After the engine breakdown on board his Nicholson 35 Lady Blue in the Kiel Canal, one of the busiest commercial channels in the world, Harry Dekkers explains how they resolved the situation

The Kiel Canal provides a convenient shortcut between the North Sea and the Baltic, or as the Germans call it, the Nordsee and the Ostsee. We Europeans call it the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal, or NOK for short, while you Brits just call it the Kiel Canal.

Going from west to east you enter the Kiel Canal via the Elbe River where you enter the locks at Brunsbüttel and you leave the Kiel Canal at Holtenau locks where you proceed into the Kieler Förde. Due to the shortcut of approximately 240 miles, 27,000 commercial vessels and 12,000 yachts transit the Kiel Canal every year.

Yachts are only allowed to use the canal during daylight hours, which provides the opportunity (during summer) to make the passage in one day.

The canal is 53 miles long, 90m wide and 11m deep. These dimensions accommodate commercial vessels up to 235m LOA and with a maximum draught of 9.5m. The traffic, both commercial and yachts, are managed by means of VHF and many light signals at the locks as well as along the channel. There are 10 bridges crossing the Kiel Canal all of which have a 40m air draught and it’s also traversed by 14 ferries including a beautiful and unique ‘hanging’ ferry.

Harry and Liz’s Nicholson 35, Lady Blue, is well-maintained and has serious miles under her keel. Photo: Harry Dekkers

VHF communications

The transit of the Kiel Canal is actually quite simple and straightforward, although it was our experience that communication by the lock masters really depended on the lock master on duty. Some were more friendly and understanding towards yachts than others.

There are four VHF channels that you need to actively use: one for each lock and two between the locks. The call signs from west to east are very originally called Kiel Kanal I (VHF 13) for the Brunsbüttel lock area, Kiel Kanal II (VHF 2) to Breiholz, Kiel Kanal III (VHF 3) and Kiel Kanal IV (VHF 12) for the Kiel-Holtenau lock area.

Formally you have to report and request permission to enter the locks but no reporting duty applies for Kiel Kanal II and III. It was our experience that the monitoring of the traffic lights were more important.

Article continues below…

When calling one of the channels you do get a reply, but not always as detailed as you would like. The expected waiting time for instance was not always communicated, which is quite pertinent for yachts in the waiting areas outside the locks, especially in the Elbe River with up to 4 knots of tidal stream.

The ‘not always kind’ communication that we sometimes encountered is doubtless due to the fact that the four VHF channels are used by both commercial vessels and yachts and are therefore very busy.

Almanacs like the Reeds Almanac provide most of the relevant information. In addition you can find handy details on different websites like Both sources provide information on the light signals at the locks, the specific light and their meaning along the canal, the canal dues, maximum speeds and more.

A collection of small-scale charts and pilot books on board meant they still had the necessary information and details. Photo: Harry Dekkers

Lady Blue under engine

Our Nicholson 35 from 1976 is still fitted out with the original Mercedes OM636 with hydraulic drive, with two drive belts. One is driving the raw water pump, and one is driving the alternator and the internal cooling system pump.

When we bought the boat some years ago the engine appeared in very good running condition (after an overhaul some years before) except that the different systems were quite outdated. We therefore completely renewed basically all the systems including the instrument panel, fuel system, oil filter housing, water-cooling systems and the exhaust.

The new instrument gauges included oil pressure, water temperature and voltage as well as a warning light for low charging. This proved to be vital information during the events that unfolded…

Loss of the chart plotter

We approached the Kiel Canal in darkness after we left late afternoon the day before from Gedser, which is at the most southern point of Denmark and approximately 65 miles east of the Holtenau lock in the Kiel fjord. After a short wait and with the sun starting to rise we were allowed in.

As we had sailed through the night we decided to make a stop at Rendsburg Marina (a cosy, relatively small marina with good facilities) at about three hours’ sail west into the canal from the Holtenau lock.

Next morning before we left, I changed the Navionics micro SD card from the Baltic to UK/Holland to avoid any surprises rather than doing it out in the middle of the North Sea. I was very happy I did so because, for reasons unknown, at that moment both cards got corrupted.

This meant that we had to do some old-fashioned prep on paper. As a back-up we used a standalone GPS, the small-scale Imray C70 Southern North Sea Passage chart and the Reeds Almanac for detailed Kiel Canal, harbour and approaches plans. Nothing wrong with that, although it required a bit more preparation and more secure checking of navigation aids like buoys and lighthouses.

Access to the engine via the cockpit locker was made easier by everything being in good order already. Photo: Harry Dekkers

Loss of propulsion

The main challenge – in contrast to the minor challenge of losing the chart plotter – was a broken drive belt. Once we were en route in the Kiel Canal, for the second part towards Brünsbuttel, we suddenly heard an awkward ‘plonk’ kind of sound from underneath the cockpit floor where the engine is positioned.

