The world’s busiest man-made shipping channel, the Kiel Canal, stretches almost 120 miles from Holtenau on the Baltic coast of Germany, to Brunsbuttel on the North Sea coast.

The ‘Nord-Ostsee-Kanal’, an emphatic triumph of German engineering, opened to link both seas in 1895. At that time the city, and the region’s capital, controlled the largest man-made waterway in the world. It continues to shape the character and economy of Kiel, workaday and unpretentious.

Sunrise over the Kiel Canal

Trip luck saw us pitch Bertha alongside the massive sluice gates that control the flow of sea water in and out of the canal.

In just 24 hours we lost count of the number of gigantic cargo ships laden with colourful Maersk containers, which powered thunderously past to sit impatiently in the sluice for long minutes at a time whilst the massive mechanical gates closed behind and opened ahead of them. Time on the seas, as elsewhere, is money.

Through the locks and into the Canal

A flotilla of small leisure boats and yachts flitted in the canal between the giant trawlers to the visible annoyance of the pilots. We discovered, to our delight, a free ferry.

We took the short ride across from Kiel to upmarket and residential Wik. 19th century villas with manicured gardens strung out along tree-lined roads and we strolled to the end of the inlet to its pretty lighthouse.

Walking back, we had a view of Bertha on the opposite bank and sampled our first pickled herring lunch washed down with hot and treacly coffee.

Kiel was bombed heavily in the Second World War, but not because of its canal. Rather, it was home to Germany’s largest U-boat base from which deadly sorties were carried out attacking both Allied and Merchant Navies in the north seas.

In 1945 alone, the port area was bombed 90 times. The shell of a lone submarine stands at the entrance to the city’s massive bay, as a reminder.

Downtown Kiel

Cycling into the city was a bracing pedal on a breezy morning past the many marinas, the military navy barracks and the cruise ship terminals.

Hastily rebuilt in the 1950s, and still being redeveloped, Kiel is not a pretty place. However, it doesn’t pretend to be and instead proffers its massive waterfront as its star attraction.

Kiel’s modern Alte Markt

Living the brand of “Kiel. Sailing. City.” visitors and residents alike are encouraged to get on the water. Every schoolchild receives free sailing lessons and we saw a clutch of them endearingly perched in tiny sail boats expertly catching the breeze and managing to keep out of each other’s way, to the shouts of encouragement from their instructors.

One week earlier, three million people had converged upon the port for the annual Kieler Woche, a week of sailing and carousing. We had probably done well to miss it and the clean up operation was still evident as pop up bars and eateries were being dismantled along the harbourside.

Leaving Kiel into the sunset

An enormous Stena Line cruise ship blocked out the sun as it passed on its way out to sea and Sweden, excited passengers waving to us from several storeys high up above.

Our own ship would turn out to be a fraction of the size, but our passage a calm and relaxed one across the wide Baltic sea to Lithuania.