Through the Kiel Canal – we reach the Baltic at last!

“It’s a bit of a race for the marina when the lock gates open”, says the skipper of the boat in front of us. “It can get quite full, and if you want a place for the night you need to make a dash for it.”

We are in the lock at the entrance to the Kiel Canal in Brunsbüttal waiting for the gates to open. We had left Cuxhaven around lunchtime to catch the incoming tide, and had had a good sail up the Elbe assisted by the current and a westerly wind behind us, making eight knots at times with just the genoa.

So much so, we had even overshot the entrance to the Canal slightly and had had to struggle to get back against both current and wind. But we had made it, and the skipper of the boat in front had helped us tie up to the floating pontoons inside the lock.

Sailing up the Elbe with just the genoa.

“But we are lucky”, he continues. “Both of us are at the front of the lock, so we have a head start on the others.”

“Come on”, says the First Mate to me. “We don’t want to miss out. Get the engine started.”

Already the other boats have their engines running and are keenly looking for when the gates open. When they do, they all surge forward like greyhounds released from their starting positions. That is if 10 tonne boats with a maximum speed of 6 knots can be likened to greyhounds. But we are not slow off the mark either, and leave the lock in second position behind our friendly skipper. There is some jockeying for position, but we keep our place and enter the tiny marina to the side of the lock before the others. Sure enough there are not a lot of spaces left, but we find one rafting up to another boat with a Swedish flag. Helping hands reach for our lines and we are soon secured. We are safe for the night.

Safely ensconced for the night at Brunsbüttal.

Not that we have a quiet night. As we are so close to the canal, large ships pass by mere meters away from us as they enter the lock, their engines rumbling and their propellers churning the water as they go. In the end, however, it becomes strangely rhythmic and we manage to sleep well until the morning. We just hope that their positioning systems are precise – an error of a couple of meters could spell disaster!

Big ships passing through the Brunsbüttal lock.

The Kiel Canal was built in 1895 by Kaiser Wilhelm II to provide a way for the German navy and merchant shipping to avoid going around the top of Denmark, as the two countries weren’t particularly friendly at that  time. It is nearly 100 km long, and an average of 90 ships pass through it every day. At the moment, as a concession to the coronavirus, it is totally free to use. Sailing is not allowed, so we have to motor the whole way.

We leave at around 1000 the next morning. It is squally weather – one moment a torrential downpour, the next brilliant sunshine. From time to time huge container ships pass us, dwarfing us with their size. We stick well to the starboard side of the Canal to give them as much room as possible, but are surprised how little wake they produce – they slip past, hardly rocking us.

The First Mate holding her nerve as a large container ship passes.

We approach a ferry crossing. Usually these consist of two ferries that cross alternatively from one side to the other, so that there are two to look out for. Not only that, they have right of way, at least for yachts. The problem is that they can set off at any time, so you need to keep an eye on when they are likely to leave by being fully loaded by cars. It is probably just my overactive imagination, but on more than one occasion, I could have sworn that they lie in wait for an unsuspecting yacht and time their departure just as the yacht is approaching to force them to stop!

A ferry crosses in front of us.

We eventually reach Rendsburg and pass under the railway bridge spanning high above the Canal.

The Rendsburg railway bridge.

“The guidebook says that it was built in 1913 to take the railway over the Kiel Canal”, says the First Mate. “It’s supposed to be the longest railway bridge in Europe at 2,500 metres in length and 41 metres in height.”

It’s certainly an impressive structure. Suspended underneath is the transporter unit that can also take cars across from one side to the other like an aerial ferry. We find out later that it is not working, and is taking some time to repair.

We turn left and enter the Eider River branch to the marina near the city centre. We see an empty box berth and go for it. There is a strong cross-wind blowing, and it is difficult to tie up. Luckily we are helped by a friendly couple a few berths along who see our predicament. Before long we are secure. We’ll need to practice these box berths, particularly when they are long ones and the wind is blowing.

