|The Baltic Superferries
It is almost like a cruise experience sailing between the ports of Helsinki and Stockholm, sailing on the best "cruise-ferries" of the world
by Arturo Paniagua (11/03/97)
Ports and Passengers
Besides getting to know these two beautiful capitals, which in and of itself justifies the journey, one can sail on the best "cruise-ferries" in the world.
These ships are the consequence of the enormous passenger traffic in the Baltic, that has annually moved more than eleven million people between Sweden and Finland, during the last five years.
The combined population of the two nations is approximately thirteen million people.
The ships that sail the route always set sail at 6.00 pm, and they arrive in port at 8.30 am
As there is an hour time difference between Sweden and Finland, the voyage to Helsinki takes fifteen and a half hours, while the voyage to Stockholm takes fifteen hours and fifty minutes. The two routes are different.
The Two Ports
This route is served by two rival lines that have been in competition for many years: Viking Line and Silja Lines.
Ships of both lines dock in the south port of Helsinki, considered one of the best passenger ports in the world, which is in the center of the city.
There is an outdoor market in the summer, and you will also see can the Presidential Palace, the City Council and the Orthodox Cathedral.
From the docks the Lutheran cathedral (that dominates the skyline) can also be enjoyed, as well as the famous square of the Senate.
Less than 20 minutes on foot from the port are unique buildings by famous architects like Engels and Aalto.
Ten minutes before docking the Suomemlinna Castle, that dates from the XVIII century and forms part of the city defense system, can be seen in the distance.
Lines and Terminals
In the Swedish capital, both operators have their terminals in different docks.
The Viking Line is located on Sodermaln Island (Tegelvik Port), just in front of the famous Skansen Amusement Park; it is relatively near the old district of Stockholm and is provided with a free bus line to the central railway station.
The terminal of the Silja Line is located far from the center of Stockholm. It's in the Gardet district (Vjrla Port), in the modern commercial port of the Swedish capital.
The Silja Line provides a free bus service to the nearest underground station (Ropsen).
The best part of the daytrip is, without any doubt, sailing across the Skargarden, or Stockholm archipelago, that has more than 24,000 islands.
One could contemplate the inner islands, big and forest covered with many small log cabins. Leaving the archipelago and heading toward the Baltic, the islands become smaller, more sterile and rocky.
You can also look at the Oskar Frederiksborg castle, built in order to protect the Finland route from Stockholm.
From the docks of both capitals you can also see the docking maneuvers of the big ferries.
It seems impossible that these ships, with their great size can move with such precision. Especially recommended is the Silja Line docking movements in Helsinki, because of their extreme difficulty.
The Cruise Ferries
The enormous demand for sea travel in the Baltic (approximately 15% growth in recent years) together with the ferocious competition between the existing lines has promoted the development of a new type of ship: the cruise-ferry.
The English word "ferry" is used to designate a ship that allows passengers and vehicles to travel from one port to another.
Ferry designers always try to increase the number of passengers and vehicles, and also improve the turnaround time (loading and unloading) and the crossing time.
The factors previously mentioned (demand and competition) have made the atmosphere, the comforts and the leisure activities on board more and more necessary.
So, the ship itself has become a tourist destination as important as the two ports. This has allowed the operators to increase their revenues from passenger sales and services (duty free stores, foods, casinos, etc.). This represents up to 40% of the total revenue, allowing companies to lower, or at least maintain, present prices.
Silvia Regina and Finland
This tendency began in the early eighties, with the delivery of the Silja Line twins, "Silvia Regina" and "Finland," both with 26,000 TRB.
80% of the 2,000 passengers can have a cabin, the smallest of which are 9 square metres and have three beds and a shower.
These ships have 17 public areas, (Maxim's restaurant is the highlight) in order to make the crossing pleasant.
The "Finland", that now sails like the "Queen of Scandinavia" between Oslo and Copenhagen, was at that time the biggest ferry in the world.
Now the "Silvia Regina" sails for Stena Line between Norway and Denmark.
The impact produced by the introduction of these ships in the Helsinki- Stockholm route provoked the rival Viking Line to build, in the mid eighties, the twin ferries "Mariella" and "Olympia," with 37,000 TRB .
They were described by their fans as the world's best except for the size of their cabins. The two ships had cabins for 2,372 of their 2,500 passengers.
Mariella, Olympia, Athena, Kalypso and Cinderella
The "Olympia" (sailing now between Bilbao and Porsmouth like "Pride of Bilbao") is characterized by its colorful decoration, in contrast to the more moderate style of the Silja Line.
