Roswitha Engert-Zöller and her husband, Capt. Albrecht Zöller, dream of riding a working towboat on the Mississippi River. But their life cruising through picturesque European villages aboard their family owned and operated power barge would be the envy of most North American mariners. The opportunities for owner-operator vessels are the norm on Europe’s inland waterways, rather than the exception as on America’s rivers.
Rivers and canals have been important to the commerce of Europe since the Middle Ages. Horse drawn barges carried farm products to local markets while others helped to carry the riches of the Mediterranean and beyond to the burgers of Northern Europe. With the advent of the internal combustion engine, barges took on their own power and grew in size, but the tradition of family ownership survived the increased capital costs. Deepening and widening made some canals more attractive while some smaller waterways fell into disuse. Over the Easter weekend last March, the Zöller family was completing a voyage from Lintz, Austria to Fürth (near Nuremberg) in Germany. Their ship, Johannes Von Nepomuk is 345 ft. (105 m) with a 31-ft. (9.5-m) beam. In addition, they were pushing a 230 x 34-ft. (70 x 10-m) barge. The 2,400-ton cargo of chemical fertilizer was distributed with 1,400 tons in the ship and 1,000 tons in the barge. All was in covered holds loaded to take the vessels down to the maximum allowed draft of 9 ft. (2.72 m) –
slightly less than the Mississippi inland system’s maintained depth of 9.5 ft. (2.8 m)
The Johannes Von Nepomuk crossed into Germany at Passau home of the ZF gear factory. They cruised through the Bavarian countryside past the region’s onion domed churches, manicured fields and managed forests. Each night they moored or if no suitable moorage was available, they anchored in the stream. This allows them to operate with Albrecht doing virtually all of the helm’s work. When cargos are more time sensitive they will bring on their relief captain allowing the vessel to run 24 hours/day. But with the long weekend expected
to cause a delay in off loading the first of the cargo at Fürth, a more leisurely pace made sense. Typically Albrecht spends eight or nine months on board each year with the relief captain doing the balance. For two- to three-months of the year, both captains are onboard and a third captain is available for 24-hour days as the cargo demands. In addition there is a mate and a deckhand in the core crew working six weeks on and off in rotation. The vessel also employs two alternating apprentices whose wages are subsidized by government to assure a good future supply of qualified boatmen.
The 2,850 km of the Danube or Donau in German from the source in Germany to the Black Sea have been a military and commercial transportation corridor for centuries. On today’s maps, the lower 1,075-km marks the border between Romania and part of Serbia. A shorter section is entirely in Serbia after flowing out of Hungary, Slovakia and Austria. The Zöller family has never been down river past Budapest in Hungary and looks forward to a time when the war damaged bridges of Serbia are fully cleared to make the passage safer and more practical. Although it is open to limited access, some vessels are currently making the passage.
On Good Friday, after passing into Bavaria, darkness brings the Johannes Von Nepomuk to the lock at Geisling, 2,353 km. from the Black Sea. After passing through the lock, Albrecht moors to the concrete side where Rosewitha’s sister Barbara waits with her car. The crane on the ship picks her car up and parks it on the afterdeck beside the Zöller family car. A traditional Bavarian Good Friday dinner of herring salad is served in the combined galley, living and dining room at the stern of the ship. Bavarian beer and French wine warm the extended family, which now includes the family’s three sons, Magnus 10, Fabian 14, Tobias
16, and their aunt Barbara and her two-year-old daughter, Fiona. Although Germany has three boarding homes for the children of ship’s crew, the boys’ mother stays ashore with them for school times. Also present at dinner that night were Stefan the Hungarian deckhand, and Roland Fuchs, the apprentice sailor. In keeping with the practice on a number of inland ships, a father and son who were paying guests, were spending the last night of a one-week visit onboard.
Talk turns to the history of the Nepomuk. Built in 1960 with an 800-hp engine, the ship was lengthened in 1980 and repowered with the 1,600-hp Cummins in 1999 when the barge was added. The Zöllers bought it in 1993 from Albrecht’s father who had owned it since 1977. They renamed the vessel for the patron saint of those who work around water. The namesake was a priest, who, refusing to tell a wealthy man what his wife had said in the confessional, was thrown into the river. Later five stars arose from the river to honor the priest’s integrity. Amidst a carved wooden statue of Nepomuk, which watches over the family as they eat, Good Friday celebration or not, this is a working ship and everyone turns in at 10:00 p.m. for a 6:00 a.m. departure on up river toward Regensburg.
In the morning, after calling a taxi to pick-up the guests, the combined 575 ft. (175.2-m) of vessels moves into the river stream with the aide of bow thrusters on both the ship and the barge. The ship’s thruster is a conventional tunnel thruster powered by a 300 hp engine; the thruster at the head end of the barge is powered by a 530-hp Cummins KTA 19. Manufactured by a Netherlands-based firm, the Verhaar Omega Thruster employs a horizontal propeller and a rotating drum, which can rotate 360 degrees. This makes them useful not only for port and starboard movement but also for assistance in backing down when entering a lock. At least one Mississippi operator has considered Omega thrusters for extra safety on oil barges, but they are much more common on Europe’s inland waterways. Combined with the 16-cylinder, 1,600 hp Cummins KTA50 main engine on the ship, giving the Johannes Von Nepomuk and its barge remarkable maneuverability in spite of the great length. The Cummins main turns a highly-skewed five-blade 1.6-m propeller through a ZF 5.2:1 gear manufactured at the company’s Pasau factory.
