Die Donau Pilot Book

Traveling the length of the Danube is not a trivial undertaking. Having a proper pilot book is a decided advantage to such an adventure.

It’s hard to know how to describe “Die Donau” by Melanie Haselhorst and Kenneth Dittmann published 2013. Given that it is sold as a pilotage book it’s probably best to assess it from that perspective. The main problem is that it has in it a number of deep flaws which seriously degrade its use and trustworthiness. Such as:

  • some critical information is simply not there
  • some crucial parts of the river system are omitted (such as the Balla Channel, Borcea Channel, the Danube-Black Sea Canal)
  • some information is just dead wrong
  • the authors made the trip in early 2006 from which passage they published the 2011 version of the book, this made some of the information 5 years old on a river that changes every year
  • the second edition released in 213 was not based on a newer trip (by anyone),  rather the publisher simply incorporated reader’s comments to make the new edition. This is slightly dubious when used for a pilot book on the Danube River which changes itself every season: for the new information there is little consistency, a lot of harbours simply have missing pieces of data as the “readers” didn’t bother to send those in, or alternatively the publisher chose not to print those comments. This approach does leave the question of how such information was verified.
  • it is designed as partly a “coffee table” or picture book

A pilot book is a volume to depend on and trust – sometimes the integrity of the boat and crew will depend on it. “Die Donau” does not warrant that trust.

Maringret made the passage down the Donau in the summer of 2013 – a summer that was preceded by extreme rains bringing hundred-year floods and then extended drought in July and August. The 2013 edition of “Die Donau” was months old when we used it – it had not had time to go “out of date”. We and the handful of other boats we met generally ran into the same problems with the book. Some of the boats had German as a mother tongue so we were able to deduce that our school level German was not the cause of the problems with “Die Donau”.

Examples of faults in the publications include:

  • We were approaching moorages listed in the book and having the owners tell us that no, it was not a moorage, had never been a moorage and then they would ask “Are you using that same German language guide book as every one else? It’s wrong!” Some of the listed moorages were farcical such as the disco boat outside a hotel. It left every night to do disco tours of the river, returning at 4 AM. Presumably who ever sent in that moorage suggestion had stayed there when the disco was closed or it was the off season. Maringret was lucky enough to meet a boat going up river at Komarno on the Slovak/Hungarian border who had the same newly published second edition as we did. They were able to spend an 2 hours going through our copy with a pencil correcting the charts, crossing out text and adding notations in the margins for the lower half of the Danube. Meanwhile we did the same with their copy of the inaccuracies we had found on the upper half of the river. We only fully realised some weeks how invaluable their corrections had been and how much trouble we would have had without them. All of this in a “pilot” book less than 6 months old!
  • Through seeing numerous professional cargo vessels going aground (vessels that had less draft than Maringret) we learned that low water levels in the late summer are not rare, they are actually an annual occurrence. The authors made their one and only trip down the river on the tail end of the spring melt waters and consequently remained oblivious to what is the summer reality on the lower river. There is no water level control below the Iron Gates dams and nature dictates the water depth. Coincidentally this is also where bouyage is the poorest on the whole Danube. And with school holidays dictating vacation times for many boats, the months of July and August, with their low water level in the lower Danube, will be the popular time of passage.
  • There is no information on where deep water lies. Maringret was lucky enough to have a barge captain in Rousse Bulgaria update the chart snapshots printed in “Die Donau”. He labelled it “dangerous” to go out onto the river without such information. To be fair to “Die Donau” that information changes constantly and it would be of little use for them to print where the deep lay in the year of publishing. But where the fault exists is that they never mention such concerns, leaving the unsuspecting reader to assume adequate water everywhere. Surely they could have described the requirement to get this information – even if they were not able to find a solution.
  • In Romania all traffic has been diverted away from the natural channel between km 345 and km 240 and directed onto the Balla and Borcea channels. There is a multi-year project with numerous cranes and barges at km 345 – they were halfway through the project in 2013. You can not miss the construction site where they are closing off the natural channel to traffic and reinforcing the Balla and Borcea channels. All dredging on the natural channel has ceased: the 2 sport boats we met who followed the natural channel past km 345 (as described in “Die Donau”) got seriously stuck – one for 3 days. The Balla and Borcea channels are both dredged, bouyed and maintained. Barge captains we spoke to said this has been the case for some years yet “Die Donau” does not mention this fact even though it was less than 4 months old when we were there. It does not have chart coverage for either the Ball or Borcea channels. 145 km of the designated channel is simply not covered! And this 145 km is in the most extended shallow portion on the river as past km 240 the river achieves 20m depth and is full of ocean going boats.
  • no reference is made of pricing even though prices range from €5 per metre for no facilities through to no charge. Some facilities are honest and good value while others are tourist traps which charge in euros only but give change in local currency – they will not accept their own currency for payment. Some of the facilities are best avoided while others are very enjoyable, the book makes no distinction. Other boats we met suspected that mention in the book was linked to offering a free night of moorage.
  • The book seems to be written for 2 audiences: those traveling down the river and those traveling by armchair. There are numerous glossy photos of things that are anything but essential to navigation. Yet there seems to be no maps or photos pertaining to tricky harbour entrances etc. When unable to locate an entrance it is exasperating to only have pictures of the local floating restaurant, the cathedral and a horse drawn cart as you navigate a cross current, watch for unmarked shallows and keep an eye on the barge bearing down on you.

Having said all the above, there is little alternative that is recent in any way (Heikell’s excellent book being more than 20 years old). Boats contemplating making a passage down the Donau can at least be aware of the main failings of the book “Die Donau” and takes steps to avoid the pitfalls.

If we were making the passage again we would take the following steps:

  • treat “Die Donau” as just one opinion on things – not as a pilot book
  • for drafts greater than 1.3m consider investing in the Verberght & Co charts
  • download copies of the various websites previous boats have created (we have some of them in our Danube links page). Their information was generally more focussed on the river and less on the “coffee table” aspects of tourist sites ashore
  • trust the barges and follow their lead – they are on the river constantly
  • read the draft on every vessel that passes you, no matter which direction they are going
  • learn how the water tends to channel in oxbow rivers (like portions of the lower Danube), we have a page on this here
  • ask for local pilotage information in local harbours (if you can get into the harbours)

It is both safe and enjoyable to travel down the Danube, knowing the trustworthiness of your reference books increases both.

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