Position: 54°17’42.6″N 9°41’24.6″E
Transiting the Kiel Canal is oddly relaxing. Despite huge cargo ships bearing down on you in both directions compared with Holland things couldn’t be calmer. No one can travel faster than six knots and container and tanker ships barely make a ripple at that speed. Eight knots was the maximum until a ship recently crashed into one of the canal’s many bridges causing all kinds of damage. They say you’re not a sailor until you’ve run aground. I have no idea what running into a bridge makes you. A pillock?
The canal was dug between 1887 and 1895 by over 8,000 workers under the auspices of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Then, in a rare moment of original thought, the good kaiser dedicated the canal to his grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I, naming it the Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal (had you attended the ceremony, you might be forgiven for thinking this was merely a moment of self-promotion). It was instantly successful. So much so that today it is the world’s busiest artificial waterway.
Life on the Canal
At 98 kilometres (61 miles) end to end it is 16 kilometres longer than the Panama Canal. Compared with sailing around the top of Denmark, it shortens the journey into the Baltic from the North Sea by 250 nautical miles. Between 1907 and 1914 It was widened and deepened enough to allow battleships through (no surprise there – ed.). In 2020 when oil bunker prices dropped, the German government suspended transit fees from July through the end of the year. For us, the transit cost was 35 euros. Although, given the obscure instructions on how to pay, the authorities were lucky to get anything out of us.
There is plenty of depth in the canal, even right up to its banks. On the banks you’ll find elegant white swans shepherding their little grey cygnets out of harm’s way. Squeaky black Eurasian coots with their distinctive white beaks paddle in the tall reeds, while fat grey and white gulls wheel about overhead. Occasionally the gulls alight on a mooring post and do a little ship spotting (it’s a thing). Herons dart by, while terns swerve and dive showing off their cornering skills. At dusk, European swallows dressed in their familiar dark blue dinner jackets and starched white shirts and scarlet cravats take to the sky and snag every flying bug they can in the fading light. Against the dense stands of deep green trees, the scenery is all very bucolic. And relaxing.
Most crossings along the canal’s path are completed by pairs of flat-hulled, functional-looking ferries that float on the water. Cars and bikes roll on and off, weaving their way around pedestrians. A crossing takes only a few minutes. I suspect ferry captains would as soon ignore sailboats and other private water craft, but they will wait patiently if you mistime your crossing of their bow.
One of the curiosities along the route is the Rendsburg High Bridge, completed in 1913. In a fit of 20th century steampunk modernist vision, someone decided a cable car, or Schwebefähre (suspension ferry), would make a good complement to supporting the railway tracks above. Just like its floating brethren, the Rendsburg Schwebefähre moves goods and people 125 metres across the river every 15 minutes throughout the day. Besides carrying capacity, the biggest difference between the two ferrying modes is, IMHO, purely aesthetic. Like every great anachronism, the cable car looks cool! An octagonal captain’s cabin sits atop the passenger platform, itself suspended by four long cables. When the original Schwebefähre was damaged in 2016 after colliding with a ship, a rivet for rivet replacement was built and returned to full service in 2022.
For those nervous about such things, there is an alternative: a 130-metre-long pedestrian tunnel, 22 metres under the canal, completed in 1965. Or you could drive over one of the eleven high bridges along the canal’s length. Although, they have their share of accidents, too. In 2022, the Finnish heavy load carrier Meri crashed into the Holtenauer High Bridge closing the canal for days and putting the bridge under repair for months.
Originally, we thought we’d transit the canal in one day. With an early start and steady progress, we nevertheless opted for an overnight stop when it became clear we’d end up arriving at our chosen marina much later than practical. Pulling over and dropping anchor in a narrow lay-by proved simple enough. Until the next morning. The wind had picked up overnight and gently nudged Aleta into a shallower spot. I’m not sure we dragged anchor, although in the gooey mud that might be forgiven. I think the chart was optimistically showing 2.5 metres of depth astern of us, when in fact there was only 1.5. Technically we were aground. Sailors, not pillocks, I hasten to add.
Seas the Day!
With a bit of high revving encouragement from the engine we extracted Aleta and got back on track. In a couple of hours we had completed our journey and found ourselves at once in two new seas: the Baltic and the Ostsee. Both are correct. It only depends on who you talk to, and where and when they studied geography. The Ostsee is Germany’s name for the waters lapping the eastern shores of Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Western Pommerania. The Baltic Sea includes the Ostsee and the gulfs of Bothnia, Riga, and Finland. More on that some other time. For now, here are some photos from the canal.