Wooden boats: a time bridge to the old masters’ secrets.

Every Russian, ever addressed with the question “what is the Russian North for you” would immediately imagine the virgin nature, primeval forests, traditional folk culture, and, of course, thousands of lakes, large and small, always being an inherent part of the everyday life for the people, living here. Lakes gave the means for existence, fostering development of fishery, trade, communication. Lakes and forests environment in may ways mould the traditional Russian northern culture with its beautiful wooden churches, wooden peasants’ houses, wooden boats…

Until 20th century boat-construction had always been a vital necessity for Karelia, the Russian region, located close to Saint Petersburg, former capital of the Russian state. Boats were the only alternative to the poorly developed  road connection and one can still encounter typical local wooden boats, hand-made by the household owners in some of the villages in Karelia.  According to the estimates, there are app. 60 000 thousand lakes in Karelia. Traditions of constructing wooden boats are still living, and efforts have been undertaken to attract attention of the younger generation to this traditional craft.

Not long ago the municipality of Petrozavodsk – the capital city of Karelia, introduced an initiative of organizing an annual summer boat-building camp for teenagers from Petrozavodsk and other cities and countries. The idea of the camp is to get together teenagers in an exiting process of joint construction of the traditional local boats, among which are  “kizhanka”, and “fofan” widely used by the Russian and Karelian population during the past centuries. The camp was launched in Petrozavodsk in the mid June 2005. Under the leadership of a professional master, teenagers were studying the basics of boat-making, traditions of the boat-sailing, and, not least important, acquire skills of team work.

For our ancestors, boat-making process itself was comparable to the process of building a house. The boat was seen as a friend, or a savior, carrying fishermen through the rough waves of cold unfriendly northern lakes. It was a guide, taking a man through the maze of life, a mediator between the world of dead and the real world. No wonder that the boat masters were among the most admired and demanded people in every northern village.  Kizhanka sketch (photo from the site www.mount.ru)

The “kizhanka” boat is a well-known northern Russian boat with a centuries-long history. It derives its name from the Kizhi island in the Onega lake – the island, which is today a historical and architectural monument, enlisted in UNESCO’s World Heritage. Numerous settlements and villages scattered over the Kizhi skerries required an efficient, available and swift-sailing boat. Ideally suit for the rough Onega lake with its frequent storms, which in many ways resemble the marine sailing conditions, broad and spacious “kizhanka” could take onboard over 10 persons. 

Due to its specific shape, this boat is highly steadfast, has a large carrying capacity and high speed. Traditionally, “kizhankas” were sailing under sails and oars. The length of the boat was usually 4-6 meters, the “kizhankas” were used  in the first place for transporting the goods across Onega lake (the second largest lake in Europe). Butter, fish, game, cattle was taken to Saint Petersburg and Kronstadt for sale (maximum weight of cargo was 800 kg).

old kizhanka boat on the lakeshore. Photo by A. Smirnov from the site http://photosight.ru

Traditionally, material for the boats was prepared in late autumn or spring. An experienced master, working alone, could make a boat for two weeks, and just for a few days with a skilled assistant. During one year the boat master usually constructed on the average 15 boats. The technological process for constructing “kizhanka” has not changed over the centuries.  (pic.2)

“Fofan” is much younger than “kizhanka” and is the kind of boat wide spread all over Russia. A pleasure row-boat appeared in Russia in 1890-ies, as a result of a broad contest for the best design of the “people’s” boat, which was held by the Russian Life Saving Society. The first prize was awarded to the civil engineer  A.P. Fan-der-Flit. Boat, created on the basis of the offered design, possessed all the qualities, expected from the vessel which would take onboard those having no skills of sailing the small boats and not even able to row. “Fofan” was constructed in many thousand copies and is still popular today, being used at the boat stations, tourist camps, both as a pleasure boat and as a rescue boat. “Fofan” is 4,37m long and may take onboard max 5 persons.

The boat-building summer camp has three shifts with two weeks each. Boat construction takes place on the waterfront of the Onega lake, the site is open for the audience and the tourists, interested in the boat-making traditions. During the July shift of the camp, a youth team of 3 teenagers and a leader from the sister-city Neubrandenburg (Germany) took part in the event.

The idea of the project was born at the Maritime Festival at Douarnenez, France in July 2004.  Historical wooden ship “Sanctifier Nicolas”  belonging to the Petrozavodsk club “Polar Odysseus”, a folk group and boat-building brigade took part in the festival. One of the central tasks of the masters was to build the “kizhanka” boat in five days and float it out. The project seemed to be risky, but the aim was achieved. The boat was floated out last day of the festival and it was left in France. The spirit of the festival, the atmosphere of the traditional marine culture, the admiration and delight, expressed for the boats by the local people prompted a thought of upbringing the similar attitude to the own culture and history among the Karelian teenagers.

The summer of 2005 with its two boat-building camps was a very positive experience. At the moment agreement has been reached with the Swedish city of Umeе for participation of their youth team in the camp shift of June 2006 (3 young people and a leader). It is also planned to organize a big boat festival in 2010, with the participation of all boats built together with the historical vessels, belonging to the “Polar Odysseus” club.

Fofan boat in preparation , Onega lake embankmentKizhanka in the process of construction by the international team, Onega lake embankment, July 2005Kizhanka is put afloat

If you are interested in the event, or simply have any questions about Karelia and Petrozavodsk, please feel free to contact us at erd@petrozavodsk-mo.ru (External relations departments of Petrozavodsk City Administration)