldering my way through tough Russian sailors, enjoying the company of a beaming port official who invited me to watch the end of a football game (St Petersburg defeated Moscow, much to his pleasure) before he would process my papers, I boarded a Finnlines ship, the Finntrader, that would take me over the next three days from Russia to Germany.


With no passenger gangway or signs, I wandered around aimlessly on the container deck, trying to figure out how to get to the cabins. Eventually, a young man working the deck asked me if he could help. ‘We don’t get many passengers’, he said. ‘So it’s strange to see someone walking on the ship’. He pointed me up some stairs and then towards my cabin. Gloriously spacious it was, with a bathroom, living area with easy chairs and coffee-table, desk, and then a sleeping corner with that clean white linen the Scandinavians know how to produce.

If one expected the passengers to be svelte Swedish women with long blond hair and time to kill, or perhaps sleek Russian women in impossible high-heals and tight jeans, then one was to be bitterly disappointed. Fortunately, I came with no expectations. This was, after all, a working ship, plying an ancient trade route across the Baltic. Its cargo may have varied from rubber duckies to industrial waste, from dildos to nuclear fuel, but they were all carried by containers, mostly on the trailers of trucks. And to drive those trucks one needs drivers.

On departure from St. Petersburg, about twenty burly Russian truckies were on board. Now was the time to relax, pass the time, drink, tell jokes – which they did incessantly and to uproarious laughter. But the emphasis was clearly on burly and I was soon to find out why. The Swedes may be good at producing all manner of fresh, crisp food, along with beautifully prepared seafood. But these truckies shunned such food as fit only for poofters (what did they think of me? I pondered). They preferred the long, heavy sausages, the massive chunks of dead animal, vast sloshes of gravy and sauce, huge piles of ice cream, bottles of sweet flavouring atop the ice cream, and, at afternoon tea, mountains of sweet pies and cream.

No wonder their chests were so full, their guts so extensive and low-hanging, their jowls so thick. But I also came to appreciate another distinctive feature of my voyaging comrades only after a further hundred or so joined us at Ventspils: they all sported bushy moustaches. There sat I in the dining room, thin and clean-shaven. There sat they filling the caverns of their guts and bristling with 120 moustaches.

By contrast, the crew I met were all Swedish women, all smokers, all full of smiles. For some reason, Swedish women are not so taken with burly Russian truck-drivers nursing their charges through the passage. So soon enough I had more than the usual personal attention from the crew. One sought me out when the meal was ready; another noticed my food choices and offered to arrange for vegetarian options; another was full of chit-chat when I ordered a couple of drinks.

‘Is English OK?’ I asked her.

‘Yes, thank God’, she replied as we talked of Australia, sun, beaches, and why in the world I was up here in the ice and cold.


Eventually we said farewell to … Leningrad! As we slid past the final piers of the famous port, I spied a vast sign welcoming ships to and farewelling them from ЛЕНИНГРАД. I said my own farewell with a smile. Soon enough we passed the formidable naval fortress of Kronstadt, where the radical garrison was a crucial element in the success of the communist revolution of October 1917.

Without a commercial passenger liner’s ‘entertainment’, without internet or phone, the time was my own. The day quickly settled into a rhythm of breakfast, lunch and dinner, served in a dining room and included in the cost of the ticket. In between I explored the ship, wrote, let my thoughts tumble and explored the ship again.

We sailed along one half of the major Hanseatic route, from St. Petersburg, stopping at Ventspils in Latvia and eventually berthing at Lübeck, in the Schleswig-Holstein area in what is now northern Germany. Known as the ‘queen of the Hansa’, Lübeck was the point where raw materials from the Baltic regions and Russia – timber, flax, honey, furs, resin (or tar), rye and wheat – would transfer to the overland route to Hamburg, there to be loaded on other ships and sent down the European coast line. In the reverse direction would go cloth and other manufactured goods.

Lübeck first came to prominence after it was rebuilt in 1159 by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. Granted the status of ‘free imperial city’ in 1227, it became the key to the whole ‘hansa’ or ‘league’ of like-minded towns in northern Europe interested in developing early trade (and making a profit). The league itself was officially established in 1356 with the first Diet of the Hansa (Hansetag) in Lübeck. But the groundwork had already been laid the century before, not merely in terms of trade routes, but also through Lübeck’s pre-eminence as a ship-building centre, the spread of German colonists along the Baltic and into Russia (Veliky Novgorod), and the powerful alliance between Hamburg and Cologne. At its peak in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Hansa League included between 70 to 170 towns – if one includes the many places with kontore and hanseatic merchants and warehouses – such as Ventspils, Riga, Tallinn (Reval), Gdansk (Danzig), Bergen (Brygge), Antwerp, Lüneberg and even London and Berlin.

