The Sampo Icebreaker – A Unique Day Tour From Kemi Finland

Standing on a frozen sea infront of the Sampo icebreaker

People that know me well would agree, I’m definitely not the type who likes to take tours, but every now and then a tour is put before you, that is somewhat unique and impossible to refuse. Whilst gallivanting throughout Finland back in April of 2007, we took a day tour that was cool in every sense of the word. The trip was aboard the Sampo, an operational icebreaker. The sweeping views of the frozen Gulf of Bothnia, whilst perched high upon the bow, were a memorable experience. Even though the Sampo is now quite old, the sheer power of this vessel, as it crashed and crunched it’s way through mile after mile of thick slab ice, was a site (and sound) to behold.

What Happens Aboard The Sampo on The Tour

The tour starts with the usual safety spiel and then they crank up that 6000kW motor and your off and racing. After leaving port, the Sampo cruises along the main shipping channel. The channel is abound in small clumps of ice, that have already be churned up by the Sampo and other ice breakers in the region.

Liza at the rear of the Sampo

Liza at the rear of the Sampo as we made our way along the shipping channel

After 15 to 20 minutes of cruising the shipping channel, the captain makes a quick turn, and you begin to push your way through the virgin slab ice. The outside temperature (not to mention the wind chill) was bitterly cold, but I wanted to make sure I was front and center of the bow as she began the push through the virgin ice pack. The sound’s that are made as the large slabs of ice are slowly broken away, and scrape along the armour like hull are quite intense.

You can also watch the cracks begin to form for many meters ahead, as the weight of the Sampo’s hull bears down on the ice. This is how an ‘Icebreaker‘ actually splits the ice. It uses it powerful engines to climbs upon the ice, before using it’s sheer mass to bear down and fracture the ice. As the momentum drops away and her motor can’t propel the hardened steel hull any further, the Sampo will come to a complete standstill.

The Sampo Icebreaker wedged upon the ice

The Sampo Icebreaker wedged upon the ice. After the ship comes to a complete stop on the ice you can disembarked and go for a walk on the ocean.

The motors are then cranked into reverse as she begins to back up a little, before building up some more forward momentum. Once again propelling her self forward and into the awaiting ice pack. This is the normal process of a working icebreaker, back and forward, back and forward. It’s tediously tough and hard work on the ship’s motor, and it’s thickened steel hull.

After a generous and warm bowl of reindeer soup for lunch (sorry Rudolf but you were quite tasty). The ship takes quite a large run up and slams itself into the ice, coming to a complete stop, wedged tightly upon the ice.

If you so wish (and I highly recommend it) you can disembark the icebreaker and go for a walk upon the frozen Gulf of Bothnia. It’s quite a weird feeling to be walking upon a frozen sea, with nothing but a few inches of ice between you and the icy depths below.

Sampo Icebreaker Survival Suit

Not a good look.

For those that are feeling a bit adventurous, I highly recommend the activity of donning one of the ships survival suits. Once zipped tightly into this somewhat over-sized, but very thick wetsuit. You can then hop into the black and freezing waters of the gulf at the rear of the ship (it’s intriguing how black the water is, due to minimal light getting through the thick ice crust).

My first impression was that with the help of the suit, it wasn’t that cold. The survival suits does do a pretty terrific job at keeping the cold out (I suppose that’s why they call it a survival suit stupid!). All the same, you wouldn’t want to be floating out there for any great length of time. The suit only offers so much protection from the elements, and your body will start to slowly freeze.

Some History and Technical Details on the Sampo Icebreaker

The Sampo is a class 1A Super Icebreaker built in 1961 in Helsinki, and lives at the home port of Kemi, Finland. From it’s maiden voyage, the Sampo would pave the way for all of Finland’s shipping ports to remain open throughout the winter months. She continued at this task for over a quarter of a century, until retirement in 1987.

For a ship to be classified as an icebreaker, it requires three traits that most normal ships lack, and these three traits are:

  • A strengthened hull,
  • An ice-clearing shape
  • The power to push through ice-covered waters.
An image of the Sampo Icebreaker from front on.

The hull of the Sampo (and all icebreakers) are constructed from extremely thick steel. The sheer weight of the vessel and it's shape is what breaks the ice. (not to mention the powerful engines)

The Sampo has a top speed of 16 knots, and the capacity to maintain a speed of 8 knots while she crashes her way through ice approximately 50cm thick. She has also been known to break her way through ice as thick as 120cm, although you wouldn’t want to be in a hurry, as it could take several hours to cover a distance of 100m or so in these conditions

After retirement from her official her ice breaking duties, the Finish Maritime Administration acquired the vessel and put her to work in the field of tourism. The Sampo still to this day being the only operational Icebreaker ferrying tourists (although you can book cruises to Antarctica aboard an ice breaker, but you’ll be up for some serious coin).

