Vytinė and strugas – typical vessels of inland water navigation of the GDL

Inland was navigation as industrial transport that prevailed in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had great significance to the country’s economy. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was not directly related to sea navigation, with the exception of one episode with the English merchants of Šventoji, to be more exact, Janmarienburg port (around 1685–1701); however, the inhabitants of the settlements of a narrow coastal section of the GDL always sailed in large sea fishing boats with sails (the predecessor of the later kurėnai and fishpot boats) called batai, bateliai (shoes, small shoes) (according to the data of 1639, 1738) or in small sailboats with the aim of trading in corn, flax and other goods along the coast as far as Palanga, Šventoji, Liepāja, rarer as far as Klaipėda, Königsberg, Gdansk, and back. The relation of the ports of Königsberg and Klaipėda of Fief Ducal Prussia (until the middle of the 17th century) and their fleets with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was specific. These ports did not belong to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Riga belonged to Lithuania (together with Poland) for a short time (1582–1620). The vassal relationship was maintained with the Dukedom of Curonia and Semigallia where during the time of the rule of Duke Jacob Kettler (especially in the middle of the 17th century) sea navigation and trade were developed rapidly, several dozens of ships moored in the ports of Venspils and Liepāja. The Curonian colonies in Gambia and Tabag in 1651–1668 cannot be called “Lithuanian colonies”, however, this example shows that even a small state, with small resources at its disposal, and efficiently ruled by an educated and energetic ruler (“ducal merchant”) could reach impressive results both in shipbuilding and navigation. It is a great contrast as compared with the fate of the port of Šventoji that belonged to the large Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

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Large vessels used in inland water navigation in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, after the goods (agricultural produce and forest products) were disembarked in the ports of Riga or Königsberg, were often sold for fire wood. Only a part of smaller vessels returned to the upper reaches of the rivers because twice as big crew were needed to tow them up the river (the rope was tied to the top of the mast).

Routes of river transport workers

Differences between small sea, coastal and inland vessels were not obvious, they were determined by the body (without a draught), the sail and the equipment of the vessel rather than by its tonnage. Adequate depth and width were needed for sea vessels with a larger draught to sail into the inland waters, and the shipping conditions on the seashore, especially high rolling sea, were most important to the flat-bottomed inland water vessels. Inland water vessels of the GDL, which carried goods along the Nemunas River to Karaliaučius and back, until 1689–1697, having entered the Gilija from the Nemunas had, through its mouth, to cross a small section of the Curonian Lagoon and only then sail into the mouth of the Deimena, and from it further on to the Prieglius (the Deimena, a tributary of the Prieglius, which led to Karaliaučius, and which at that time was connected with the Gilija, the left tributary of the Nemunas, which also flew into the Curonian Lagoon flew into them).

It is sometimes stated in historiography that strugas and vytinė sailed as far as Gdansk but there are no data confirming this.

Their route ended in Königsberg.

Rocks, insufficient amount of water, sporadic rapids, floating of the ice and floods posed major natural obstacles in the rivers. During the mentioned period vessels of different types and sizes sailed in the inland waters of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania– strugas, vytinė (skultas), batas (large sea boats with a sail), pergas, kamiagos (large boats for carrying corn), bajdokai (in the Dniepr and the Pripet), rafts and ferries. The sources mention smaller boats as well– “pustrugiai”, “strugeliai”. There were also pusvytinės – small vytinės.

Vessels that sailed along the Nemunas and Neris

Strugai and vytinės were typical inland water boats of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It seems that strugai were vessels of Russian origin (for example, strugai of the residents of Polotsk were mentioned in the middle of the 15th century), flat-bottomed, made of boards, without a deck, carried large numbers of cargoes, rowboats (mainly in the Dauguva), and also sailboats (in the Neris and the Nemunas) with two steering oars – in the front and at the back. After the goods (agricultural produce and forest products) were disembarked in the ports of Riga or Königsberg, large vessels were often sold for fire wood, and only as part of smaller vessels returned to the upper reaches of the rivers because twice as big crew were needed to tow them up the river (the hawser was tied to the top of the mast). The word vytinė seems to be of Lithuanian origin; these vessels were common in the Nemunas River basin (together with the Neris and the Shchara). It was also a flat-bottomed, long, low-sided boat with a high and sharp prow and stern, with one long steering oar in the stern and a sail fastened in the middle of the mast.

Vytinės were stronger and more durable vessels than strugai.

The chronicler of the second half of the 16th century Alexander Guagnini stated the skultai (Polish szkut), which were common in Poland were called vytinės in Lithuania. One can agree to this statement. Vytinės were actually called skutai in the Dauguva basin as far back as the first half of the 19th century. Though Eustachy Tyszkiewicz (1814–1873) did not believe that vytinės could sail along the shallow Neris River, he stated that these were only flat-bottomed strugai, but he was wrong. Vytinės or pusiauvytinės (semi-vytinės) as Vincas Žilėnas (1907–1982) and Stasys Samalavičius established, in the 16th–18th centuries sailed not only along the Nemunas but also along the Neris Rivers. Merchants of Vilnius and Kaunas had especially large numbers of these boats; they built and kept them in Lukiškės and Aleksotas. The noblemen and the nobility who engaged in trade also had many strugai and vytinės. For example, in 1636–1640, approximately about 60 vytinės and 37 helmsmen sailed from the Radziwiłłs’ town of Sverženis to Karaliaučius alone. The goods that were most often carried abroad were hemp and flax, linseeds, corn, different kinds of timber and other forest products (ashes, potassium), and salt, herring, iron, spices, sugar and wines were brought into the country.

River navigation

Strugai and vytinės (skultai) were built in many cities, towns and villages located on the Neris, the Nemunas and the Daugava Rivers where there were channels and jetties for boats, warehouses for goods. To build ships pine and oak timber was used (boards, beams, piers, squared beams, masts…), iron (cramps staples, nails, hasps…), coal, pitch, tar, canvas, different ropes and cables, moss and lichen.

Carpenters who built vytinės or skultai were called in Kaunas in Lithuanian: “vitindailiai”, “škutodirbiai, škultodailiai”.

Different Lithuanian terms related to vytinės have survived: vytininkas (river traffic worker), vairas (steering wheel), irklai (oars), kartis (pole), laivavirvė (rigging)… The size of strugas and vytinė, as well as their length, width, the height of their sides, hence the tonnage, and the number of the crews were different; however, more exact data about it have survived from the 19th century only therefore they cannot be automatically transferred to an earlier period. Most probably the vessels were bigger than the earlier ones. Strugai and vytinės usually had ropes, a sail, a boiler, the iron “goat” (the equipment to tow the vessel off the shoal), and the anchor. The man at the wheel (Polish sternik) was in charge of the vytinė crew consisting of vytininkai (river transport workers) (Polish flisnik). Strugai and vytinės were used in inland water navigation in the territory of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania until the end of the 19th century. 

Literature: S. Samalavičius, XVII–XVIII a. prekybinis laivynas Lietuvoje, S. Samalavičius, Vilniaus miesto kultūra ir kasdienybė XVII-XVIII amžiuose, sudarė Almantas Samalavičius,  parengė Aivas Ragauskas, Vilnius, 2011, p. 87–92; J. Litwin, Die Memel, Wittinen und die Binnenschiffahrt nach Königsberg, Deutsches Schiffahrtsarchiv, 2000, nr. 23, p. 373–394.

Aivas Ragauskas