Their grand entrance halls, full of brass and marble, are on the sixth deck. Nearly all the public areas are on deck seven, and are connected by a spacious hall with panoramic views.
Signs are clear and easily understood so passengers can easily find their own cabin. There are 800 distributed among five decks.
"Mariella" and "Olympia" marked the entrance of the Viking Line in the cruise ferry market.
They were followed by another three, which at the time of their delivery, were the biggest ferries of the world: "Athena," "Kalypso" and "Cinderella."
"Athena" and "Kalypso" are twin ships of 40,000 TRB.
They are famous for their restaurant "Smaragd", located on deck 8. External cabins are located on deck 10 and have windows with a 180 degree view.
The "Cinderella," which is 46,000 TRB, is known for her twenty two different leisure lounges, and for her passenger/crew ratio of 7, the lowest in the Baltic.
Silja Serenade and Silja Symphony
The most recent ships that have begun plying this route are the culmination of the cruise-ferry concept.
Silja Line developed a design with 80% of the cabins having windows to attract more passengers.
This was achieved by incorporating a central passageway that runs along the entire 140 m. lenght of the ship.
This is called the promenade, it is 8 meter wide and ends at a great window at the stern of the ship.
The roof is made of glass and increases the natural light creating an unmatched ambiance.
Around this concept the "Silja Serenade" and "Silja Symphony" were constructed, being the bigger atrium build in a passenger ship.
All the activities are located around this space, where the passengers could be easily guided in order to find their cabin, using the twelve elevators and the four principal stairways.
These ships of 58,000 TRB, are the biggest pair of cruise ferry, they are double the size of their predecessors "Finland" and "Silvia Regina", but they only transport 25% more passengers.
The central passageway is skirted by restaurants, shops and leisure sites, such as a teen disco and a games room, so every passenger can eat and enjoy doing what they like.
The passageway also houses the greatest nursery afloat.
Beyond the atrium there is the "Atlantis Palace", a dance saloon with live music that can guest 1,000 people. The dance floor can move up and down thanks to hydraulic pumps.
And then we have the "Atlantis" casino, the largest of the Baltic.
The lower deck (number 6) (below the passageway) houses the duty free shop, the "a la carte restaurant" and the buffet.
Other entertainment areas are on the the bridge deck, at the stern, with the Stardust night club and the complex called Sunflower Oasis, where there is a gym, a pool, a sauna, etc.
These ships are fitted for conventions and business meetings, with all the audiovisual necessary mediums.
Two cabin rows are on both sides of the passageways with a view to the sea and the passageways. 750 of the 952 cabins have big windows.
The price of a double cabin of 11 square metres is $ 200 per person including breakfast.
If you travel on Fridays the prices are 20% more.
The ships are also provided with deluxe cabins of the "Silja" and "Commodore" class.
The former are 14 square metres and cost $ 250 per person. The latter are 25 square metres and cost $ 320 per person. They are fitted with balcony and sauna.
Cabins without window are 11 square metres and cost $ 110 per person.
All cabins are air conditioned with shower and full facilities.
A passanger could get a $ 10 ticket to dine at the buffet that are served in two sittings, 6pm and 8pm.
Breakfast starts at 7am and is included in the passage.
Safety and Ecology
After the "Scandinavian Star" fire, scandinavian marine authorities have applied a more rigid regulation to passenger ships, and the two twins of the Silja Line meet them.
The ships could be evacuated without using the central passageway. After the incident of the "Estonia" both ships were fitted with special doors on the garage decks and the bow ramp was sealed.
Regarding the ecological prevention, these ships generate low foam and waves because the flora and fauna of the archipelago that they cross are very sensitive.
All the bilge and waste waters are treated, and if needed, the treated water can be stored in holding tanks and pumped ashore.
The garbage is dropped throught waste chutes to compactors on the car deck and then also discharged ashore.
The ships are also fitted with NOx emission reduction system and, when they are in port, they don't run their own generators (they get the power from the dock).
The fuel tanks are protected by a double bottom which prevent oil spilling.
The Viking Line troubles
Rederi AB Slite, the Swedish partner in Viking Line, ordered a bigger ferry than the Silja twins in order to challenge Silja Lines in 1990.
The new ship which was to be deliverd in the first months of 1993 was intended to replace the Olympia in the Stocholn-Helsinki route. The contract price was $246 m and the name was "Europa".
