Today few people know what the word “Belyana” means, but just a hundred years ago giant ships called “Belyanas” were sailing along the Volga and Vetluga rivers and probably were the most unique river craft in the world.
Even today they would seem huge. Some of them were up to 120 m long, and they could reach six meters in height.
The carrying capacity of “Belyanas” corresponded with their dimensions, which could reach 4000-6000 pounds for small “Belyanas” and 32 000 pounds for big ones! It is quite comparable with the size of an oceangoing ship, though not a huge one.
People were cutting timber and rafting it down the rivers without any mechanization. Workers were living in the forests, staying away from home for 3-4 months at a time, they had poor nutrition, and spent their nights in little wooden houses with poor insulation.
They had to carry timber to a floatable river (Vetluga tributary). Then they fastened pieces of the timber together and waited for water to become high enough to be able to raft the timber to the Veltluga river. They used long poles to push the logs from the bank of the river, some workers on rafts controlled the process and made the wood float in the right direction.
That job was really hard and threatening to life and health, but poor people agreed to work so they could earn some money for their families. Women worked on “Belyanas” too, but their labor cost much less.
Timber was stowed in a “Belyana” in a special way – with even rows and wide aisles in order for people to reach any collapsed places if they suddenly appeared. Besides, properly laid wood dried faster and didn’t rot. It is known that construction of one average “Belyana” required 240 pine logs and 200 spruce ones. The bottom was made from spruce logs, the boards – from pine ones. The distance between frames didn’t exceed 0,5 m so the ship was rather reliable. By the way, from the very beginning “Belyanas” were made without a single nail, but afterwards they began to be nailed up.
But the most interesting thing about “Belyanas” was their load – “white timber” which was whitish yellow logs with their bark removed. The word “Belyana” itself is similar to a Russian word “beliy” that means “white” – indeed each “Belyana” was always white because those ships were used for only one transit and were never caulked or pitched.
“Belyanas’ were loaded like no other vessel in the world, there was even a saying: “Belyana could be disassembled by a couple of hands, but could not be assembled by even all cities”. It’s because the wood was not only piled but piled with multiple spans in order that people could reach the bottom if it leaked. The loads never touched the board sides and didn’t put any pressure on them, but the water coming over the top did so they used special wedges between the loads and the boards.
When the timber became higher than the boards of the ship they started to place logs in such a way that they’d protrude and become the base for another load to be put on top. It was very important to maintain balance.
The hull of a “Belyana” was tapered from both ends, the ship was controlled with a huge steering wheel that sooner resembled massive wooden gates, the wheel was rotated by means of a large long log. The ship looked clumsy, it floated with its aft end in the front but was highly maneuverable. “Belyanas” were equipped with different anchors and multiple ropes.
The most active period of construction of “Belyanas” was in the middle of the nineteenth century, when steamboat services started to gain popularity. At that time they used wood to make those ships float, so try to imagine how many resources such a fleet would require. At the end of service, the “Belyanas” were fully disassembled – literally nothing remained, all of the materials were reused (for construction, making ropes, hemp, fasteners, etc.) – “Belyana” owners made a lot of profit. Keeping “Belyanas” afloat for more than one season was unprofitable.
The story of “Belyanas” becomes even more interesting when you learn that some of them were assembled and disassembled twice! It was done with small ships when they had to be transported by land together with their loads in order to be loaded in another place.