Kiel Canal Experience (Aug. 26, 2018)

Sunday, 26 August 2018 - First Leg of Kiel Canal

We awoke with plans to cross the Kiel Canal, but it was still unclear whether we would cross all the way over in one day into the fierce Elbe River at Brunsbüttel or find a safe mooring within the 98-kilometer canal that connects The Baltic Sea to The North Sea.

While I was taking care of the Seadogs and their morning routine, Maik was studying the weather reports and building our strategy. The wind was howling in Laboe Hafen, and there was nasty weather forecasted for the next few days. 

I have often accused Maik of over-planning. I always say that he is the “planner” and I’m the “doer.”  I am the definition of impatience and don’t generally take the time to plan. I don’t preheat the oven before cooking … I just turn it on and throw in the food. I don’t create an outline before writing an article … I just start writing. I don’t warm up for a tennis match … I just start swinging.

On days like today, I’m so happy that Maik is here to provide this balance for me. If it’s not safe to go to sea, he is not going to take the chance. Period. So, I give him all the time he needs to plan and prepare, and I just make sure that when he is ready to go, I’m ready, too!

When considering passage through the Kiel Canal, you must consider the ever-changing tides on the other side that make the North Sea unique … and dangerous. Considering the tides of the North Sea is as important as deciphering the wind and weather.

The Elbe River dumps into The North Sea, but experienced sailors say you will feel like you are offshore before you ever make the transition into The North Sea. We have tremendous respect for its powerful tides.

There is a legend among North Sea sailors about the power of its tides. It goes something like this….

There is a monster living beneath The North Sea and it is forcefully breathing in an out. Each breath takes six hours. Sometimes the monster has a hiccup, and this is called a spring tide. There was a harbor city in medieval times called Rungholt, that in 1634 became the Atlantis of the North Sea….it was totally sucked away and now sits at the sea’s bottom thanks to these powerful and unforgiving tides. The legend says that because the people of the city were too sinful and arrogant, the monster decided to suck it right off the face of the earth. One myth says you can still hear the church bells ringing below when sailing over the lost city on a calm night.

The ideal situation for us is to enter the Elbe River with southeasterly winds and leaving tides (in between high water and low water). It looks like we will have perfect conditions on Wednesday.

Because of the current low tides and an incoming storm front, Maik made the decision that we would go about a third of the way through the canal today to Rendsburg and find a spot to moor Seefalke in a safe harbor to wait out the storms.

The Kiel Canal is often called “The Panama Canal of Europe.” However, it’s much busier. In fact, it’s the busiest artificial waterway in the world with 90 to 130 ships transiting it each day. This doesn’t even include leisure crafts like Seefalke.

The following is from the “Wunderbar” webpage:

The Kiel Canal took 9,000 workers eight years to dig, and after its opening in 1895 it had to be widened again in order to accommodate Germany’s new generation of battleships. The Kiel Canal is a 98km waterway which slices the head of Denmark from the body of Europe, and saves Baltic shipping a 460km detour in so doing.

Originally called the Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal, and referred to in Germany as the Nord-Ostsee Kanal, it was partly built for military purposes. During the last years of the 19th century the newly formed nation was flexing its muscles, commercially as well as militarily, and it saw the distinct advantage of having a passage, through wholly German territory, between the Baltic and the North Sea.

 It can easily be transited within a day, although particularly big vessels sometimes have to wait in designated sidings before they can proceed. There’s a lock at either end, but there’s not a huge difference between sea-level and canal level; the locks are mainly to defend the canal against the movements of the tides.

The locking procedure at the canal’s entrance is a bit complicated. Maik is creating a video about the x’s and o’s of the process that we will share soon. I wish I had seen the video before actually going through it, but I will share with you my perspective of the experience.

We were approaching the entrance of the canal along with about 10 or more other sailboats and huge ships. There are actually two entrances—one for large ships and one for leisure craft, but the smaller one was closed so we needed to enter with the big ships. Maik was instructing me about the lighted signals.  One red flashing light means the lock is closed and no ships can enter. A white blinking light means smaller crafts can enter. There are other signals, but these are the two that are important for us. We also need verbal approval from the logmaster by radio on Channel 12.

While we were motoring toward the entrance at a slow, relaxed pace on a bright, beautiful morning, it was still a bit stressful for me. The unknown can often cause anxiety. 

Maik told me to position the fenders very low and on both sides.  I got them all set, but he told me they weren’t low enough. Because of the extremely low floating piers, the fenders needed to float and touch the water. So I repositioned them and readied the mooring lines on both sides at the bow and the stern.  We got radio confirmation that we would moor Seefalke at the lock on the port side. So I moved a few fenders over from the starboard side and got ready.

