Darby's Destinations Luxury Travel - Italy

Water locks on the rivers of Europe

A unique experience when sailing the rivers of Europe

December 3, 2021

On the river cruises, I have been on in Europe; the locks are a fascinating part of the journey.  Water locks were inventing and designed beginning in ancient times by the Egyptians and refined over time by the Chinese, the Italians, and an American engineer.  

For the many rivers of Europe to be navigable waterways locks and construction of weirs were built in the rivers so that the change in elevation and controlling the water flow could be controlled to further river transportation.  In times of low or high water, the locks and weirs are used to control the rivers so that it can continue to be navigable for river ships and cargo ships.

The Rhine River and the Main–Danube Rivers converge in Mainz, Germany where the elevation in Mainz is 1066 ft. above sea level and the highest point on the Main-Danube Canal in Kelheim, Germany is 1332 ft. above sea level. This is the highest point on earth that is currently reached by commercial watercraft.   The Continental Water Divide is at the highest point on the Main-Danube canal.

The Main River in Germany has the most amount of locks at 35, where the Rhine River has the fewest at 14.  In the Main-Danube Canal, 16 locks are used to work the elevation change of about 400 ft. in 106 miles of river.

The locks function with the chamber being filled or emptied via sluices to create a channel.  The Ship enters the lock, the lock is filled or emptied, and then the ship continues on its course.

The locks are fascinating to go through.  If there is more than one ship waiting, they will squeeze two ships into the lock.  We experienced this on the Seine River in France.  Our small river cruise ship was next to this large cargo ship.  There were several inches between the ships.  The cargo ship had a crewman get off the ship and walk along the side of the canal holding the tow rope so that it would not drift into our ship.   When the ship first enters the lock, depending on which direction you are going, you are surrounded by concrete walls, and you slowly rise to exit the lock.  You could almost touch the lock walls if your arm were long enough.  During storms going through the locks can be challenging for the Captain.  The winds can push a ship into the walls if it is that stormy.  We did experience this in the middle of the night on the Rhine River when we were awakened to a very loud bang and you knew that the ship bumped into something.  It was dark outside so you could not see anything.  In the morning we found out that we were in the lock and what I was seeing out the balcony door was the lock wall.

For some, the locks of these rivers may be a nuisance – a fundamental obstacle to be overcome on the way to the next destination.  For others, it is a civil engineering marvel that often incorporates state of the art technology.  Whatever you think of the locks systems in Europe, one thing is sure the great experience we can now have on a river cruise would not be experienced without them.

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