We had no idea what it was and it got us a bit worried. I looked at the engine instrument panel, which showed the red alternator light burning. This was a first indication that something was wrong.

Although you can proceed using the engine when the alternator is not working anymore, I also knew that the same belt runs the internal cooling pump. More or less immediately after that, the cooling water temperature began rising, which confirmed the first analysis that indeed the belt was broken. Without visually checking the engine our priority now was to stop the engine to avoid overheating with all possible consequences.

Fellow Dutch yacht San Michele, a Winner 1220, took Lady Blue in tow while Liz steered and Harry worked on the engine. Photo: Harry Dekkers

The best option was to drop anchor and to replace the belt. We were not, however, enjoying a leisurely sail on open water but were transiting one of the busiest commercial canals in the world.

Stopping the engine would mean that we would ‘free float’ in the channel, which wasn’t a happy thought.

With the engine on idle and slowly reducing speed at the starboard side of the channel I contacted the Kiel Canal authorities on VHF to inform them about our position, referring to the distance marker we had just passed, our situation on board and finally our intentions.

The communication was very fast and efficient, and it was agreed that we should drop anchor.

The next step was to prepare the anchor, which meant removing the security pin from the anchor and undoing the back-up line (which could easily have been cut if necessary). We were lucky to have a light head wind at that point which made it relatively easy to drop the anchor while still close to the starboard side of the channel.

Harry and Liz enjoy a well-earned beer in the cockpit. Photo: Harry Dekkers

From that moment on our ‘emergency’ was under control: we were at anchor; the canal authorities were aware of our situation and could take care of shipping and I had time to replace the belt. The situation became even more ‘relaxed’ after a yacht sailing in the same direction (which had heard our communication over the VHF) offered us a tow.

The tow line was quickly rigged, the anchor retrieved, and we were on our way again. After informing the authorities of the new situation I took the spare belt and some tools, cleared the cockpit locker and went to work while Liz steered to follow our ‘tug’.


Although the space in the cockpit locker and around the engine is a little cramped and the engine being around 80ºC, the changing of the belt was quite straightforward. Because I do most of the maintenance myself, I knew what tools (and sizes) were needed. After 20 minutes or so the work was done, and we were able to start the engine. The red warning light was out, and the temperature gauge started quickly to come down to normal levels. We contacted the tow on VHF Channel 77 (which we agreed to use on our handheld VHFs), gave them a big thumbs up and disconnected the tow.

I informed the authorities that our engine was operational again and the ‘emergency’ was cancelled. We then proceeded towards Brünsbuttel, passed the locks and stayed the night at Cuxhaven before returning back to the Netherlands the next day.

A big thank-you to the crew of the Dutch yacht San Michel from the Royal Yacht Club (KNZ&RV) in Enkhuizen for providing the tow and providing us time to solve the engine challenge.

Harry and Liz’s Nicholson 35 Lady Blue back on her home berth. Photo: Harry Dekkers

Lessons learned

Navigation: Ensure you have a back-up in case the electronic chart system fails. We always have small scale charts and the Reeds Almanac on board, which worked fine.

Maintenance: Gain knowledge about your engine including fuel, charging, and cooling systems as you might need it in the event of a breakdown. For that reason, it’s worth doing as much of the maintenance as possible yourself.

Engine information: Make sure you have a properly functioning instrument panel which includes temperature, oil and voltage/charging information. Based on the panel information, I was alerted to the issue and was able to diagnose what had happened with 99% certainty. I knew we had to stop the engine to avoid overheating.

Strange sounds: Be suspicious of unfamiliar sounds. We do not continuously look at the engine instrument panel, but it was the unfamiliar sound that made us do so.

The new engine control panel includes engine temperature, oil pressure and alternator volts, as well as revs and engine hours. Photo: Harry Dekkers

Anchoring: Make sure that your anchor is ready to be released at any time, especially in confined waters where you are close to land.

Communication: Proactively inform the local authorities via VHF. They can assist where necessary and it avoids them starting to ask questions while you are busy solving your problems.

Engine access: It is essential you can reach the engine space easily. In our case it means that the cockpit locker must be well organised (like hanging the shore power cables and spare lines) to enable this without having to dig your way past accumulated junk.

Spares: It was a good reminder that we carry the necessary spare parts including belts for good reason. It’s also worth carrying at least two of everything. Had the belt gone again, without a second spare we would have been in a much worse position.

Enjoyed reading this?

A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.

Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.

YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.

      • Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
      • Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
      • Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.