Safely tied up for the night in Rendsburg.

In the morning, we explore the town. It is old, and over the years has flip-flopped between being part of Denmark and part of Germany. Since 1864, it has remained the latter. Although it is connected to the sea by the Eider River, it really gained in importance when the Kiel Canal was built, and is now a proper seaport despite being well inland.

The Marienkirche is one of the oldest in the area, having been built in 1286.

The Marienkirche, Rendsburg.

The Old Town Hall dates from the 16th century.

The Old Town Hall.

There is still a market once a week in the town’s Market Square.

The Market Square, Rendsburg.

“I just want to have a browse in that shop over there”, says the First Mate. “Why don’t you wait here for a minute? I won’t be long.”

I inwardly groan. The First Mate’s sense of ‘long’ is quite different from my own. Nevertheless, I do as I am told and wait in the recessed doorway of a department store. At least I can stay out of the rain.

The door of the shop opens. I move to one side to make way for the person coming out. There is nobody. It takes me a few seconds to realise that it is an automatic door and that it is me who has opened it by standing too close to it. I move a little bit further away and continue my wait.

I’m bored. I bend my leg backwards. The door opens and closes. I wait for a minute and move my arm slowly. The door opens and closes. I lift the other leg. The door opens and closes. I put my rucksack down. The door opens and closes. I pick up my rucksack. The door opens and closes. It’s fun, in an eight-year-old’s kind of way.

I notice one of the shop assistants at the perfume counter is glaring at me. With a flourish, I lift my leg one more time, and move out into the street. The door opens and closes.

“Sorry”, says the First Mate, returning. “That took a little bit longer than I thought. I hope you weren’t too bored waiting?”

“Not at all”, I say. “I had plenty to do.”

In the afternoon, we walk to the Fussweg unter dem Canal, a tunnel under the Kiel Canal for pedestrians and cyclists to cross from one side to the other. There is a steep escalator that goes down deep enough to get below the water depth, then a long wide tunnel like those on the London Underground, and another escalator at the other end.

The escalator down to the tunnel.

“It’s amazing to think of the tunnel supporting all those heavy ships passing by in both directions above us”, says the First Mate. “I hope they have done their calculations right. I wouldn’t like being in the tunnel if it collapsed.”

I rack my brains for my fifth-form physics lessons with Mr Butcher. I seem to remember him telling us that a ship displaces the same weight of water that it weighs itself. So there would be no extra weight involved as the ships pass over, as they would have just pushed water with the same weight out of the way. As we pass the halfway mark of the tunnel, I just hope that he knew what he was talking about and that my memory is still good.

The pedestrian tunnel under the Kiel Canal.

The next day Volkmar arrives. Volkmar is an old friend of the First Mate, and now lives in Kiel. He used to sail in his younger days. We have arranged for him to join us in Rendsburg and accompany us along the Canal back to Kiel.

Volkmar joins us in Rendsburg.

“We are passing through the region of Schleswig-Holstein”, he tells us, as we sail past rolling fields and woods. “It’s had a fascinating history. For a long time the Schleswig part of it was under Danish influence, and Holstein was part of the Holy Roman Empire. But in reality, they were ruled by a common Duke, and it all seemed to work pretty well. But in the nineteenth century, things came to a head, and Denmark decided to annex it. The Prussians weren’t too happy about that, so they invaded it, but were beaten back. A few years later, in 1864, they had another go, and this time they won. So Schleswig-Holstein was absorbed into the Prussian Empire.”

“Lunchtime!”, calls out the First Mate, bringing out sandwiches on a plate. “We can eat while Volkmar tells us about the history.”

“After WW1, there was a lot of debate about where to draw the borders of Germany”, he continues. “In this area, they decided that the best thing to do was to put it to the vote and ask the people whether they wanted to be part of Germany or part of Denmark. It turned out that in the southern part of Schleswig the majority wanted to be German, and in the northern part, the majority wanted to be Danish, so they worked out a border that reflected these results. They tried to follow natural features like streams, but this often ended up with farmers with fields in both countries. In the end, they found a way that took most people’s wishes into account, but in one case, the border even went through a house so that one side of it was in Germany and the other in Denmark!”

