ESTONIA: An Ancient Maritime Nation

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The discovery of two Viking ship burials in Salme, on the island of Saaremaa in 2008 re-wrote Norse history. The archaeology confirms that the Viking Era started at least 50 years before the raid on Lindisfarne in 793CE, and possibly as much as a century.

The influence of the Norsemen and their seafaring raids remains strong in the Baltic States today; and is evident from modern sea routes for trade and transport. In particular, island communities maintain strong maritime traditions which have been adapted over the centuries to present modern opportunities for commerce, tourism, recreation and leisure.



The positions of the ships are marked with a stone outline and benches in the grounds of the school


A model of a ship Description automatically generated with medium confidence Ship A very modern roll-on/roll-off ferry service connects Virtsu on the mainland with the tiny port of Kuivastu on the island of Muhu. The diesel-electric hybrid ships are operated by TS Laevad OÜ in partnership with the state and report a 99% departure accuracy across four ships on two routes. A fifth ship is on permanent standby. An e-ticket service is used by 70% of passengers and affords priority boarding through dedicated gates to avoid queuing or visiting the ticket office. An e-ticket can also be changed up to 15 minutes before departure. The vessels are bright, airy and scrupulously clean. Crew members are friendly and courteous. Announcements are made in Estonian, English and Russian.

By accident or design, the ferries’ livery resembles the traditional knitting patterns of the island of Muhu. The ships are named after folk heroes from the legends of Muhu, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa.

The crossing takes around 30 minutes – just enough time to consume some of the authentic Estonian meals and snacks available from the restaurant. According to Evelyn Bauman, product development specialist,

“The dishes prepared in the Take Off onboard restaurant are made from fresh, unprocessed ingredients. We avoid using certain things in our cooking: flavour enhancers; condiments containing salt; sauce, stock and dessert powders; and liquid concentrates. Everything is made from all-natural ingredients.”

There is also a range of soft drinks, wines and beers – with an emphasis on Estonian products.

Primarily a ferry terminal, and the gateway to Muhu and Saaremaa, Kuivastu also boasts a tidy harbour with pontoons for small craft and a sturdy quay to accommodate larger vessels alongside. On arrival I noted a dozen or so yachts and powerboats; a fine, traditional wooden gaff cutter and a visiting fast patrol boat of the Royal Norwegian Coastguard.

The harbour is integrated with the pier that accommodates the ferry vehicle lanes and separated from the large ships by a concrete breakwater. It is equipped with night lights, bollards for power and fresh water; lifebuoys and rescue ladders; and access is controlled by a coded security gate.

The development represents intelligent design and economic use of materials; and was clearly planned to accommodate mixed use and the needs of commercial and leisure traffic. The harbour office complex includes clean and accessible toilets, a waiting area for ferry passengers, a ticket office and a shop selling high quality souvenir merchandise.


Maritime law – and lawlessness – is bound up with the history of ships and discovery. Around the coasts of Muhu and Saaremaa folk tales have survived for a thousand years, and illuminate a complex history of seafaring communities, customs, piracy and survival. Our expert guide, Maarika Naagel, told the story of the rope-cutters – sea-borne plunderers masquerading as rescuers.

Early merchant ships often foundered in the shallow bays and inlets in the centuries before charts or navigation marks. The local unwritten rule of the sea was that their cargo was safe as long as their masts remained stepped and rigged. Rope-cutters attended stricken vessels with the intention of severing the standing rigging that supported the masts, bringing them down and establishing the “right” to seize cargo or claim salvage.

A picture containing boat Description automatically generated A crocodile lying on grass by a body of water Description automatically generated with low confidence This grim reality was an evolution of Viking raids on and from the coastline of what is modern Estonia, and intricately woven into the maritime history of the Baltic and North Seas, the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans and the English Channel.

A group of people on a roller coaster Description automatically generated with low confidence Baltic cogs and island uisk (serpent) hulls are descended from Scandinavian ships of discovery and war.

The seal hunters of the little islands of Kihnu and Manija have traditionally culled the mammals to protect their fish stocks. UNESCO proclaimed Kihnu a cultural space because the women have stayed ashore to look after everything else while the men were at sea. The female population is acknowledged as the custodians of cultural traditions, including runic songs from the pre-Christian era.

International interpretation of the seal culture included the assumption that the islanders used every part of the seal. Certainly fur, oil and blubber were exploited, but there is no evidence that the local people habitually ate seal meat.

The women of coastal Estonia have a saying: if men are not out in boats on the sea, they are ashore doing nothing while they contemplate going out in boats on the sea.

Kihnu seal hunters embrace technology.


