Learn more about the history-making canal that made modern river cruising possible!

Crossing the European Continental Divide

On select river cruises, AmaWaterways guests enjoy an iconic travel experience: crossing the European Continental Divide – the history-making canal that ultimately led to the founding of AmaWaterways!

What is a Continental Divide?

A continental divide is a drainage divide separating two major bodies of water that feed into different oceans or seas—or rivers, in this case. The European watershed is a triple divide—with the Main-Rhine rivers flowing into the North Sea, the Danube River into the Black Sea, and Italy’s Po River draining into the Adriatic Sea. The only way river cruise ships can cross the Continental Divide between the North Sea and the Black Sea is through the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

Early History of the Canal

It was Charlemagne, the 8th- and 9th-century emperor who laid the groundwork for the Holy Roman Empire, who first came up with the idea of a canal connecting the North and Black seas via the Main and Danube rivers. However, heavy rains and lateral erosion, the process by which heavy vessels push sediment from the bottom of the river onto the banks, prevented Charlemagne’s dream from becoming a reality.

That was, until some 1,200 years later, when King Ludwig I of Bavaria began construction of a section of the canal from Bamberg to Nuremberg. At that time, boats were pulled through by horses to compensate for the changes in altitude. Later, a system of locks was put into place. However, the Ludwig-Danube-Main Canal, as it was known at the time, was heavily damaged during World War II and was officially shut down in 1950.

The Rhine Joins In

An increase in shipping and passenger traffic soon made it clear that a connection between the rivers was not only desired, but necessary. In 1992, a bigger and better canal was completed that expanded upon the former visionaries’ ideas: the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

A watery staircase measuring 106 miles long and 30 feet deep, the canal allows ships to sail from the Black Sea to the North Sea via European rivers. The completion of the canal paved the way for the visionary “godfather of river cruising,” AmaWaterways’ award-winning Co-owner and President, Rudi Schreiner, to develop river cruising as we know it today.

Crossing Process

To cross the summit of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, otherwise known as the European Continental Divide—and the highest point on Earth accessible by watercraft—ships must transit 16 locks to lift themselves more than 1,300 feet above sea level.

Locks are remarkable feats of engineering that push a ship upwards by allowing water in from tanks to raise and alternatively lower a ship back down, thanks to a little help from gravity. Water drained from one part of the lock system flows into a tank that saves it from escaping back into the river. Since the Danube and Main rivers have different elevations, locks are necessary to bring ships from one river to the other.

During the crossing process, the ships are somewhat enclosed within the walls of the locks—at times, mere inches from the sides of the ship – an unusual and unforgettable experience for guests! At the summit, a large monument designed by German artist Hanns Jörg Voth marks the Continental Divide.

An AmaWaterways Event

AmaWaterways guests on Medieval Treasures, Europe’s Rivers & Castles, Legendary Danube and Blue Danube Discovery river cruises will be able to experience a special ceremony for the crossing of the European Continental Divide from up on the Sun Deck. A glass of sparkling champagne or cocktail is served, and guests receive a certificate documenting their historic journey. When passing the Divide to the Danube River during the daytime, the Blue Danube Waltz is played on board.

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