The Online Magazine For Amateur Boat Builders














Rhine Kanuen
By Brian Anderson

I had been itching, since the weather tuned here in Germany a couple of weeks back, to haul my pirogue off the shoals in my living room and take her for her first trip on the Rhine River. The apartment that my wife Valerie and I bought in November provides a view of the Rhine, and for weeks the sight of canoes and rowing shells paddling by was quite literally a form of water torture. But for a relatively untried boat, on a river like the Rhine, I figured that it would be better to drown in good company. I had been asking friends, acquaintances, even occasionally the dude that is always hanging out smoking in front of the convenience store around the corner:

“You want to go canoeing?”
“On the Rhine.”
“What, you mean in that boat you cut in half and use as shelves in your living room?”
“Yeah, of course.”

They would turn pale, and shake their heads sadly. The comments ranged from:

“I thought we were friends, Brian,” to “If you wanted to use the thing, why did you cut it in half?” to “Thaaanks, but uh, yesterday was my usual day for playing Russian Roulette.”

More than a few of the Germans were nonplussed with the idea that one might actually be permitted to plop a canoe in the Rhine and paddle down it. “Is it permitted too go canoeing on the Rhine?” or more to the point, “Ve haff rules here!” (he was half kidding). But then when one reflects that one has to get the equivalent of a doctorate in biology to tie one end of a string to a stick and the other to a hook and dip it in the water, (granted, you do have to know which end to hang on to) it all has a discernible internal logic. My plan, if stopped, was to talk loudly and rapidly in execrable German (not a problem for me) until the river police couldn’t take the abuse any more and left us alone.

Pirogue shelves on the shoals.

(click images for larger views)

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But anyway, one day, when I was on the brink of despair, I was talking to my friend Lukas, a jazz trumpet player who lives downstairs, and he said he would be happy to go for a paddle.

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Putting in under the Rodenkirchen Bridge.

After many dark looks and mutterings from my wife about our lack of a roof rack for our compact car, and the fact that the boat stuck out about a yard at both ends, and the fact that we would have to drive past the police station on our way upstream, and that in a moment of doubt I once wondered aloud whether Le Mec was up to a trip on the Rhine because of her peculiar construction, Lukas and I loaded the boat on the car and off we went one sunny Friday afternoon.

We put in in Poll, a village just to the south of Cologne proper, and after fending off the swimming urchins who wanted to hitch a ride and a few preliminary we-havn’t-been-in-a-canoe-for-a-while wobbles, headed off into the current.

Pit stop to assemble a supply of roll-your-own cigarettes and have a swim.
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After a while, we decided it was time to take a break, go for a swim, roll a few cigarettes out of the wind, and generally stick to our plan of not exerting ourselves too much. We paddled in behind one of the big anti-erosion piers that stick out like fingers in many places along the Rhine. There was a little surprise as we passed over a sand bar in the slack water and the wake from a big container ship passing 50 yards away suddenly started breaking over the gunnels as the waves took us broadside.

Le Mec handled the swell from the passing cargo barges reasonably well. The only small hitch with her is that she is so light that she lacks some of the inherent stability that a heavier boat provides. She is a simple pirogue design, but built in two watertight pieces that join over the transoms using two laminated pine beams that bolt through the hull just under the gunwales on each side and two strips of aluminium that are bolted through the keel.

I had only one small niggling doubt about the design. A while back we had taken Le Mec out on a small lake near town, and she had done well, so I had no doubts about most of the trip. But in the center of town, the Rhine is sandwiched between high stone walls, and I had noticed that the wakes from the passing barges sort of bounced from one side to the other, making for nasty confused water with waves as much as two feet high for almost a half mile through town. I was expecting some groaning and complaining from the fasteners and beams holding her together, but in fact she was quiet, even through one spot under a bridge where she was doing quite a bit of slamming as standing waves rolled under us. No water on board, no flexing, no ominous creaks and cracks, no nothing.

