Tall Ships and the Åland Isles

Article by Marcus Palmén
October 2006

This article is dedicated to my father the late Reverend Dean Nils-Erik Palmén who for the first two years of my life kept me on some very small islands in the Bothnic sea and imbued me with a life long preference for islands and islanders. He was a powerful lutheran preacher some what prone to the blood and thunder variety but perhaps more accurately described as a preacher to a congregation consisting of men rather than women. His first appointment as an ordained priest was on the Kökar and Sottunga islands in Åland.
The Vicarage Sottunga 1933 - Population 135 in 2006
The Vicarage Sottunga 1933
Population 135 in 2006

The islanders were farmers who had boats to take their produce to mainland Sweden, Finland and the Baltic States as they had done ever since the isles were populated. As their boats grew into ships with time they ventured across the North Sea to England and Scotland This had over the years developed so the men lived on the sea as seamen traders and the women stayed at home and ran the farms. Now clearly this provided my father with the wrong congregation and as a result he volunteered to go abroad as a seamans priest in 1934. He was given the task of establishing a Finnish Seamens Church in Hull and now had the nearly all male congregation he desired.

History of the Åland Islands

The Åland Islands were part of the territory ceded to Russia by Sweden under the Treaty of Fredrikshamn in September 1809. This resulted in these wholy Swedish speaking islands becoming a part of the semi-autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland.

Bomarsund Fortress In 1832, Russia started to fortify the islands with the great fortress of Bomarsund. This was captured and destroyed by a combined British and French force of warships and marines in 1854 as part of the campaign in the Baltic during the Crimean War. In the Treaty of Paris (1856), the entire Åland Islands were demilitarized.

During the Finnish Civil War, in 1918, "White" Finnish troops fought "Red" troops who came from Finland over the frozen sea. Swedish troops landed to intervene as a peacekeeping force stationed on the islands and Historians, however, point out that Sweden may have in reality planned to occupy the islands. Within weeks, the Swedish troops gave way to German troops that occupied Åland by request of the "White" (conservative) Finnish Senate.
Building 'Lyckan' - The Good Fortune
After 1917, the residents of the islands worked towards having the islands ceded to Sweden.Finland was, however, not willing to cede the islands and instead offered them an autonomous status. Nevertheless the residents did not approve the offer, and the dispute over the islands was submitted to the League of Nations. The latter decided that Finland should retain sovereignty over the province but that the Åland Islands should be made an autonomous territory. Thus Finland was obliged to ensure the residents of the Åland Islands the right to maintain the Swedish language, as well as their own culture and local traditions. At the same time, an international treaty established the neutral status of Åland, whereby it was prohibited to place military headquarters or forces on the islands.

In the course of the twentieth century, increasing numbers of the islanders have perceived Finnish sovereignty as benevolent and even beneficial. The combination of disappointment about insufficient support from Sweden in the League of Nations, Swedish disrespect for Åland's demilitarised status in the 1930s, and some feelings of a shared destiny with Finland during and after World War II has changed the islanders' perception of Åland's relation to Finland from "a Swedish province in Finnish possession" to "an autonomous part of Finland".

Life in the Islands

Roxane by the Clifton Suspension Bridge The people of Åland had for centuries derived their livelihood from agriculture and seafaring; they sailed to Stockholm and to Turku to sell firewood, fish, meat, dairy products, etc. And they brought salt and textilies home to Åland. Rich farmers had their own boats, others owned halves, quarters, or smaller parts. The boats were usually small cutters and ketches. The farmers were usually masters of their own boats, sailing during the summer while their wives and children took care of the farm at home. In the winter the boats were laid up. In the 19th century the Åland ``farmer sailors'' started to sail further abroad, carrying cargos of firewood to Swedish, German and Danish ports. Soon they went as far as the North Sea. Many young people chose to go to sea instead of staying at home working at the farm; they were adventurous, and the exciting life at sea seemed more attractive. During the winter when the Baltic was icebound, the ships would sail south into the North sea and ply trade between continental and English and Irish ports. Bristol was among those visited, as can be seen from the last photo above.

Larger and larger vessels were built; ketches, schooners, barquentines, brigs and barques. However, in the 1890s the golden age of sail in the Baltic was coming to its end -- sailing ships could not keep up with the competition from steamers. Fewer and fewer new sailing vessels were built, they were instead bought second hand from foreign shipowners that were making the transition to steam. However, very few people on the Åland islands, or in Finland in general, were able to invest in steam ships. As a result, in the early 20th century farmers started to go back to their farms, but young people still went to sea. Shipping became commercialized and moved to Mariehamn the main town and seat of the local parliament.

Gustaf Erikson and the Tall Ships

The Grace Harwar in Bristol Old Dock 1922 An Ålander named Gustaf Erikson was born in the middle of the "golden age" of sail. His father Gustaf Adolf was a skipper and partowner of many vessels. At the age of ten, Gustaf Erikson went to sea in the barque Neptun as a page boy for the skipper and helper for the cook, and two years later we find him as the cook on the same vessel. He then started working on deck and studying in Mariehamn's school of navigation, and he soon got his master's certificate. In 1906 he married Hilda Bergman. He was at the time master of the full-rigged ship Albania, the largest ship in Åland.

