Rhine day! We headed off from the marina in Strasbourg at 9am and motored up to the Ecluse du Nord. This is a relatively large lock and takes you out of Strasbourg into a dock section and then straight onto the Rhine. We actually ended up waiting at the lock for quite a while as there is a lifting rail bridge directly in front and a huge freight train chose the same time as us for passing through. About an hour after throwing off our ropes in Strasbourg, we were on the Rhine. To say it was a bit different from what we had become accustomed to is an understatement!
The first major thing we noticed was the flow. The Rhine is a huge river with significant current. We were heading downstream – just as well as we would not be have been able to go up with Doris, the girls just don’t have enough power. The combined forces of Pat and Suzy would not outgun the Rhine! The other issue that became immediately apparent was just how busy it is. We didn’t see a lot of leisure traffic initially, just commercial. This includes small barges (80m is small to us now!), cruise ships, tankers and cargo ships. Fortunately the first part of the river we travelled on had a wide channel and was relatively straight so we were able to get used to passing and being overtaken (sometimes simultaneously).
We only had two locks to go through on the Rhine and did both that afternoon.
The size of these schleusen was pretty epic. We went through one with a 190m push-tow, a 125m cargo boat and a 110m tanker, with room to spare. We were so happy to have our communications officer onboard (Helen-Marie) who was able to negotiate, in German, with the locks via VHF. Some of the specific terms were new to her. The lock keepers wanted to know our direction of travel (I thought they would see us on AIS, seemingly not…), travelling upstream or downstream. In German this is Bergfahrt or Talfahrt or when they tried to translate for us, Upstairs or Downstairs but we got there in the end. Watching our communications officer in action was great and it certainly made life easier.
The guidebook suggested an anchorage at Lauterbourg as a suitable first night stop. Lauterbourg is still in France, but only just. This seemed like a reasonable option and we slalomed into the entrance at around 5pm. After a bit of cruising around we selected our spot for anchoring. Cy very kindly offered to row Helen-Marie ashore in the inflatable dinghy, where she could walk 2 miles through an industrial wasteland to a small railway station where there may or may not be a train back to Strasbourg. Helen-Marie assured us there was no desperate hurry and that our intended destination for the next day, Speyer, offered plenty of return travel options…
The following morning, we lifted (weighed Sarah, weighed!) anchor before 8am and stuck our nose back out onto the Rhine. When travelling on the inland waterways, you drive on the right and vessels pass each other port-to-port. Except when they don’t. For reasons that I won’t go into here, a commercial vessel can initiate a starboard-to-starboard passing procedure. They indicate this by displaying a blue board.
This requires quite a high vigilance level when travelling a busy waterway, oh, and don’t forget the wing dams. These are definitely Cy’s favourite. Wing dams are submerged walls that stick into the river to try and slow the flow. Most (but not all) are charted, but its impossible to be certain how far from the banks they extend underwater. Our fibreglass boat would not do well if we crunched one of these. This makes the option of ‘just nipping out of the channel’ to allow an overtaking vessel to pass a bit less desirable! So, all in all, we needed our wits about us.
We were quite grateful to arrive at Speyer in the early part of the afternoon. There is a large marina but with a rather convoluted admission procedure. You had to tie to a waiting pontoon and call the harbour master on the number shown. Helpfully, this did not include the country code. We delegated this to our interpreter Helen-Marie and after three or four attempts, we got an answer. We were given a berth number and a code for a gate so I could get onto the shore and buy our ticket. This proceeded without incident until I got to the machine to buy the ticket and there was no option to pay with credit card. I couldn’t return to Doris to get cash as the gate code was only for getting out to buy the ticket and you needed said ticket to get back through again. Just as well captain Cy had remained with the boat and I was able to attract his attention!
The weather was dry, but not too hot and we went off to investigate the charms of Speyer. We were all pleasantly surprised. There is a great cathedral, that has some of the old kings of Germany buried there. We were also able to visit an ancient (built around 1100ad) ritual Jewish bath.
We had a great lunch and then it was time to say goodbye to Helen-Marie who was heading home via Koln and Brussels. On the way back to the marina, Cy made some more new friends.
We were up pretty early the next morning as we were keen to cover some ground. I was in town before 7am for the Bakerei and some groceries. The first Bakerei was closed, despite its advertised opening hours and the supermarket that should have opened at seven was very definitely closed.
It turned out to be a journey of two halves. The first part of the day took us through Mannheim which is an enormous hub of industry with several kilometres of factories and docks along the river. Fascinating, if not beautiful. We were blown away by the scale.
The weather was glorious and as the day progressed, the scenery changed. It became much greener, vineyards covered much of the hillside and although there was still a lot of commercial river traffic, the leisure use of the river increased.
There were lots of families enjoying a day out at the ‘beach’, paddle boarders, kayakers and loads and loads of powerboats. We got fed up with these pretty quick as the wash they create sends poor old Doris rolling about. It was like being at sea again.
We tried to get into a little marina at Ginsheim at around 3pm, but were waved off pretty quick as there wasn’t any space. We were disappointed, as it looked lovely. A boat owner advised us that there would be more space at Mainz which wasn’t much further. Once there, we turned into the entrance to the harbour and cautiously crept in. Larger boats are a bit more unusual here than in France and we were getting a bit worried we wouldn’t find anywhere. However, a couple of guys from the club greeted us from the pontoon and directed us to a space. It was lovely to be so warmly welcomed. The cost was less than in Speyer, and we loved the vibe.
The banks of the Rhine at Mainz were crowded with groups of people enjoying the sun and hanging out. It transpired that it was a public holiday which explained some of the shops opening late and the amount of people out and about on a weekday. We had a beer at the club and got chatting to a few people. One in particular, Marie was lovely and really helpful. They had made the trip from their boat club in Mainz to Vienna a couple of years ago and she went through their logbook with me with the list of different places they had stopped etc. We have some good guidebooks for the trip which we bought and downloaded from Tom Sommers. EuroCanals is the name of the website and the guides are super, but local wisdom and experience is always worth gleaning where you can.
After our beer, we walked into the town centre, which was only a few minutes away and had an enjoyable mooch about.
Mainz was the end of our travels on the Rhine. The junction with the river Main is almost directly opposite the entrance to the harbour and that’s where we would head in the morning. We had covered the 200 or so kilometres on the Rhine in three days, much faster than our previous rate of travel as we were travelling downstream. The next section would be 384 kilometres upstream with 34 locks along the way. Fortunately, the Main has significantly less flow against us, apparently no more than 1.5km/h on average so we should be OK!