Vesteraalen in 1893
At half past eight on 2 July 1893, the 'Vesteraalen' sailed from Trondheim, under the command of Captain Richard With. He sailed through the night to Bodø, where he arrived in harbour on 3 July. Brass bands played, and the whole town of several thousand people turned out to watch, all wearing their Sunday best. No one wanted to miss this marvel of speed. The commotion was no less in Tromsø on 4 July, and there was just as much of a party atmosphere when the ship arrived in Hammerfest in the middle of the light summer night. The speed was amazingly modern and fast, and from the very beginning, the new connection between south and north was given the name Hurtigruten – the Express Route.
Richard With was an experienced sea captain who had been involved in trade in Risøyhamn in Vesterålen. He was one of the men behind the establishment of Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab steamship company in Stokmarknes in 1881. He started working with able pilots to experiment with sailing at night, even through the winter. This would enable ships to sail faster and to fixed timetables. Until then, the few steamships tended to be often late and have no clear or reliable schedules. In 1893, Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab received an annual grant of NOK 70,000 from the state that enabled it to service a route between Trondheim and Hammerfest in the summer, and Trondheim and Tromsø in the winter. Hurtigruten was in business.
At first, navigation was an outdoor art, since the ship's bridge was not covered. It was important for navigators to be able to hear noises and take note of the wind direction and strength. They just had to make sure they were well wrapped up against a long outdoor watch in winter. It was not until the 1920s that ships' bridges became enclosed. Before echo-sounders, depth was measured using a long, weighted line that was lowered into the water, and when the weight hit the bottom, the depth was read out. The log was a rotating device that hung behind the ship and measured the speed of the vessel.
A fast postal delivery was one of Hurtigruten's tasks in those early years. Post office officials were on board until as late as the 1980s, and the ships were furnished with their own post offices. However, planes and lorries gradually took over most postal deliveries, but the ships still fly the postal flag.
Engine and cargo
One of the most unusual experiences of a visit to the Hurtigruten Museum is a film about the engine on the 'Harald Jarl'. You can watch the pistons pumping in this very special engine. Hurtigruten boats are still important cargo ships, and on the old vessels, cargo was hoisted on board using booms and cranes. Cars were lifted on board on special metal cradles.
In 1893 there was not a single steamship quay along the coast, and service at all the harbours was by relays. A despatch boat would come out to the ship with post, cargo and passengers. Quays were built gradually, the last being Berlevåg in 1973. Gamvik, the last port without a quay, was dropped from the route in 1990.
Galley, dining room and cabins
A galley cook holds on tight while the galley floor heels over at 45 degrees, amidst a clatter of cutlery and tableware. The Hurtigruten Museum also shows how restaurants were operated on Hurtigruten boats. Silverware and dinner services all bear the emblems of the various shipping companies that were involved in Hurtigruten operations. You can also have a look at a First Class cabin from the old 'Midnatsol' from 1949.
The big highlight, literally, is the Hurtigruten ship 'Finnmarken' from 1956. The ship has been brought ashore, but apart from that, not much has changed on it since it was decommissioned in 1993. The first class lounge has fine wood panels and beautiful wooden tables that could be used for chess or card games. The dining room in first class and the cafeteria in second class also have exquisite wood finishings. You can walk out onto the flag deck and conjure up long, lazy days in the archipelago. Below decks are the cabins – the fine, 'new' cabins of the 1980s amidships and the old second-class cabins, nicknamed 'the propeller suites', abaft.
War and shipwrecks
In 1936, Hurtigruten was complete, calling at one port per day, each way. However, war hit the fleet hard, sinking 9 ships with the loss of about 700 lives. For example, the first Hurtigruten boat, 'Vesteraalen', was torpedoed outside the Øksfjord in 1941. After a while, the ships only went as far as Tromsø, while Finnmark was serviced by smaller vessels on what was known as the Replacement Route. The fleet was built up again after the war, from the 'Erling Jarl' in 1949 to the 'Nordnorge' in 1964.
Visiting the Hurtigruten Museum
Many of the visitors to the Hurtigruten Museum have sailed on the old ships, and many people, particularly those from Vesterålen, have even worked on board. For these people, a visit to the museum is a moving encounter with past times. For other people, this is a trip back in time to when Hurtigruten was the means of transport chosen by almost everyone who wanted to travel along the coast.
- The Hurtigruten Museum www.hurtigrutemuseet.no has an excellent website providing a wealth of information.
- The Hurtigruten Museum is one of the many exciting museums in the area; find out more on www.museumnord.no
- Visit Vesterålen has a jam-packed website full of information about the beautiful archipelago www.visitvesteralen.no