A seafaring country’s self-determination

Captain Meelis Saarlaid in Kronstadt.

PHOTO: Jaanus Piirsalu

An Estonian marching band and Director of the Office of the President, experienced sailor Tiit Riisalo will be seeing off independent Estonia’s first maritime expedition from Kronstadt today, dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica and Estonian-born explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen (1778-1852) who played an important part therein.

Director of the Estonian Maritime Museum Urmas Dresden said that as far as we know, no scientific expedition to distant seas was dispatched from Estonia during the time of the first republic. “The largest maritime enterprises took place in the 1930s when a vessel called Eestirand went herring fishing in the Atlantic, near Iceland,” Dresden, who will also be taking part in the expedition, said.

In the 1990s, Estonian Academy of Sciences’ research ship Livonia spent several years sailing the waters around Antarctica. However, the vessel was mainly used for tourist trips. The former Livonia now serves as the Royal Swedish Navy’s command ship Trossö.

The 24-meter long two-masted sailing vessel Admiral Bellingshausen that arrived in Kronstadt from Tallinn on Tuesday was treated to stiff winds in the Gulf of Finland. Upon reaching Russian waters, the wind picked up to reach 15 meters per second, pushing the vessel to a speed of eight-nine, even ten knots, close to its maximum speed, under full sail.

“Plenty of sailing going on now,” said Märten Vaikmaa, owner and CEO of Saaremaa shipbuilder Baltic Workboats that prepared the 35-year-old Spanish-bought vessel for the arduous journey, with a content look on his face.

Kronstadt welcomed the ship that was named after its former military governor and harbormaster with open arms after a 23-hour crossing from the Tallinn Seaplane Harbor: the crew and ship got through border-crossing and customs procedures almost without a hitch. Russian yacht crews getting their travel documents in order at the border point, most of whom were headed for the Moonsund Regatta, took pictures in front of the high-masted Admiral Bellingshausen.

Experienced sailors

The main aim of the almost exclusively privately funded expedition is to draw attention to climate concerns and environmental protection. During the first leg of the journey, the ship will be captained by Indrek Lepp who is unique among Estonian sailors for several reasons.

It is the second time Lepp, who ordinarily sails between Riga and Stockholm as the captain of Tallink ferry Isabelle, is participating in an event to celebrate a world-famous sailing trip. In 1992, at the age of just 20, he was one of three helmsmen of the three-masted Russian sailboat Mir that participated and eventually won a contest to mark 500 years from the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.

“The first day of sailing is not enough to find the right rhythm,” Lepp said when the ship was pulling into Kronstadt.

“The weather was great,” said experienced yacht captain Meelis Saarlaid who participated in the first Estonian round-the-world trip on board the ship Lennuk in the 2000s.

Other captains to take charge of Admiral Bellingshausen during different stages of the journey are Indrek Kivi and Meelis Saarlaid. Kivi, who works as the captain of Port of Tallinn icebreaker Botnica, is set to become the second Estonian captain to pilot a vessel in Antarctic waters. The first was Ilmar Noor, the legendary captain of the Livonia in the 1990s.

Tenacity paid off

Admiral Bellingshausen made his mark on history as one of the first people to see Antarctica in 1819. It is difficult to say who first discovered the continent as none of the people who first saw it knew what they were looking at. But the discovery will always be tied to Bellingshausen’s name, which is reason enough to advertise Estonia as the place where he was born – another goal of the expedition.

“We can be proud of Bellingshausen in that even though he was a Baltic German noble, he was impoverished and fatherless. He had to work hard to make it to the top, studying at the Kronstadt naval academy’s cadet corps,” said expedition member, science historian Erki Tammiksaar. “It shows that hard work can help anyone make it.”

After its grand sendoff from Kronstadt, it will be possible to see Admiral Bellingshausen in Sillamäe, Tallinn, Virtsu and Roomassaare in the coming days. President Kersti Kaljulaid plans to visit the ship before it leaves Estonian waters.