Finland is the only country in the world in which all of its sea ports freeze in the winter time. Keeping those sea ports operational in wintertime is essential to Finland’s import and export industry. Icebreakers take on this task, plowing channels for ships to traverse the Baltic Sea, even in the coldest winters. The Sampo Icebreaker was built in Helsinki in 1960 and served the Finnish government with icebreaking duty from 1961-1987. Now, it is the only passenger icebreaker ship in the world.
We think one of the most unique and fun safaris to do in winter in Kemi is to snowmobile across the frozen Baltic Sea from Kemi to the Sampo Icebreaker! Snowmobile alongside the Sampo as it plows through meter thick ice before parking the snowmobiles in the middle of the Baltic Sea and boarding the Sampo for a cruise.
Rafaello, an Italian who has been working on the Sampo Icebreaker for years, kindly gave us a guided tour and told us some interesting facts about the Sampo once we boarded the ship. The Sampo is about 76 meters in length and weighs three times as much as a regular passenger ship of the same size. The Sampo needs to be heavy in order to break the ice, so 100 tons of water is added just to give weight to the ship.
The Sampo Icebreaker is over 60 years old, so the instruments are practically historic. It’d be too expensive to re-wire the entire ship for modern instruments, so the originals are still used today. The Captain’s Bridge still phones down to the Engine Room to communicate and the crew must learn how to navigate using the old systems, which Rafaello told us are actually more accurate than modern GPS because of the ice.
It’s easy to image the conditions the workers endured in the Sampo’s icebreaking days. The Engine Room is extremely warm and completely windowless since it’s below the water line. Even with just one engine on during our tour, it was loud. The beds are just outside of the Engine Room and I don’t imagine the sailors had very restful sleeps.
After the tour, passengers are served a lunch of either salmon soup or creamy reindeer soup in the ship’s restaurant. All warmed up from the soup, the ship stops and anchors for about an hour where, when the weather permits, passengers can walk on the ice. The more adventurous passengers can also suit up in a survival suit and float in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea alongside the ship. The survival suit, unlike the drysuits we donned in Iceland to snorkel in winter, were extremely easy to put on. You just step in with your clothes on and it zips up.
The Sampo drops snowmobile safari passengers back off at their snowmobiles as it cruises back toward the port outside Kemi and snowmobile passengers continue back across the frozen sea to Kemi. What fun bouncing on a snowmobile over the frozen Baltic, knowing there are meters of water just beneath us! And thanks to heated handle bars, proper snowmobile suits, and wool socks, it is never all that cold.
Know Before You Go
- The Snowmobile and Sampo Icebreaker Safari is available late December – early April
- Dress in layers as the Sampo can be hot inside.
- Snowmobile suits, boots, gloves, wool socks, balaclava, and helmet are provided for snowmobile safari passengers.
- Vegetarian lunch option is available. Be sure to indicate that request when booking.
Our time in Finland and Sweden was hosted by LappOne, who offers a variety of holidays to Lapland. As always, all opinions are entirely our own.