VOIMA: The World’s Oldest Active Icebreaker Turns 60

by Kalle Id

On 24th January 2014, the world’s oldest icebreaker in active service, the Finnish VOIMA (the name translates as “power” or “force”) left Helsinki to start another icebreaking season.”  In a few days, on 13th February, the VOIMA will celebrate her 60th birthday. To commemorate this milestone, I would like to take this chance to look at the history of this ship.

The VOIMA departing Helsinki at the start if her 2014 winter campaign. Photo copyright © 2014 Kalle Id.
The VOIMA departing Helsinki at the start if her 2014 winter campaign. Photo copyright © 2014 Kalle Id.

The design process for the VOIMA begun after the end of World War II. The Finnish icebreaker fleet had survived the actual wartime without major losses, but after the war the prime units of the fleet, the VOIMA of 1924 and the JÄÄKARHU (“polar bear”) of 1926, had to be ceded to Soviet Union as war reparations.

To replace the lost icebreakers, a new unit was ordered from the Wärtsilä shipyard in Helsinki in 1948. Initially planned to be named INTO (“eager”, also a male given name), the new unit was given a new, forward-looking design with two bow propellers. Bow propellers were not a new invention – they had first been featured in the Great Lakes train ferry ST. IGNACE of 1888, and the first dedicated icebreaker to have one was the Finnish SAMPO of 1898 – but hitherto no icebreaker had been equipped with two bow propellers (”Sampo” is a mythical gold-grinding mill from the Finnish national epic Kalevala). The new arrangement was jokingly referred to as “four-wheel drive” by the Finns, and the arrangement became a norm for Baltic Sea icebreakers for the following decades.

The VOIMA outside Helsinki as built. Most crew accommodation was located in the hull, and the superstrucutre was much smaller than in the rebuilt version. Photo by Niilo Aljasalo, public domain image from the collection of the Finnish National Board of Antiquities.
The VOIMA outside Helsinki as built. Most crew accommodation was located in the hull, and the superstrucutre was much smaller than in the rebuilt version. Photo by Niilo Aljasalo, public domain image from the collection of the Finnish National Board of Antiquities.

Although ordered in 1948, due to lack of funding (in part caused by the war repartions to the Soviets) the keel of the new VOIMA was not laid until 1951 and the ship was eventually completed in 1954. The VOIMA proved to be an excellent design – during the difficult 1955-56 winter she helped an unrivalled 616 ships, amongst them the older icebreakers SAMPO of 1898 and TARMO (”vigour”, also a male given name) of 1907 that could not break free from thick pack ice. Three further units of the VOIMA’s design were built for the Soviet Union and one for Sweden. The two subsequent Finnish icebreaker classes – the KARHU (”bear”) class of 1958-1960 and the TARMO class of 1964-1970 – were also based on the design of the VOIMA.

The VOIMA's innovative double bow propellers as seen in drydock while the ship was under construction. Also notice the sharp icebreaker stem. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, photographer unknown.
The VOIMA’s innovative double bow propellers as seen in drydock while the ship was under construction. Also notice the sharp icebreaker stem. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, photographer unknown.

By the mid-1970s, the VOIMA was the oldest unit in the Finnish icebreaker fleet and looked to be on the way to being replaced during the next decades, but then something interesting happened: the decision was made to extensively modernise the VOIMA. The reasons for this decision were twofold: on one hand, modernising the VOIMA cost only about 60% of the price of an entirely new icebreaker; and on the other, the modernising process provided work for Finnish shipyards during the economic downturn experienced at the time. The VOIMA sailed back to Wärtsilä in 1978-79, where her pull-plating and engines were replaced, while the superstructure was entirely rebuilt, allowing for crew quarters to be moved out of the hull and hence away from the worst noise of the icebreaking.

When the VOIMA re-entered service in 1979, her hull was painted red (instead of the traditional black) to improve visibility. This trend did not spread to the rest of the fleet, and in the mid-80s the VOIMA reverted to the traditional black-and-yellow colour scheme. If there had been any plans of modernising the other 1950s-60s icebreakers, these never came to pass. Due ships requiring icebreaker assistance growing ever larger, the KARHU-class was replaced by the newbuildings OTSO and KONTIO (both name translate as “bear”) in 1980s, and the TARMO class by new “multipurpose icebreakers” FENNICA, NORDICA and BOTNICA in the 1990s. Thanks to her refit, the VOIMA has remained in service to this day. Despite her long career, she is not the longest-serving icebreaker ever, or even the longest-serving Finnish icebreaker – the latter honour goes to the first Finnish iceabreaker MURTAJA of 1890, that was only withdrawn in 1958.

Despite her advanced age, the VOIMA might see another decade of service before she is replaced. Photo copyright © 2014 Kalle Id.
Despite her advanced age, the VOIMA might see another decade of service before she is replaced. Photo copyright © 2014 Kalle Id.

The first plans to replace the VOIMA were made in 2008, when the idea of replacing her with another multipurpose icebreaker was aired. In the end the decision was made to build another traditional icebreaker optimised for Baltic Sea use, which was ordered for Arctech Helsinki Shipyard – the same yar that built the VOIMA – in January 2014. The most recent news, however, is that the new unit will replace the BOTNICA sold in 2012 to Estonia – or more precisely the Swedish FREJ chartered to replace the BOTNICA. The current plan is for the VOIMA to remain in service until the mid-2020s. If so, she is likely to still be in service on her 70th birthday.

For for more photographs by Kalle Id, including additional images of the VOIMA, please visit kships.blogspot.com

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