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Lukas as we pass under the Severins Bridge with Cologne Cathedral in the background: “I am feeling so fine right now.”
Under the Severins Bridge.
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Fun on the Rhine.

In Europe the river boats are different from the pushboat-barge arrangement we mostly see on the big rivers in the states. The boats are basically a long barge with a cabin/engine room in back with an elevated pilot house above and sometimes on the more traditional boats a second crew cabin forward of the main hold in the forecastle. The container boats are pretty much the same, and some of them are enormous, carrying a hundred big containers stacked four high the length of the boat with the pilot house jacked up on a column just peeking over the top. Occasionally one sees the U.S.-style push-boat-and-barge arrangement too. The boats mostly travel during the day, tying up in ports or just anchoring here and there along the river for the night. From our apartment on the fourth floor overlooking an abandoned quay, we see ships from all over Europe, mostly German and Dutch, but also Swiss, French, Belgian and even occasionally boats from as far away as Poland and Russia.

A container ship plows upstream.
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After launching again, the current picked up a bit as we started to come into the channelized area. Just before we reached the South Bridge and the city center, the last strip of flood-plain fields and trees on the river bank turned out to be the local nudist beach and we had the novel experience of watching naked people gather on the beach to stare at us. The South bridge is a pretty one, built about 1890 with piers in a red stone ornamented with the carvings of animals, ancient heroes and mythical beasts.

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The Hohenzollern Bridge and Cologne Cathedral

As we passed through the city center, we were kept busy making a few pictures, handling the canoe through the rougher spots and dodging the occasional riverboat tied up along the walls. I always find it a pleasure to see a familiar place from the water, but in this case we had to stay near the bank on the opposite side of the river from Cologne’s old town, as there is too much tourist boat traffic and the floating docks they tie up too are held in place by cables that make vicious strainers. No place for a canoe, that’s for sure.

Before we knew it we were out of the city again and passing by a giant park where half the city comes in the summers to barbecue and camp and drink the local beer. A bunch of neighbours and friends had decided to do a barbecue that evening, and the master plan was to cruise up to the beach after everybody had brought the food and beer and grill, and then afterwards we might find a couple of extra hands to manhandle the pirogue out of the water and back home. No such luck. The current must have been running at least three or four miles an hour through that section, as we did something like 7 miles in about 1 1/2 hours without even paddling more than was necessary to keep the boat mostly pointed downstream. We were at least an hour too early.

Rhine beach.
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So we decided on a short cruise in the harbor a couple of hundred yards from our apartment in the hopes that the barbecue might get going while we were putzing around.

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An old river boat pressed into service as a chic garden apartment
The main house, with garden in front.
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The guest house with window cut into the forecastle.
A police boat takes a long look.
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In the end we had a nice little snoop around the harbor, checking out a cool floating apartment and seeing some nice birds, a couple of cormorants and a pair of great crested grebes. We also discovered that one is allowed to just pop a canoe in the Rhine and go for a paddle. As we were entering the harbor, one of the local police boats turned up and followed us around for a while, thinking perhaps we were going to steal one of the barges or perhaps a crane or something. But they didn’t stop us and ask for our canoe paddling license or toss us in jail, so evidently there will be more trips in the future.

Lukas said he was game for a longer camping trip, as long as we can find room in the canoe for an icebox so we could bring some rum, limes, mint and crushed ice to make Caipirinas. So we are thinking maybe on the Sieg river -- a beautiful little tributary that runs into the Rhine about 15 miles south of Cologne. The Sieg valley is mostly farm and pasture land with a lot of forest and the occasional 13th century castle overlooking its village on the river. Nice stuff, but there are a couple of formerly-doubting Thomases who would also like to come, so it might have to wait for August or September when I have finished the folding skin-on-frame single I started in the spring.

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The apres-canoe Rhine picnic.
Daughter Rachel, wife Valerie (with baby II inside) and my mother-in-law, Pierrette.
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