The Gulf Of Bothnia On The WASA EXPRESS

The Gulf of Bothnia on the WASA EXPRESS

by Kalle Id

Join MaritimeMatters’ Helsinki correspondent Kalle Id for something completely different: a day cruise across the Gulf of Bothia, from Vaasa in Finland to Umeå in Sweden and back, onboard Wasaline’s 1981-built ferry WASA EXPRESS.

Wasaline official website: www.wasaline.com

 All photographs are copyright © 2014 Kalle Id, except where otherwise noted.

The WASA EXPRESS in the port of Holmsund, Sweden. I had hoped to treat MM readers with some images of the ship in ice, but after a short and exceptionally warm winter, almost all ice had already disappeared by mid-March.
The WASA EXPRESS in the port of Holmsund, Sweden. I had hoped to treat MM readers with some images of the ship in ice, but after a short and exceptionally warm winter, almost all ice had already disappeared by mid-March.

 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The morning of Wednesday, 12th March, found myself and my traveling companion Bruce Peter board a train to Vaasa, Finland to realise a ferry trip that had been on my wish list since late 2012: a return crossing on the WASA EXPRESS, a venerable old ferry connecting across the Gulf of Bothnia from Vaasa to Umeå. Her owners Wasaline are an oddity in the Baltic, being a ferry company owned by the cities the ferry serves rather than by private interests. This arrangement came into being in 2012, after the previous commercial-based operator on the route, RG Line, went bankrupt. The ferry connection between the cities was felt too important to let slip into  history, and as such the cities established Wasaline as a public service.

In the world of modern passenger shipping, where traditions are often cast aside, Wasaline is a delightful exception: the company name honours the previous long-serving Gulf of Bothnia ferry operator, known in Swedish as Vasabåtarna, in Finnish as Vaasanlaivat and in English as Wasa Line. The ship name WASA EXPRESS is similarly traditional: the first WASA EXPRESS sailed from Vaasa to Umeå in 1964, and the current WASA EXPRESS is the fourth to bear the name.

The second WASA EXPRESS, a ship that I possibly sailed on in 1984. Unless it was the BOTNIA EXPRESS or the FENNO EXPRESS...
The second WASA EXPRESS, a ship that I possibly sailed on in 1984. Unless it was the BOTNIA EXPRESS or the FENNO EXPRESS…

The route between Vaasa and Umeå is also of a personal significance for me: in July 1984, when I was one year old, I experienced my first international ship travel on that very route. Unsurprisingly, I remember nothing of it, and I have not even been able to ascertain which ships I travelled on – at the time, there were three ships sailing on the route. But 30 years later it is a good time to return the route and see how it is today.

Train ride through the Finnish countryside on the body-tilting “Wobblelino”.
Train ride through the Finnish countryside on the body-tilting “Wobblelino”.

The train that took us to Vaasa was a Pendolino body-tilting train, one of the flagships of the Finnish state-owned rail operator VR. These turned out to offer a rather uncomfortably wobbly ride, forcing me to resort to sea sickness pills. But accidents were avoided and after several hours of traveling we found ourselves safely in Vaasa, and after checking in to our hotel we proceeded to explore the town. Unfortunately, the bleak early spring weather did not show the city at its best, as you can judge for yourself from the accompanying photographs.

The Vaasa Market Square, looking somewhat forlorn in the overcast weather. Also notice the distinct lack of market stalls.
The Vaasa Market Square, looking somewhat forlorn in the overcast weather. Also notice the distinct lack of market stalls.

Vaasa’s biggest claim to fame is the fact it served at the de facto capital of the “White Finland” during the Finnish Civil War in 1918. Almost a century after the fact, the nation is still divided on the subject of the civil war. Vaasa, however, has clearly chosen its side, with a large Statue of Liberty on the city’s Market Square commemorating the White victory in the conflict.

A somewhat over-dramatic shot of the Vaasa Statue of Liberty. Depending on your point of view, the winning forces in the Finnish civil war were either liberators or “white butchers”.
A somewhat over-dramatic shot of the Vaasa Statue of Liberty. Depending on your point of view, the winning forces in the Finnish civil war were either liberators or “white butchers”. 