A challenge for owner operators of workboats the world over is the balancing of business arrangements with onboard operations. Freight has to be scheduled so as to avoid return trips with no paying cargo. The Zöllers avoid this through their participation in the MSG group of owner-operators.
In 1916, Albrecht Zöller’s grandfather was one of six founding partners of this collective of German-owned river ships. Today Albrecht is the vice president of the organization’s supervision, with Heinz Hofmann serving as the company’s manager. With a current membership of 65 blue and white painted ships, the cooperative employs a manager to arrange cargos. As cargo rates vary, the collective minimizes risk by collecting all receivables and averaging the rates to all participants. A reduced rate is paid when a ship must travel light between ports. MSG also invests in cargo handling facilities and pays a small amount to each member when ice blocks operations forcing down time. With all of these commitments covered, a dividend is paid to members at year’s end. The organization represents a model for “How to keep the family business in business.”
Just above Regensburg the hills crowd the river more tightly. Last year’s Mai Bough, tall slender evergreens with all but the topmost branches removed, in the passing villages remind a North American visitor of English May Poles. The Zöller family tells Bavarian folk history in a manner that exhibits the depth of their roots in this part of the country even though their travels take them from Rotterdam in the northwest to Budapest in the southeast. The breadth of their operational region was much expanded in 1992 when the final link in the Trans-European Waterway was completed with the opening of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. First envisioned in 793 by King Carl the Great, the canal was made passable in the 19th century. But is was small in size and entailed a great many incremental locks to lift ships from the Main, a northern flowing tributary of the Rhine, up over the continental divide to the southerly flowing Danube. It was not until 1992, that the final stretch of the canal linking the two systems was made passable to the large modern powered barges of today.
The canal is maintained to a depth of four meters and a navigational width of about 31 to 41 m. From Kelheim – 2,411-km. from the Black Sea on the upper Danube – five locks lift vessels 222 ft. (67.8 m) to the European continental divide. Then ten more locks lower ships 574 ft. (175.1 m) to the Main River at Bamberg for a total of 15 locks in the 173-km passage. The first three of these northern locks lower and raise ships a dramatic 80 ft. (24.6-m) each. From the pilot house of the Johannes Von Nepomuk as the ship sits in the full lock, it appears as though the vessel is to be launched into the tree tops of the Bavarian forests. Ice in the canal typically leads to three or four week closures each winter, but the canal is continuing to change the manner of water borne transportation for Europe by opening the whole 3500 km waterway from the North Sea port of Rotterdam to the Romanian Black Sea port of Sulina. Cargo volumes through the canal have increased steadily since 1992 reaching approximately six million tons last year. In the merging of cultures and terminology from the two river systems, the licensed commander of a vessel on the Rhine continues to be called "Schiffsführer" while the equivalent position on the Danube is a "Kapitän."
The big wheelhouse of the Nepomuk provides great visibility and is a favorite space for family visiting. The captain and father sits in his elevated pilot’s chair, smoking one of the two dozen pipes arranged in racks on the walls, and points out features along the canal from fresh beaver cuttings to the remains of ancient locks. In fair weather a skylight can be opened in the top of the wheelhouse. The electronics onboard the ship would dazzle the users of those ancient locks beyond belief. Dominant is a large flat screen computer monitor combining electronic charts and the image from the Swiss radar. Developed by Innovative Navigation specifically for European waterways, the developers maintain that, "The RADARpilot 720 is the first certified integrated navigation system which unites common navigational instruments as the radar and the rate of turn indicator. Due to the combination of GPS and a powerful chart drawing engine the navigator has direct access to all necessary information. Therefore navigation with a maximum of safety is possible every time, even in difficult conditions like fog or at night."
This data can be stored and burned to a CD for the record in the event of an accident. When following the sinuous form of the river, the rectangular screen is kept in the vertical position, but when he enters a lock and has the ship stopped, it is swung to the horizontal, a button is touched and an electronic log book pops up, the captain lays a wireless keyboard on his knees and makes an entry. In the larger locks or on long straight stretches in the canal the screen and computer can also be used for checking e-mail through the ship’s mobile cellular phone. Steering of the ship is via a single jog stick mounted at the operator’s left side. Throttle and bow thrusters are to the right. Two small video monitors show the view forward from the port and starboard rear quarters of the front barge. A third monitor reports the image from a bow-mounted camera that can be rotated and zoomed to show the deck crew working or used to look around corners for approaching traffic. Cruising up the canal with Bavarian yodel and accordion music playing on the radio, the sun slanting down from the rocky bluffs and treed slopes marking the divide between the North Sea Drainage and that of the Black Sea makes for a mellow feeling on the bridge. Add to that the knowledge that ahead lies the Main River to the Rhine and astern lies the Danube flowing to the Black Sea and it is clear that this is the mariners version of the "top of Europe."
The closest North American equivalent would be the link between the Illinois River and Lake Superior that connects the Mississippi with the Saint Lawrence system. But it doesn’t carry anything like the weight of history nor the volume of traffic. From a contemporary perspective the Donau-Main canal is even more about potential than about history. In the port of Nünberg, half way through the canal, containers from ports around the world are stacked high. Just as in America the public awareness of environmental issues around highway construction and the inefficiencies of automotive transport are refocusing attention to the inland waterways. Literature prepared by the Wasser- und Schiffahrt-verwaltung des Bundes shows that one river tank ship, with out a secondary barge, can carry the equivalent of 42 rail tank-cars or 82 tank-trucks. With the clearing of obstructions and bottlenecks on the Danube and some deepening, dramatic increases in inland waterway shipping can be expected.