If you are out on the Lithuanian coast keep an eye out for the fishing boats working out in the Curonian Lagoon and in particular their beautifully crafted ‘Vėtrungės’, ‘Kurenwimpel’ or weather vanes which you will see mounted on their main masts. As well as being wonderfully decorative additions to the often pretty fishing boats, they have a practical purpose which has served to help identify the craft are fishing in the correct waters for over 150 years.
While local fishermen have been fishing these waters for hundreds of years, the system the weather vanes serve can be dated to the mid-19th century. It was at that time that Ernst Wilhelm Beerbohm, a Lithuanian of Dutch ancestry, was appointed as Chief Fishing Inspector for the entire lagoon. He was tasked with implementing new fishing regulations created by the Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad) administrative authorities to maintain the stock of the lagoon and control who exactly was allowed to fish. To make identification of craft easier (and to ensure that they were fishing where they were entitled to) Beerbohm instructed each fishing vessel to mount a two-foot long by one foot wide weather vane to the top of the main mast. The lagoon was split into three areas with boats from villages assigned colours to use in the design of the weather vanes. Boats from villages on the spit had to use black and white; boats from the east coast of the lagoon red and white and boats from the southern end of the lagoon yellow and blue. Each village had to create a design using triangles and squares in these colours to signify where they were from.
Soon though the fishermen had taken Beerbohm’s edict and run with it. Some began to embellish the simple designs by placing the weather vanes in wooden frames which they decorated with often intricate wood carving, reflecting the styles that they decorated their homes with. As time passed the craving and painting became more intricate and the fishermen not only found something to entertain them on the journey home, but also discovered a new source of income as tourists began to buy them as original souvenirs. You can still pick one up yourself from souvenir shops along the coast.