After a day spent exploring Vaasa – including an attempt of photographing the WASA EXPRESS’ arrival, which turned to be a failure due to my misreading of the ship’s timetable – we returned to the hotel in order to get a good night’s rest for tomorrow and the main attraction of the trip.

Sunset at Vaasa harbour, unfortunately sans the WASA EXPRESS.
Sunset at Vaasa harbour, unfortunately sans the WASA EXPRESS.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Today found us getting up at around seven in the morning in order to catch the WASA EXPRESS’ departure at 9 AM. In co-operation with the local bus operator Wiik & Ström, Wasaline offers a bus connection to the terminal, leaving Vaasa city center at approximately an hour before the ship’s departure. This was not well patronised, as there was only one passenger on the bus with us – and she turned out to be a worker at the harbour, not a fellow passenger. The reason for this scarcity of passengers became evident later, as we had about 45 minutes of extra time in the harbour before the ship’s departure.

The Vaasa ferry terminal, which doubles as the world headquaters of Kotipizza, with the WASA EXPRESS in the background.
The Vaasa ferry terminal, which doubles as the world headquarters of Kotipizza, with the WASA EXPRESS in the background. 

The Vaasa ferry terminal has, by the looks of it, been built in the 1970s or 1980s, in the heyday of Gulf of Bothnia ferry traffic. Back then, there were regular services offered from Vaasa to Umeå, Örnsköldsvik and Sundsvall on the Swedish side. At most extensive, there were no less than five ferries employed on these routes. All this came to an end in 1999, when tax-free sales ended on ferry services within the European Union. Today, only one of the four ferry quays in Vaasa sees regular use, and most of the terminal premises serve as the headquarters of the Finnish pizza restaurant chain Kotipizza (interestingly, Kotipizza’s owner Rabbe Grönblom was also the owner of the previous Gulf of Bothnia ferry operator RG Line).

Even inside, one got the distinct impression the terminal had been designed with much larger passenger numbers in mind.
Even inside, one got the distinct impression the terminal had been designed with much larger passenger numbers in mind. 

Despite the fact that Wasaline today uses only a fraction of the original terminal, there was ample space for the few foot passengers joining us on this trip: in addition to us two ferry enthusiasts, there were only 16 other passengers waiting to board.

The WASA EXPRESS in Vaasa. Notice the passengers walking up the car ramp.
The WASA EXPRESS in Vaasa. Notice the passengers walking up the car ramp. 

Due to a problem with the gangway, boarding the ship was carried out via the car deck even for foot passengers. This offered us a glimpse of the real raison d’etre of the WASA EXPRESS: while there were only a handful of foot passengers, the car deck of the ship was nearly full.

Former glories: the now-unused ferry berths at Vaasa. The last time Vaasa saw two ferries in port was around new year 2013, when the WASA EXPRESS took over duties on the route from the RG 1 – and even then only one of the ships was actively sailing at a time. But back in the 1980s, the port would have been bustling with activity.
Former glories: the now-unused ferry berths at Vaasa. The last time Vaasa saw two ferries in port was around new year 2013, when the WASA EXPRESS took over duties on the route from the RG 1 – and even then only one of the ships was actively sailing at a time. But back in the 1980s, the port would have been bustling with activity. 

The WASA EXPRESS has had a long and varied history: Built in 1981 by Wärtsilä in Helsinki, she started life as the TRAVEMÜNDE of Gedser-Travemünde Ruten, sailing between Denmark and West Germany (her name was later amended into TRAVEMÜNDE LINK). In 1988 she passed to the Finnish-owned English Channel ferry operator Sally Line as the SALLY STAR. In 1997, she served one summer with Silja Line on the Vaasa-Umeå route, still named SALLY STAR, but marketed as the ”Wasa Express”. From 1998 until 2003 she sailed for Destination Gotland between Gotland and the Swedish mainland as the THJELVAR. After 2003, she was employed on short charters to a variety of operators: between Danmark and Norway as the COLOR TRAVELLER for Color Line, between Denmark and Germany as the ROSTOCK for Scandlines, between Spain and Morocco, still named ROSTOCK but sailing for Comarit, and most recently at the Canary Isles as the BETANCURIA for Lineas Fred. Olsen, a sister company of Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. As a result of the ship’s varied career, there is plenty of interesting ferry archeology to be carried out onboard, starting from the Destination Gotland signage on the car deck doors.

