A river cruise is different from an ocean cruise. Sure, the boats are different, passengers’ expectations are different and the crusing part of the experience is different.
But what’s really different is that river cruising puts the passenger, the crew and the ship company at the mercy of the water levels. It’s not that way in the Pacific Ocean…
No matter what river, or set of rivers, you’re cruising on, you’ve gotta have just the right amount of water. Too little and there’s not enough depth for the ship to clearly navigate the channel. Too much and the ship floats so high that it may not be able to get under some of those low bridges spanning the river.
This summer I think the rivers we’re exploring have gone both ways—pretty darn low in mid- and late June and so much water in July that ships were occasionally unable to pass under those extra-low bridges.
Here on the Viking Atla, docked this evening at Krems, the Danube is flowing quickly due to a higher than normal water level. There’s been rain all around Germany and Austria and that rain eventually finds its way into the same rivers that we are traveling on, giving us a boost in speed (since we’re currently heading down river) but also making some of those bridges on a close collision course with the top of our ship.
Our boat’s top deck was off limits for four days due to the high water levels: the deck chairs, awnings and all non-essential items were cleverly designed to drop down to deck level to allow for more clearance. Even the wheelhouse (or is it a “bridge”?) is on hydraulics so it can be recessed right down flat with the deck. We’d been told that, when a bridge is so low, the captain can sit in this lowered space (which has an opening in the roof) and stay in place until the span is just over him, hunker down and then pop his head back up like a jack-in-the-box.
It sounds funny, doesn’t it? We were walking down to Passau from an overlook today and saw a captain from another ship line do exactly that as they passed under a bridge leading to the city. It looked quite odd from above: Now you see the captain, now you don’t, now you do!
Tonight I had my own experience with a low bridge and high river water. I was seated on the top deck, in front of the wheelhouse, happily typing away on a post for this site. Well, really I was typing quite quickly because I hoped the speed of my fingers would generate some body heat: it was chilly up there. The day was fading in a grey sky of heavy clouds and I kept typing, figuring I’d catch a bite of dinner later.
I hadn’t looked up at the river for several minutes so when a crew member approached me from behind I was a bit startled. “We are going under a very low bridge up ahead,” he told me in heavily-accented English.”The captain says you can stay here but please not to stand up.”
I looked around. I was the only passenger remaining on the deck. I looked back at the wheelhouse. It was dropped entirely down into its safe pocket. I looked ahead as we gained steadily on a lock with an overhanging bridge.
The crew member smiled. “It is okay. Captain says you can stay. You will be okay. Don’t stand up.”
He’d already told me one more time than I needed. I was not going to stand up. In fact, I eyed the chairs around me and made sure I slouched down lower than the chair backs.
The captain walked forward of me (evidently someone else was doing the steering at this point). He looked ahead, behind and to both sides. The dark span was almost upon us. He ducked down, squatting below chair level. I slouched a little further (I truly believe now that it is possible for a human to collapse upon herself, shortening her spine by at least four inches temporarily; I know this because I’ve done it now).
We skimmed under the first horizontal beam with seriously just a few inches to spare over the chair backs. The captain lifted up briefly to eye the back of the ship moving forward.
The second span approached and this time he reached up to touch the metal beam overhead as he squatted on the deck. I just sat very still and breathed out the remaining air in my lungs; every little bit of collapsing helps, I think, don’t you?
We scootched under that bridge. Barely.