Europe’s “Panama Canal”
By “Awake!” correspondent in West Germany
IF SOMEONE asked you to name the main canals of the world, which ones would come to your mind? Likely you would name the Panama Canal, and, yes, the Suez too. If you lived in northern Europe, however, your reply would include the “Nord-Ostsee-Kanal,” known also as the Kiel Canal.
Have you ever heard of this waterway? Its importance is great. The Nord-Ostsee-Kanal cuts through the Cimbrian Peninsula, a strip of land some 280 miles (450 kilometers) long. From the maritime city of Hamburg, Germany, this isthmus stretches northward to Cape Skagen at the northernmost tip of Denmark. It separates the North Sea from the Baltic Sea.
The Nord-Ostsee-Kanal cuts across this land mass from Brunsbüttel on the Elbe River northeastward to Kiel-Holtenau on the shore of Kieler Förde, which leads to the Baltic. Were it not for this canal, passage from one sea to the other would require ships to make a long detour around Cape Skagen, a distance of about 250 nautical miles (460 kilometers).
We might call this man-made waterway the “Panama Canal” of Europe. But it gets even more use than that better-known canal. Up to 85,000 ships use the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal each year. That is nearly four times as many as pass through the Suez Canal, and five times as many as use the Panama Canal in a year. An official of the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal administration calculated that if the yearly total of vessels using it were placed end to end with the necessary space between them, the result would be a convoy 27,400 miles (44,000 kilometers) long, a little more than once around the earth at the equator. And this figure does not include sportscraft that use this waterway.
Need for the Canal
The Nord-Ostsee-Kanal can now look back at eighty years of service. It was through the influence of Germany’s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck that the canal project got under way. Bismarck viewed it as a means of diplomacy. Realizing that the German navy needed an efficient waterway for fleet movement between the North and Baltic Seas, Bismarck won the backing of Kaiser Wilhelm II for building the canal.
The project resembled a military operation. At times as many as 8,900 persons worked on it. Construction of the canal with its locks, bridges and harbor facilities required the laborers to move some 107 million cubic yards (82 million cubic meters) of dirt. The workers kept at it from 1888 to 1895. The “Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal,” as it was then called, cost 156 million marks. Official opening took place on June 21, 1895, amidst elaborate festivities.
Later it was necessary to expand and modernize the canal. Today it is 61 miles (98 kilometers) long and 36 feet (11 meters in depth. It is 531 feet (162 meters) wide at water level and narrows to 295 feet (90 meters) at the bottom.
To compensate for the different water levels of the North and the Baltic Seas, the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal has double locks at both ends. It is possible to accommodate ships up to 1,020 feet (310 meters) long. Two control centers operate signal lights and transmit radio communications that aid toward safe and quick passage.
Scenic View en Route
Getting from one end of the canal to the other takes from seven to nine hours, depending upon the type of ship. The journey permits observers to get a glimpse of the scenic countryside of the Federal Republic of Germany’s northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. I recently made this trip on a freighter. Let me describe some of the things seen on the voyage.
During the brief first stage of our journey a specially trained pilot directs the vessel around mines that have been in the North Sea since World War II. Similar mines are still located at the other end of the canal in the Baltic Sea. Ships are not permitted to navigate on courses of their own choice in these areas, but must follow specified routes.
Leaving the North Sea, we travel a short distance up the Elbe River to the port of Brunsbüttel. A green light tells us that we can enter the lock. Powerful hands of waiting dockers grab heavy ropes and secure the ship to the lock bollards.
Now comes a brief waiting period while the captain cares for formalities and the ship takes on water and provisions. Sailors who have been long at sea seize the opportunity to call home or write to loved ones. Some seamen from Europe meet their wives and children here and take them along for the canal trip.
Finally, it is time to proceed. Directed by a pilot, our ship eases its way into the canal. A flat, green marsh dotted with farms stretches out before us. For the first twelve miles (20 kilometers) the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal cuts through deposits cast up by the sea. In some places the land lies ten feet (3 meters) below the canal water level. Because of this, persons walking or driving through the countryside see the strange illusion of a ship gliding over meadows and fields.
Toward the middle of the canal, we note that its banks become higher and are covered with bushes and trees. Hedges planted on small earth mounds surround fields and meadows, serving for protection against ever-present winds. Lilacs among some of these hedges add beauty and sweet fragrance to the atmosphere. The eastern section, however, is of loam soil, which makes for fruitful farmland. In all, the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal cuts through an agricultural belt that exceeds in its overall economic importance any other state of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The last few miles of our canal trip are indeed scenic. Shortly before arriving at the locks we see large estates with manors nestled in parklike surroundings. This is reminiscent of a bygone age when knights and nobles were in possession of this area. Soon, however, brick-paved banks, silos, cranes, oil tanks and bridges tell us that we have reached Kiel-Holtenau, the end of our canal journey.
Hundreds of sailboats greet our eyes, for Kiel is known as the mecca for sailboat enthusiasts. Viewing white sails intermingled with colorful head-wind sails, called spinnakers, serves as a pleasant ending to our trip on Europe’s famous “Panama Canal.”
[Map on page 10]
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