Looks like there's a fire somewhere, but no, that's just the WASA EXPRESS firing up her engines.
Looks like there’s a fire somewhere, but no, that’s just the WASA EXPRESS firing up her engines.

According to rumours, one of the reasons why Lineas Fred. Olsen gave up the ship (and hence enabled Wasaline to buy her) was the poor condition of her engines. We got first hand-evidence of this when the ship departed from Vaasa and white smoke belched from the funnel covered the harbour area in a thick, smelly fog. This is definitely not a ”green ship”, and it is perhaps good that a replacement is already on the drawing boards. But that replacement won’t be in service for a few more years, and in the interim the WASA EXPRESS will be with us. Let’s just hope her engines hold together until then.

The forward cafeteria on deck seven has a bewildering array of different chairs from over the ship's long career. Choose your favourite!
The forward cafeteria on deck seven has a bewildering array of different chairs from over the ship’s long career. Choose your favourite!

The crossing time between Vaasa and Umeå is a leisurely four hours, which left plenty of time to both document the ship and simply sit and relax – fortunately I had prepared for this by taking with me the book From Comet to Calmac, penned by Donald Meek and my traveling companion Bruce Peter. This was particularly suitable reading as Scotland’s Caledonian MacBrayne is another of the few European ferry operators owned by public rather than private interests.

Breakfast time, Finnish style.
Breakfast time, Finnish style.

After departure, most of the passengers onboard could be found at the cafeteria on the forward part of deck 7, where breakfast was served. This first experience with food on the WASA EXPRESS was very positive: a full breakfast (with porridge, bread etc) from the self-serve buffet was a meagre 8,50 €. I chose to be very Finnish and went with just bread, which was even cheaper at 4,50 €. And the food was quite tasty too… although it must be admitted bread and toppings are hard to get wrong.

The ship's second cafeteria aft has some unusual fixed seat & table -arrangements in the center of the space. The seats and tables on the sides of the same space are of a more traditional variety.
The ship’s second cafeteria aft has some unusual fixed seat & table -arrangements in the center of the space. The seats and tables on the sides of the same space are of a more traditional variety.

In addition to the forward cafeteria, there is a second cafeteria at the aft section of deck seven. While the serveral areas were closed off, the rest of the room was open and several passengers chose to sit there, away from the main bulk of passengers. It is a pleasant gesture that, despite the fact the ship was far from full, Wasaline have chosen to make all public rooms open to the passengers. The two cafeterias are connected by a corridor amidships, along which the information booth and onboard shop are located. The shop, in addition to selling much of the same products as most ferry shops on the Baltic, also sold various local products such as hand-made chocolates and marmalades seasoned with local berries.

The corridor connecting the forward and aft cafeterias on deck seven, with the information booth and the shop center/right.
The corridor connecting the forward and aft cafeterias on deck seven, with the information booth and the shop center/right.

At least during off-season crossings such as this one, the crewing of the ship is very rationalised: the same person is both in charge of the small onboard shop and the information booth, while the opening times of the cafeteria and the adjacent small à la carte -restaurant have been synchronised so that the same staff can serve both venues. Especially compared to mainstream cruise ships, where the quantity of service staff often seems to override the quality, encountering such a small, dedicated and friendly crew was refreshing to say at least. Despite the crew/passenger ratios worshipped by the cruise industry, good service does not come from having a big service crew – it comes from having a good service crew. But I digress.

Up on deck eight, passengers traveling with pets have a dedicated area of their own.
Up on deck eight, passengers traveling with pets have a dedicated area of their own.

Further passenger spaces can be found on deck eight, which has a bar forward, followed by a small number of passenger cabins amidships, and conference rooms and a children’s play area, as well as a dedicated room for passengers traveling with pets, aft. The bar serves as the ship’s main entertainment area, and even hosts intimate concerts by (relatively) well known Finnish recording artists on certain crossings.

