The Kiel 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.
You can’t travel across Germany and not be aware of the nation’s sophisticated network of navigable waterways. Top of the list is the Kiel Canal, Europe’s Panama, a largely man-made 98km waterway which slices the head of Denmark from the body of Europe, and saves Baltic shipping a 460km detour in so doing. And while most of the inland shipping in Germany is by barge, the Kiel can accommodate serious boats, although the latest generations of container ships, cruise ships and oil tankers are simply too big to squeeze under the bridges.
Originally called the Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal, and referred to in Germany as the Nord-Ostsee Kanal, the Kiel 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.
These days it’s an international waterway used by 90-130 ships per day, and 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 strangest thing of all about the Kiel is the sight of big ships moving serenely across land
Authorities are stern about leisure use – and there’s decidedly no sailing. Big ships have very poor ability to do emergency stops, and travelling through the canal at limited speed they have a limited ability to steer, so it wouldn’t do to get in their way. And yet there are leisure users, and every year teams of oarsmen set out for what is called the toughest rowing race in the world, a 12.7 section starting at Rendsburg, which attracts top international crews.
Perhaps the strangest thing of all about the Kiel Canal is the sight of big ships moving serenely across land. The topography is pretty flat around the Kiel, and for road users the water itself is largely invisible until you’re actually on a bridge travelling across it. Some of the bridges are curiosities in themselves, both for their height and their engineering. The iron railway bridge at Rendsburg, for example, is the longest in the world, and trains have to ascend in a series of loops at the Rendsburg end to get high enough to cross.
All in all, it’s a clever, historic piece of commercially successful engineering, and good sample of Germany’s willingness to invest. In Britain we could have had a similar operation to save the detour around Scotland, but pennies were pinched and the Caledonian Canal wasn’t built big enough, so it swiftly became obsolete for all but leisure users.