Maik gave me clear instructions. I was to jump off the bow onto the pier and secure the bow line first. This is normal mooring procedure for us.  He would then toss me the stern line, and I would secure it before adjusting the spring lines. I wasn’t prepared for just how low the pier was positioned, and when I saw it during our approach, I was freaking out a bit. I had the port bow line in one hand and holding onto the sea fence with the other. I felt like I was ready.

I am not a petite woman, but I have tiny little baby hands, and sometimes I have trouble handling a long, thick line with one hand. I could just see myself getting completely tangled in the line and crashing hard into the pier … or worse, falling between the ship and the pier.  As I was trying not to tangle the line, pieces of it began to slip from my baby hands, and yes, it was getting completely twisted and unorganized.

We got close enough. I jumped. I struggled to get the tangled, knotted line through the mooring ring, while Maik was calling for me to get it secured so we wouldn’t crash into the boat in front of us.  It’s a simple procedure, but my nervous energy was making it so chaotic. Thankfully, Maik has a wonderful way of providing a sense of calm during my times of chaos. He patiently stepped in to help and instructed me how to get the boat secured safely. 

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It was messy, but we were safely locked in. I waited on the pier for the signal and Maik snapped this cool picture of me. I felt totally like a badass sailor.

We waited about 15 minutes, got the signal, and then untied the lines. I climbed back onboard, and we went through the lock passing the smiling crews of the gigantic container ships who were waving to us. I like to think they were impressed with us and not at all laughing at my clumsiness.

Then we had to moor again at a pier on the other side of the canal so we could pay our 18 Euro passage fee. Wouldn't it seem more efficient to have a guy on the floating pier at the lock to collect our money? At this second mooring, Seefalke suffered a minor injury when her hull scraped against a metal cleat on the pier. It was fortunately just a deep scratch on her steel surface that chipped her bright orange paint and not a gouge or hole. We added this to our list of repairs.

Then we were safely inside the canal and could relax and motor through. You can’t raise sails in the canal unless you also have the motor running. We were against the wind so it didn’t make sense for us to use the sails. You can go no faster than 15 km per hour through the canal. So we cruised along and were amazed at all the huge ships that passed.

The canal is 98 kilometers long, but only about 100 meters wide. This is basically the length of an American football field. This may seem like plenty of room, but it sure seems tight when sharing that space with these massive ships that have dingies that are larger than Seefalke. But these were only the feeder ships and not the huge container ships that are sometimes a half mile long. Maik let me have the helm as he usually does when the conditions are easy.  I’m still getting used to steering with a wheel after mostly using a tiller for the past five years. But it’s getting more comfortable.  

The only major issue I needed to be aware of was the wash and wake that is created when the larger ships pass. We also needed to watch the depth when we got close to the shore to let a big ship pass, but we stayed at a very safe depth of around 11 meters the whole way. Also, there are a few spots where ferries cross so we needed to pay attention to the timing at those intersections.

We were so relaxed we decided to go live on Facebook and were thrilled that many of our followers joined us for the ride.  You can see the video on our Facebook page.

LATER THAT EVENING . . .

We moored in Rendsburg, as planned, and settled into our safe harbor. We unleashed the hounds and let them run and play for a little while and get used to the smells of another new and exciting place. Maik worked on Seefalke's hull injury and also touched up some other spots while he had the paint handy.  I cleaned the saloon and got Seefalke tidy and clean in anticipation of possible special guests that evening. 

Maik had been communicating during the day with some of his sailing friends, and it amazingly worked out that they would be at the exact same marina in the evening.

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Norbert Drücker, Bernd Oltmann, and Basti Krause are three very special sailors with an unbelievable connection to us.

Our ship, Seefalke, has only had three owners in her 44-year life and all three of them were together here tonight. During Norbert’s childhood, his father owned Seefalke and they sailed her for 35 years. He sold her to Bernd in 2009. Bernd is the president of VBS, a sailing club in Bremen (www.verein-bremer-segelfreunde.de), and Seefalke was the crowned jewel of the club for 8 years until Bernd sold her to Maik last year. Basti is a professional sailor and now a member of Norbert’s racing crew. He also spent many years sailing Seefalke with VBS. 

We were up most of the night sharing stories of Seefalke, and it was amazing! We spent some time on Seefalke then moved over to their gorgeous yacht, SY Sunbird Team GER7077.

It was beyond cool to sit with them and hear stories about how much they love Seefalke. She has gotten all of them through rough times, they said, and they always felt safe with her. They reassured me of her seaworthiness and the safety she provides with the deep, center cockpit.

We find it amazing that this special ship has only had three owners. This also speaks to the confidence that these skilled sailors have in her ability to handle harsh blue water conditions. I could have listened to them all night long, but they had to depart at 08:15 in the morning. Unlike us, they are on a strict schedule and had to keep moving … no matter the conditions.