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A journey down the Rhine and Danube

By webmaster last modified Aug 19, 2002 12:50 AM

Published: 2002-08-19 00:50:46
Countries: Germany , Netherlands , Romania , Bulgaria

One lock and less than twenty kilometers saw us into Six Haven Marina, right across from Amsterdam's main train station. Lirio with Barbara and Reiner Schwebel reported aboard ready for a voyage that would take us from the North Sea to the Black Sea, a 3,417 kilometer trek across the heartland of Europe. But first we had to remove the 60 foot mast, package it safely, and secure it on deck, a first time experience for me. The procedure had me a lot more stressed than handling the gales of the North Atlantic. If anything should happen to the mast, the voyage is over. Once the mast is down, if anything happens to the motor the party is truly over.

The Nordzee Canal, which runs past Amsterdam, took us into the Ijsselmeer, known long ago as the Zuider Zee before massive dams secured the inland waters from the ravages of North Sea gales. That night New Chance moored among more than fifty typical Dutch working sailboats, all refurbished and converted into liveaboards, some over 120 feet in length. The colorful town, a spectacular sunset, and close to one hundred masts made Enkhausen one of our most memorable stops.

Our plan was to motor 600 kilometers up the Rhine, branch off on the Main River for another 600 kilometers which would take us to the 200 Km Main-Donau Canal. On it we would rise to pass over the continental divide at 1200 feet above sea level, and then drop back down to the Danube for the 2450 kilometer run to the Black Sea. With the mast now firmly fixed to the deck, our progress depended 100% + on Bertha's 40 hp.

Winston Churchill's "Triumph and Tragedy" led us up the historic Rhine, a natural barrier with many lingering scars of the war 50 years past. We overnighted at Xanten where the British XII crossed. The Ninth US Army fought at Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Cologne. The First crossed at Bonn, Remagen and Koblenz. The Third Army hit Mainz and crossed there. Air raids and the land battles totally destroyed most cities on the Rhine but most all have been rebuilt with the same bricks and to the same design as the original. Truly, I needed to see the "before" pictures to appreciate the level of total destruction Germany suffered and to fully admire the rebuilding process and the resilience of the German people.

With the Rhine running 3 to 4 knots against us, we quickly learned how to beat the river. Water flows fastest on the outside of the bends, which because of the fast flow, is by nature deeper than the inside. To beat the current, we motored just inside of the buoys, one eye on the depth indicator the other on fast moving barges. When the Rhine zigged we had to cross to the opposite bank without getting run down by barges or cruise ships, those going up-river struggling against the current while those headed north zipping by at 30km per hour. Two thousand ton barges with every conceivable commodity, from coal to new cars, passed as if on parade.

One of the ladies kept track of elapsed time between kilometer markers and another watched the depth. A conversion chart gave us our speed. For instance, 10 minutes per kilometer yields 6 km/hour, 20 minutes is 3 km/hr. We averaged 13 to 16 minutes per kilometer though often, by hugging the shore, we got it down to 9 minutes. But then, the ever present bottom awaited. By the time we passed Cologne we had hit a half dozen times. Guided by our pilot book of German rivers and canals the ladies helped select overnight stops.

The ship's log follows our journey:

Monday June 23


Tuesday June 24

  1. OFF

And so our days passed. In Duisburg we filled up at a fuel barge and were allowed to overnight. Max picked us up, gave us a tour of the town and took us home where his wonderful family treated us to a host of German delicacies and Lirio to a bubble bath. Past Dusseldorf and Hitdorf. New Chance, now a 60 foot vessel with the mast overhangs, barely squeezed into the marina just south of Cologne for a couple days of R & R. At St. Goar, one of our most picturesque stops, we entered the picture-book Rhine. On both banks high craggy hills tower over the river. Castles appeared around every bend, perched on hill tops high above the river. The river picked up speed to at least 10 Km/hour. We pushed Bertha to her limit. Nearing Rudesheim, fighting a hellish current, we followed a deep water channel inside of the buoys when suddenly we hit rocks. Friendly Vasserpolizei pulled us off and soon we were touring the most infamous Beer Halls along the Rhine.

