The Kiel Canal, or as the Germans would have it, Nord - Ostsee (North - Baltic) Kanal is one of the busiest artificial waterways in the world, saving the craft that use it about 450km of sailing around the Jutland peninsula, including the dangerous waters of the Kattegat and Sakgerrak.
This is exchanged for an uneventful journey along a wide, straight canal. The canal cuts through the bottom of the Jutland peninsula starting (more or less) in Kiel and ending near the mouth of the Elbe river, not too far from Hamburg (that lies deeper inland).
The canal is almost 100km long and incorporates three locks: one at the entry (though Baltic is not tidal), one in the middle and one at the Elbe/North Sea end. This last one separates the calm and steady-level waters of the canal from the tidal and often turbulent area in the mouth of the Elbe. Sailors from the Baltic, not used to sailing on the tidal seas, should be particularly well prepared for this change of conditions – as well as massive amount of shipping, traffic going up and down the river to and from the busy Hamburg docks.
I went along the Kiel Canal on family sailing holidays several times, as in those days Germany was the first place that you could sail ''abroad'' from Poland (by abroad we meant, of course, the West, beyond the Iron Curtain and to the land of colourful supermarkets and clean public toilets).
Only one of those occasions was made memorable by my not-yet-20-year old self getting distracted in my steering by a book (!) placed conveniently near to the land the rudder and thus driving, at full ahead, into the shore. It took some efforts of a friendly and helpful German moto-sailer to pull us off - and my father was understandably livid, as much with embarrassment at finding himself stuck on the canal bank and having to ask for help in such a strange situation as with potential damage to the boat. He still made me steer later though!
Apart from that bit of self-inflicted excitement that happened just once, the journey was usually uneventful, the flattish shores of Schleswig-Holstein rolling past, the crossing punctuated only by a variety of bridges.
There are 11 fixed bridges over the canal, all with a clearance of 42 meters so allowing a passage of quite high vessels. Of these, Rendsburg High Bridge and Levensau High Bridge are particularly attractive. The former, at 2,500m is the longest railway bridge in Europe.
The locks in Brunsbüttel open onto the Elbe mouth near Cuxhaven, this is directly connected to the North Sea and thus tidal - as I said, a strange and a worrying thing for a sailor coming from the tide-less Baltic. Add to this choppy sea and the huge ships travelling to the port of Hamburg up the river Elbe, one of which we managed to almost collide with, and you have a less-than peaceful introduction to this part of the journey.
From there, we travelled up the river from Brunsbüttel to Wedel, a suburban district at the end of one of the rapid transit lines where the massive Hamburg marina is located.
It's possible to visit the locks at both ends of the canal, though I wouldn't make a special point to make a trip, but if you are nearby – why not. I am not sure whether there are any leisure trips by boat, though a crossing by a yacht is cheap in relation to other canals for example the Corinth one. You have to motor across.
Built during eight years and opened in 1895, it is one of the extensive network of German (and Low Countries in general) waterways that, unlike the UK ones, are still very much in use by commercial rather than just leisure traffic.