The "Europa" is not so revolutionary in the interior design as the Silja twins but she has the same quality of entertainment.
She accomodates 3013 passengers in 465 outside and 720 inside cabins, spread over five of 13 principal decks.
The 22 public areas are on four decks. A central stairway with a glass ceiling, is the focal point of the ship.
The Moulin rouge theatre located aft is especially equipped to stage musicals, with the possibility to handle scene changes.
A children's playground and a McDonald restaurant (the first at sea) are other attractions.
As usual in the Baltic ferries, there are extensive conference facilities and tax free shopping.
Due to the financial troubles of Rederi A/B Slite, the shipbuilder chartered the "Europa" to Silja just a few weeks before the delivery.
Due to the devalutation of the Swedish Krona one of the banks withdrew from the consortium providing the loan. A new financial package involved switching the "Europa" ownership to a shipping company, Papenburger Fahrs. Gmbh & amp;Co., a Meyer Werft branch.
Rederi A/B Slite offered to buy the ship but the shipyard did not accept such a low price. This left Papenburger with only one choice: place the ship with another operator. And Silja stepped in and secured the bareboat charter of the 59,900 grt ferry.
The ferry was remaned "Silja Europa" and operated alongside the "Silja Symphony" in the Helsinki/Stockholm route.
Viking Line has already chartered out to P&O European Ferries the "Olympia", the ship that the "Europa" was intended to replace.
This means that the number of ships on the route are reduced by one.
Later that year Slite went bankrupt, and her two ships continued operating until the last months of 1993 and then were sold to Star Cruises, a new far east cruise operator that reffited both ships to cruise standards.
The route was suffering from overcapacity and the operators couldn't make a good profit so the reduced number of the ships allowed a razionalization of the market.
The closure of the Euroway service provided a further opportunity for Silja to acquire a new ship.
Frans Suell, a high capacity state-of-the-art croatian built cruise ferry, was remaned "Silja Scandinavia".
The Estonia Influence
At the end of September 1994 on a overnigth voyage from Tallin to Stockholm the 21,794 trb Estonia, a former Viking Line ferry, was lost.
It was Europe's worst peacetime maritime disaster of the century, where more than 900 passengers and crew members lost their lives.
The most direct consequence of this disaster was the decrease in the number of passengers and, of course, in the passage cost , in all the Baltic routes.
Viking Line which gained a $51 million profit in 1994, lost $5 million only in the first semester of 95.
Silja also lost $19 million in 1995, but this result was influenced by their disastrous entry in the North American cruise ship market.
Nevertheless Silja market share in the Baltic rose up to 49%, for the first time above Viking Line (39%).
History demonstrates that after a disaster there is a reduction of the demand.
Although the figures explained in this article predict a promising future for the owners that cover this route, there are certain factors that could provoke their stagnancy or decline.
One of these is the abolition of the dutyfree shops onboard.
On some routes, the revenues are up to 25% of the total.
The abolition would mean a reduction of revenue that could only be balanced with the increase of the fares, which would provoke a fall in the demand.
This has encouraged the ferry lines to develop different businesses that are not directly affected by the dutyfree shops like corporate and incentive travel, conventions and expositions on board.
Another important factor is the recent independence of the former Baltic Republics and the opening of the old USSR, with cities like St. Petersburg, that has an enormous tourist potential, that can provide a wider flow of passengers.
These states are forming their own floats using Scandinavian capital buying second hand ships.
The competition between the owners is another very important factor. The fight to own the biggest, the fastest and the most comfortable ship brings them in enourmous investments. This could result in the bankruptcy of Rederi A/B Slite within the Viking Line consortium. These owners fight very strongly with a ship yet bigger and luxurious than the Silja Line's twins, and this fact would put them out of business.
Silja Line didn't renew the Frans Suell charter and the ship will sail in the near future with the Viking Line, which needs the ship.
Also the international expansion of these owners outside the Baltic had some very bad consequences for their economy. Silja Line has had financial difficulties in the last years. She left the cruise business and sold Commodore Cruise Line, Crown Cruise Line and bareboat charter the remainder cruise ships.
Also, the English Channel branch, Sally Line, has been sold to an Australian company. From these sales Silja Line concentrates the activity in her core business, which would mean consolidation.
However, well in the next century these ships will be renewed and their successors will be doubtless the biggest, the most luxurious and the most ecological at that time.
For further information: Viking Line , Silja Lines