Early summer morning moments off the zoo island of Korkeasaari or the special feeling of happiness brought on by a completely calm sea – when you start rowing along Helsinki’s shoreline, your relationship with the city may change: you may fall in love with your hometown all over again and in a whole new way.
As you pass under the city’s bridges, you can discover the mysterious side of rowing, and the slow progress reveals brand new, charming details on the façades of old stone buildings along the shore. Early mornings and late evenings, when hardly anyone else is on the water, are particularly special – when the city is very quiet and feels like your own in a poignant way. And magical are those rare encounters when a seal raises its head out of the water right next to the boat and seems to look straight into your eyes.
Helsinki has long traditions in rowing. In addition to rowing connected with fishing and other forms of livelihood, locals have been rowing recreationally for more than a hundred years. In the early 1900s, workers who lived north of the Pitkänsilta bridge would row large boats belonging to the local abstinence society to the Kivinokka peninsula in the Old Town Bay to celebrate the summer, singing the Marseillaise as they went. Even the boat depicted Helsinki’s coat of arms – “a golden boat riding on waves of argent” – can be interpreted as a rowing boat.
A simple and uncomplicated pastime
Rowing lets you experience familiar places from new perspectives and make new local discoveries. When rowing through the Katajanokka canal, you can imagine that you are in Venice, rowing in the Laajasalo canal you get an adrenaline rush from the traffic lights timed more for motorboats, and on the way to the Tammisalo canal you can enjoy a real summer cottage milieu. On the island of Vasikkasaari, you can observe the different layers of history: a rusty, graffiti-covered oil tank and a pink stone house built for the commandant in the 1870s.
In summer, you can also enjoy longer rowing trips by packing a tent and a gas stove; the islands off East Helsinki are particularly inviting for camping trips. When planning to come ashore, you should make sure that the landing site does not belong to a private cottage or that the island itself is not private. When exploring the archipelago, the correct urban etiquette is to respect the peace and privacy of those living on the islands and to keep dogs on a leash so as not to disturb the nesting birds. The landowner’s permission is always required before you light a campfire, and no fires at all are allowed if there is a forest fire warning. You can find all the recreational islands and archipelago camping opportunities in Helsinki at Hel.fi.
Spring maintenance of your rowing boat, such as washing and waxing, will only take a couple of hours, and launching the boat, as well as lifting it, can be done with the help of a couple of friends without having to plan or rent a crane. If you are unable or unwilling to purchase your own rowing boat, you can rent a city rowing boat in the Töölönlahti bay, for example.
Important safety considerations
When rowing, it is worth remembering that you are one of the smallest and slowest objects on the water alongside canoers, kayakers and stand-up paddlers. It is therefore important to pay special attention to a few safety issues.
Channels for large cruise ships cross the rowing waters off Helsinki, so it is worth checking the ships’ schedules in advance. From a rower’s point of view, however, the scariest waves come from powerful motorboats. It is therefore worth staying away from the busy pleasure boat channels if possible.
6 tips for beginner rowers:
- Take to the water early in the morning or late in the evening. With almost no other water traffic, rowing is at its most peaceful and you can hear only the splash of oars and the lapping of the waves against the bow of the boat.
- If you plan to row for a longer distance, take with a cushion or seat pad and a pair of gloves. Rowing can cause blisters and abrasions.
- If your rowing trip will extend into the night, remember to bring a lamp. It is mandatory on all boats and also an important safety factor.
- A rowing boat is a great place to chat with a friend (while maintaining a safe distance) or even hold a work meeting, but rowing alone is also recommended if you really want to enjoy the meditative nature of rowing.
- If you are considering buying your own rowing boat, choose a sturdy model that is suitable for varying and often windy sea conditions. Check out the city rowing boats to get an idea of what you will need.
Sources: Eero Haapanen: Punainen Vanhankaupunginlahti: Sörnäisläisten kesäelämää. In the book: Nokea ja pilvenhattaroita – Helsinkiläisten ympäristö 1900-luvun vaihteessa.
Sanna Ryynänen (PhD) is a university lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland who has been rowing in Helsinki’s waters since 2015 – over 2000 kilometres so far.