Residents of Hiiumaa opposed to using older ferry

Queue in Virtsu harbour. PHOTO: Herman-Erik Isop

This Wednesday saw ferry Tõll ram the slip at the Port of Kuivastu, leaving the residents of Estonia’s largest island Saaremaa with one fewer ferry. Operator TS Laevad decided to pull the Hiiumaa ferry Tiiu that carries 150 cars and have it service the Saaremaa link starting on Saturday. Residents of Hiiumaa do not understand why they have to suffer for their fellow islanders’ misfortune, while the people of Saaremaa expect their neighbors to be understanding.

The residents of Hiiumaa seemed to know they would have to do without the ferry Tiiu for a while already on Wednesday afternoon. The island will host a number of events over the weekend, including open farms and home café days, the Sparkling Wine Weekend and performances of the play “Margus Nõukoguse armeest.” There is plenty going on in other words. However, Saaremaa is also set to host weekend events, such as the Saaremaa Opera Days, Mototoober bikers’ gathering and open farms. Neither side understands why they should suffer for the Tõll accident and settle for replacement ferry Regula that only carries 65 cars.

“The residents of Hiiumaa are being mistreated,” said Kristel Üksvärav, head of the Hiiumaa Tourism Cluster. “It is like someone breaking their leg in Saaremaa and someone else having to wear a cast on Hiiumaa.” Üksvärav said that the damage this will cause for Hiiumaa is difficult to forecast. People are no longer in the habit of booking ferry tickets early and it is possible some will get back to the mainland in the early hours of the next day. “We were told that Saaremaa is bigger and more important. That the damage there would be many times that in Hiiumaa. This leaves the people of Hiiumaa feeling unappreciated, that we do not matter,” Üksvärav remarked.

The cluster’s representative said that Hiiumaa companies are willing to go to court as they would have expected compensation for damages. “The situation today is that it will simply happen without any sort of compensation,” she said. Whether the people of Hiiumaa will fight this further will depend on their level of indignation, Üksvärav suggested. “It is like domestic violence in a way. A woman never being able to say anything against her abusive husband. Will it never change?” She said that she has no good way of explaining the situation to Hiiumaa entrepreneurs. “How are we to blame for such incidents?”

Chairman of the Hiiumaa Municipality Council, MP Aivar Viidik told Postimees on Wednesday that he cannot agree to the replacement simply because the total damage caused to Hiiumaa by replacing its full-size ferry with Regula will be smaller than it would in Saaremaa.

“The people of Hiiumaa will rise up should such a decision be made,” Viidik said.

Acting Municipality Mayor for Saaremaa Kristiina Maripuu said that the people of Saaremaa understand their neighbors’ concern but pointed to the Saaremaa Opera Days and a part of guests only arriving for the second act because of the accident. “It is clear that the operator will also look at its position, which line has more passengers and where the solution is needed more urgently. As a Saaremaa resident, I am very grateful to the people of Hiiumaa, while I also understand it seems unjust to them,” Maripuu admitted. “A crisis situation is inconvenient and not necessarily just. But I believe that should something like that happen in Hiiumaa in the future, we will remember. No one is ever completely safe,” the deputy municipality mayor said.

Kristel Üksvärav said that a ferry could have been sought somewhere else, while admitting there would be no other rapid solution. “One possibility would be to ferry people back to the mainland without sticking to a schedule.”

Maripuu said that the Saaremaa Municipality offered a compromise in only getting the larger ferry for one week. “It would be a great help to us,” she said. “That is what we are asking the people of Hiiumaa, knowing that it is inconvenient and unfair toward them.” She added that the island has made no demands. The company decided to replace the ferries Tiiu and Regula on its own.

Most sensible decision

CEO of TS Laevad Indrek Randveer said that replacing one of the ferries servicing the Hiiumaa link is the most practical solution.

“Starting on Saturday, the ferry Regula will be stepping in for regular trips on the Rohuküla-Heltermaa line, while Tiiu will be helping the Saaremaa link stick to the schedule,” he said.

Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas (Center), whose ministry could be looking at a claim for damages from Hiiumaa, said the decision made is the most sensible option.

“TS Laevad analyzed passenger volumes and prebooked tickets on both lines and found this solution to be the most practical. The situation is understandably difficult for all sides, while a temporary solution needs to be found for people to reach their destination,” the minister found. He emphasized that both lines will be serviced by two ferries and ferry links will be retained. Aas also said TS Laevad will do everything in its power to successfully service passengers.

Randveer said the company will do its level best to see to the needs of all passengers going to and returning from Hiiumaa. “Even though Regula takes on fewer passengers and vehicles, minor changes we’re making will allow us to make sure people who have already bought tickets for the weekend can cross. Our goal is to organize all planned trips and minimize the waiting period,” the CEO said.

He said that the weekends’ bookings for both islands left no doubt as to the necessity of the switch as the number of vehicles that miss the ferry is 11 times greater for the Saaremaa link than it is for Hiiumaa even when all ferries are in operation. “Leaving Regula to serve the Saaremaa link on the weekend would leave us with very long queues,” he said.