Once used for trawl fishing in the North Sea, S.V Estelle has since transformed from a clunky trawler with no mast into a seaworthy sailing ship thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers. A steel-hulled, 42-metre-long ship, she was originally built in 1922 in Emden, Germany and spent 15 years hauling gravel from Vuolahti to Helsinki before being converted into a fair trade vessel. She now has the illustrious task of promoting fair trade and global equality and is docked and operated out of Turku, Finland by a group of volunteers who sail to poverty-stricken parts of the globe delivering aid and bringing back fair trade items to sell. It is Finland’s largest sailboat and as such is participating in this year’s Tall Ships’ Races, partly to draw attention to their cause. Uniquely, she is one of the only ships classified as both a merchant vessel and a special-purpose or training vessel for her work as a cargo ship and for campaigning and educational work. A literal shipwreck when Eestas Oy bought her in 1985, her transformation into a seafaring sailing ship over the next ten years is all thanks to the volunteers who now operate the ship.
Estelle is currently maintained by volunteer group Uusi Tuuli (New Wind), who charter Estelle from Eestaas Oy (Back and Forth Limited). Uusi Tuuli was formed “to promote international solidarity, fair trade, peace and understanding between people and nations of the world”. Many of the ship’s 15 to 17-strong crew have been trained while sailing on the Baltic Sea. There is a diverse mix of unpaid crew on board, including Toni Panula, who is a film producer when on dry land and an AB seaman when on board, who says Estelle offers an interesting mix of maritime culture and chairty work. “Volunteer work gives you perspective on your own daily life in a world of greed and weird trends. It’s also concrete action as opposed to my creative work in the film industry,” says Panula. Another volunteer, Heidi Tyni, says Estelle is a great place to gain new experiences and achieve sailing goals. “For example many volunteers from Estelle go on to marine school,” she says, “or study to be a deckhand during Estelle trips. There is also the possibility to do all kinds of work that you wouldn’t have the chance to do in normal life. Travelling is also a plus, as is the international atmosphere - that's one of the greatest things.” Uusi Tuuli use Estelle to deliver aid and fair trade cargo and for educational and cultural tours. Uusi Tuuli also has a bicycle flee-market where volunteers repair bicycles that are then sold at fairs to raise money. At sailing events, bicycle fairs and cultural events around the world Uusi Tuuli campaigns for fair trade, environmental issues, development co-operation and what they call ‘an alternative way of life’.
How did this diverse group of volunteers end up on Estelle? It all began as a joke, says the boat’s project manager Niko Humalisto. A group of friends were discussing the plight of two charity movements called Emmaus (providing work for the homeless) and World Shops (which promotes fair trade) over a few beers one night and “people started fantasising about having our own ship that could sail all around the world transporting sustainable cargo”, says Humalisto. It turned out at the end of the evening one of the participants didn’t realise the joke and began investigating a suitable vessel for the project. The end result was the purchase of the shipwreck of Estelle in 1985.
Some 3000 people have contributed to the upkeep of Estelle over the years. After Eestaas Oy bought her, it took over ten years to transform her into a suitable seafaring ship. Humalisto says of her original state: “Basically the ship was a complete wreck. It didn’t have any masts! If we had the capital to invest in the renovation of Estelle the process would not have taken 12 years of work. People helping out weren’t professional ship constructors nor dockyard workers, they were just volunteers who had the idea of promoting solidarity exchange through a sailing cargo vessel.” Almost every material used by volunteers to rebuild her is recycled. The cargo-hold floor has been re-modelled out of one of Turku’s first skateboard ramps and the steel plates of the hull were fashioned by sympathetic dockyard workers who added them under the cover of night. By recycling, experimenting and learning as they went, a seaworthy sailing ship was born out of the over 70-year-old trawler hull. The volunteers who transformed Estelle into the ship she is today had dreams of using her to transport humanitarian aid cargo in an environmentally sustainable manner. A sailing ship was the most obvious choice for an environmentally friendly vessel. And, adds Humalisto, “They didn’t just want to transport cargo, but also the stories behind the products and encounters of different cultures.”
