From the Baltic Sea to Lake Saimaa – the Repositioning Cruise of s/s Saaristo

Tarjanne Virtain laivarannassa

In June, I was on a bit different steamboat cruise as I was part of moving the steamboat Norrkulla from Helsinki to Savonlinna, from the Baltic Sea to Lake Saimaa. The name of the steamer was changed from Norrkulla to Saaristo in the destination, so that’s why s/s Saaristo is used in the title.

Background and preparations

Steamboat Norrkulla has a lively history. Originally it was used in the Nauvo (Nagu in Swedish) archipelago (Southwest Finland) as a transport ship by the name of Nagu. It was built in 1911 in Lehtoniemi Konepaja at Varkaus. During the First World War it was forcibly taken in use by the Russian Navy and got the name Nyrok.  After the war (1918), the hull was lengthened and the boat was transferred to Helsinki as a local transport boat. Then it also got is name Norrkulla.

After the road traffic around the Helsinki had improved in the 1930, Norrkulla was left out of people and cargo to transport. Therefore, it was sold to Savonlinna, Lake Saimaa in 1938. There the road conditions were not nearly as good and it served as the last steamboat in local traffic until 1975. Luckily, the steamboat found new owners that started to offer steamboat tours in Savonlinna. The boat also got it’s name Figaro which was influenced by the large opera festival held yearly in Savonlinna.

Figaro sailed the waters of Savonlinna until 2005, when it was sold to Helsinki and it got once again a new name, HöyryJuho (SteamJuho). This name lasted only a year, after which the steamboat was sold once more and the new owners changed the name back to Norrkulla from the 1920s.

However, Norrkulla was sold again in the early summer of 2020 as Janne Leinonen, a CEO of the steamboat company VIP Cruise bought the vessel. He also phoned me whether I would like to be the shipmaster on the relocationing cruise. After a brief moment of consideration, I agreed, why not. Furthermore, when I heard who will be part of the crew, I knew that this would be an excellent trip. The schedule was agreed that we would depart on Tuesday the 23rd of June as the great ‘homecoming party’ would be arranged on Saturday the 27th of June. The weather conditions seemed also favorable which was essential of transporting this kind of small steamboat. (Well, quite hot for the engineers, though.)

The trip was quite long to be a normal steamboat ride, so it took some time to make all the preparations and arrangements. Also preparing for the border formalities took more time as it was ‘the covid period’ and the travel restrictions were in effect. However, the relocation of a merchant ship (as Norrkulla) was approved. We also used a ship clearance company which was of great help dealing with the Russian administration. Thank you Kimmo once more.

The previous owners had already cruised a test cruise (after a major boiler repair, changing the fire tubes) and cleaned the ship. Marita & co (the previous owners) had put their steamer in excellent condition. The idea was to sail first to Santio border station and continue from there to Lappeenranta via the Saimaa canal and from there to Savonlinna.



Helsinki–Santio–Lappeenranta–Savonlinna. Altogether 243.5 nm which is about 451 km. Background: Google Maps.

Tuesday, the 23rd of June

I arrived with Tero by train to Helsinki in the Tuesday morning and the preparations were well on their way. The engineers Mikko (two Mikkos aboard) and Timo made the final checks in the engine room and Tapsa was buying an additional pump for the engine room. Tero and Risto headed off to get more food and mineral water. The latter was much in need as the temperature was about 27–30 degrees all the cruise. The small local shop was emptied of the mineral water!

Preparations ready, off to Savonlinna! The crew from left to right: Mikko Manka (the author of the blog), Tero Lahti, Risto Luukkainen, Tapio Kilpinen, Timo Turunen and Mikko Manninen. Pic: J. Ekholm.

When all the necessary preparations were made, we did a general tour around the steamboat with the previous owners in order to get use familiar with the steamboat. Finally we were ready to depart in 13:45. The beautiful Helsinki was left behind and the sea trip was about the begin. As a our cruising speed was a little bit under 6 knots, we had a lot of time to admire the views as well. The weather conditions – on the deck – were excellent: a slight tailwind and +27°C. However, in the engine room the temperatures were high: first over 50°C and in the latter part of the trip almost 70°C! During the journey on the sea, the temperatures were generally lower than in the lake and in the canal: the sea was still cold.

Helsinki is left behind. Pic: T. Kilpinen
Kuninkaansalmi strait.
Great cormorants on an island. Pic: T. Lahti.
Timo is checking the views. Pic: T. Lahti.
Pellinki ferry, around 19:45 on Tuesday. Pic: T. Lahti.