It is impossible to examine Estonia’s marine and coastal tourism sector without acknowledging the country’s turbulent history. Evidence of the Teutonic crusades, two world wars, German and Russian occupation and the Soviet Era is everywhere. Sometimes subtle, like Orthodox churches in the smallest of settlements; sometimes obvious like the crumbling remains of military installations from a century of conflict, or the brutalist architecture of Soviet-era public buildings.

Some abandoned buildings and other features have been repurposed: seaplane hangars and harbours have been transformed into museums and marinas; and a former inland trout farm is now the Pidula Wakeboard Park – a new and fabulously successful water sports facility comprising three cable-tow runs with jumps, a sandy beach and huge bouncy animals for children; and a restaurant, bar and rooftop viewing platform made out of shipping containers. The owners have even installed a pizza oven, and welcome day visitors and campers from all over Europe who come for active sport and relaxation.



Papissare Port in Saaremma was established in the 13th century. The famous sprat fishery has been sustained here for hundreds of years. The buildings were Imperial Russian seaplane hangars. Today the port has a modernised harbour from where a passenger ferry serves nearby islands in summer, according to government legislation and the requirements of the islanders. In winter the sea freezes over and the islands are accessible on foot, ski, car or sled.


Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian partisans waged a guerrilla war against the Soviet invasion and occupation during and after World War II. They were known as the Forest Brothers, and moved around to evade capture, keeping essentials and personal effects in metal milk churns buried in the woods. The last of them were rounded up and arrested in 1953.

Emotions still run high when discussions turn to the Soviet Era. Families were torn apart, hundreds of thousands of people disappeared, and a culture of denouncement, fear and persecution prevailed. The group heard about the poor economics of the collective farming system. The pay was so poor that villagers were forced to keep their own farm animals and grow winter fodder on tiny plots to make ends meet. After independence and the return of seized properties, the people cheerfully gave all that up; and nowadays the measure of community success is the number of families returning to the countryside to raise their own families.

Inflated property prices and a shortage of social or affordable private housing is a challenge; and economic conditions have been badly affected by COVID and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Strong national identity and a determination to build a future are unmistakable Estonian characteristics. The new municipality house is a multi-function village hall, where Development Officer Annika Auvaart explained the dramatic changes Estonia has undergone since 1991. The popular Windmill restaurant in Kuressaare serves the world’s best cheese balls and garlic black bread. The Lime Park in Saaremaa combines profitable traditional lime production with educational tourism. The products are sold worldwide for conservation works and paint manufacture.


Muhu. The German and Swedish names for this place are Moon, and the strait separating it from the mainland is still shown on some charts as Moonsund or Moon Sound. The splendid wooden gaff cutter I spotted in Kuivastu harbour on arrival turned out be a community maritime heritage project, and our course included a short cruise on her towards the island of Kesselaid.

Skipper and senior project manager Mihkel Jürisson explained that the keel was laid down in 2009, in an ambitious attempt to recreate a typical uisk-type sailing boat used locally for around 1,000 years. The

Väinamere Uisk Society finally launched the Moonland in 2017. She measures 15 metres by 5 metres, and is clinker built of Siberian larch.

Moonland operates trips for visitors to the islands and has a successful career as a charter boat for exclusive use and special events. She is one of a dozen or so completed or planned boat recreations that form a renaissance in traditional sailing and rowing leisure and tourism activity.


It came as a surprise to learn that 90% of Estonian boatbuilding revenue is generated in Saaremaa Island. On a visit to Kuresarre, a large-scale timber freight yard is noticeably located adjacent to a marina at one end of the island airport’s runway. Segregation of commercial activities from leisure pursuits does not seem necessary, and the benefits of maximising existing infrastructure are quite obvious.

Luxury Swedish yacht-builder Arcona has a sizeable dealership in this complex too – a powerful symbol of economic recovery and the popularity of the Baltic cruising grounds. Manufacturer of oceangoing commercial vessels, Baltic Workboats is based in Nasva, 6km away. The range of pilot boats, search and rescue boats, patrol boats, ferries, tugs and general-purpose workboats is sold worldwide. The company has 30 vessels on order.

Baltic Workboats Pilot 45 Hybrid Kuressaare Marina

Our visit to Kuressaare coincided with the annual Maritime Days, a long weekend devoted to the islands’ relationship with the sea and an expression of the concept of the Viking Islands. Part historical experimentation, part marketing exercise, the town comes alive with visiting vessels of all shapes and sizes, boat trips, water activities; traditional costume, song and dance; food and drink, popular music, arts and crafts and a flea market specialising in soviet era household goods and militaria.

