Back on the Baltic the disco plays on: Annika Savill, on board a giant ferry bound for Finland, finds that the Estonia disaster has not deterred pleasure-seeking Swedes

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE a 140-ft high, 520-ft-long Butlins camp on a hull. But as well as the eight restaurants, the drink and the fun and games, there is also a whole floor of articulated lorries, room for 60 buses, tax-free shopping malls, saunas and 2,500 beds. Imagine, then, that this city of a boat falls on to its side just as you hit the dance-floor at midnight.

Lasse and Weine, sewage engineers from the southern Swedish town of Finspang, were stepping on to the dance floor of the Silja Scandinavia at midnight on Thursday, 48 hours exactly after the equally huge Estonia sank in the same waters. Their home town, coincidentally, is only 15 miles from Norrkoping, which lost 56 of its senior citizens on board the Estonia.

'One shouldn't stop living because of it,' said Weine. His friend adds: 'We booked this weeks ago. When I first heard yesterday morning I was numb. By the afternoon when I was packing, I realised this was going to be less fun. But then I thought that the guys who closed the doors of the ferry deck are probably feeling the handles extra carefully after the disaster. Now I'm fine - the whole thing passed for me in one day.'

There were hardly any pensioners among the 24-hour cruisers on the Silja Scandinavia on Thursday night. The end of the week attracts a younger crowd. Most of them never leave the ship between the inward and outward journeys, electing to spend their time losing their inhibitions courtesy of duty-free drink.

There is a dogged determination to have fun among these citizens who only really let go when they leave their own shores. The young drink beer with the popular chaser of the moment: Turkish Pepper. It is an undrinkable concoction of salted licorice and vodka, as pitch black as the sea outside. Cleaning patrols bearing buckets efficiently keep the premises free of any lingering vomit.

Minna and Bia are two platinum blondes from Turku, Finland, in their early twenties. Minna says she is an orthopaedic therapist, Bia does not reveal her profession. 'I think it's terrible, terrible,' Minna says of the accident. 'But I'm here, it's not me.'

She says she believes that the Swedes and Finns who run this ferry are 'very good people' and had not really been affected by the news of the tragedy. It is her third such outing. She summed up the attraction as 'baby, when we go to the disco]'. She says she hopes not to go to bed until 4 or 5am.

The only services these ferries lack are those of a chaplain. But it would be a pretty thankless job. There are orchestras galore, though 'Nearer My God To Thee' is unlikely to have been in the repertoire of the Estonia's musicians, even if they had had time to play it before the ship went down. In the Music Garden discotheque of the Silja Scandinavia, two women in black crush velvet midriffs from the band Kaos sing a rock version of 'You Are My Sunshine'. In the Dancing Palace one floor below, the Memories band plays hits from the Sixties and Seventies.

The conference centre on the 10th floor is empty but beautifully equipped. All Baltic ferries are popular business conference venues during the first half of the week; almost 100 of those who perished on the Estonia were on trips combining working seminars with pleasure. It is natural that the Swedes should choose to congregate on ships. 'In England, we don't have the culture of travelling on boats as much,' says Brian Armstrong, the Carlisle-born troubadour performing at the Captain's Corner Pub. 'But in Scandinavia, in order even to get to many of the islands, a boat is a fact of life. If you compare these ferries with the cross-Channel ones, you can see that the Nordic ferries exist nowhere else in the world.'

Then there is the remnant of the more honourable tradition of Nordic seafaring. The Drivers' Inn bears a sign on the door: 'Only for the drivers of articulated lorries and buses.' These are in a sense the real VIPs of the ship, and they are allowed to dine in quieter surroundings, away from the revellers. Timo, one of the ship's stewards, says there is still a steady contingent of lorry drivers on the ferries but they are vastly outnumbered by the drinkers. He has been a steward for almost 17 years and says that despite the accident, it is too late for him to contemplate a new profession now. He says the number of passengers has not gone down since, adding: 'It's amazing, not many people are asking about the disaster.'

These ferry outings offer a rare unfettering to Swedes, who seem permanently somewhere between divorce, death and more taxes. To travel with no real destination - since nobody intends to set foot on land before going back again - is their only real escape from anything behind or ahead.

Around the blackjack table, be-jeaned young men are clearly oblivious of the swell that makes the ship rock around midnight. Lasse concedes that he feels some national shame that a part Swedish-owned ship should have been capable of the worst ferry disaster in Western Europe since the war. 'I was somewhat ill-at-ease at the fact that Swedish interests were involved. Since the war we have told ourselves that we are the best as regards safety, efficiency and all that. It's ridiculous, really. I don't know who ever led us to believe it.'

This is no place for the claustrophobic. And there is no rapport between what goes on within and the sea without. Around 2am, some lights appear through the porthole - clear signs of civilisation. When I ask if this would be Mariehamn, on the Finnish archipelago of Aland, even seasoned travellers of this route profess not to know. There is no natural light, no air, and very few people can be seen taking a breather on deck in spite of the mild weather.

The two sides of the Swede as manifested at home and on the ferry recall the lines of Oscar Levertin in his turn-of- the-century poem, 'The People of Nifelhem'. He describes his countrymen thus:

Joy's spontaneity they don't comprehend

When her torch passes near them.

The meaning of life they see best when

Read in the cooling ashes.

Joy they court like an unwilling guest

Bribed by the gold in the bottle.

Nifelhem, in the Nordic Edda mythology, is the world of original cold. Before the earth was created, it was the kingdom of fog. Above was Muspelhem, the light heavens. In between, Ginunga Gap, the empty abyss.