From my journal, 7-29:
9:30 AM Dietfurt. Everyone is on the forward deck now, in dazzling sunshine, aiming cameras, phones and iPads upwards to record our elevator descent 56 feet and emergence into the Main-Danube Canal.
First envisioned by Charlemagne, this 106-mile stretch of canal was finally dug in the 20th century, completed in 1992. It allows ships to cross Europe’s Continental Divide, enabling continuous river travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. Sixteen locks raise the water level to 1,332 feet–and beyond them another series of locks lower it again.
We felt every one of them. A hand violently rocking our cradle. A vindictive child bouncing on the bed. The bartender on board shaking us into a martini. A shivering beast under the mattress–
We’d slip back into sleep while gliding between locks, then jolt awake when we ricocheted between the concrete walls of the next enclosure. As water rushed in, raising us to the next level, we’d rock and bounce and bump. Then there would be another long quiet stretch as we glided to the next one.
Sometimes it was less a sensation than a sound. Four hours earlier than the above entry, I recorded another: High-pitched whine, painful, that went on and on until I thought my head would shatter. I got up, distracted, and opened our stateroom door. The sound was just as loud but no louder out in the hall. A shrill whistle.
I started throwing on clothes, torn between wanting to find out what it was–a rubbing between ship’s fenders and wall?–and wanting to get away from it. Jerry woke, could hear it, didn’t seem bothered by it but started getting his clothes on, too. “What’s the color of the day?” “I don’t know. I’m just putting on anything.”
We crept down the hall, up two flights of stairs, the sound surrounding us, penetrating me. I had to plug my ears with my fingers.
The companionway to the sun deck was closed; the crew had cleared the deck and roped it off when they lowered the wheelhouse for this series of locks. The noise never diminished but incredibly (to me) we saw no one else out of the cabins except the night steward who had been folding newsletters last time we came up this early. Plus one fellow passenger filming our descent into the lock on his iPad.
The noise was unremitting. It didn’t change in pitch. It didn’t stop. We were at the bottom of an 81-foot lock, dripping walls high above us. Jerry, untucked, disheveled, his face tired, peered over the glass panel railings up front. The other man kept filming. I stopped blocking my ears long enough to take pictures.
Apparently the gates ahead were already open. We had sunk as far as we could and now we glided out of our steel sarcophagus with almost no clearance on either side or over head as we passed between the gates.
The man said, “Claustrophobic, isn’t it?” He didn’t mention the tone that was going through me, as loud as ever although we were now completely out of the lock and moving through the pale-colored filaments and contrails of early morning.
Jerry said, “I’ll ask what the noise is” and disappeared back through the glass doors to the lounge.
I didn’t care what caused it. Now I only cared about making it stop. I caught up with him as the night steward said, “Please write it down. I do not understand. What means this ‘high-pitched whine’?”
“Tone,” Jerry was saying. “This tone–”
“It is the sound of the boat,” the steward said stiffly. “It is just the sound of going through the locks. We have it all the time.”
“No,” Jerry persisted. “A high-pitched tone.”
“Maybe it is just in your cabin,” the steward said, wanting to get rid of us as much as I wanted to get rid of the whine.
“Never mind,” I said. “It’s stopped now.” I didn’t appreciate being treated as if we were lying and worse, hallucinating.
The sign overhead, as we emerged from the lock, read Bachhausen. On the map it’s the first lock after the watershed, the second of two really deep ones.
7:00 AM Showered and ready for the new day I started hearing it again. The very same pitch but not the same volume. I finally understood what my dad used to mean when he told me some of my excited squeak “went right through” him. This time, along with the not-quite-so-piercing tone there were rubbing noises that sometimes sounded like the speech of a whale.
Sure enough, we were (are) in another lock. I can stand it at a distance, with the sea mammals communicating among themselves.
Here we are moving forward and out of the lock:
Here is our bow emerging from the lock. Note the clearance–or lack of it:
I don’t think I’ll ever be afraid of earthquakes again. When we get home to Southern California and feel those rumbles in the night, I’ll tell myself, “It’s just another lock,” and go back to sleep.