In our 28th Technology Series episode, we tour the historic steamships SS Savonlinna and SS Punkaharju and take a 90-minute cruise of the area on the SS Punkaharju. The ships are located in Savonlinna, Finland within the Great Saimaa Lakes system. Steamships have long been a popular form of transit in the area and the Savonlinna and the Punkaharju currently are part of of the largest fleet of classic steamships in Finland, operated by Janne Leinonen of VIP Cruise.
The SS Savonlinna, pictured above, is a museum ship owned by the city of Savonlinna and is on display to visitors at the Savonlinna Provincial Museum when not in service. The oldest in the fleet, the Savonlinna was built in 1904 at the Paul Wahl & Co. shipyard in Varkaus, about 50 miles north of Savonlinna. The ship is 91.2ft (27.8m) long, with a beam of 21.7ft (6.6m) wide and a draft of 7.9ft (2.4m).
Savonlinna had become a popular spa destination in the late 19th-century and the Saimaa Steamship company ordered the vessel built to provide daily service between Savonlinna and Lapeenranta, to the south at the Saimaa Canal lake terminus. Because the ship was built to transport wealthy spa-goers, the interior was richly finished and has often carried dignitaries, a tradition that has continued. In recent years, the Savonlinna hosted the presidents of Finland and Germany.
Pictured above is the Savonlinna‘s original 200HP engine that could propel the ship at 11.5 knots, earning it the nickname “Saimaa Express”.
Many of the historic steamships that still ply the Saimaa Lakes have been converted to fuel oil, but the Savonlinna still burns meter-long birch logs.
Jennifer at the helm of the Savonlinna. As with the rest of the ship, the helm has been beautifully maintained in its original, traditional form, but does include modern required safety features such as an AIS. The Furuno FA-150, the model installed on Dirona, seems a popular choice for commercial boats. The Holland America Westerdam cruise ship we toured had one as well.
The other two ships in the VIP Cruise fleet are the 74ft (22.5m) S/S Punkaharju, built in 1905 locally in Savonlinna, and the (26.5m) S/S Paul Wahl, built in 1909 also in Varkaus where the Savonlinna was built..
Pictured above is the engine room on the S/S Punkaharju with its original Finnish-made 92HP compound steam engine. The engine is surprisingly quiet because it’s steam-powered and no internal combustion is taking place. The Oilon boiler, running on light fuel oil, holds 1,320 gallons (5,000L) and generally operates at a pressure of 116 psi (8 bar), with a maximum of 145 psi (10 bar).
At the right of the second picture above is the telegraph system the captain at the helm uses to communicate with the engineer. When a cruise ship docks these days, the captain is usually standing in the shore side bridge wing which reaches out beyond the side of the ship for better visibility. When James toured the 936-ft Westerdam, the captain showed him the wing station where he can directly control the azipods and thrusters and slowly ease the boat up to the dock. Moving an 81,811 gross ton ship near an immovable dock requires considerable skill but the view is incredible with clear sight bow to the stern all way down the side of the ship and the controls are directly handled by the captain rather than through the indirection and latency of giving commands.
But it wasn’t always that way. On the steamship Punkaharju , the captain is directly at the wheel but all engine controls are sent by telegraph down to the engine room. The engineer in the engine room is unlikely to hear the telegraph over the engine but hopefully he will see the telegraph move signalling the captains intent. For example, as the boat slows moving towards the dock, the captain will first ask for dead slow by setting the telegraph appropriately. The engineer will see that new setting and adjust the steam engine governor setting to dead slow and then acknowledge the captain’s command by setting the telegraph to dead slow.
The 1905 Punkaharju is the oldest steamer still in business use. This photograph on board, likely taken in the 1950s, shows the ship out for a cruise.
After touring the two steamships, we took a 90-minute cruise aboard the Punkaharju. In the pictures above, captain Jyri Koponen is easing the the Punkaharju with the Savonlinna visible on the dock beyond. He’ll be operating the boat remotely, by communicating with the engineer via telegraph. One of the wonderful things about travelling in a steamship is the authentic toot of the steam-powered horn as we get underway and return.
The video below shows details of our cruise, including the running engine and steering system, the Punkaharju layout, the beautiful scenery and of course, the steam-powered horn.
More than a century later, the Savonlinna and the Punkaharju are still reliably carrying passengers around the Great Saimaa Lakes system. Technology has advanced greatly over the last century and yet these elegant steam-driven ships remains one of the best ways to tour the lake. We can see why passengers continue to flock to these vessels when visiting Savonlinna. The classic steamship experience is hard to beat.