15.5.2019 17:53:51 //
Timo Hämäläinen
Kimmo Nordström’s photo archive

Containers take to the seas

The foundations for the Port of Helsinki’s container traffic were laid more than 50 years ago. From modest beginnings, container-handling has undergone tremendous development.

The first containers were spotted in Helsinki’s ports in the early 1960s. Hildefelder, a vessel operated by AA-Lines, began transporting containers measuring about 20 feet on its deck on journeys between Helsinki and Copenhagen. The containers were built in-house with plywood frames and aluminium exteriors.

Veli-Ragnar Nordström, the founder of AA-Lines, had a strong vision. He believed that containers would revolutionise transportation logistics. Inspired by this insight, he teamed up with three partners to establish a shipping company named Containerships in 1966. The following year, Containerships began transporting containers between Finland and the UK.

AA-Linesin laivan linja liikennöi Helsingin ja Kööpenhaminan välillä 1964 lähtien.
AA-Lines’ ship began operating a route between Helsinki and Copenhagen in 1964.

The first container ship leased by Containerships had a capacity of approximately 60 TEU. For comparison, modern vessels operating short sea routes within Europe have capacities of more than 20 times this figure.

tina containership
Tina was among the first Containerships vessels operating in Helsinki.


Rapid expansion

Container traffic soon took over the sector. In 1967, approximately 2,500 TEU of containers were transported via the Port of Helsinki. Over the following decade, the number increased more than ten-fold.

During the same period, bulk goods began to be unitised in other ways. Finnlines, a shipping company, launched its first ro-ro vessel at the turn of the 1970s, enabling goods to be transported on platforms with wheels. The basic idea was to accelerate the loading and unloading of goods.

In addition to small consignments, bulk and temperature-regulated goods were being loaded into containers in increasing amounts. As global trade grew, ocean-going vessels began bringing containers to Finland.

Containerships expanded at the same rate as container traffic in general. When Veli-Ragnar Nordström died in 2003, his son, Kimmo Nordström, took up the reins of the family business. According to him, the collapse of the Soviet Union at the turn of the 1990s is the single biggest event to have influenced Finnish and Baltic container traffic.

“The volume of container transit traffic to Russia via Finland decreased. Finland’s ports had the equipment and capacity to handle containers which the Port of St Petersburg lacked. However, the Port of St Petersburg became better equipped over the course of a couple of decades, and the volume of container transit traffic to Russia via Finland decreased,” says Kimmo Nordström.


Grabbing the edges

Containers were initially handled in different parts of the Port of Helsinki. It soon became apparent that specialisation was needed in order to efficiently handle the flow of containers. The decision was taken to centralise container traffic at the West Harbour. 

Containers were initially transported on the decks of conventional vessels. Operators moved containers using equipment designed for handling bulk goods. For some time, a fixed crane was the only piece of equipment in use, so ships needed to move every time a new row of containers was placed on the deck.

“The rope handlers worked in cooperation on the deck and the pier: the ropes were first loosened, then moved and finally quickly tightened in the new location. If there was any delay, the wind could have sent the vessel slipping away from the pier,” recalls Pertti Neiglick.

Neiglick retired from his position as the Port of Helsinki’s Cargo Traffic Manager around ten years ago. Over his long career in the sector, he saw how containers transformed the way goods are transported.

According to Neiglick, an average of ten containers could be loaded onto a vessel every hour. The work was more difficult and often slower in the winter. When the sea was frozen, tugboats helped to move ships.

The process of unloading containers from ships became faster when the port acquired its first rail-borne container crane. The crane’s rails were only 12 metres apart. However, this was enough to accommodate the size of container ships at the time. Crane track gauges have since increased to up to 40 metres.

In the 1970s, the crane hooks were replaced by spreaders with locking points that gripped the corners of containers. Spreaders could be tilted – nowadays this occurs automatically – according to the position of the container, so containers could be unloaded from vessels that were not perfectly aligned. 

The technology behind container cranes and gantry cranes has developed enormously over the decades. Nowadays, the general goal is for a single crane to load or unload more than 40 containers per hour.


Dedicated terminal

Container-handling requires space. The former fields of the coal harbour and the free warehouse in the West Harbour were confirmed as suitable for this purpose. The first actual container terminal was built in 1976.

In the early phases, even small insights could be of great importance. Neiglick and Olof Nylund, a foreman, realised that the rows of containers placed on the pier should be rotated 90 degrees. 

“This rearrangement led to faster loading and unloading of ships as it became easier for the gantry cranes to get between containers. As gantry cranes became larger, two or even three containers could be stacked up,” Neiglick says.

Paper and pens were used to keep records related to shipments. Information was transferred by phone and fax. 

“We picked out the container details on the list of vessels. When the containers were unloaded, we made an unloading list to show what had been unloaded and what condition the containers were in. When the work was complete, the list was given to the shipping company. Computer-based systems revolutionised data processing,” Neiglick states.

Empty containers became easier to manage in the port when a container depot was set up in the port area. Before this, operators placed empty containers in their own areas. Depot companies inspect the condition of each container, and repair and maintain containers as required whenever they pass through the depot.

Land transport remained well organised and traffic was managed when vehicles entered the port on one side of the office building and exited on the other side. The gate included a pedestrian bridge, which enabled the terminal personnel to inspect the condition of the tops of the containers.

Nowadays, advanced computer systems and various identification systems are in use. Containers are constantly monitored as shipping companies, transportation companies and the authorities transfer data to each other on the progress of shipments. Very rarely is it necessary to enter information manually.


Moving to Vuosaari

Container traffic moved from the West Harbour to the new Vuosaari Harbour in December 2008. Ultimately, after extensive discussion, debate and numerous studies, Vuosaari was selected as the best location for the new cargo harbour.

The Port of Helsinki, operators, shipping companies and logistics companies are constantly improving the efficiency of shipping. Last year, 510,000 TEU of containers were transported via Vuosaari – a record number for the harbour. The Port of Helsinki as a whole also set a new record for shipments.

One of the most significant changes in recent times is the increase in the size of container ships and ro-ro vessels. As a consequence, the port is extending its piers. There are also plans to deepen the fairway leading into the harbour.