On our recent trip to Finland, we had the opportunity to travel to Utö, the southernmost year-round inhabited island of the Finnish archipelago off which the S. S. Park Victory sank in 1947. A small island of .31 square miles, it’s history is linked to the sea.
With our host and guide Jouko Moisala, we walked all around the island. He pointed out to us the place where the Park Victory rests.
On a tour of the lighthouse, guide Hanna Kovanen shared her family’s story of the stormy night the ship went down and the role the islanders played in the rescue of the survivors. The call for help went out at 3:00 Christmas morning. Hanna’s short-statured grandmother trudged through waste-deep snow to get to the pier. She hauled an unconscious man over her shoulder to her house, took off his wet clothes, warmed him, and washed the oil off him. When the man came to, he later said he looked up and thought he must be in heaven because he was looking at an angel. The man was Allen Zepp, captain of the Park Victory.
Hanna’s grandmother took in another man who had dark curly hair that looked like it had been washed, but she thought he was still covered with oil. When scrubbing didn’t take the darkness away, she discovered he was a black man and had, in fact, already been cleaned. She had never seen a black man before.
Hanna said the islanders didn’t have extra winter clothing, so they pulled out their summer things to dress the scrubbed survivors in. Finnish Army clothes were also available from the small Finnish Defense Forces station on the island. The survivors were so grateful for the care they received from the islanders that after they arrived home they sent 100 pounds of sugar and 100 pounds of coffee to Utö, items that were rationed for the inhabitants at the time. The goods were apportioned to all the families on the island. Their gratitude led them to each pay their share for what they received into a fund that was used to commission a memorial for the ten sailors who lost their lives in the wreck.
The Park Victory’s isn’t the only shipwreck commemorated on the island. The Draken went down in 1929 on her way to England with a load of timber. The ship wrecked in a storm against a little rocky island just 150 meters from the shore of Utö. Two men tried to make it to shore. One made it; the other didn’t.
Utö did not have a rope rifle that could have shot a rope to the sailors to pull them ashore. A shopkeeper in Turku on the mainland sent them one two weeks later, and new life was breathed into lifesaving work in Finland, with the Draken’s captain, Niilo Saarinen, becoming head of the Finnish Maritime Rescue Society.
Our island trip ended all too soon, but the Park Victory story doesn’t end here. Another chapter is beginning with the discovery of one of its life boats. More on that in September.
One last personal note on our trip: we were amazed that our four-hour ship ride through the archipelago’s mass of rocky islands to Utö was free! The ship was part of Finland’s public transportation system, making stops at four islands to transport locals and tourists alike to and from the mainland. I still marvel at that!