This summer, around 5,000 people used an opportunity to travel from Kaunas to Nida on a revived Soviet-built hydrofoil ship Raketa (Rocket). Despite the successful season, the owners spent most of the proceeds on maintenance and said it was unclear if the ship would sail next year.
Raketa took four hours to complete the 250-kilometre journey on the river Nemunas. On the way, the passengers could enjoy Lithuania's natural scenery and glance at towns, such as Jurbarkas and Tilžė, located on the riverbank.
The ship operated three times a week on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. It departed for the first time on June 4, when quarantine in Lithuania was coming to an end. The owners said that the pandemic did not ruin their plans and even helped the business, because this year more Lithuanians travelled around their home country.
“We did not feel any major negative impact due to quarantine. Many people chose our route as one of their summer entertainments,” said Nerijus Šilgalis, head of the ship-operating company Vandens Kelias.
Raketa travelled at an average speed of 60 kilometres per hour and used 1,100 to 1,300 litres of fuel for a round-trip. Operators received many questions about environmental sustainability, but Šilgalis said that the ship’s per capita fuel consumption was lower compared to cars.
“Our ship uses around four litres of fuel per person per 100 kilometres travelled. Even if you drive the most modern car, you cannot have this rate. When travelling to Nida from Kaunas by car, you also need to take the ferry, but nobody takes this into account,” the owner of Raketa said.
According to Šilgalis, however, his company would modernise the ship for it to have the lowest possible carbon footprint if it managed to attract more investment.
This summer, Lithuanian meteorologists also announced hydrological drought, while Nemunas was among the most depleted rivers in the country. But Raketa did not experience any major disturbances. The ship needs only 0.7-metre depth to sail and only had to skip several trips trips due to low water levels.
The company spent around 100,000 euros to revive Raketa after years of idleness. However, the investment wasn't enough to maintain the ship over the summer, according to Šilgalis.
“We spent all the money we collected on ship maintenance. […] We have no reserve for next year. Our aims exceed our financial capabilities,” the owner said.
He added that Raketa’s hydrofoil technology, which means that the ship rises once it picks up speed, is very expensive. Its operation also requires a lot of energy and manpower. Further modernisation would mean extra costs, Šilgalis said.
“Currently we are restoring ships according to producers’ specifications. If we want to modernise, we need additional funds. It is a question for the future, as we are not ready for it now,” he explained.
Raketa had two captains who have been operating the same ship for more than 40 years. According to Šilgalis, it would be difficult to find more people for the job in case the service expanded.
“Our crew is very experienced. This would also be one of the challenges if we wanted to launch more ships – there are no more people in Lithuania that could operate a ship like this,” he said.
It takes up to five years of uninterrupted training to obtain a license to run ships of the same category as Raketa. But as Šilgalis said, the shipping season in Lithuania lasts three to four months, so the process could take up to 20 years.
According to the Raketa owner, it was nostalgia that made him revive the legendary ship – he used to sail it as a kid with his parents.
“If we see it as a business, there are many more profitable and less demanding areas,” he said. “We invest a lot of money and energy into the ship, but we also receive a lot of smiles, gratitude, and beautiful emotions.”
Raketa was built in 1963. Back then, around 10 similar ships travelled from Kaunas to Nida, but the service discontinued in 1995. Before this summer, Šilgalis last sailed with Raketa in 2011.