Break On Through To The Other Side, Ep. 187

Neither of us could handle another 5am start. It was nice to know the sun had that kind of endurance this time of year, but after the big push in the last few days to get around the Netherlands and Germany barrier islands (area known as the German Bight), Karen and I needed some R&R time. Cuxhaven, at the doorstep of the Elbe River, is at the crossroads of history. Just a few steps away from our marina stood the ornate arrival hall for the Hamburg America Line which, until it ceased operations in 1969, was the major departure point for German and other European emigrants to the U.S. During World War I, the German Navy operated airships out of a nearby hangar. Today, like many coastal cities, a majority of the economy has pivoted to tourism. However, just south of the historic cruise ship terminal is a state of the art offshore wind farm assembly plant run by Siemens Gamesa. These wind turbine components are so massive, much more so than the land-based wind farms, that manufacturers strategically locate their plants at ports like Cuxhaven where they can immediately load the components onto custom built ships for transport to the offshore sites. It also frees them from any over-the-road size constraints. We got a chance to see the multi-story high nacelles (the central hub of the turbine where the gears and generator are located) being loaded onto a ship at Cuxhaven. Hats off to the men and women in this industry, doing their own pivot like other neighboring European countries, as they shift focus from oil and gas production to clean energy production.

A nacelle being prepared for transport (Photo Credit: Siemens Gamesa)
Custom-built ship for transporting nacelles. Cuxhaven

Thirteen miles further up the Elbe River, carefully out of the way of all this commercial traffic, we found ourselves at Brunsbuttel, the western terminus of the Kiel Canal. The Kiel, or to some Germans the Kieler or simply the Northeast Canal, is a 60 mile long short cut between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, saving ships 250 miles of steaming around the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. For our little diesel engine, that would translate into at least 3-4 full 12 hour days of extra time. It was a no-brainer option to take the Kiel Canal and had been a part of our plan all summer to expedite our time in the Baltic Sea. 

Kiel Canal heads northeast from the entrance on the Elbe

But once again we were in front of an unfamiliar and minimally informative lock operation. While we waited, I downloaded the riveting ‘Guidance for Operators of Recreation Craft’ booklet from the canal authority’s website which was a step in the right direction but still left many questions unanswered. We were about to attempt radio contact with the lock operator when we noticed another sailboat in the waiting area suddenly take off at full throttle towards the lock entrance. We followed suit and soon were able to identify a flashing white light amongst the busy background of cranes and towers. A more prominent green light would have been my choice if I ran this operation. A tanker was already secured in the lock. I hadn’t had time to prepare all the lines and fenders as we approached the lock wall, feeling a bit like an ill-prepared interview candidate spilling my portfolio of work on the way into the receptionist. This lock was indeed a bit different. A set of water-logged floating wooden planks had been secured to our side of the lock, probably meant to make it easier for pleasure boaters to avoid sudden contact with the hard sides of the lock. But the planks were only inches above the water, making any normal boat fenders useless as they rolled up on top of the floats. It did at least offer a place where you could hop off the boat and fend off. 

The heavily industrialized Brunsbuttel entrance to the Kiel Canal. There’s a flashing white light there somewhere.
Holding firm inside the Brunsbuttel lock

Once again, we were barely secured in place and the lock doors closed behind us when the doors opened up ahead. The tanker captain had already insisted that we exit first as soon as the doors opened, which I think was more of a ‘don’t slow my delivery down’ than an act of politeness. It was all good; the less time spent in an enclosed tank, the better.

