Sailing the Kiel Canal: a few tips for yachtsmen

See page in Dutch here.

The Nord-Ostsee Kanal (NOK, or Kiel Canal) links the German Bight (or to be more precise, the river Elbe) to the Baltic Sea. The NOK channel is over a hundred years old, and has been updated a few times during the past century, in order to accommodate increasingly larger vessels. Originally, the channel ran through the river Eider for some part. In the presently used channel you can find new, large locks (for commercial vessels) side-to-side with the older, smaller locks (for smaller vessels and recreational craft).


A lot of information about the NOK is available on the web, and some has been written by fellow sailing enthousiasts. When making our holiday plans, we studied this information thoroughly (I should tell you, this was actually our first trip sailing abroad). Off course, we always like to be well prepared! But we quickly found out, that the actual situation in the waiting areas, locks and channel was pretty different from the various website information we studied. Some of those webpages turned out to be a few years old, and a lot has been changed at the NOK in the previous years. So therefore a disclosure from my part: the following information relates to the situation as we experienced it in the summer of 2018. It may be different in later years.

Information about the NOK (Kiel Canal)

Length: 100 kilometers approx.

Passage height of bridges: 42 meters.

Number of vessels: about 30.000 / year.

Official website: document in English.

Fuel: available in the marina at Cuxhaven (Elbe estuary), directly after passing the lock in Brunsbuttel, Rendsburg (more details see: places to stay) and Kiel.

How to enter and pass a lock

Before entering a lock, you have to wait in a designated ‘waiting area’  for recreational craft. In Brunsbuttel this area is located in the river adjacent to the lock. Beware of the currents as they may be strong. The area is close to a small marina for pilot boats that come and go non-stop and fast. Occasionally, yachts enter the lock together with a small commercial vessel. In that case, the large ship enters first and is secured to the quay before the recreational boats are allowed to go in. This may take a while, and when it’s time to enter the lights of the starboard side lock will go from intermittent (preparing the lock) to continuous white light (allowed to enter). Anyway, this may be how it is supposed to go… in our case the lights kept blinking but the lock master urged us to go in anyway. In case you are uncertain what to do, you can call the lock master (preferably in German) on VHF13 using call sign “Kiel Kanal Eins”. Call sign and VHF numbers are shown on the maritime map and corresponding pilot book.

Signs in the NOK channel.

Once you enter the lock, you quickly notice the low docks on both sides. It is necessary to place your fenders as low as possible (floating in the water). Take care when stepping on the dock (very big step down) especially when the conditions are wet (slippery!). Even in dry weather you can easily trip over something when walking backwards with a line because the surface is far from flat. You can hold the line when standing on the dock, or secure the line on rings in the dock surface. Do not in any case fasten the line on the iron chains holding the docks, because the docks shift up and down over these chains. Your line may be below the dock when the lock re-opens….

In the big lock of Kiel-Holtenau.

When the lock re-opens, oddly, the recreational craft exit first. You are meant to start motoring toward the lock doors, even if they are still partially closed.

After leaving the lock in Brunsbuttel and entering the canal, you switch over to VHF 2, Kiel Kanal Zwei.

Transit Fee Kiel Canal

The Kiel Canal passage is subject to a transit fee. Transit fees can be paid at 3 locations: at the small Brunsbuttel marina, halfway during the passage at the entrance of Gieselau canal, and at both sides of the locks in Kiel. It is not possible and also not allowed to climb the lock’s ladder to go to the paying machines near the Kiel locks. The ladders are for emergency use only! On some older websites we’ve read that you should go to these paying machines once you enter the lock, but this information clearly was outdated. By the way, the transit fee for our 36 ft boat was 18 euro (one-way trip) in 2018.

The information depicted below we received from the harbor master in Kiel-Moltenort. On the lower picture you can see the paying machines near the lock. They work essentially like a regular ATM. However, if you decide to pay at the small Brunsbuttel marina, you need to pay cash at a local tourist information center.

After paying the transit fee, you receive a receipt that you need to show to the lock’s personnel. If you fail to show this receipt, you are allowed to sail on to the next paying machine on the other side of the lock. If they really check that you indeed pay your transit fee over there? I don’t know. But it is worth every penny, in my opinion!

Regulations on the Nord-Ostsee Kanal (NOK)

There’s a few regulations to be considered by pleasure craft on the NOK. The most important are:

  1. always follow the starboard bank of the canal
  2. you are allowed to sail, but keep the engine running at all times (standby)
  3. you are only allowed on the canal from one hour before sunset until one hour after sundown
  4. listen to channel VHF2 (section Brunsbuttel-Breiholz) or VHF3 (Breiholz-Kiel), see link
  5. watch the signal lights on the banks: if 3 red lights are shown, you need to stop in the waiting area (this also applies to small sailing boats!)

On the canal a number of small ferryboats are operated, according to the official website 14 in total. These ferries are very busy at times, but you don’t need to wait for them. The ones we’ve seen always went over the canal after we passed them (unlike the Dutch ferries who always have right to first passage).

There’s also a number of bridges you will pass on the canal; these are all very high and require no further action from the skipper; except for the Rendsburger Hochbrucke that is over 100 years old. This bridge supports a ‘floating’ ferry for pedestrians. In the summer of 2018 this bridge was being restored and the ferry was out of order, though.

3x red light: everybody needs to wait!

The red lights indicate that a very long/deep vessel is moving in the canal. Some parts of the canal are not that deep or wide to allow safe passage from this very big ship and any other vessel simultaneously. Whenever the 3 red lights are shown (see picture) you need to wait in the ‘Weiche’ or safe harbor. The 3 red lights are always shown a two different signal poles. The second pole is located right behind a series of huge bollards; you are meant to wait here and don’t pass the second sign. Besides from the ‘3 red lights sign’ there are numerous other combinations of red and white lights, but on a small sailing boat only 3 red lights and 1 white light (locks) are relevant to remember.

Spending the night on the Kiel Channel

If you, like us, decide to start motoring in Brunsbuttel in the morning, you can easily reach Kiel in 12 hours. In the Kieler Forde you can choose from numerous marinas to berth your boat. (We were very happy to have chosen the small Moltenort marina on the opposite shore of the Kiel locks). But on or close to the Canal itself you can also find a sufficient amount of berths to spend the night. I found a small map of the area, showing from West to East:

  1. Duckerswisch (20km), near campsite Klein-Westerland. Here, in the Weiche, you find some smaller bollards for recreational craft. If you have a dinghy, you can easily reach the small sandy beach (and probably the campsite as well).
  2. Entrance of the Gieselau canal, near Oldenbuttel (40km). We chatted with a German couple in Kiel and they told us this is by far the best place to stay for the night.
  3. Rendsburg, east of the city (66km). You can reach the Ober Eider through a small waterway (‘die Enge’) and find a few small marinas. We spend the night here, on our way back to the Netherlands. It is somewhat shallow, though. Check your draft beforehand.
  4. East to Rendsburg is a small berth on the Audorfer See.
  5. Flemhuder See (85km). Mooring is possible on the adjacent lake. The tiny lock next to it is out of order, so maybe you are allowed to berth here as well (I’m not sure). On the other hand; commercial ships pass the canal day AND night so probably the tiny lock is not the place to be, anyway… Information about how to use the mooring location on the Flemhuder See is presented here.

Finally, after travelling 100 km through the Kiel channel, you have reached your destination! The doors are now open to explore the wonderful Baltic Sea…. enjoy your summer vacation!

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