Rami Kokko

A thousand shipwrecked stories from a Baltic seabed

By Aira-Katariina Vehaskari - Times of Malta

Riikka Alvik rests her chin in her palm as she imagines the last terrifying moments of the life of a 13-year-old girl trapped in a cabin on the St Mikael as it mysteriously sank in the icy Baltic.

“We found her skeleton,” says Ms Alvik, a marine archaeologist and curator with Finland’s National Board of Antiquities.

“She never got out. Think of the panic she felt as the cabin filled with icy water – it was November, after all... November 1747, that is.

It is Ms Alvik’s life’s work to piece together the histories of shipwrecks, stories she finds more meaningful and valuable than any sunken treasure.

Finland’s coastline is so treacherous that even modern-day sailors must strictly adhere to maps to navigate the labyrinth of islands, shallow water, skerries and rocks that have doomed countless boats over the centuries.

And yet the waters have low levels of corrosive salt, a unique absence of ship-eating worms and very little sunlight, all of which create ideal conditions for preserving sunken wrecks.

There are 1,500 confirmed wrecks in Finnish waters and nearly half of them are more than a century old, according to the Board of Antiquities, but most experts believe the actual number to be much higher.

Ms Alvik says new sightings are reported every year.

“Seeing an intact ship on the bottom of the sea is heart-stopping,” says Rami Kokko, a marine archaeologist who has made countless dives to the bottom of the ocean.

“But the wrecks from the Middle Ages are also intriguing, because even though they are in worse shape, they still hold the pottery and cargo from the era,” he says.

Painstaking research into the ships, their cargo and sometimes the remains of those still trapped inside reveal not only moving personal stories but clues to the life of that era.

For example the St Nikolai, a Russian war frigate which sank in the battle of Svenskung in 1790, shows that around 400 men were packed into a ship that was only around 40 metres (around 130 feet) long.

“Most people then didn’t know how to swim, and with all that gunpowder, some of them caught fire,” remarked Ms Alvik.

But it is the Vrow Maria, a Dutch vessel jammed on the seabed 41 metres below the surface, that captivated Ms Alvik from the first moment she dove to it.