‘We travelled slowly up the mighty waterway’

Carruthers and Davies enter the Kiel Canal through the massive gates of the Holtenau Lock in the early hours of October 2, and spend the next two days being tugged across the Holstein plain.

It’s a distance of 98 kilometres, or 61 miles in old money, from Holtenau to the western end of the canal at Brunsbüttelkoog on the mouth of the Elbe. Today, the canal is 160 metres wide and 11 metres deep, though it’s been enlarged twice since it opened in 1895 after eight years of construction. When it opened, it was known as the Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal, not for the then-Emperor but for his grandfather. Throughout Riddle of the Sands Childers is careful to associate this mighty engineering endeavour with the growing power and capacity of the German Empire.

Map of the Kiel Canal.png
Map of the Kiel Canal” by Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) – own work, using
OpenStreetMap data for the background
topographical background from Lencer
this map by NNW for the orientation map. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The opening in 1895 was, oddly enough, filmed by Birt Acres, a British pioneer of moving images who can lay claim to being the world’s first newsreel reporter. The 18-second film opens with a shot of the canal showing a winged statue on the far side from the camera, while three men row ashore and a boy looks at the camera. I have to describe it to you because the BFI and the Science Museum (which has the original negative) don’t seem to have put it online.

KielCanalView” by The original uploader was Leonard G. at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In Britain, we’re used to hearing stories of German engineering prowess and infrastructural might. So it is with some schadenfreude that one reads of problems with maintaining and improving the Canal for the 21st century. The locks, it seems, are falling apart under the weight of traffic, and after decades of neglect. The opening-up of eastern Europe following the collapse of the eastern bloc communist order has led to a spike in traffic through the canal, and it is struggling to cope. The tankers and freighters which use the canal have become so massive, and their schedules so tightly managed, that there isn’t time for the propellers of these ships to be switched off as they go through the locks, and the resultant pressures are tearing the machinery to pieces. Combine that with juicy internal German politics – as Berlin blames our old friend Schleswig-Holstein for not taking its regional governance seriously, and Schleswig-Holstein blames Berlin for not coming up with the cash – and you have a recipe for a very modern European tale of structural neglect.

Work has now begun, but it will take more than a decade, and there may even be times when it is necessary to close the canal. It doesn’t help, either, when ships crash into the creaking old locks, as this video shows. Davies would have been furious.

Incidentally, if big ships are your thing, there’s a whole Youtube channel devoted to them and the Kiel Canal. It’s mesmerising stuff, but could use a better soundtrack. Perhaps something by Einstürzende Neubaten. This would seem to fit the bill.


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