The stairwell and lobbies onboard are rather utilititarian in design. Seen here is the aft stair lobby on deck 7, which – under normal circumstances – is also the entrance/exit lobby.
The stairwell and lobbies onboard are rather utilitarian in design. Seen here is the aft stair lobby on deck 7, which – under normal circumstances – is also the entrance/exit lobby.

After we left the Vaasa archipelago behind, the trip settled on a sedate pace of simply sitting and relaxing. As we drew closer to Umeå, it was time for lunch, again from the cafeteria’s self-serve buffet. There were just two choices, either salmon or pork kassler, both served with mashed potatoes and/or carrots and yellow turnips. I went with the pork while Bruce opted for the salmon, and both of us were exceptionally pleased with the meal. This was further enhanced by that fact that it had, again, been rather cheap – even by Finnish land prices.

Lunch: Pork kassler, some salad and bread – enough to fuel the day ashore in Holmsund & Umeå.
Lunch: Pork kassler, some salad and bread – enough to fuel the day ashore in Holmsund & Umeå.

Although the route of the ferry is officially from Vaasa to Umeå, on the Swedish side the ship actually docks at Holmsund, some 20 kilometres (~12 miles) from Umeå. Wasaline offers a bus connection to the city for foot passengers, but as Bruce and I first lingered onboard to photograph some of the interiors and then proceeded to photograph the ship while in port, we missed the bus. If you are planning on doing this, be prepared for a relatively long walk from the harbour to the center of Holmsund. Also be warned that for most of the way, there is no dedicated pedestrian walkway as the terminal is at the edge of an industrial area.

Photographing Bruce photographing the WASA EXPRESS at Holmsund. The ship was in need of a fresh lick of paint.
Photographing Bruce photographing the WASA EXPRESS at Holmsund. The ship was in need of a fresh lick of paint. 
Downtown Holmsund. My advice is, don't expect to be able to entertain yourself in Holmsund for the entire time the ship is in harbour.
Downtown Holmsund. My advice is, don’t expect to be able to entertain yourself in Holmsund for the entire time the ship is in harbour. 

In any case, we made it to central Holmsund without problems and managed to find a local bus to take us to Umeå. While Holmsund was rather small and lacking in notable sights, Umeå turned out to be a delightful city of moderate-height buildings – many of them traditional wooden ones – with the main streets of the city center dedicated to pedestrians and bicycles, with not a car in sight. As it happens, Umeå is the European Capital of Culture this year (jointly with Riga), and such the city hots many interesting events during this year. The celebrations have also seen the opening of new museums, such as one dedicated exclusively to guitars, this year. Alas, we skipped the cultural activities and chose instead to simply walk around the town before settling in a delightful local café for afternoon tea.

The rather delightful Umeå city hall is right in the center of the city.
The rather delightful Umeå city hall is right in the center of the city.  
Frukt-Hörnan (“fruit corner”), Umeå's oldest surviving shop, is famous for its chocolates.
Frukt-Hörnan (“fruit corner”), Umeå’s oldest surviving shop, is famous for its chocolates.

For the way back to the ship, we did manage to catch the bus connection provided by Wasaline. Potential passengers should be warned that this needs to be booked in advance, either by phone or at the terminal. Here too the bus leaves from central Umeå at an hour before the ship departs – but with the 20 km ride to Holmsund, there is a lot less extra time at the terminal.

The waiting room at Umeå ferry terminal offered a rather fantastic view of the ship awaiting us.
The waiting room at Umeå ferry terminal offered a rather fantastic view of the ship awaiting us. 

Once back in port, we snapped a few more photos of the ship in the pink sunset. Once inside the terminal, we were greeted by the pleasant surprise of plenty of passengers occupying the waiting area. Clearly, while the morning crossing from Vaasa had not been overtly popular amongst foot passengers, there were surprisingly many Swedes heading in the other direction without cars.

The sunset as seen from the WASA EXPRESS a few minutes before departure from Holmsund.
The sunset as seen from the WASA EXPRESS a few minutes before departure from Holmsund. 

