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Tõll ferry comes to aid of cargo ship stuck in pack ice off Saaremaa

The ferries Piret and Tõll berthed at Kuivastu.
The ferries Piret and Tõll berthed at Kuivastu. Source: Margus Muld / ERR

A ferry which connects the island of Saaremaa to the mainland was pressed into action Wednesday after a cargo vessel became stuck in thick ice.

The cold weather and windy conditions have led to drifting ice, while the already shallow waters around Saaremaa have fallen to an even lower level, making conditions even harder to negotiate.

The Tõll serves the Kuivastu (on Muhu island, linked by causeway road to Saaremaa itself) to Virtsu (on the mainland) route.

On Wednesday, the Tõll came to the aid of the Friendland, a Latvian-flagged freighter which had got into trouble in the ice in the Väinameri, a sheltered area of sea encompassed by the islands of Vormsi, Hiiumaa, Saaremaa and Muhu, along with the Estonian mainland to the East.

Vessels in transit are often piloted through the difficult waters by the state fleet (Riigilaevastik).

The location of the Väinameri, with Hiiumaa to the North, Saaremaa and Muhu to the South and the mainland to the East. The Friendland was trapped in sea ice of the coast of Raugi, on Muhu (marked with red pin). Source: Google Maps

The Friendland's operators issued a distress call after becoming trapped in the sea ice.

The Tõll is part of the TS Laevad fleet, a subsidiary of the state-owned Port of Tallinn (Tallinna Sadam).

Kuldar Kivro, head of TS Laevad's shipping department, said Wednesday that: "This morning. we received a small request for help from an agency firm operating in Estonia, whose client's ship was unfortunately trapped in the ice."

Kivro added the Friendland was stuck just off Raugi, a village on Muhu's North coast.

"The Tõll is currently coming to the vessel's aid, and will try to free it from the ice and escort it out at least as far as Viirelaid pilot station," Kivro went on.

Viirelaid is a small island to the South.

"From that point, the ship should be able to move forward smoothly and under its own power," Kivro said.

Kivro said the initial plan had been to tow the vessel in a northerly direction towards Finland, but the decision was made to turn back towards the South when it became clear that ice, which can be as thick as 30 centimeters in places, was too formidable to break through easily.

Not only the thick ice, but piles of more slushy ice packed on top of that, up to a meter in thickness, by the strong winds, are the main challenge, Kivro added,

"When moving into these, you would need a lot of power to make it through, or out," adding that this was not on its own beyond the Tõll's capacity.

Now, the Tõll is escorting the Friendland back the way it came, around Saaremaa in an anti-clockwise direction (see map) in order to make its way towards Finland from the more open sea beyond that island.

The Friendland was not the only freighter to come to grief on Wednesday; the Bugoe, a Portuguese-flagged vessel, which left the port of Romessaare, close to Kuressaare, was pushed off course late on Tuesday by the wind and drift ice and reported being mired on the edge of the Väinameri on Tuesday night.

A tugboat and a pilot vessel attempted to return the Bugoe to port, but again strong winds and shallow waters made this impossible, and the ship remains where it has been.

Forecast changes in wind direction and a rise in the waterline mean it should be able to make the journey back to Romessaare on Friday.

The difficult conditions have prompted the state fleet to stop piloting more vessels through the Väinameri until further notice.

Ferry services on the Kuivastu-Virtsu route are unaffected and remain on schedule, with the Tõll's sister ship, the Piret, standing in.

Priority is also given to scheduled sailings, Kivro added, meaning the Tõll's work has to halt to allow these to pass; Kivro said that the situation with the Friendland should be resolved by or in Thursday morning, allowing the Tõll to return to its more usual work.

The Friendland is a 22-year-old vessel with a gross tonnage of 3,666, a draught of a little over 5 meters and a length of a little over 100 meters.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Barbara Oja

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