sailboats in the kiel canal

Sailing The Kiel Canal

Last summer we transited the Kiel Canal from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea on Wolf. At first, it might seem scary and overwhelming to go through the Canal together with huge cargo vessels that also pass through, but in reality, it really isn’t that complicated, and pretty much everyone can do it on a sailboat. In this guide, I want to tell my experience crossing the canal and give some tips on what to look out for. Have fun reading!

sailboat in the kiel canal
Getting overtaken by a huge cargo ship just meters away is a unique experience.

About The Canal

The Kiel canal connects the Baltic Sea in the north-east of Europe with the North Sea. It was built from 1887 to 1895 by 8 900 workers that all together moved around 80 million square meters of earth. The canal has a length of 98 km and is one of the most used inland waterways worldwide, used by large cargo vessels but also private boats and yachts.

map of the kiel canal
The Kiel Canal has a length of 98 km (53 nm) and it takes around 10 hours to cross it.

Transiting The Canal On A Sailboat

It really doesn’t matter from what side you are approaching the Canal, it works the same way. We did it from Kiel, the city on the Baltic Sea side to Brunsbüttel on the North Sea side and this article is written from this perspective, but as already said, it works pretty much the same the other way around. First, you approach the locks and wait in the waiting area until they open. Once you are in the canal it usually takes around 10 hours to get to the locks on the other side. You can either start early in the morning and do the whole canal in one day, or stay overnight halfway, moor there, or drop the anchor and do the other half of the canal the next day.

shipping traffic in the kiel canal
Sailboats motor as far right of the canal as possible.

Approaching The Locks

As said, approaching the locks works the same way on both sides of the canal, just the waiting areas are different. The day before we sailed into the Kiel Fjord coming from the Baltic Sea and spent the night in the sport boat marina in Kiel. We got up early at 5.30 am and after a quick breakfast, we motored towards the waiting area in front of the locks while enjoying a beautiful sunrise atmosphere. Fog may lay over the Fjord in the morning, but in our case that wasn’t a problem and it was absolutely stunning to watch the silhouettes of large cargo vessels appear and disappear.

sailboat moored
The waiting pier in front of the Kiel-Holtenau locks.

The only downside of the fog is that pleasure crafts are not allowed into the canal until the fog cleared. We had to wait around 2 hours and used that time for a second breakfast. The waiting area is pretty large with a pier to moor but it is not allowed to drop the anchor, in that case, you have to drift around which isn’t a problem as long as there is no wind. There are 2 waiting jetties, one for sail and motorboats and the other for larger vessels. In our case the jetty for larger vessels was empty and we had no problem mooring there, but it can also be impossible to find a spot there.

map of the waiting area


There are 4 different VHF channels for different areas of the canal. It is best not to ask the staff about opening times or when you are allowed to go into the lock unless necessary. If every crew would do that there would be a mess pretty fast. A good way to follow what’s going on is to listen to the respective channels in each area of the canal and watch the light signals which will be explained in a bit.

  • VHF channel 12 (call “Kiel Canal 4”) for lock operations at the Kiel-Holtenau locks
  • VHF channel 3 (call “Kiel Canal 3”) for the first half of the canal from the Holtenau locks to Breiholz
  • VHF channel 2 (call “Kiel Canal 2”) for the second half of the canal from Breiholz to Brunsbüttel
  • VHF channel 13 (call “Kiel Canal 1”) for the locks in Brunsbüttel on the North Sea side


Paying is easy at the Kiel Canal. The payment machine is located at the pier for pleasure crafts. You can just moor there, pay the cheap fee of 18€ and head off again. There is also a jetty inside the canal just behind the Kiel-Holtenau locks, but it is way more chill to just pay before heading into the canal.

map of the kiel locks
The two payment machines in Kiel. One outside the canal, the other one inside.

Light Signals

The indicators, which tell if you are allowed to go into the locks are located between the locks in Kiel, and between the locks and on the west side of the locks in Brunsbüttel. There are a few different signal types that can appear, but the only one you need to know is an interrupted light which means sport boats are allowed to enter the lock.

Kiel-Holtenau Locks

In our case, since we had to wait for the fog inside the canal to clear to be allowed in, other sailing yachts also arrived, so when the signals allowed us to go in, there was pretty much happening at once. But all went smoothly and despite the huge amount of yachts motoring into the lock, everyone looked after each other and everything went very organized.

sailboats in the kiel canal locks
Waiting in the Kiel-Holtenau lock together with other sailboats.