The National Maritime Museum is a two-centre extravaganza, split between the 16th century Fat Margaret Tower (really) and the Seaplane Harbour in Tallinn. The two sites are approximately 12 minutes’ walk apart.

An adult admission fee of 15 Euro covers both collections, which are presented in modern, accessible and imaginative ways. The curators have strived to create total immersive experiences through interactive exhibits, and they have succeeded. The museum typically pays 100,000 Euro per month to host temporary exhibitions, so the management needs to have confidence in visitor numbers.

The stars of the show are the 700-year-old remains of the hulls of Baltic cogs and uisks; and another is being prepared for permanent exhibition. The submarine Lembit was built for the Estonian Republican Navy by Vickers Armstrong’s Barrow-in-Furness yard in 1936; and is now an indoor permanent exhibit with public access. Also on display is the only Short 184 seaplane in existence; and afloat in the harbour is the 100-year-old icebreaker Suur Tõll.

The self-supporting concrete domes of the seaplane hangar are used to great effect. There are three models of ships built in Scotland. The Kaubaaurik Eestirand was built in Dumbarton in 1910. Hull models demonstrate the evolution of local ship design. There is a rooftop bar and restaurant on Fat Margaret. Visit Estonia web site links from the museum provide canoe and kayak itineraries in the Gulf of Tallinn.

Beyond the collection of Estonian Navy patrol boats, Port Noblessner is a residential/leisure district characterised by reuse of wharves and warehouse buildings, a new marina and a host of activity options including boat charters, jet-ski hire; and the Iglupark – a small village of rentable sauna, accommodation, relaxation, event and office spaces with direct access to the sea.


Marine and coastal tourism development in Estonia is at an advanced stage. Domestic recreationists and foreign holidaymakers are given thorough pre-arrival information about general ecological and cultural heritage imperatives; and more location-specific advice is available from multiple sources as they move around. The Baltic Sea has been a popular cruising ground for Northern European and Scandinavian leisure sailors, and St Petersburg was the ultimate destination for many until the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Overwhelmingly, local populations and visitors respect the environmental significance and sensitivity of the coastlands and the forested expanse of the interior. Species and habitat protection is acknowledged as normal behaviour, and most interpretative material gently reinforces adoption and maintenance of best practice.

Simple, progressive ideas thrive. One bathing station we visited encouraged campers and motorhomes. The basic facilities associated with an aire were present, and patrons could simply make payment using the bank details posted on the noticeboard.

Anneliis Jool, the tourism co-ordinator for Tallinn and Harju, Rapla and Laanemaa counties has been frustrated by a lack of scheduled or chartered passenger services to some of the smaller islands. The ferry services are unreliable, which makes booking difficult. She is now actively pursuing plans to introduce a free travel scheme for people on holiday or trying to make it home to see family and friends.

The system works by connecting travellers with island-bound leisure craft owners – a considerable number of whom make passages frequently during summer, often with spare capacity. Often, these boat owners have family business interests on the islands (holiday accommodation, retail, food and drink outlets) so have the opportunity to commercialise the free travel through sales of products and experiences.

Early discussions have been encouraging; and there is even support for an extension to the system to permit appropriately qualified and/or experienced visitors to sail boats themselves by agreement with the owners.

In conclusion, coastal Estonians have built a successful marine tourism product. It has been made possible – and is managed by – apparent willing cooperation between the EU, the state, the municipalities, community groups and entrepreneurs. Presumption in favour of re-utilisation of redundant assets is supported by national and regional policy, and a patient understanding of long-term capital investment is universal. Everywhere, the group was reminded of the real value of the LEADER Programme.

The sector has room to grow. Community-scale marina developments represent the norm; and the model helps keep economic benefits relatively local. Infrastructure and supply chain development opportunities are embraced only if the outcomes satisfy strict environmental and social conditions, including genuine and meaningful partnerships with local communities.

The Heritage as a Tool of Tourism of the Baltic Islands of Muhu and Saaremaa structured course was made possible by the ERASMUS+ Programme; and delivered by the ARCH Network and Parimusmatkad Heritage Tours. I gratefully acknowledge their generous support; and the following:

Seona Anderson and Libby Urquhart of the ARCH Network for the opportunity and perfect planning.

Maarika Naagel of Parimusmatkad Heritage Tours for outstanding hospitality, infectious enthusiasm, expert knowledge and endless patience; her husband Leve for generously sharing their home; and her son Mikk Toomel for safe driving, music and random introductions to Estonian subculture.

And my fellow travelling students, without whom the entire experience would have been a great deal lonelier. Take a bow, Fernanda, Hannah, Molly, Ross and Vicki. Fair winds for you all. Terviseks!

David J Adams McGilp

August 2022

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