Along for the Ride Touring the Rhine on a Freight Ship

The Rhine is Germany's most beloved waterway for leisurely river cruises, passing by picturesque cities and countryside. On the MS Michaela, guests also get to know life on board an inland freight vessel -- alongside more than 3,500 tons of garbage as cargo.

By Bernd Ellerbrock

Bernd Ellerbrock

The trip to my vacation destination for the next week passes by several cautionary road signs. But warnings like "Private Road" or "No Through Traffic" don't apply to me today. I finally land in the small western town of Amelsbüren, near the A1 autobahn and right on the Dortmund Ems Canal. The MS Michaela, a long towboat-barge combo awaits.

"On my ship, we're on a first-name basis," the shipowner says. "I'm Christian." Last name Pawliczek. Inland water navigation is his passion, and a three-generation family business. He turns the motor on, and we cast off. Christian sits in the pilot's seat with his feet kicked up and his left hand resting on the steering. His focus shifts from straight ahead to a monitor on his left, which toggles between regular TV and an electronic map.

The towboat and barge are coupled together, and chug along the canal at a leisurely 10 kilometers per hour (6.2 mph). There's no cargo yet, just a few tons of water ballast slosh about in the hull like in an oversized bathtub. The ballast is necessary going through the canals of the Ruhr, a densely populated former industrial area in western Germany. Without the stabilizing weight on board, the ship wouldn't pass under the many bridges ahead.

As we approach one of them, Christian sinks the wheelhouse deeper into the ship so that only his head peeps out from an opening in the roof. Once we clear the bridge, he raises the cabin back up. "You must like riding elevators," I tease. "I hope your car is fully insured," Christian replies. "The next bridge could tear it to shreds." It suddenly occurs to me -- that's why he wanted to know how tall my car is when we spoke on the phone. I'm relieved when the on-board crane lifts my car further back on the ship. It's my ride home once the river trip is over.

18-Hour Workdays

Bridge clearance levels, lock measurements, scarce cabin quarters -- the laundry list of challenges in inland waterway transport is long. Christian rants against Deutsche Bahn, the state rail company, which was meant to raise their standard bridge level. "Inland shipping is their competitor." He won't be going any further today. It's the weekend, ships can't pass through the canal locks at night. Not until 6 o'clock the next morning.

At daybreak, the Michaela is the first ship to pass through the Wanne-Eickel canal near the city of Bochum. Christian converses via radio with boatswain Marek, who's busy with the mooring lines. When we get out of the dark, greasy lock chamber, Christian looks up the location of the Hanseatic Scout -- a bulk carrier from Norway with a full load of garbage for us to pick up.

The ocean vessel is currently navigating the Skagerrak straight up in Scandinavian waters and is scheduled for an on-time arrival in Rotterdam. So is the Michaela. As we cautiously make our way through the 100-year-old Rhine-Herne canal, we pass by many of the Ruhr's innovative repurposings of defunct industrial sites: the coal mine turned artist's residence Unser Fritz in Herne; the coal mine turned landscape park Nordsternpark in Gelsenkirchen; and the route's most well-known site, the Gasometer in Oberhausen, a former gas holder now used as an art exhibition space, currently housing a work by Christo. In front of the Oberhausen-Lirich canal, artists have installed a large billboard that reads "Patience." How appropriate.

I listen in on the monotone engine noise and the cheerful chirping of birds in the waterfront bushes. The more ships we encounter, the more I realize this job is not for those who enjoy sleep. Christian is allowed to man his ship 18 hours straight, followed by a mandatory six-hour break.

Tourists Welcomed as Paying Guests

When Christian has guests, they usually have to fend for themselves around meal time. They're provided with a fridge in their rooms and access to the ship's large kitchen. But now that it's summer vacation time, the whole family is on board -- including his two sons and one daughter. There are also three Polish sailors, and the resident dog, Aaron. Christian's wife Helen, a hotel manager by profession, prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner. We share each meal in a small nook behind the control desk. Christian eats from a tray resting on his thighs. Break time? Not a chance.

Family life on the ship is hardly romantic. Christian doesn't whip out an accordion for an evening round of sea shanties; he goes to bed early. Helen does the laundry, takes care of the kids, maintains the website and handles the bookkeeping. She also guards the license for operating a ship on the Rhine. Even the 13- and 15-year-old boys help where they can. This family doesn't just live from inland shipping. They live for it.

Once we finally reach the Rhine, the water ballast is pumped out and the hull is converted into a play area for the kids. Here, in the middle of Germany's longest river, they skateboard and draw pictures with chalk on the steel surface. Ships traveling downstream zoom by, while those going upstream inch by at a snail's pace. Passing maneuvers take ages. Christian knows every bridge, every port, every ferry, every current, every dam. He used to sail the Rhine with his father, Rudolph. Ten years ago he bought the Michaela.

Yet despite all his knowledge, Christian comes across as anxious, frazzled. The economic crisis hit inland shipping in the same way it hit ocean shipping, with sinking freight rates, overcapacitated cargo loads and rising fuel costs. The years of earning good money off reliable freight orders are over. Christian doesn't know how things will turn after my week on board. In any case, vacationers are always welcome on board as an extra source of income. If he could build another ship from scratch, he says he'd make it with more rooms for guests.

Strolling on the River

It's morning in Rotterdam, and the load of Scandinavian garbage is transferred from the ocean ship to the Michaela's barge. Christian takes care to distribute the cargo equally across the hull. He orders some taken off when his ship sinks too low in the water. Clouds of rust and dust whirl up with every hoist, leaving the crew and the ship covered in a layer of brown.

The 3,611 metric tons of waste-cargo are headed for a steel plant in the southwestern city of Kehl, across the border from Strasbourg. Christian disappears for a quick shower before he fires up the engine and casts off again. The three Polish sailors are busy for the rest of the day, washing and scrubbing down the entire ship until the last bit of rust dust falls into the Rhine. The Michaela starts its 700-kilometer journey upstream clean as a whistle.

The going is much slower. The ship is just over three meters underwater, and the countercurrent is fierce. The outer walkway that lines the ship is just a few centimeters above water, and is constantly dipping under. The wakes of passing vessels turn into full-on waves that break against us. The back part of the ship where the living quarters and control booth are located is surrounded by a protective bulwark -- a "wave breaker."

The very front of the bow is the perfect place to feel like you're really on vacation. There's no engine noise, no loudspeaker, just the rippling of waves. I have to wear a life vest to go up there. "Put some rubber boots on, too," Christian calls out to me. But I'd rather tread barefoot through the warm water, which goes all the way up to my knees. It's like taking a stroll through the river.

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spon-facebook-10000070150 08/09/2013
1. A wonderful river adventure which ended too soon
A wonderful beginning to a story but I wanted to hear more. Part 2, 3, 4 would be appreciated. The story reminds me of Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" Thank you!
traveler 08/11/2013
2.
For this or similar opportunities would be much appreciated by this reader. And I agree with the commenter above, good descriptive writing which left me wishing for more. Thank you.
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