Memories of our trip through the Amsterdam canal system returned, as beautiful bleach-white swans dawdled along the banks looking for morning snacks. Our plan was to break up the canal transit into two days,  going halfway to the well-regarded town of Rendsburg for the night. Up ahead, several cargo ships in both directions were pulling over to the side of the canal and tying lines to large pilings. We had noticed a light pattern flashing on a control tower just previously, but our trusty canal booklet was no help decoding the lights. The VHF channel we were required to monitor was all in German and therefore no help either. If the big ships were stopping, were we supposed to stop as well? Was there an accident or congestion up ahead? We started to pull over and slow down, yet other sailboats near us kept up their speed and acted like it was no big deal. The lights kept flashing – red, white and red. I was eventually able to reach someone on the VHF, who told me we only needed to stop if all three lights were red. Can I make the one paragraph edit in your online booklet, free of charge?! Some pleasure boaters get in trouble for appearing to ignore the local laws, but sometimes these laws are focussed too much on the commercial audience and don’t bother to inform the ‘little people’ out there. One of my favorite books to read to our children was Dr. Seuss’ ‘If I Ran The Zoo’, a fanciful tale of how the main character would change the zoo around to make it more interesting. The story has become a frequent metaphor in adulthood, as I imagine how to change the world around me, for the better. Organizing these lock operations would be good place to start!

The obtuse red-white-red light pattern along the Kiel Canal

A steady stream of big ships coming towards us or approaching from the stern kept us on our toes in the narrow canal. When two ships would meet at the same time next to us, it would force us to move over to just within a car’s length from the starboard shore, making us trust the engineers and laborers who last widened this critical waterway in 1914.

Some of our boating kin criticize the Kiel Canal for its length and monotony, with hours and hours of mechanical propulsion and little else. I must confess to a moment when I opened my phone to see if there was anything more interesting going on in the world. I was on watch and this moment coincided with a gradual, inadvertent turn towards the rocky bank just off our bow. The hypnotic affect of a boat’s engine, interlaced with the internet’s finest news sources, can be quite a cocktail of inattentiveness. It was time to open my eyes to the present. Beautiful, graceful swans along the shore, massive cross sections of ships bearing down on us, and how about a suspended car ferry – take that you wayward brain cells!

Graceful swans along a peaceful section of the Kiel Canal
Cross sections of a ship’s hull being transported by barge, Kiel Canal
A suspended car ferry under the Rendsburg Railroad Bridge – only one in the world, supposedly.

Soon enough we were approaching the exit ramp for Rendsburg, a skinny river entrance to our halfway point on the canal. Our friend Pedro planned to join us here by train from his home in Frankfurt, travel that would be much easier than his last visit to Sea Rose when he flew to Greece, took an hour trip on a taxi, and boarded the dinghy on a deserted beach for the ride out to our anchorage! But Rendsburg was not without its own drama. Just as we were surveying the marina’s ‘box’ moorings to find one that would work for us, dark clouds appeared from behind tall trees. What quickly followed was that characteristic drop in temperature and shift of the wind that caused all boats to adjust in their berths. We rushed to pick the first available mooring and before we could get all of the dock lines run to the many pilings and cleats, rain started splattering on the  just-moments-ago flat water. The wind rapidly increased to the point that it was whistling through the rigging, and halyards started slapping incessantly on the masts of neighboring boats. Hail made a brief appearance and the lanky limbs of trees ashore started twisting and swaying at precarious angles. All summer, we had been pinching ourselves that we had not had a true storm yet. Compared to the Mediterranean, and Croatia in particular, where high winds and thunderstorms paid a visit all too frequently, this summer was windy but blessedly devoid of high-impact storm systems. Until now. But as a summer storm, this Rendsburg affair was over as quick as it had started, freeing us up to slap on some walking shoes and explore the town, partly out of necessity (an empty fridge) and partly out of curiosity.

Rendsburg seemed to carry more of a traditional German thread in its architecture and style, much more so than the Germany we had encountered in the barrier islands. The high railroad bridge we had passed underneath earlier, with the suspended car ferry, led to an expansive steel girded railroad loop circling the entire downtown area in order to bring the tracks down to street level, confirming that there are quite a few smart engineers in this country. At the street level we observed numerous biking paths the width of a normal street. When you consider how old the typical European village is versus one in the United States, and how free space is so hard to come by, it is doubly impressive that a town like Rendsburg makes the quantity and quality of their bike paths a priority. It is all well and good to say you want to stay healthy until you die, but when a bike ride is the easiest way for an 80 year old to load up on fresh tomatoes at their local farmer’s market, the goal is a cake walk. 