We took turns on watch (both on the bridge and engine room) to give enough time to rest for everyone. There was enough of nautical miles still ahead. We converted the public cabins to our use by using some mattress pads to give extra width to the narrow couches.

Risto and Tero resting on the upper deck
Sun is setting in order to rise only after a few hours. The midnight sun. Pic: T. Lahti.

As usually with these old boats, we had some technical challenges, too: the engineers had to make a small reparation to our condenser pump system off the Loviisa coast. However, it was quickly fixed and the journey continued. One of the highlights of the day was the ‘shower’ prepared by the engineers using a mix of warm condenser water and seawater. What a delight after a long day!

Wednesday, the 24th of June.

Wednesday started with a beautiful sunrise near Kotka about 3:40 o’clock. There was barely wind on the sea and clouds on the sky. The heat wave continued.

Sun is rising.
Towards Santio. Pic: T. Kilpinen.
Good morning! Pic: T. Kilpinen.

First port on our journey was Santio in which we arrived at 6:40. There we waited for the border guards a couple of hours. At the same time I called to the guys on the next port, Lappeenranta, and made sure that we got a place there where we could get fresh water and electricity. The old dockyard for old vessels was an ideal place to spend the next night: it is a calm place with good facilities.

The border facilities took a little less than hour and so hour journey could continue towards Vyborg and Saimaa canal in 9:45.

Tapsa polishing the brass parts of the engine order telegraph somewhere on the Russian waters. Notice the Polish texts. We tried to learn Polish all the trip: Wstecz Baczność!
Tero found truly “automatic harness lifevests” of the past decades from the ship stores.

After crossing the border, the Russian authorities contacted us with the VHF in order to recognise our boat but after that we sailed a couple of hours without any sign of life at sea.

Engineers Timo and Mikko on the deck.
Risto removing the “rear view mirrors”. Pic: T. Kilpinen.
Tero keeps a look-out on the bridge. Pic: T. Kilpinen.
The port of Uuras (Vysotsk). Pic: T. Lahti.
Part of buildings were still in a bit weaker state. Pic: T. Lahti.

We bypassed the port of Uuras around three pm. The contrast between the new facilities of the port and some Soviet time buildings was quite strong.

In the bay of Vyborg with the city already in sight, Timo had to make a quick reparation to the auxialiary engine. However, this problem was fixed very quickly. In the city of Vyborg, the Russians celebrated the Victory Day as the celebrations were moved to later day because of the COVID pandemic. Therefore, the flag of the Vyborg castle was a red one as in the old days. Quite a strange sight.

Reparations on the bay of Viborg. Timo is working with the auxiliary engine, Risto is ready to help on the hatch and Tero is observing the situation.
The red flag of the Vyborg Castle. Pic: T. Lahti.
I’m using the binoculars, Risto in the background. Pic: T. Lahti

As we arrived to Vyborg, the temperature rose significantly. The light breeze of the sea ended and the heat of the land was everywhere. You could also notice the heat by looking to the shores: every place to swim was full of people

Viipuri beach. Pic: T. Lahti.
The heat of the land reached the engine room as well.

Before six pm we were at the beginning of the Saimaa canal. The customs formalities were quickly done and we could enter the first lock. In general, the Saimaa canal part was very quick: we could just enter the first four locks, attach the mooring rope, wait for fifteen minutes and on the ‘road’ again. However, before entering the fifth lock, Pälli, we had to wait for a couple of hours for cargo traffic.

Up we go.
Iskrovka is passed.
Towards the lock of Pälli. Pic: T. Kilpinen.
Waiting at the Pälli. Pic: T. Kilpinen

After waiting a couple of hours we got to the lock of Pälli, on which the passport control was made. Then we moved the steamboat a hundred meters where the Russian border authorities made a thorough check of the ship. The young border guard with a mask on was friendly and fast: I really had to run after him in order to keep up with him. The crew had to wait on the quay during the check.

Thursday, the 25th of June

After the check it was already midnight and we could carry on and cross the border back to Finland. At Nuijamaa border station there was another control of the boat and passports – both were quick and efficient. Meanwhile the sun had set and we continued our journey guided by the many lights of the canal. Finally we arrived at the dockyard around 4 am. The canal and Russian waters were behind and ‘only’ some miles (79nm) on Lake Saimaa left. We really enjoyed the sleeping in the silent dockyard.

A canal scene on the early hours.
Arrived at the Kanavansuu dockyard around 4 am.
Preparations for the last day. Pic: T. Kilpinen

After sleeping, swimming and taking some fresh water to the steamboat our journey continued. Goodbye Lappeenranta and once more thanks to the persons in the dockyard for an excellent place to rest.