In 1913 he went ashore for good, with 20 years as a master behind him. He now decided to become a shipowner, moved to Mariehamn, and bought the composite barque Tjerimai, and bought himself into several other Åland ships. He bought the four-masted barque Renée Rickmers and renamed her the Åland; but she grounded and was lost less than one year later, and Erikson decided never to rename a ship again. During the first World War, Erikson's shipping company was more or less financed by his incredibly lucky Tjerimai, others were lost -- capsized or sunk by German submarines and cruisers. In 1916 he bought the famous full-rigger Grace Harwar and in 1917 the four-masted barque Lawhill.Archibald Russell from the Graf Zeppelin
>When the plaque for Sir Archibald Russell was installed on Engineers Walk my thoughts and Memories took me back to 1939 when I visited his namesake the Archibald Russell in Hull Docks. We were entertained to dinner in the saloon on several Sundays. The story of the Archibald Russell is best related in a book by Captain Harry Mowat who lives in Abbots Leigh. His book cover all of J.Hardies Sailing Ships and is quoted in the bibliography

The Favell The Favell in the last photo above is a tall ship that has little to do with the Åland Isles but is included because of her unique associations. She was built under cover in Charles Hills Shipyard in Bristol in 1895 and was named after a daughter named Favell Hill. As a youngster I was taken for walks and sailing model toy yachts in East Park, Hull by a retired Finnish seaman who used to sail in the tall ships and who's last ship, which he always talked about, was called I thought the "Farewell". Since then my researches discovered no such vessel existed but "Favell" which came into Finnish ownership and was used as a training ship satisfied all my known criteria. She ended life at a shipbreakers in Wiborg, in the province of Karelia, which happens to be my birthplace. So it looks as if her journey through life was the reverse of mine.

After the first world war, the days of sailing ships were considered to be all but over. The other Åland shipping companies went into steam, but Erikson saw the opportunity to do the exact opposite! He realized that big sailing ships in good condition would be available at low prices, so he started buying everything that he could get his hands on and was good enough. He put all his big ships on the Australian wheat trade, this being the only deep-water trade on which sailing ships could compete successfully with steamers. During the 30's the breakeven point for the cargo of wheat was 20/- a ton.

There was always a seasonal race to be the first ship back in Europe in order to obtain the best price for the grain. From 1926 to 1939 it was always one of Eriksons Ships. Any time less than 100 days was regarded as fast. The record of 83 days was held by the Parma in 1933. The outward journey in ballast was usually faster by about 14 days. The record was by a pair of German ships Padua and Priwall taking 67 days from Hamburg in 1933 (a good year for sailing it seems).

Erikson was particularly interested in ships formerly owned by Reederei F. Laeisz, Hamburg, the Flying P-line. These ships were strong, fast and in very good condition, having sailed on the South American nitrate trade, one of the toughest trades in the world. In the 1920s Laeisz started to get rid of his sailers, which was good news for Erikson. The first P-liner that Erikson bought, the Pommern, is still preserved as a museum ship in Mariehamn. He bought his last sailer, the enormous four-masted barque Moshulu in 1935.

The Size of Eriksons Ships

The Size of Eriksons Ships
The Viking under the Clifton Suspension Bridge
The Viking under the Clifton Suspension Bridge

The Archibald Russell at Hull 1939
Archibald Russell
Hull 1939
Never to sail again
World War II was very hard for Erikson, and put a definite end to deep-water sailing. The Olivebank sailed on a mine in the North Sea and sunk, the Penang and the Killoran were sunk by the Germans, the Lawhill was taken as prize of war by the South African government, the Archibald Russell by the British, the Pamir by New Zealand and the Moshulu by the Germans. After the war only three deep-water sailers remained: the Pommern, the Viking, and the Passat. The Pommern was in need of repairs that Erikson could not perform now, so only Viking and Passat went to sea again and together made one voyage on the wheat trade (in 1947). Erikson was working hard to get the Pamir, the Archibald Russell and the Lawhill back, but died in 1947 at the age of 75.

Gustaf's son Edgar Erikson took over the company, and managed to get the Pamir and the Archibald Russell back. However, only the Pamir and the Passat went to sea again, making one last voyage on the wheat trade in 1948-49.

Edgar Erikson was not able to make a profit with the sailers, so he decided to get rid of them. The Viking was sold to Gothenburg and the Pommern was donated to the City of Mariehamn. The three others were sold to scrapyard, but a German shipowner bought the Pamir and the Passat from the scrapyard and thus saved them. They then became cargo-carrying schoolships. The Passat finally ended up in Travemünde after the tragic loss of the Pamir in 1957.
Marcus Palmén

  • The Last Tall Ships
    by George Kihre
    ISBN 0 85177 134 3
  • Sail's Last Century
    The Merchant Sailing Ship 1830-1930
    edited by Dr Basil Greenhill
    ISBN 0 85117 565 9
  • Herzogin Cecilie
    Basil Greenhill and John Hackman
    ISBN 0 85117 556 X
  • Lonely Ships
    The Sailing Ships of J.Hardie & Co.
    and the Archibald Russell
    ISBN 0 9517695 8 8 (pbk)
    ISBN 1 900312 05 0 (hbk)
  • The Medley of Mast and Sail
    A camera record vol2
    ISBN 0 903662 07 6
  • The Four-Masted Barque Lawhill
    Kenneth Edwards, Roderick Anderson, Richard Cookson
    ISBN 0 85177 676 0