At Mainz, a hard left and one lock took us into the Main and calm waters. Reiner took over the Lock Meister-New Chance interface, a critical task whenever we entered each of the next 68 locks. The skip sprung for a "real" bed on July 4, our 5th wedding anniversary, in Frankfurt. In Schweinfurt, tied up along the town park, we shooed the ladies off the boat while Reiner and I tended to a leaky fuel tank. After Nurenburg we entered the Main-Donau Kanal, a waterway envisioned by Charlemagne that would connect the Danube with the Main and Rhine Rivers. He began construction in 793 and the original works still stand near Weissenburg for all to see. After a short delay, the Canal was completed but four years ago, in 1993. Authorities confirmed we were one of the first pleasure boats to cross from the North to the Black Sea.

The trick to locking without damaging the mast came quickly. Normally we were ordered to follow a large self-propelled barge into the lock. We quickly learned to head for bollards on the side opposite from the one taken by the barge for, in that way, when the barge started up, the prop wash wouldn't wash us away. With 10 feet of mast hanging off both ends of the boat, line tension had to be kept tight. As the lock filled, we had to change bow and stern lines to ever higher bollards. Reiner and Barbara worked the bow lines while I handled the stern. If we missed one, the in-rushing water would swing the boat violently and push the mast into the wall. Once the lock filled, we had to motor out at full speed or we'd get yelled at by the lockmeister, often budding Hitlers. In our first four days on the Main our log ran 6, 6, 7, 8 locks per day, many locks a 90 foot rise.

Tourists packed the rolling countryside. As rain and more rain pelted us, we sorrowed for all of these poor tourists who, sandwiched together in large German cities, were now in knee deep mud, packed into trailer parks in conditions even more crowded than at home. Chilly winds kept all of us bundled. River banks overflowed. While tied up in Lynz, Austria, police closed the waterway to all traffic for three days as high fast water made navigation dangerous. We kept moving though, by train to Prague, still worn out from their communist experience, and then on to Salzburg; a tourist Trappe. Linz became by far our favorite town; picturesque, friendly, laid-back, just the right size, with good public transport and never ending activity. Tied up 20 kilometers north of Vienna, we were adopted by the Schmidts who took us on a tour of sights seldom touched by the tourist; the Cafe Central, a favorite with Karl Marx and Hitler, Cafe Landtman, where local Parliamentarians and VIP's hang out, and Cafe Dremel, dug deep underground hundreds of years ago.

The attitude of people relative to their neighbors down river amused me. People we met in Germany and Austria told us in no uncertain terms to be extremely careful, for civilization, as we know it, ends at the Austrian border. We did skip Slovakia. Bratislava is a prime example of the worst Russian post war architecture and industrial construction. Unpainted time-worn high rises are bathed continuously by dense clouds of industrial fumes.

We entered Hungary at Estergon, eyes open, senses wary, only to find charming people, a fabulous historic town where most of the Kings of Hungary were crowned and are buried. Don't miss the crypt in the cathedral. Budapest was as lively as Miami with well presented and cared for historical museums and monuments that range back to Roman times though the Mongols in 1241, the Turks in the 16th century, and the Russians in February 1945 worked diligently to level both Pest and Buda.

Reiner and Barbara flew off, and with Neill and Gretchen Martin aboard, Lirio and I headed down river from Budapest, but not before being warned to be very careful in Slovakia and Yugoslavia. They are barbarians. It's dangerous. Be armed and ready to repel boarders. Get rid of the big US flag. Just in case, we loaded the Mossberg with 8 rounds of #2 shot before we entered the Danube and headed down river, the star spangled banner yet flying. A German couple aboard Doria, a 36 foot steel sailboat, had joined us for mutual protection/aide for the trip down river. Together, relying upon our river guides, we'd select our stops for the night, since night-navigation would be even more hazardous than during daylight hours.

Our carefree days of no paperwork ended abruptly. At Batina, Yugoslavia, the "authority" who handled our paperwork was straight out of the Bolchevik Keystone Cops. Each motion, such as to rubber stamp a document, took 5 minutes... he'd study document.. open drawer.. search for stamp.. find stamp.. close drawer.. put stamp on desk.. pick up stamp.. hit stamp hard on ink pad.. study document some more.. hesitate.. think some more.. take stamp in hand.. lift stamp.. study document again.. slam stamp on document.. study results.. open drawer.. replace stamp.. close drawer.. study results.. and each document had to be stamped a half dozen times with a variety of seals. Since most of the afternoon had passed before we received clearance to proceed, we ran out of light which forced us to enter a large barge staging area down river and tie up to a large coal barge for the night. Lucky for us, it didn't go anywhere.

