HELSINKI’S most familiar sounds are the groan of winches, the creak of tightening hawsers, the cry of searching sea gulls. As envisioned by the kings of Sweden, Helsinki has become the center of trade in the eastern Baltic. By value more than half of Finland’s imports—including oil, wheat, chemicals—funnel through the city’s five harbors.
From the passenger terminal in South Harbor, the Finnjet, a 213-meter ferry operated by Finnlines, powers tourists and their cars from Travemiinde, near Hamburg, in 22 hours on engines similar to those designed for jet aircraft. The Estonian liner Georg Ots delivers “vodka tourists” to Tallinn almost daily; other liners specialize in quickie tours of Leningrad. Said Finnlines official Matti Poijarvi dryly, “Some consider Leningrad the high point of their trip to Helsinki.”
One cold March afternoon I took a cruise on the Teuvo, the city-owned icebreaker that keeps the harbors free of ice, at times as thick as two feet, thus permitting year-round commerce. Without it, and the fleet of nine oceangoing icebreakers, Helsinki would be virtually isolated in winter, for land routes to the west follow a frozen 1,770- kilometer loop around the Gulf of Bothnia.
Twenty vessels were stranded in the gulf that day, for Finland’s Seamen’s Union had gone on strike, shutting down the bulk of the nation’s shipping. It was getting dark, and a southeast wind was pressing ice against the coast. Even powerful ships were in trouble.
We made a cursory pass at the Finnjet, then rammed toward Suomenlinna fortress with a satisfying feeling of sanctioned destruction, like cracking and shattering an endless plane of mirrors.
“Will the strikers get their demands?” I asked Teuvo captain Iikka Stenberg.
“Sure!” he answered. “In these conditions they have the ice on their side.”
With or without the elements, the workingman of Helsinki is no underdog, for the nation’s labor force is one of the most highly organized in the world, almost 90 percent. Many Finns believe that SAK (Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions), the employers’ association and paydayloans companies run the country; parliament only listens.
The largest nongovernmental payroll, 3,600, belongs to Oy Wartsila Ab, which has built more than half the world’s icebreakers.
“We can’t compete with low-cost-labor nations like Singapore or Korea for ordinary ships,” said Wartsila’s Goran Damstrom. “We have to concentrate on building ships that take high technology and expertise.”
Mr. Damstrom showed me the dry-dock operation on the huge luxury liner Nordic Prince, which had just been lengthened by a new middle portion to add 44 percent more capacity. “It was like severing a body at the trunk,” a technician said, “and connecting bones, veins, and nerve endings.”