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April 29, 2022
The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal: Crossing the Continental Divide

The Rhine River, where we spent the first third of our cruise, flows northwest from the Alps into the North Sea. We navigated the Rhine upstream, against the current. The Danube River, where we will spend the last third of our cruise, flows southeast from the Alps into the Black Sea. When we navigate the Danube, we will sail downstream with the current.

The Rhine and the Danube do not connect or intersect with each other. So how are we able to sail a Viking longship between them? This question took almost 1,200 years to answer.

The idea of a connecting waterway was first proposed in 793 by Charlemagne, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. The 10,000-foot long “Charlemagne’s Ditch” was never successful.

In 1846, the “Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal” connected the two rivers, but required passage through 100 locks. It was obsoleted by the railroad.

The current connection, the “Rhine-Main-Danube Canal” began construction in 1939. It was interrupted by World War II, environmental concerns, and the Cold War. After Communism collapsed, the RMD Canal was finally completed in 1992.

The RMD Canal actually connects the Main River (a tributary of the Rhine) with the Altmühl River (a tributary of the Danube), running 106 miles in Southern Germany between Bamberg and Kelheim. Our “Grand European Tour” transits the entire canal, passing through 68 locks between all the rivers.

Watching the ship transit the locks is a fascinating experience. The locks are necessary to lift our longship over Europe’s Continental Divide. Leaving the Main River, we begin in Bamberg at an elevation of 758 feet. We ascend to 1,332 feet at the Continental Divide. We then descend to 1,106 feet at Kelheim, where we join the Danube River. (We are on the Altmühl so briefly, it doesn’t really count.)

As we ascend, the locks get steeper and deeper. The final three locks before the Continental Divide have a combined lift of 243 feet!

The canal locks start out very nice and gentle…

… but they get steeper…

… and deeper!

Our stateroom can get quite dark

The ship itself must do some reconfiguring. Normally, our top deck (Deck 4, the Sun Deck) is filled with lounge chairs, canopies and the bridge. All of this must be completely collapsed as flat as possible in order for us to pass beneath low bridges and lock trestles. Even the bridge itself collapses into the deck.

Viking’s river longships are custom-built at the maximum size that can pass through a lock

We literally have inches to spare!

We also have inches to spare beneath the bridges and canal trestles

Normally, Viking Vili’s Sun Deck is filled with lounge chairs and canopies

All of this must be completely flattened for a canal transit

Even the bridge collapses into the deck

The helmsman uses an alternate control panel to navigate the longship

For us, the highlight of the RMD transit occurred tonight at about 8:45 pm, when we officially crossed the Continental Divide. This imaginary line through Europe marks a meandering path that the rivers all flow away from. The Continental Divide is marked with a small monument. Don’t blink or you will miss it!

(In fact, the ship purposely does not announce when we cross this line. The unofficial explanation is that the transit occurs in the middle of dinner, and it would be bad form for guests to suddenly all vacate the dining room.)

The dark blue line marks the European Continental Divide. All rivers flow away from this line.

Fortunately, a handful of us were able to run up to the Aquavit Terrace in time to watch our crossing, just about at dusk. From here on it will literally be downhill for the rest of our cruise. Tomorrow morning at a technical stop in Kelheim, we will leave the RMD Canal and join the Danube River. We are told the scenery will get even more spectacular!

This small monument marks the Continental Divide!

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