The fast flowing Danube delivered us in a few hours into Yugoslavia where a half dozen members of the Klub Danubius Novi Sad rowing club ran to take our lines and make us fast to a small boat pontoon. These wonderful friendly people quickly took over. We had to see the town, join them in refreshments, stay longer. The town, as we found in most of Yugoslavia, sported little traffic, a slow pace, and much lower prices than we'd found up-river.

The following day, August 15, 1997, was the saddest and most emotional of our entire voyage. We passed thirty or more kilometers which six months earlier had been closed to travel because of the Balkan war. All private homes were destroyed. Not one building in Vukovar remained untouched by the war. Large gaping holes blanketed all the high rise buildings. Huge water towers were broken in half. Further down river, entire neighborhoods, with dozens of upper-class homes, lay in ruins. We passed in total silence. We saw no sign of life but witnessed a vivid reminder of the results of 400 years of Ottoman rule, a period when the Muslim faith grew the roots that maintain the Balkans in turmoil today.

In Yugoslavia we were warned about their neighbors downstream. Be careful with the Romanians and Bulgarians, we were told, for they are really bad. Again, stop after stop yielded nothing but positive experiences.

Down river both banks of the Danube are barren. The eastern bank, marshes, and wet forests run for miles. The western bank sports high clay hills broken by rain created ravines. As we approached a large ravine where a small village lay suspended from its cliffs I noticed a large white modern stretch limo, as about out of place here as our two ocean-going sailboats. I headed closer, broke out the glasses, and found the wedding party. At that moment a huge explosion rattles the rigging. Smoke rises as I get the distinct feeling that we're being invited to the wedding. Why not?? We came up with a dozen reasons to continue on our way, with yet another anecdote for the log. Soon we approached Belgrade. The commercial harbor looked liked our best bet but as soon as we tied up there the police chased us out... ONLY commercial shipping we were led to understand. And we couldn't finish our beer. We must leave... NOW. We steamed up river to the junction of the Danube with the Saba and as we passed a large park on the waterfront dozens of people, upon seeing the USA flag, stood up, came running to the shore waving and throwing kisses. Now, what is that?? So much for bad press.

With all the bad-press handed us about the Romanians, we had stayed in Yugoslavia (Romania was on our left) all the way down. At Irongate we locked through on the Yugoslavian side and we decided to approach the Prohovo Locks on the same western side. Up river, in Germany and Austria, the locks were pristine, their signal lights worked impeccably, the control towers all in top shape. As we waited, tied to the bank at Prohovo, looking for any sign of life in the dilapidated structure before us, a man at the end of a quay began to wave. When we motored over he indicated, in sign language, that the locks on the Yugoslavian side were non-operational and that we should head for the Romanian side. All went smoothly as we negotiated the last major locks on the Danube, our Yugoslavian courtesy flag still flying high.

To clear into Bulgaria we tied up alongside the 60 foot German catamaran "Echo" who in turn was tied alongside the 5,000 horsepower tug Ukranian tug Hankardam. Doria latched on to us. After port formalities, which were not that painful, we were all invited aboard the Tug for wine, cheese and an assortment of other Ukranian goodies whose origins I failed to detect. A jolly time was had by all even though 95% of the people present couldn't communicate orally.

With so much written about the magnificence of the flora and fauna in the Danube Delta, I had a mind set to go until dozens of people along the Danube, whenever we complained of the local mosquitoes, to a person had said… wait until you get to the Delta… there, they are as big as bats. So we scratched the Delta tour. Besides, the Black Sea Canal would save us 300 miles and a bunch of days. Built by slave labor in the 50's and 60's, it holds the bones of more than 10,000 political prisoners. Motoring past the 50 kilometers of this hand-made canal I mourned for the tens of thousands of men who placed each of the millions of stones facing the embankment, and for those who dug in the freezing muck. At the Black Sea port of Constanta, with help from a friendly Romanian tugboat captain and a 100 ton gantry crane, New Chance once again became a sailing vessel. Gretch and Neill Martin signed off and Lirio and I sailed into the town of Constanta, ten miles away, to fine-tune the rigging and convert New Chance again into an ocean sailing vessel.

Read the full text of this voyage plus other sailing adventures of Bill Butler's at