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Shipping Perils Of The Baltic

The Baltic Sea is a brackish, fjord-like sea with many inlets surrounded by the countries of Germany, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Estonia, Russia, Lithuania and Latvia. At any one time 15 per cent of the entire world's cargo is transported through this area meaning there can be over 2,000 ships making it the most crowded and polluted sea on earth. The sea-bed is also crowded. When, in 2010, an underwater pipeline was laid between Russia and Germany thousands of shipwrecks were seen ranging from those of merchant ships in times of peace to those of warships and submarines in times of war.

Rocks have always been a hazard for shipping particularly in earlier centuries. One ship that came to grief in this way in 1771 was the Vrouw Maria. The Dutch merchant ship was sailing from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg carrying important Dutch paintings for Catherine the Great as well as cloth, sugar, coffee and zinc when it was smashed by rocks just off the south west of Finland. Interest in the ship was revived in the 1970s for treasure-seekers when diplomatic correspondence was found concerning the incident.

Storms have been a huge problem throughout the centuries. On the 11 November 1468 the Hanseatic merchant ship Hanneke Wrome carrying gold coins, jewellery, fabric and honey sank in a bad storm with the loss of over 200 lives. On 28 September 1994, the ferry MS Estonia sailing from Tallinn, Estonia to Stockholm sank near Turku, Finland with the massive peacetime loss of 852 lives. The weather was rough but not exceptional for an autumn storm according to the rescue commander and the sinking was said to have been due to a bow-visor failure to which the storm contributed.

Ice is a particular problem during the winter months from November to May. In the winter of 2010/2011 two-thirds of the Baltic Sea was frozen with an average ice thickness of between 50-60cm which challenged even the ice-breakers. Cold winds cause drifting ice and make navigation difficult. On the 5 March 2010 nearly 1,100 people had to be rescued as several ships including two ferries became stuck in the ice including the Amorella with 943 people on board.

Another hazard concerns the dangers of fire, explosion, or toxicity that may be caused by the transport of dangerous chemicals. On July 18 1989 the Oostzee, a Dutch merchant ship, became caught in a storm at the mouth of the Elbe river between Rotterdam and St. Petersburg. It was carrying epichlorohydrin which leaked from its drums hospitalising the 14 crew for 10 days. There is much concern about environmental degradation in the area with so much oil being transported causing damaging spills. There is also a fear of more numerous collisions in the future as the number of ships in the Baltic Sea increases.

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