#OURSEA: From bark boats to fantastic riverboats – Tove Jansson’s literary boats

Take a deep dive into Tove Jansson's boats - both the real ones in handcrafted mahogany and the literary fantasy ships with caterpillar chains!

I feel such kinship with everybody who likes boats.

Hemulen in Moominvalley in November

Tove Jansson probably felt a kinship to everyone who likes boats. Boats were a way to get out on the sea she loved so much.

A boat by night is a wonderful sight. This is the way to start a new life, with a hurricane lamp shining at the top of the mast, and the coastline disappearing behind one as the whole world lies sleeping.

Moominpappa at Sea

For Tove Jansson, boats seem to stand for freedom – a means of travel that takes you further into the horizon and various adventures. From this point of view it is perhaps no wonder that the Moomin family’s own boat is called the Adventure. The Adventure comes to the family as a gift from the sea.

‘They’ve found a boat!’ cried Snufkin. ‘Come on! Let’s run and see!’
It was true. A lovely big sailing-boat, complete with oars and fishing-tackle, and painted in white and mauve!
‘Whose is it?’ panted Moomintroll when he had reached them.
‘Nobody’s!’ said Moominpappa, triumphantly. ‘It has been washed up on our beach, so we have a right to keep it as wreckage!’

Finn Family Moomintroll

Just like the sea, the boats in the books become characters, who have personalities and can change shape and gain new characteristics.

The boat lay on her side with her sail rolled up, looking as though she never wanted to sail again. She had been pulled so high up the beach that she seemed to have nothing to do with the sea any more. Moomintroll stood still and looked at the Adventure. ‘I do feel sorry for her,’ he thought, ‘but perhaps she’s asleep. 

Moominpappa at Sea

Perhaps the most fantastic fantasy boat created by Tove Jansson is the iconic Ocean Orchestra. The boat is a central part of many of Moominpappa’s and his friends’ wild adventures in their youth. We get acquainted with this noble ship in Moominpappa’s memoirs:

We made our way through the green bushes, stopped, turned our heads upwards, and exclaimed respectfully:

‘A ship!’

It looked large and deep and strong, and its blunt stem disappeared out of sight somewhere in the shadows of the thicket.

The boat is named after Hodgkins lost brother’s collection of poems and is to be painted in ultramarine, but due to some complications it turns out red and gets the misspelled name The Oshun Oxtra. The Ocean Orchestra is a riverboat with wheels that turns out to be surprisingly versatile. During the story an extensive metamorphosis is undergone: the boat can reach the bottom of the sea and fly in the air! It has a large cloud sail that allows it to rise up in the air and caterpillar chains that enables it to move on the bottom of the ocean.

‘Hold on now,’ Hodgkins cried. ‘We’re going down.’
He pulled a lever.
Suddenly the Amphibian was filled by green light and swarms of bubbles went dancing across the port-holes. ‘We’ll never come up,’ said little My.
I pressed my snout against the cold glass and looked out into the sea.
Hodgkins had switched on a row of
headlights and we moved through the green deep in a circle of light.

The Exlpoits of Moominpappa

In Tove Jansson’s books, boats are often described as something valuable and almost solemn, something beautifully crafted that must be respected.

Nowhere, she realised did people care for the place they lived as they did on a ship. Every detail was carefully shaped, every surface polished and absolutely clean. Brass and wood glistened like honey and brown syrup.

Sun City

Jansson’s most beloved boat must have been the four meter long wooden boat Victoria, which her childhood friend and summer neighbour in Pellinge, Albert Gustafsson, built in mahogany in 1962. She describes the boat in her book Notes from an Island as the most beautiful boat that has ever been seen. The boat is strong and agile, named after Tuutikki Pietilä’s and Janssons’ dads – both of whom were called Viktor. As the summers passed by, Victoria belonged more and more to Pietilä because she loved the boat most and looked after it with utmost care.

Tove Jansson’s books show how many unwritten rules there are when it comes to boating. If you do not know how to behave at sea, you are quite simply a fool!

In the end, Daddy couldn’t put up with being uneasy about the weather and set off. He set up the spritsail and said, now remember that one mustn’t have a single unnecessary thing in a boat. We sat still. We weren’t allowed to read because that shows a lack of respect for the boat. You couldn’t trail anything in the water, such as painters or boats of bark because the pilots might see them. We gave the sandbank a fairly wide berth, but not too narrow because that’s asking for trouble and not too wide because that looks too cautious and the pilots might see it.

Sculptor’s daughter