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Transiting the Kiel Canal

Dec 22, 2010

To the editor: When passing from southern Denmark and the Baltic Sea to the North Sea, the shortest route is via the Kiel Canal. To do so is also quite scenic and good fun. In July of 2010, we had occasion to sail from Svendborg in southern Denmark to Scotland and took advantage of the opportunity to transit this historic passage from east to west in our J46 Cielita.

After a fine sail across the Kieler Bucht, we entered the Kiel Fjord and made our way into a small marina adjacent to the east end of the canal where we tied up for dinner ashore and a quite night. The city of Kiel is a major German yachting center, as well as a large industrial port. There is undoubtedly plenty to see and do there for those who wish to linger. But we were in a hurry to be on our way to Scotland. So the next morning, we joined several other yachts entering the lock, and after paying the lock master, we were locked through and on our way for the 53-mile passage across the base of the Jutland Peninsula.

The canal is properly known as the Nord-Ostsee Kanal and was originally constructed between 1887 and 1895 by Kaiser Wilhelm II to facilitate the transit of the German naval fleet from the Baltic to the North Sea. It is a remarkable feat of engineering. It is amply wide enough to accommodate large freighters passing in both directions. It has since been modified to include additional larger locks at both ends in order to accommodate more modern shipping, but the original locks are still in use for smaller vessels such as yachts. It is dredged to a minimum depth of 36 feet throughout and has a minimum height under the bridges and power lines of 118 feet.

After a short wait, we entered the eastern locks in mid-morning with several other yachts via the old, smaller locks and tied up to a string of very old, heavy wooden floats along one side, where we climbed the ladder up to the central section and proceeded on to the control tower to pay the fare for transiting the entire canal, including the lock at the western end (about $56 in our case). When the lock gates opened, we entered the canal itself and began the long motor through the German countryside, passing huge freighters, tankers, and ferries and enjoying the flat, bucolic scenery, punctuated by the occasional village and the odd bridge or power line. The canal is well marked, and no chart is necessary. About half way along is one of the world’s last remaining “transporter bridges” that carries cars across the canal on a platform suspended under a railroad bridge, which is a remarkable sight to behold.

Since one is not allowed to be under way after sunset, after about 20 miles along the canal from Kiel, we pulled over to starboard and entered a side channel leading up to the town of Rendsburg, where we tied up in a marina at the head of the harbor. We were joined there by an additional crewmember who had come on from Hamburg by train and taxi; and we enjoyed a walk about the town, showers for all hands, and dinner ashore. The next morning we were off again to re-enter the canal proper and motor on to the west for more of the same pleasant scenery and heavy shipping.

At the western end of the canal, we again had a brief wait to enter the older lock that would take us into the Elbe River and our subsequent exit down river to the North Sea. This was followed by a brief passage out to Helgoland for an evening in its protected harbor. We also went ashore for a visit to this German resort town with all its advantages as a duty-free port.

For the typical yacht, a transit of the Kiel Canal is a two-day affair. The only locks are at either end, and they are relatively easy to negotiate. Despite the heavy traffic, this passage is remarkably hassle free and well worth it for those traveling between the Baltic and the North Sea who are not inclined to take the longer route over the top of the Jutland Peninsula.

—Ned Cabot is a retired surgeon from Boston who is an avid voyager aboard his J46 Cielita, having recently sailed to the Arctic and crossed the North and Baltic seas.

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