Saimaa showed its best: it was really warm (around 30–31°C) and sun was shining from a cloudless sky. The last small breeze ended when we reached the Sulkava hillfort and the rest of the journey was made on a dead calm lake. The last part of the trip was excellent time for different maintenance and polishing work (which had been done all the journey, too). Tapsa polished brass parts of the ship as he uses to do and together with Risto they mounted the old compass cover to its place. Before passing the Puumala, the engine officers converted the condender system to be driven with the fire pump: it improved the speed significantly, now we were cruising almost with the speed seven knots. Tero, for his part, prepared the meals as he had done all the journey. Thank you once more for the great meals aboard!

Excellent menu. Tuesday: Lunch: Boiled potatoes, herring, frankfurters, tomato, apple, cucumber and salad. Wednesday: Pasta Bolognese: tomato sauce, tomato, cucumber, ketchup. Thursday: Garlic Chicken with fries, ketchup, tomato, cucumber, mineral water and good company. Pic: T. Lahti.
Omelette and yoghurt as a snack between the meals. I was not hungry on this trip!
Tapsa polishing the old compass cover. Pic: T. Lahti.
Risto and Tapsa after mounting the old compass cover.
Risto taking a nap on the upper deck. Pic: T. Lahti
The consumption of mineral water was high. Here you can see a part of the bottles.

On the Lake Saimaa we could admire the beautiful nature. Puumala and especially Sulkava hillfort are impressive places. The nickname of Puumala, “The Gibraltar of Lake Saimaa” (given before the bridge was built), even inspired us to make a modest movie tribute…

Puumala, the Gibraltar of Lake Saimaa. Video: R. Luukkainen.

Before the new bridge at Vekaransalmi strait, we also saw rare animals: Two ospreys and a Saimaa ringed seal. The latter escorted us for a while before diving back to the depths of Lake Saimaa. Tero who was a first-timer on Lake Saimaa got all the best parts of the lake on this trip!

Sulkava Hillfort is an impressive sight. Pic: T. Kilpinen.
Osprey at her nest and flying. Pics: T. Lahti.
A Saimaa ringed seal escorting us towards Savonlinna. Pic: T. Lahti.
Lake Saimaa is beautiful on the evenings. Pic: T. Kilpinen.
The chief engineer Mikko inspecting the old home waters of the steamboat. Pic: T. Kilpinen.
The last 30 minutes to cruise! Pic: T. Kilpinen.
Arrived in 23:45. Pic. T. Kilpinen

Finally we arrived to Savonlinna just a bit before the midnight. We moored the steamboat on a dockyard where it was not visible to the public as the homecoming party was due to be arranged only on Saturday. Before that, there was a lot of work and cleaning to be done. However, the relocation cruise was at its end. Thank you all the crew! As always on the steamers, the engineers have the hardest time, so thank you Mikko and Timo. And thank you for all the other crew member, Tero, Tapsa and Risto as well. All you enabled the safe and succesful transfer. And thank you Janne, without you the the ship wouldn’t have been relocated at all.

I have to admit, that it was a strenuous journey. But we had a lot of fun, too, and a great team spirit. Therefore, it was a bit sad when the trip was over.

Take a cruise on steamboats!

After the final preparations by Tapsa and Timo, the steamboat was taken to the passenger harbor of Savonlinna on Saturday. A convoy of steamboats (Punkaharju, Savonlinna, Enso and Tippa (waiting in the port)) escorted the steamboat to Savonlinna where there was a great party with an excellent accordionist, a band, a magician and so on. The new (old) name was also introduced before the party.

The event and the number of people attending to it was a reminder how the steamboats—and this steamboat in particular—are important to the locals in the town like Savonlinna which has lived of the lake for centuries. There are a lot of emotions and memories attached to these steamers. The best way to take care of these old boats is to use them actively. Therefore, I hope that people actively board on cruises on these old steamboats like Saaristo, Punkaharju and Savonlinna and all the other steamers in Finland and other parts of world, too. These vessels are part of our cultural heritage.

If you’re interested in Lake Saimaa cruises, you can get to the home site of VIP Cruise here.

The vessel at its new home port. Pic: T. Kilpinen

PS. Our deck hand, Tapsa, was photographed 54 years ago in front of the vessel so we had to take a new picture. I guess he didn’t know over half a century ago that he was to be photographed in the same place again—nor that he would self be taking this steamboat back to Savonlinna!

1966 vs 2020. The steamboat has apparently shrunk a bit in 54 years…