Did they have to use their passports to go to the bathroom, I wonder?

“I bet they did all their shopping at least on the German side where it is cheaper. Tea or coffee?”, says the First Mate, putting on the kettle.

“Coffee, please”, says Volkmar, pausing.

“Nowadays, there are minorities on each side of the border – Danish in Germany, German in Denmark – but they live happily enough together”, he continues. “The rights of each minority are guaranteed and respected. In the German town of Flensburg, for example, there is a Danish library, Danish restaurants, and so on, while in the Danish town of Sönderborg, there is a German museum.”

“It sounds like a good way to solve territorial disputes”, I say. “It’s a pity that they don’t do that more often in other parts of the world, rather than resorting to war.”

We are approaching the lock at the Kiel-Holtenau end of the Canal. There are a few other sailboats already waiting, so we join the group and wait to be instructed to enter the old lock used for pleasure craft. Something is said in German on the VHF, but none of us catches it. Not that it matters much, as all of the other boats start moving into the new lock used for the big commercial ships. We decide to follow suit. The lock is vast. There are wooden pontoons floating at water level that we are supposed to tie up to.

We tie up in the lock for commercial ships at Keil-Holtenau.

“Careful not to touch the pontoons”, calls out the First Mate. “The fenders are not much use as they are floating on the surface and are not protecting the boat.”

We find out later that savvy sailors tie weights onto the end of the fenders to hold them perpendicular in the water to work properly. I make a mental note to do that next time.

We edge in gently and manage not to damage the hull. There are rings on the pontoons that we attach temporary lines to.

The enormous gates at the far end of the lock eventually open and we motor forward. We have reached the Baltic Sea!

We enter the Baltic Sea!

“There’s quite a nice marina on the other side of the Kieler Förder”, says Volkmar. “You could tie up there the night and I can get the ferry back home again. There are a few things I need to do there. Then we can meet again in the morning for a bike ride. There are some nice routes on that side.”

“I’d really like to get my bike fixed before we get to Denmark”, says the First Mate over breakfast the next morning. “We can ask Volkmar if he knows any bike shops nearby.”

The mudguard had come off her front wheel some time ago. I had tried to fix it, but we needed a small part and we didn’t have anything on the boat that would do the trick. In addition, both of our bikes have developed annoying clacking sounds from the pedals which I suspect are loose crank bearings.

“Yes, there is a bike shop just up the road from the marina”, says Volkmar. “Five minutes’ from here. I’ll take you.”

Sure enough, the bike mechanic says he can fix it. He makes the small part and ten minutes later, the mudguard is firmly attached. Out comes the special tool for tightening pedal cranks, and that problem is also soon dealt with. The bikes are as good as new. We are glad, as the little folding bikes have proved invaluable, giving us much-needed mobility away from the boat.

Getting the bikes fixed.

Volkmar suggests lunch at a restaurant further up the coast from our marina, so we cycle along the coastal cycleway, though leafy forests and sandy beaches, until we get to Laboe.

“The pizzas are great here”, says Volkmar. “And there’s a nice place just a bit further on that we can have kaffee und kuchen afterwards. It’s one of my favourites.”

Tucking into our pizzas.

From there, we continue northwards. We pass a U-boat display – it looks interesting, but the queue to enter is too long.


On the way back, we hear some lilting violin music.

“Look there”, says the First Mate. “There’s an artist trying to attract people to buy her paintings. That’s novel.”


In the evening, we sit on deck and watch the sun go down over the Kielder Förde.

“Well, we have finally made it to the Baltic”, I say. “It took a while, but we did it.”

“Yes”, says the First Mate. “It feels like the start of another chapter, doesn’t it? We have a whole new set of adventures awaiting us.”

Sunset over Kielder Förde.

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