AK: Smaller islands' residents get resourceful in travel during cold spell

View from the bridge of the Panda, the ice-breaker connecting the island of Abruka with the much larger island of Saaremaa at present.
View from the bridge of the Panda, the ice-breaker connecting the island of Abruka with the much larger island of Saaremaa at present. Source: ERR

Despite the recent cold snap, traveling to Estonia's islands over ice roads is still largely closed. While regular connections by air and sea are running, Estonia's smaller islands often have to be more flexible and adapt to conditions in their winter-time transport links, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Sunday night.

The largest island, Saaremaa, boasts many offshore islands of its own, some of them inhabited, albeit by only a handful of people. Two of these, Vilsandi, to the west of Saaremaa, and Abruka, to the south, keep their connections open via snowmobile and icebreaker respectively.

Vilsandi, population less than 10, has seen it's regular boat captain, Harri Hiiuväin, switch to snowmobile driver in the teeth of encroaching ice.

Ice surface between Vilsandi and Saaremaa quite bumpy ride

Hiiuväin told AK: ""I made my last boat trip a month ago, and since then I have been able to courier goods via snowmobile, three times. Last week I also had some passengers [from the Saaremaa "mainland"] who wanted to head to the island for a weekend, so I took them by snowmobile Friday, then back on the Sunday."

This wasn't all that smooth of a ride, he added.

"The ice was such that there were wet patches on the surface, where water had percolated through. In that case there is such a porridge or soup of snow that you can't travel at full tilt," Hiiuväin went on.

Famous ice roads still not working

As reported on ERR News, the ice roads – a phenomenon which has in the past attracted the attention of no less a show than the U.K.'s "Top Gear" motoring program – which allow private vehicles to drive along designated routes, have largely not materialized this winter yet, either to the larger islands or the smaller ones, though that may change in the near future.

Meanwhile Saaremaa, for instance, or even the much smaller island of Ruhnu, can be reached by plane; a long-running procurement process eventually saw the contract to connect the island to Tallinn awarded to operator NyxAir, whose services commenced just before Christmas.

Abruka still only reachable by boat

Abruka's connection is still by ship, though rather than via its regular ferry, an icebreaker, the Panda, is being used.

Captain of the Panda Andrus Saat told AK that: "We haven't had any crazy conditions for the Panda this year yet, we can still get through. It will get more complicated when the ice thickness exceeds 20 centimeters, but now we are still far from that."

Ice around Abruka at the moment is in places barely thick enough to bear the weight of a person, in fact, local resident Kaupo Heinlaid told AK, though another, Rein Lember, told AK that once the ice gets thick enough, given the island's proximity to Saaremaa's capital, Kuressaare, just a few kilometers due north, driving or even sledging over ice to the town's supermarket is a particularly conducive round trip.

Wildlife also dependent on ice cover to get on or off islands

Ice cover does not only impact humans, AK reported, with some Abruka residents hoping that a solid cover will allow a solitary lynx stranded on the island for some years a chance to leave and mix with its own kind.

"Since it is a tom cat, we thought that most likely the lynx will head off. But I think it's possible a female will come here instead, and they can start to reproduce. Abruka could then offer lynx, large and small, as a selling point," Rein Lember said.

Meanwhile the second-largest island, Hiiumaa, saw problems Sunday when a cargo vessel got stuck in the Heltermaa channel, between the island and the mainland, leading to a cancellation of ferry links.

Hiiumaa connection temporarily halted by stuck vessel

TS Laevad, a subsidiary of the state-owned Port of Tallinn, which operates connections between the mainland and Hiiumaa and Saaremaa/Muhu, said Sunday evening that the vessel was stuck and awaiting a tug boat, leading to the cancellation of Sunday's 10 p.m. departure from Rohuküla, on the mainland.

The stricken vessel was freed early morning Monday, meaning regular services will resume, ERR reports.

Video of the Vilsandi and Abruka connections (in Estonian) is below.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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