Sitting in an armchair on the sun-soaked bridge of the vintage Stockholm steamer S/S Storskär, 84-year-old Stieg Dingertz, dressed to a tee, savours a special day out on the Baltic sea.
Some 60 years ago, the naval engineer was at the forefront of a movement to save the Swedish capital’s steamers, deemed outdated and ready for replacement by a modern fleet to navigate the city’s sprawling archipelago.
Now, he watches with satisfaction as 10 century-old white steamships adorned with multicoloured flags gather in the quaint harbour of Vaxholm for their annual parade.
“This one was destined to be abandoned. We had to fight for it” to be kept in service, he said of the Storskär, a classic 320-passenger model built in 1908. “It’s very important that they continue to serve regular routes so that they don’t become museum ships,” the former city counselor added.
The elegant silhouettes of the white steamers, with their tall black chimneys, French-polished mahogany guardrails and birch trunks serving as fenders have been a fixture here for more than a century. They still ply the waters for both tourists and Stockholmers alike.
Aboard the Storskär, Stockholmer Bo Hurell, a 79-year-old advertiser, is en route to Vaxholm for an annual lunch with former classmates in the tourist town’s hotel, a ritual for the last 55 years.
“Since 1955, we’ve been taking the Storskär. It’s convenient. It always leaves Stockholm at noon and always arrives at the same time,” he said, leaning on the guard rail and sipping aquavit.
The steamer’s slow pace gives plenty of time to enjoy the area’s natural beauty, passing island after island, spotting the occasional typically Swedish red-and-white painted cottage. Inside, the steamers retain the old-style decor of varnished wood paneling and crimson velvet armchairs.
“It’s an authentic atmosphere that carries you back to a century ago,” said the Storskär’s young captain Johann Bäckström, in officer’s uniform complete with bowtie and white cap.
For tourist Ling Kin Pong, a 22-year-old student from Hong Kong, “The Swedes know how to preserve traditions.”
However, they have not neglected technology and steamers are now fully equipped with the latest navigation instruments, radars and global positioning systems.
Even before the instruments, Claes Insulander, 65, who has been manning the Mariefred, built in 1903, for half his life, said the steamers were good for manoeuvring through archipelago. In fog, they cruised at a constant speed with the motor’s revolutions set to a watch and the captain hoping for the best.
Yet it is below deck, in the machine room, where the true soul of a steamer lies, with its distinctive smell, the racket of rods and cylinders and the humming of the boiler.
“It’s a triple expansion engine that turns at 152 revolutions a minute,” the Storskaer’s chief mechanic Johan Lundell, 43, proudly explained as he ran an oil can over the cogwheels.
The Storskär can reach up to 14 knots, or around 25 kilometres per hour, earning it the nickname of the archipelago’s “King of Steam.” A sharp bell pierces through the racket of machinery, meaning the captain has ordered to change direction and Lundell promptly activates a lever. Up on the bridge, Bäckström has just shifted the brass telegraph to full astern.
“I can go from full ahead to full astern in zero seconds,” he beamed.
The Storskär’s boiler is fuel-powered, but others, such as the Mariefred’s, are still powered by coal, leaving a long stream of black smoke through the archipelago’s blue skies.
The steamers’ arrival in the 1850s spelled the end of isolation for the few farmers, fishermen and hunters who lived scattered across some 30,000 islands and islets in the archipelago, according to Berndt Festin, the outgoing president of Stockholm’s prestigious archipelago foundation.
“People used to living off hunting, especially seal hunting,” he told AFP.
However, in part thanks to steamers, relaxation is a prime occupation in the pink granite forest-covered islands, now sprinkled with about 40,000 vacation homes. Despite this population “boom”, Festin insists there is still plenty left to explore in the archipelago.
“There are always some islands for sale,” he said.