After ice has gone and measurements of the Rukki channel between Hiiumaa Island and the mainland continue to display an extremely serious situation, it is possible that the full clearing of the fairway will be preceded by minor operations. But major work will not begin before August.
Kadri Simson, Minister of Economy and Infrastructure (Center Party) hurried up yesterday (April 2). The minister’s inactivity in solving the Hiiumaa ferry crisis became the main news over the weekend – the opposition politicians criticized Simson, but the Hiiumaa residents were the most annoyed.
This was due to the fact that the extremely low water level, which was first observed at the beginning of the year, could not have come as a surprise to the Ministry of Economy or the Maritime Administration. Information of the Maritime Administration showed as early as last November that that the water level in the Rukki channel had become critically low.
Minister Simson was finally forced to speak up past weekend by the increasing criticism. When commenting on ferry traffic she decided to make a detour to politics and discussed. besides the current crisis, also the failures of the Reform Party in previous years.
Minister becomes suddenly active
Aivar Viidik, chairman of the municipal council, was openly critical among the Hiiumaa residents, claiming that they had failed to agree on meeting with Simson despite all efforts.
But the inertia was suddenly overcome Monday morning and Viidik received a text message from Simson. Sometime later they agreed via the minister’s advisor that SImson would visit Hiiumaa on April 20. The subject of the meeting would obviously be the obstructed ferry traffic, about which the municipal leaders have a lot to say.
Viidik commented that their purpose is not to force the minister to resign but to solve the problems. “When the state iis responsible for organizing ferry traffic and maintaining the fairway, it has to do it regardless who happens to be the minister. This is not a matter of politics but administrative capability,” he said.
After the meeting had been agreed upon, the council chairman found in his mailbox the minister’s reply to the municipality’s two earlier appeals. Among others, there was a reply to a recommendation sent last November about involving the municipal authorities in the organization of air and ferry traffic.
Simson assured in her letter that funding for the dredging and maintenance work, EUR 400,000, is available together with the permit for carrying out work in the water area, but that the operations cannot be started before August 1 due to the spawning period of fish. She also promised that funding will be available for work planned for 2020 and 2022.
Build ships for the sea, not vice versa
The Maritime Administration also displayed its flexibility in finding solutions on Monday; its spokesman Priit Põiklik assured that they would fathom the Rukki channel again as soon as the ice has thawed. He hoped that it could take place within April.
“Then we shall know the draught of the channel and the state of the ridge in the center ,” he explained “Then we can decide whether it would be practical to trawl the fairway before dredging. It is impossible to say it before measurements.”
The problem of the shipping lane between Hiiumaa Island and the mainland is the narrow Rukki channel – the ridge of silt gathering into it obstructs the traffic of ferries. The ridge in the center of the 60 meters wide channel was last removed in October 2016, when the trawling operation worth EUR 42,000 smoothed the bottom and removed individual rocks.
According to the latest soundings made in December the channel is badly in need of dredging. Mere trawling would not be enough, since currents carry silt in the channel and the necessary depth cannot be maintained.
According to Tarmo Kõuts, senior researcher of the Tallinn University of Technology Department of Marine Systems, there is no better way for ferry traffic between Hiiumaa and the mainland than using the Rukki channel. He did not consider it necessary to increase its depth by blasting.
“It would be too expensive and one should build the ships for the sea, not the sea for the ships,” Kõuts said, considering the established method the best. This means that soft silt has to be pumped out of the channel and the rocks removed.
According to Kõuts, the current problems are partly caused by the building of two large vessels for the route without analyzing the inevitable problems of the fairway. “The ships were ordered hastily and no one bothered to consider that four smaller vessels might have been a better option for the Hiiumaa route, which could have operated even in shallow water,” he speculated.
Kõuts admitted that once the ships are there, they are the ones to be used. “It is the state’s business to ensure the use of fairways and all citizens must have equal opportunities – the Hiiumaa residents as well,” he said.
The latest maintenance work of the channel was carried out in the autumn of 2014 at a cost of EUR 142,180. The volume of the work was quite limited and only a stretch of the seabed was cleared rather than the entire channel.