Inside the lock you moor alongside or in between other boats. That needs a bit of care while maneuvering and you should always be ready to take the mooring lines from another boat. Usually cargo vessels moor on the left side of the lock and pleasure crafts on the right side, but in our case since there was a huge amount of boats, one cargo ship also moored on the right side. After around 10 minutes everything is over, the lock doors into the canal open and you are free to go.

sailboats drive into the kiel canal
Sailing yachts leave the lock before the cargo vessels.

Transiting the Canal

Motoring through the canal is pretty self-explanatory and will take you around 10 hours when going at 5 kts. It is not allowed to go under sail, but it is allowed to motor sail. Practically nobody will do that, but if you want, you can. As a pleasure craft, you should stick to the right side of the canal and let cargo ships overtake you further in the middle. There is one building worth seeing which is the transporter bridge roughly halfway when passing Rendsburg. The ferry, which crosses the canal hovers a few meters over ground held up by ropes and was first put into operation in 1913. Since then there were a few collisions with vessels and it was put out of order for some time.

cargo ship in the kiel canal
It can get close when huge cargo ships pass by but it’s an amazing experience at the same time.

Mooring over Night

There is one possibility to moor overnight right at halfway of the canal at the Gieselau locks. After taking the right exit (there is a sign at the shore) and motoring up the exit you can moor in front of the Gieselau locks. Another one is in the little marina right next to the locks in Brunsbüttel. The marina has very limited space. When we arrived at dawn we had to moor alongside another yacht right at the start of a huge thunderstorm.

chart of the kiel canal
The Gieselau-Locks offer the chance to take a break overnight.
harbour in the kiel canal at night
The small marina next to the Brunsbüttel locks. We arrived right at the start of a thunderstorm.

At Night

For pleasure craft it is not allowed to go at night. The only exception is the area at the Brunsbüttel locks. Since the marina is inside the canal it is possible to go through the lock all night.

Allowed times for pleasure crafts are:

  • 01.01 to 15.01. 07:30 – 17:00
  • 16.01 to 31.01. 07:30 – 17:30
  • 01.02 to 15.02. 07:00 – 18:00
  • 16.02 to 28.02. 06:30 – 18:30
  • 01.04 to 15.04. 04:30 – 20:00
  • 16.04 to 30.04. 04:00 – 20:30
  • 01.05 to 15.05. 03:30 – 21:00
  • 16.05 to 31.05. 03:00 – 21:30
  • 01.06 to 30.06. 02:30 – 22:00
  • 01.07 to 15.07. 02:30 – 22:00
  • 16.07 to 31.07. 03:00 – 21:30
  • 01.08 to 15.08. 03:30 – 21:00
  • 16.08 to 31.08. 04:00 – 30:30
  • 01.09 to 15.09. 04:30 – 20:00
  • 16.09 to 30.09. 05:00 – 19:30
  • 01.10 to 15.10. 05:30 – 19:00
  • 16.10 to 31.10. 06:00 – 18:30
  • 01.11 to 15.11. 06.30 – 17:30
  • 16.11 to 30.11. 07:00 – 17:00
  • 01.12 to 31.12. 07:30 – 17:00

The Brunsbüttel Locks

The locks in Brunsbüttel on the North Sea side work the same as they do in Kiel. The only thing to pay attention to is to lower the fenders to the water level since the sideways in the locks are very low. Next to the lock doors that open into the Elbe River, there is a sign that shows the current strength and direction at the moment in the Elbe River. When there is a lot of current there can be choppy water outside the locks and you should be prepared.

sailboat in kiel canal lock
Waiting in the Brunsbüttel locks. North Sea here we come!

The waiting area in Brunsbüttel to leave the canal is located on the left side of the locks, viewed from inside the canal with an opportunity to moor. The outside waiting area in the Elbe River to enter the canal is on the east side of the lock complex.

map of the waiting area of the kiel canal
Brunsbüttel has 2 waiting areas. One inside the canal with an opportunity to moor and one in the Elbe.

When motoring out the lock you should be careful when it’s sinking tide because the Elbe River can have very strong tidal streams up to 3.5 kts resulting in choppy waters and dangers while passing the lock exit. A sign is located on the top right of the lock that indicates how strong and in what direction the tide is going.

sailboat leaving the kiel canal
Leaving the locks into the Elbe River and 20 nm further into the North Sea.


Transiting the Kiel Canal on a sailboat isn’t difficult and with a bit of preparation stress-free. Watching the big cargo vessels drive by just a few meters next to you is also a rare and spectacular experience. But make sure you have enough to drink onboard, especially in summer, as motoring for 10 hours without the chance of taking a break can get hot in the cockpit.

The official guide from the canal authority can be found here.

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