Her first test-drive as a sailing boat was a few hours' trip in the calm and icy Archipelago Sea in 1994. This was a highly anticipated event for the people who had been building the ship for the past ten years. For this trip sails weren't used despite the masts and rigging being ready. In May of 1995 she set off to Teijo with the aid of her sails for the first time, as well as a motor. Here she was dry-docked for a week for inspections before sailing back to Turku. That summer saw Estelle undergo a number of test-drives through the Archipelago Sea as well as to Pori and Uusikaupunki, before heading back to her homebase Turku. Since then she has handled the ocean beautifully at long distances, albeit at a slower pace then some sailing ships.
Not much is known about the ship’s initial owners and builders, but we do know that she was built in 1922 in Emden, Germany. She was used primarily to sail the Baltic Sea fishing for salmon, cod and herring. She was briefly used by Nazi Germany for sea trawling, not for any salacious military purposes, before Mikael Lindell and his brother from Finland operated her. They used Estelle for 15 years to transport gravel from Vuolahti to a construction yard in Helsinki. In 1957 she underwent an extension of eight metres to gain added cargo space. And in 1985 she was bought by Estaas Oy and made a one-way journey from Helsinki to Turku with no masts or sails. Here she remained dry-docked for over ten years while she was rebuilt. Since then, her deck has been completely rebuilt and a mast and sails added to transform her into a ship. In 1997 she was certified as a Finnish merchant vessel and at the same time was cleared as a special-purpose boat, or a training vessel. This means Uusi Tuuli can use Estelle to transport cargo and carry out its campaigning work at the same time. “It is very rare to see sailing vessels who are certified merchant vessels,” says Humalisto. “Merchant vessels have to suffer more bureaucracy and stricter demands in the maritime inspections as well as having to meet all the modern navigation and communication requirements.” Estelle must have been up to a fair standard as in 1999 she was granted an unlimited sailing area.
Estelle’s biggest volunteer mission to date was the Angola project launched in 2001 for the purpose of promoting fair trade. The boat sailed to Finnish towns spreading the word on the situation in poverty-stricken Angola and gathering donations of clothes, sewing machines and so on to deliver to the African country. “Angola is one of the richest countries in the world thanks to its diamonds, oil and other mineral deposits, however the people are among the poorest in the world. Angola has been par excellence of global process, exploiting the raw resources of the south and leaving the environmental and social costs for the local communities to pay; this exploitation by foreign companies also fueled 30 years of civil war in Angola,” says Humalisto. To help the cause Estelle sailed to Angola in 2002 to deliver a full cargo of humanitarian aid. “Estelle’s Angola project gathered wide media attention,” says Humalisto, “humanitarian aid cargo was delivered for those who needed it in the Angolan refugee camps and lots of stories and cultural knowledge was shared and exchanged. However the project was in a sense too much for our small organisation, people were exhausted and it froze our organisation for years.”
The group hasn’t given up on their charity work, however, and they now use their experience in Angola as an example to other like-minded people of the “unfair world order” that exists. The group also has strong ties to Greenpeace with the crew playing a major role in establishing the Greenpeace offices in Finland. “Many volunteers and sailors on Estelle are also active in Greenpeace,” says Humalisto. In fact Estelle was rented to Greenpeace in 2004 for its campaign to designate approximately 40 per cent of the North and Baltic seas as marine reserves – making it totally off limits to fishing, dredging, and mineral exploration. Activists from Uusi Tuli lent a hand for this campaign as well as lending their boat.
Next up for the boat is a summer tour of 12 Baltic Sea harbours to continue to promote fair trade. Also in the works is a larger cargo delivery project to South Mexico in 2011 to pick up a load of coffee from indigenous and Zapatista coffee producers. The Zapatista are a revolutionary group based in one of Mexico’s poorest areas who believe in libertarian socialism. This coffee cargo will be distributed around Europe through organisations that support the Zapapista movement. “We are gathering bicycles for the trip to Mexico to promote sustainable traffic on land as well as the sea. The ship’s hull has to go through a complete renovation before setting sail to Mexico and we are quite feverishly seeking funding for this - donations are more than welcome,” says Humalisto.
It is Estelle’s uniqueness that makes her such an interesting ship to profile. She has come a long way from her days as a fishing trawler and the less-than-glamorous task of transporting gravel for 15 years, not to mention her brief brush with the Nazis. It took ten years for volunteers to convert the shipwreck into a seaworthy vessel using wholly recycled materials and free manpower. This transformation perfectly embodies the principle behind the team who now charter Estelle: ‘Do it yourself and learn by doing’. The boat will continue to be used for charity work with the Baltic Sea harbour tour and the Zapatista coffee mission.