Typical residential street in Rendsburg, with the elevated railroad loop in the background
Farm-fresh meat and produce, a welcome provisioning stop, Rendsburg

With Pedro onboard, we had a 50% increase in our able-bodied crew and were ready to tackle the second half of the Kiel Canal. Like a coach who has been holding out on you during your workout, Rendsburg was actually closer to the finish than it was to the start, and before we knew it, the exit lock was off our bow. We were aware that a toll was due on this end of the canal, but it might surprise you that how and where you pay this toll were not made clear. Some said you could pay inside the lock itself, others said you needed to stop at a dock and pay at a kiosk, or possibly walk up the road to the canal offices. I was certainly hoping it wasn’t going to be the later. We found a conspicuously looking long metal dock, the kind that would be built by a government authority flush with the cash of taxing passing boats. And like a good monopoly, they set the rules and others must abide, which in this case was the acceptance of only cash. Adding to the monopolistic backdrop, a Germantic-accented English speaker was insisting that we hurry up as he couldn’t keep the lock open much longer. Where the voice was coming from, I never knew, as we high-tailed it to the lock chamber while the massive gate was rolling shut. Here, the lock was so wide, at 42 meters, that a typical pair of swinging gates was not feasible. Instead, a very beefy single wide metal gate slid across the entrance to the lock and sealed us in tight, and just like that our Kiel Canal transit came to an end. 

Rushing through the payment of our canal toll before the gate closed, Kiel
Pedro giving a hand as we enter the Kiel lock
Massive sliding steel gate closing behind us, Kiel

Up ahead, as the massive gate on the other end opened up, we were dropped into the Kiel Fjord, but more significantly, the elusive waters of the Baltic Sea. For three summers, Karen and I had pursued the Baltic, getting turned away by pandemics, wars, and sheer inaccessibility. Our boating kin in the Mediterranean had pretend-shivered as we shared our plans to join the Baltic Rally, an event that was postponed twice and eventually cancelled. But we persisted on our own; hitching one’s ambitions to another person’s wagon has its downfalls. We would go it alone on our pace, accepting the risks and owning the consequences. 

The town of Kiel, at this eastern terminus of the canal, was just wrapping up its annual Kiel Week, purported to be the world’s largest sailing event. Cruise ships, and tall ships, war ships (including one from the US Navy) and racing machines all shared the waters as we started unfurling the sails. We were all a little restless from canal cruising and needed to stretch Sea Rose’s legs, reveling in the thunk-thunk of the jib sheet tensioning under load and the lightness of the helm as we sliced upwind. Inhabitants of the Baltic, watch out! Here come the Americans!

Be sure to also checkout the video content on our LifeFourPointZero YouTube channel. We regularly post updates on our sailing adventures, as well as how to videos on boat repair, sailing techniques, and more!

6 Replies to “Break On Through To The Other Side, Ep. 187”

  1. Great Reading. Keep it up. Much different that the Caribbean. Merry Christmas – in Germany??. Bob Masterson

    1. Thanks very much Bob! Yes, indeed, it is very different than the Caribbean! And it will be for awhile, as next summer we continue to head further north, up the coast of Norway. Eventually we will make it across for a revisit of the Caribbean and all the great memories we had with you two there. Take care!

  2. This was great reading Tom. I enjoyed the tour of the geography points you visited from Holland to Germany (Cuxhaven) and especially the joyride thru the Kiel Canal to the Baltic Sea. I knew so little about this area. I take it that navigating the Kiel lock system was a little less user friendly than the Erie Canal lock system:) I was envisioning it all! Loved reading it!

    1. Yes, the Erie Canal was a little more straightforward…perhaps a language/cultural thing! Still, a very fascinating area of the world. Thanks for the feedback!

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