The crossing from Holmsund to Vaasa was pretty much a repeat of the trip in the other direction, with most of the trip spent simply relaxing onboard – although this time we chose to sit at the bar on deck eight. On request of the passengers, karaoke was arranged as entertainment. With most of the participants being Swedish, the quality of the singing wasn’t quite as bad as normally on ferries sailing from Finland.

The WASA EXPRESS' bar, forward on deck eight.
The WASA EXPRESS’ bar, forward on deck eight.
While otherwise the WASA EXPRESS' strengths cannot be said to lie in her interior fittings, the Vitfågelskär à la carte restaurant's refined decor is a refreshing exception to the rule.
While otherwise the WASA EXPRESS’ strengths cannot be said to lie in her interior fittings, the Vitfågelskär à la carte restaurant’s refined decor is a refreshing exception to the rule.

For dinner onboard, we chose to try out the Vitfågelskär à la carte restaurant (named after an island near Vaasa) on deck seven, adjacent to the cafeteria. The restaurant space is very nicely decorated, giving a more refined feeling than the rest of the ship. The menu had only a small number of dishes to choose from (three starters, four main courses and two desserts, though an extra dessert was available off the menu), but once again the quality of the food proved to be exceptionally good. Even better, the menu included various local products. Myself, I went with a reindeer soup for a starter, chicken breast with risotto as the main course and a sea-buckthorn panna cotta for dessert. The latter, in particular, was superb – especially as panna cotta is, in my experience, generally a disappointing dish. This time it was simply awesome, however.

Reindeer soup. While I was otherwise pleased with the local products onboard, I have to say that only offering Coca-Cola Company soft drinks was a disappointment, especially as tastier Finnish products are available.
Reindeer soup. While I was otherwise pleased with the local products onboard, I have to say that only offering Coca-Cola Company soft drinks was a disappointment, especially as tastier Finnish products are available.
I admit that choosing chicken breast was less locally oriented that my other choices. But it was good. It should be noted, however, that there were no dedicated vegetarian options.
I admit that choosing chicken breast was less locally oriented that my other choices. But it was good. It should be noted, however, that there were no dedicated vegetarian options.
Panna Cotta is not a food that photographs well. But it deserves to be photographed, as the sea buckthorn transformed what is one of my least favourite desserts into something utterly delectable.
Panna Cotta is not a food that photographs well. But it deserves to be photographed, as the sea buckthorn transformed what is one of my least favourite desserts into something utterly delectable. 

Our leisurely crossing of the moonlit Gulf of Bothnia was nearing its end, and punctually on 11 pm we were back in Vaasa harbour. This time we did catch the bus connection from the ferry to the city. After another good night’s sleep, the next day we returned to Helsinki, this time by a blissfully wobble-free InterCity train.

Awaiting disembarkation on the car deck.
Awaiting disembarkation on the car deck.

For closing remarks… well, it is extremely unlikely that any of the MaritimeMatters readers ever find themselves with the unexplainable urge to travel to northern Sweden or Finland to experience traveling on a local, transport-oriented ferry. But if you do find yourselves in the area, I very much recommend trying out the WASA EXPRESS. She’s not a glamorous ship by any means, but as a dedicated transport ferry she is one of the best I have experienced – in fact, I found myself wishing that other ferries and even cruise ships would offer the same quality of food and service.

Goodbye WASA EXPRESS. If you sailed from somewhere closer to Helsinki, I'd definitely come onboard again.
Goodbye WASA EXPRESS. If you sailed from somewhere closer to Helsinki, I’d definitely come onboard again.

End of The Gulf of Bothnia on the WASA EXPRESS.

 

Special thanks to Bruce Peter, Martin Cox and the entire crew of the WASA EXPPRESS.

 

For more photographs by Kalle Id, visit kships.blogspot.com.

Kalle Id

Kalle Id

Kalle Id, MaritimeMatters' Helsinki correspondent, is a Finnish maritime historian, photographer and journalist, with a Master's Degree in history from the University of Helsinki. His early-age exposure to ferry travel led to a lifetime fascination with passenger ships, both the cruise ferries of his home waters and the cruise ships and ferries of further afield. Kalle maintains his own ship photography blog at kships.blogspot.com. Contrary to the popular belief, he writes under his real name.
Kalle Id
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