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Busiest canal in the world blocked - traffic jams in the North Sea are getting longer and longer

It is an unusual, almost spooky scene for the Kiel Canal: three lights are flashing red at the traffic lights on the waterway for shipping below the high bridge in Kiel-Holtenau.

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Busiest canal in the world blocked - traffic jams in the North Sea are getting longer and longer

It is an unusual, almost spooky scene for the Kiel Canal: three lights are flashing red at the traffic lights on the waterway for shipping below the high bridge in Kiel-Holtenau. The signal means: Nothing is going on the busiest artificial waterway of the World.

After all, around 30,000 ships pass through the canal between Brunsbüttel in the west and Kiel in the east of Schleswig-Holstein every year and use the shortcut of 250 nautical miles (460 kilometers) on the way from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea. Silence also reigns on the two bridges above, the Holtenauer Hochbrücken. Cars no longer drive on the important road link to the north-east of Schleswig-Holstein.

The reason for the exceptional situation is called "Meri" and is a special ship for transporting heavy and bulky cargo. This 105 meter long and 19 meter wide heavy load carrier was carrying a very tall crane and crashed into the underside of the bridges at 4.37am Wednesday morning before the captain could stop it. In doing so, the freighter scratched a several meter long scratch into the concrete with the boom of the crane.

Engineers from the State Office for Road Construction and Traffic have been investigating the damage since the morning. You must decide if the bridge's statics have been damaged. If this is not the case, the bridge roads will be reopened to traffic.

Much more important - for the transport of goods in Northern Europe - is the decision to ship. If the experts from the state authority consider the bridge to be safe enough that no parts of the bridge can fall, work can be carried out underneath to repair the damage. During the accident, weights of the crane fell into the water. Divers need to clarify whether they need to be lifted immediately or later. Only then can ships pass the point.

For the duration of the closure, this means that the Kiel Canal may only remain closed for a few days. But if the bridge is badly damaged or it takes a long time to salvage the weights from the bottom of the canal, it could take weeks. "We can only speculate," said Jörg Brockmann from the Waterways and Shipping Office of the Kiel Canal.

For the moment this means that ships are not handled either in the lock basins in Kiel or in Brunsbüttel at the other end of the canal. Every hour the traffic jams of freighters on the North Sea in front of the canal entrance and opposite on the Baltic Sea get longer.

The "Meri", which sails under the Finnish flag and has Turku as its home port, fetched the crane from Rostock and is to transport it to Esbjerg on the Danish North Sea coast.

The reason for the accident is not yet known - whether it was technical or human error. It is surprising that the unusual height of the cargo on the "Meri" in the Kiel lock system did not cause an alarm. According to the Kiel water police, the local fire brigade is busy binding the hydraulic oil that ran into the canal.

However, there is an alternative for the shipping companies. Instead of using the Kiel Canal, they can also have their cargo ships sail around the Danish Jutland. They then enter the Baltic Sea through the Skagerrak and Kattegat. However, this route is 250 nautical miles longer and adds about a day to the boat trip. Around two-thirds of shipping traffic between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea uses this sea route, while one-third takes the shortcut through the canal.

Shipowners must decide whether the additional cost of fuel, called bunkering, is worth the time savings. For larger cargo ships, the long sea route is the standard anyway. In order to be allowed to enter the canal, ships can be a maximum of 260 meters long and 32 meters wide. The draft is limited to 9.50 meters.

Around 120 ships pass through the Kiel Canal every day at this time of the year. Your cargo is often destined for Sweden, Finland, the Baltic States or Poland. The around 100 km long Kiel Canal was opened in 1895 with a small double lock in Brunsbüttel and Holtenau. The two large locks followed in 1914. Last year, 27,293 ships passed through the canal. Before the corona pandemic, there were around 30,000 ships.

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