The latest dredging of the Rukki channel before 2014 was carried out at the turn of the century. The maintenance before that took place in 1998 when the channel was found to be 4.8 meters deep (according to the Amsterdam Ordnance Datum; five meters according to the old BK77 system).
Peeter Väling, head of the Maritime Administration Hydrography Division, says that the result had not been satisfactory, since a lot of bumps had been missed; accordingly, the channel was cleared again in 2000. After that the depth stayed at 4.8 meters (according to Amsterdam Ordnance Datum).
The problems of the Hiiumaa residents reached the parliament as well, since two interpellations concerning ferry traffic were handed in on April 2. One was submitted by the Free Party faction together with three Pro Patria.Res Publica members and three Conservative People’s Party MPs, the other cane from the Reform Party faction.
Disaster for local business
Hardly any conversation in Hiiumaa managed to avoid the ferry issue, said Kaja Antons, head of the Hiiumaa Consumers’ Cooperative. “Our enterprise is pushed to the limit, really. This is a disaster.”
A simple example from Sunday, April 1: since it was known from the morning that the water level may fall below critical and stop the Heltermaa-Rohuküla ferry traffic, they had to think of Plan B.
The cooperative’s truck carries local food to the mainland six times per week. The bread of Hiiu Pagar bakery and desserts and side dishes of Hiiu Köök are sold in numerous large shopping centers, e.g. Prisma and the Tallinn Department Store.
The truck usually leaves for the mainland on the 20.30 ferry to reach the Tallinn logistics depot by 23. A later departure would mean that the food would not make it to the shops by morning.
Due to the negative forecast for Sunday, it was decided to book the truck’s route via Saaremaa Island. But the ferry to Saaremaa left already in 17.30, therefore the production had to be completed two and a half hours earlier. Since it was about bread, it was not an easy matter. They needed extra labor.
“Since the truck left late and the schedule was tight, I called the captain of the ferry Soela and asked them to wait for the truck,” Antons said. Fortunately the captain obliged and no vehicle was left behind. The truck made it to Tallinn in time.
But the roundabout way is much more costly, as much as 70 percent, Antons says. While the return trip to Tallinn usually costs 193 euros, the Saaremaa option costs 322 euros. “We are wasting the locals’ money, since this is not a private firm. The Hiiumaa Consumers Cooperative belongs to thousands of people,” Antons said.
It sometimes happens that the truck cannot reach the depot on mainland by 23. “This means that we are not competitive with our products,” Antons complained. Such food is sold locally at a discount.
ANtons added that logically the Tallinn residents do not need the food of Hiiu Pagar or Hiiu Köök. “I actually thought on Sunday that we should strike and do nothing,” she said. “Nothing would happen, Tallinn is full of producers. But it is necessary for Hiiumaa that we have our own producers!”
Tarmo Kõuts, senior researcher of the Tallinn University of Technology Department of Marine Systems
A ship sailing between Hiiumaa and the mainland is literally traveling in a ditch – a channel dredged in seabed past the small Rukkirahu Island with a wind farm. The water level in the Rukki channel should be 5.4 meters according to the BK77 or Kronstadt system, but it is currently only 4.7 meters.
The water level is influenced by high-ressure areas. If no extra water flows from the mainland in winter and it freezes up, the water level may fall below critical. This critical level or near to it has happened 37 times in the past five years.
The winter water level is the highest in December and then starts to decline. If the winter is fine and high-pressure areas prevail, the water level drops. High-pressure areas bring eastern winds, which drive water away and the air pressure itself pushes the water lower still.
While it seemed in the beginning of March that the shallow water problem would last at least until the end of the month, it now appears that it would not improve until halfway through April. A low-pressure area would rise water level for a while, but it will drop again as a new high-pressure area arrives.
We also have to keep in mind that the water level is seasonally below average between April and June.
The current water level is 65 centimeters below the required depth but in the autumn of 2016 (when the Rukki channel was trawled the latest during Minister Kristen Michal’s term of office – Ed.) it was minus 78 and in 2013 even minus 85 centimeters.
The water level has stayed low for a long time this year. But it can also drop for a couple of hours as happened in December.
The depth of the Rukki channel also depends on the amount of silt gathering there. Soft silt is carried to the channel by the waves, but ice brings rock as well. The ferries’ screws cause the silt to form a ridge along the centerline of the channel.