The Finno-Ugric one-log boat or haabjas in Estonian is probably the world’s oldest boat type and the forefather of modern plank boat. Haabjas was used as a fishing and a transport vessel already during the stone age – they were used by our forefathers already when they were on their way towards the present territory of Estonia. Dugout is a long and narrow vessel carved out of a single log. Well-built dugouts were light, which enabled them to be carried over natural obstacles between bodies of water. In Estonia traditional dugout building has survived in the regions famous for their great floods – around Matsalu Bay, in Võnnu parish at the mouth of Ahja River, and in Sooma National Park on the lower reaches of the many tributaries of Pärnu river. Estonia also happens to be the westernmost area of dugout boats.

By today Soomaa has developed into a center for builiding and maintaining the traditions of these ancient boats in Estonia. Guests are welcome to come and educate themselves about the history and construction of these ancient vessels, participate in the practical building camps and make forays into the pristine nature of Soomaa National Park on these prehistoric vessels.

Technical information and construction

Building of a dugout starts with selecting a suitable tree – the old folk considered pine and aspen the best, the latter gave the vessel its original name (haabjas meaning of aspen in Estonian). The tree had to be tall and without branches and any signs of decay, also it had to be cut down in winter. From outside the log was hewn to a cigar shape and great attention was paid to leave all the branches and cracks in the part that was to be cut out. For emptying the middle part a special U-curved carpenters’ axe was used. To ensure equal thickness shipwrights, depending on the region, used either knocking or drilling small holes that were filled with spruce clogs once the dugout was finished to determinne the thickness of the boat. Next the sides of the dugouts were made wet and slowly bent ajar using fires and sticks to keep both boards in fixed position. The desired shape was then reinforced with purpose-built arcs. In some places people used to make their dugouts higher attaching planks on both sides.

Interesting facts and stories

  • According to folk beliefs one could only cut down the chosen tree with a northern wind and declining moon, also the tree had to fall against the wind. This was believed to protect the dugout against decay. Also it was believed that if the log fell far from the stump the dugout will be fast.
  • In Saarde parish it was believed that when towing the log out of the forest, “the horse had to be a mare if you wanted to have a boat with strong carrying capacity”:
  • On the lower reaches of Ahja river it was customary to raise the board with extra planks attached to the sides. This is a great example illustrating how dugouts gave birth to the modern plank boat.
  • There is a joke among the Siberian people Handies : “If you sit in a dugout you have to keep your tongue in the middle of the mouth” - who has tried to ride with one knows why.

Soomaa routes