Sampo Tours – When to Go and How much Does it Cost

Tours on the Sampo operate out of Kemi Finland, between the months of December to April (weather and ice pack permitting), and it regularly ferries around 10,000 people annually on it’s memorable day excursion.

Weather conditions in the north of the Gulf of Bothnia, are particularly variable, and nature is very unpredictable at these latitudes. Raging blizzard’s can be experienced at a moment’s notice, where temperatures in mid–winter may fall to nearly –40°C.

The best time to take the tour according to the operators is in March, where the ice is at it’s thickest, and the weather conditions are a little more favourable.

Floating in the freezing waters of the Gulf of Bothnia

Floating in the freezing waters of the Gulf of Bothnia in one of the Sampo's survival suits.

Although it is quite an expensive excursion, it’s certainly a day to remember. This tour is quite unique, and for many will be the only opportunity they will get to experience something such as this. The Sampo Icebreaker Tour lasts about 4 hours and cost’s around €200 per person.

The operators of the Sampo also has a website, but it is really quite poor once you get around the pretty pictures. If you make it to Scandinavia during the winter months, I highly recommend a day excursion aboard the Sampo, but remember to book in advance if the weather is fine, as this tour is heavily sought after.

Your Thoughts and Comments

Have you been to Finland in winter and taken the Sampo Icebreaker tour? Was your experience comparable to mine? Is there anywhere else in the world outside of Antarctica, where you can experience something such as this? Maybe I’ve just added another item to your personal bucket list.


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     About the author

Jason has traveled the world extensively during the last 20 years, with overland journeys on six continents and across over 90 countries. This site serves as a chronicle of the images and tales from these journeys, as well as offering advice and general information for other like minded travelers.

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  • Cumidanciki

    the Sampo looks like a force to be reckoned with! I don’t know.. after growing up on movies like the titanic i’m scared s***less that a boat like the Sampo might take on one iceberg too many and just .. well, u know?!
    Having said that I would love to ride the ice .. the slamming down bit after you hit the highest point must be really exhilarating.. and i can only begin to imagine the terrifying glorious sound it makes, breaking the ice! ok ok.. next holiday.. must go Finland.. must go ride ice!

  • Andrea and John

    Very interesting! I had no idea these ships existed

  • Jason

    Hey Ciki, You should definitely get to finland around March and April. The weather starts to get a little better around this time, but it still has the winter feel, with lots of snow around, and obviously the frozen sea. Don’t worry about the Sampo to much though. The beauty of it is, if she starts to sink you can just get off and walk back. It’s a bizarre feeling. Thanks for stopping by again.

  • Jason

    Hey Guys, Icebreakers have been around for many years but for the average person to be able to take a tour on one is very different.

  • Dave from The Longest Way Home

    Great post there Jason. I’m not a fan of tours either, but then you can’t really do this type of thing without one as there are not that many options out there.

    It’s also not your stereotypical get on a Vietnam tour bus and rough it to Hanoi type tour. At, least this is original, and pretty fascinating too.

    The description of the cracking ice I believe is a sound to behold when you are actually on board. I walked on an ice lake in Nepal and saw the cracks spidering out under me, so I can only imagine the feeling of standing on the frozen sea.

    Great stuff, keep em coming!

  • Jason

    Hey Dave, Thanks for that mate, I appreciate it. Especially coming from someone such as yourself who’s been involved in this caper for quite some time. It wouldn’t be hard to guess you’re not the tour type either.

    Walking on a frozen lake that begins to crack underneath you, would be quite scary I would reckon. It must have been pretty thin ice? The ice on the Sampo tour was about 40cm thick. From memory, I believe you can drive a full size truck on only 15cm of ice (ie Ice Road Trucker Style).

    It was a great tour and one I would gladly take again if I ever get back there at that time of year.

  • Peter Heck

    What a cool experience!! Never knew you could do tours like this, and I can’t even begin to imagine what -40 feels like again. The sound of the cracking ice must be intense and eerie being out there alone.

  • Jason

    Hey Peter. Yeah it was a cool thing to do, I I also wasn’t aware of it until we started to do a little research into things to do in Kemi. The day we were on the Sampo, it was quite mild, and I don’t think it would be as enjoyable on a day of -40.

    The cracking of the ice is a buzz if you stand on the bow. I highly recommend this tour to anyone who gets to this part of the world in winter. Thanks for your comment.

  • Anonymous

    Wow! That is definitely tour-worthy methinks. I too try to avoid tours at points, but seeing the ice crack like that, in front of the ship is incredible! Haven’t been to Finland yet, but this is going on my “list” :)

  • Jason

    Hey Shannon, It certainly was a great tour, and I highly recommend heading to Scandinavia during this time of year. There’s plenty of things to see and do, that are out of the ordinary for most parts of the world. The Sampo tour is a must for anyone going to Finland.