Loose in structure, meeting irregularly in Lübeck, the towns either followed German ‘town law’ (based on that of Lübeck and with right of appeal to that town council) or had citizens who had been born of German parents – although that ‘German’ was Plattdeutch, the low middle German still spoken in those regions. Each town owed a military levy, needed for the frequent conflicts undertaken to protect Hansa interests from those who would and eventually did outstrip them, such as Holland, Denmark and Sweden. Operating for half a millennium (thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries), the Hanseatic towns developed the first pockets of what would come to be called the bourgeoisie.

But one merely needs to sail these parts to realise that the Baltic is an excellent sea on which to establish such a league. Or perhaps one could say that the Baltic itself produced the Hansa towns. Small ships with limited navigational equipment need a relatively small body of water on which to sail. The sea is small, land is always nearby, and although storms can whip up and cause a ship some grief, it is more often than not reasonably calm. More – such as the Atlantic or Pacific oceans – would have been far too much for their tiny vessels.


Our vessel was a container ship of the ‘Ro-Ro’ standard (roll-on roll off), although as I watched a massive crane lifting a few items on board I wondered whether it was also a ‘Lo-Lo” ship (load on, load off). Who is to quibble? But it was a far cry from the early ships they used for running between the Hanseatic towns. Initially they used the European cog, which was an enlarged Viking ship with a deeper hull, large sail in the middle, but no oars. By the fourteenth century it had a stern rudder added, which was copied from the southern Mediterranean and allowed one to sail into the wind. The basic design became a pointed bow, square stern and castles at both ends for shelter, cargo, people, and armaments – particularly important for the Hansa trade since nation-states did not yet have the structures for such protection. From here there were two variations on the cog, which took place through a mingling of northern European and Mediterranean styles. From the fifteenth century onwards, the carrack and caravel were widely used. The former added to the single square sail of the cog a lateen sail or two, borrowed from the Mediterranean. The latter had a slender hull and up to six lateen sails.

And to navigate those tiny ships, the methods were somewhat basic. Determining latitude was quite easy: focus on the North Star (Polaris) or sun, determine their angles in relation to the horizon, and then use that to determine distance from the equator. All manner of approaches were used, such as fingers, cross-staff, quadrant, astrolabe, and then the reliable sextant. But longitude was a different kettle of fish. The key was to measure how much time had passed from the last known landmark. But this needs an accurate timepiece and until 1761 none were available. At the time the Hanseatic League emerged, sailors were trying various approaches, such as guesswork, watching weed or flotsam floating past, turning an hour-glass at regular intervals, throwing a piece of wood over board and then timing it as it passed the stern, or a rope tied to the wood with knots at regular intervals (hence ‘knots’). The trick was to estimate speed, measure it several times a day and then calculate the distance travelled. All were variations on ‘dead reckoning’ – observing the ship’s movement and estimating its location as best as possible. It left much room for error. Yet with all these ‘modern’ inventions, sailors still relied on ‘capping’ or ‘kenning’, essentially guiding a ship from cape to cape by means of a lookout on the crows-nest, who would know (‘ken’) whether the next cape was in view and where reefs or sandbars were.

Of course, our ship made use of the latest equipment, including computers, satellite phones and screens for communication, electronic depth measuring devices, GPS devices (one for our current location, the other for waypoints), the latest radar with data provided on each ship passing, electronic charts, and duplicate controls on either fly-bridge. Yet it did not dispense with those age-old methods – the use of ears and eyes, assisted by binoculars.

Ship in Baltic iceOn our first night, eyes were wide and ears intent, for as we passed out through the Gulf of Finland, a snow storm blew hard against the ship and a wind from Siberia cut to your bone. Through it all came another sound. Crunch, jolt, shake, crunch, jolt, shake – the Gulf had frozen over in what everyone was calling a ‘return to winter’. Word had it that a few ships had been frozen in on the previous night. Ours at least seemed to have the engine power to plough through it, burning that thick, black, barely refined fuel that goes by the euphemism of ‘diesel’ (it requires, I am told, heating up before use on a freezing day). Ice broke up, sheets slid over one another, a network of cracks faded away into the darkness.

Through my porthole, I noticed two search-lights beaming from the bridge. They were using their eyes, glued to binoculars, to scan the ice ahead in order to watch for a larger chunk that may cause the ship some problems. As for me, I looked at the caches of life jackets and wondered what a swim in the Gulf would be like in this weather.


Apart from the ice, snow storm and then driving rain from grey skies, the passage was peaceful enough. But soon enough, too soon it seemed, the low shoreline of the old Hanseatic queen, Lübeck, emerged from the line between sea and sky. This ancient mode of arriving in a place still gives me a thrill, the caress of the shoreline, the gentle negotiation of tight spaces to berth the ship.

Full of romance, thoughts of ancient sailors eagerly coming ashore, I was ready to leap off the ship and put my feet on not-so-dry land. But I was brought abruptly to a halt:

‘Passports and documents need to be checked first’, I was told.

‘How long?’ I asked.

‘About two hours’, she said. ‘And you will need a shuttle bus in the port, before you clear customs’.

It was a far cry from the relaxed Russian approach.

More by this author on his very excellent travel blog.

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