This fishing motorboat, on display at the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn, was built in the 1930s. It safely reached the island of Gotland in Sweden in the fall of 1944 with its cargo of passengers escaping Estonia ahead of the next Soviet invasion. Next to it is a naval mine, a mere/miin. Photo: Riina Kindlam
“The typical fisherman’s boat was slow; during good weather, the 250 km crossing of the Baltic Sea to Sweden took a day and a half,” describes the written post alongside the boat in the photo at the Okupatsioonide Muuseum. Since the weather in the fall of 1944 was far from good, in fact it was tremendously stormy, the journey often grew to 400 km or more, depending on where you drifted: Finland, its Åland Islands or the Swedish coast, and took an average of 3 days or more.
Many of these boats never reached the shores of Sweden, due to capsizing in the stormy conditions, naval (floating) mines, (mere/miinid), like the one in the photo, or warships or aircraft torpedoing and sinking them. Many of the small craft headed westward were on their maiden voyages and not very seaworthy, since they were usually constructed secretly and quickly. Many people in such small vessels were also picked up mid-journey by large German ships and taken south-west to Saksamaa instead.
Later, Soviet authorities demanded the return of the small boats which had reached Sweden. That is, if they hadn’t sunk after arriving at their destination-harbour, which is what happened with many. I have heard historian Jaak Juske describe one of the places where the “reclaimed” boats were gathered post-war as being along Kalaranna (meaning Fish Beach / Coast), below the Kalamaja (“Fish House”) district of Tallinn. Needless to say, these boats, a stinging reminder of departure and freedom, were then destroyed; one of the many steps made to land-lock and imprison a seafaring people, who over the course of the following decades became estranged from their nautical traditions, including fishing and sailing.
About 27 000 Estonians reached Sweden as refugees. Another 42 000 headed for Germany by ship or rail. There are currently two small wooden boats that were used to escape in 1944 on display in Eesti: this one at the Museum of Occupations and another at the Meremuuseum, the Estonian Maritime Museum.