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  Vol. 12, No 3, 2004
Grab a Berth!

Klaipėda celebrates the 70th birthday of its Maritime Festival

Jolita Kraniauskaitė

Countries in the Baltic Sea region can hardly complain of a shortage of maritime festivals. Among the best known are the Stockholm Water Festival, the Maritime Festival in Kotka (Finland), festivals of historic ships in Stockholm, Mariehamn and Turku, and Baltic Sail events that take place in Rostock, Karlskrona, Helsingborg, Gdansk and Lübeck.
These events are held to pay homage to the sea, which feeds
fishermen’s families, and to those who work at sea, and at the same time to enjoy a fiesta which goes on for several days.

Lithuania, with the northernmost ice-free seaport in the Baltic, also has a maritime festival, a spectacular event that each year draws thousands of tourists to Klaipėda. This year will mark 70 years of the tradition.

Our sea

The first Day of the Sea was held in Klaipėda on 11 and 12 August 1934. Its main purpose was to raise public awareness of the sea, to strengthen the image of Lithuania as a maritime nation, and to promote the creation of a merchant fleet.

In those days Klaipėda had a population of only 45,000, and during the festival it had to accommodate more than 50,000 guests.

The country’s president, Antanas Smetona, addressed the crowds with these words: “Let me start by extending our greetings to the magnificent sea! It is our sea! We will never surrender it to anybody else. This is our promise and we will keep it. Let the Day of the Sea serve as a reminder of this commitment for everybody.”

The celebrations started with a memorial ceremony in honour of those who perished at sea. This tradition is alive even today: floral tributes are thrown into the sea to the sound of a cannon salute. It is always attended by senior government figures.

At the first festival visitors had many events to choose from: Mass, welcoming ceremonies for official guests, an opening ceremony with a parade, a spectacular procession with torches through the streets of the city, a water carnival, a water sports festival and a fishermen’s regatta.

Rollercoaster success

Academic Maritime Day was celebrated in Klaipėda on 31 May and 1 June 1936, initiated by students of schools of higher education. The government not only supported the idea of nurturing the seafaring spirit, it also provided various discounts and incentives to those travelling to the festival. About 1,500 students stood on the pier and took an oath to protect the sea.

Later the Second World War caused the relatively new tradition of maritime festivals in Klaipėda to be forgotten. It was not revived again until July 1963, but this time the festival was organised mostly for the purpose of Soviet propaganda and was held under the aegis of the Soviet navy. Submarines entered the Curonian Lagoon and fired torpedoes. A carnival was held on the River Danė.
Since 1972, the Day of the Sea has been a yearly event. It is usually held on the last weekend of July. Now more than 100 events are organised in various venues around the city over three days. Klaipėda becomes one big, wild party. The streets are full of jubilant people wearing stripy shirts who arrive from all parts of the country and even from foreign countries. The festival’s popularity reaches far beyond the borders. Hotel reservations have to be made six months in advance, and young people sometimes sleep in parks or on the dunes.

One of the most memorable festivals took place in 2002, when it coincided with the 750th birthday of the city of Klaipėda.

Tall ships

This year the 45th Maritime Festival will be held from 23 to 25 July. The organisers are promising a lot of surprises. The Old Town will be decorated in a retro spirit, taking people back to the 1930s. Participants in the international Šermukšnis Street Theatre Festival, which is held every three years, will also help to transform the Old Town.

The town and the banks of the River Danė will be decorated with various objects, advertising stands and sculptures from the period. Decorations from previous festivals will be on display too. Golden mannequins will be lined up on the roofs and streets of the Old Town, or placed in the river as if waiting for golden fish.

Those who are not too interested in retro style will be able to attend the International Modern Arts Festival. Fifty artists from Baltic and Adriatic countries will throw a real party for connoisseurs of modern art.

According to Remigijus Mockus, director of the Jūros Šventė agency, several Klaipėda enterprises that are celebrating anniversaries have also prepared events for the jubilee festival. Among them is Švyturys, the brewery, which is celebrating its 220th birthday. As a present to the town, it will put on a concert of sea shanties, mount a colourful firework display and provide many other surprises.
The Linden, a 68-metre-long sailing ship, will attend the festival from the Finnish Åland Islands. This is no coincidence. In 2005, Klaipėda will be the starting point for the Baltic Sail Regatta, and the Linden is to be the “first swallow”, showing that the event is beginning.
Tall ships that from now onwards will visit Klaipėda during the maritime festival will provide a unique seafaring atmosphere for the city and for the festival itself. So, grab a berth in Klaipėda!

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