Castles On The Rhine From A River Barge

It wasn’t easy getting from the airport into Amsterdam. I began thinking my hitchhiking through Europe might not be a good idea. I only had two months to travel.  

At the hostel I stayed in the first night, I heard I could get a Eurail pass at their office in Utrecht. Normally, the ticket would be purchased back in the States before the trip. The next morning, I made my way to the Western Union Exchange to change currency and gather more info.  

At the entrance to the exchange, a young man, a few years older than myself, came up to me and asked, in broken English, “Do you want a job working on my oil barge going to Basel, and back here? Two weeks trip.” Before he had finished his question, I said “Yes!” I thought, “Is this for real?”  

His name was Jos. He was a Dutch man. His father had a few such barges servicing the smaller Mom and Pop heating oil and gas stations along the river and canal networks. We would be delivering heating oil this trip. The ship was the Gray Goose. 

The barge was a hundred and ten feet long with quarters for six men. There was only Jos, and myself. Surely, I thought, we would be taking on more crew. That didn’t happen. 

From Amsterdam, we made our way to Rotterdam. I learned on the job the basics of manning the lines and tying on and off as we navigated the canals and locks. 

My first job, between locks, was cleaning the galley. There was an absolute mountain of dishes piled up in the sink. This took a considerable amount of time which passed easily as I gazed out the window taking in the numerous ships and houseboats and businesses lining the canals.  

By evening we entered the port at Rotterdam where we took on heating oil and berthed for the night. We went ashore and Jos treated me to dinner at a Chinese restaurant.  

Early the next morning, we began our trip up the Rhine River. With our tanks full, we rode low in the water. My main job now, as long as we were underway, was to go below, every two hours, and pump oil into the engines. Fifty pulls on the hand crank each time. We serviced two stations by midday. 

Days passed quickly and we fell into the routine of making our stops and doing our chores. Jos at the wheel and his business, and me, becoming friends with mops, and brushes, and cleaning rags, and strong detergents, as I swabbed the deck and engine room in a repeated cycle. We had a clean machine! 

At night, if it was convenient to berth along the way, we would, and Jos would again treat me to dinner at a local restaurant. If not, we would anchor in the river, and hail one of the many food boats that serviced ships like ours. It would pull up alongside and we would get what we needed. They carried most everything. 

Jos began letting me take the wheel. I felt pretty good! It was quite different from driving a car. The wheel to rudder spin ratio was pronounced. It had its own feel to it, that’s for sure. Jos was never far away, though. I was also learning how to read the river charts.  


In Germany, we began passing the many ancient, and beautiful castles on the Rhine. I had front-row seat as we cruised by. We drew up close alongside of the Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, on an island in the river, built initially, by a king to collect tolls from the many ships passing by. 

Being the fall season, the water was low, and was actually lower than expected. The current was also stronger as it raced through the narrows. 

One of a special group of pilots came aboard. He knew the river and would guide us through this stretch of shallows. Every ship required him, both up, and downstream. There was a very good chance we would run aground without his knowledge. 

It was smooth sailing from then on. We made our last delivery in Basel, in Switzerland, in ten days. We berthed for the night, and went ashore for dinner. It was a cold clear evening in the city of Basel. The next morning, we started for home. 

We had to wait a spell for our pilot to again run us through the castle shallows. And it was trickier going downstream. He deserved his reputation, and pay. 

It was a fast trip back, stopping once for fuel. Just four days in all, as the current was with us and we had no deliveries to make. Only one event marked an otherwise uneventful return to Rotterdam. 


I spent more time at the wheel, between chores, as Jos grew more confident in my ability. The night before we arrived in Rotterdam, Jos went down below for a quick shower. 

Now, communication between ships, especially at night, was done with the port and starboard lights. There is a strict protocol of river navigation, and a code of signals that let other ships in your vicinity know your intentions. There was little radio talk. 

The ship ahead of us unexpectedly signaled its intent to anchor for the night! OMG! - My heart jumped up in my throat! Jos was down below! It was for me to steer us clear! 

It would slow down to an idle and drop its bow anchor, which would catch the river bottom swinging the ship around so that its bow faced upriver into the current. Then, it would drop its stern anchor, securing it in the river for the night. It is actually the weight of the anchor chains on the bottom that holds the ship in place. 

This required us, or me, as it happened, to swing wide to the right, the starboard side, giving our ships the room needed to pass, and then swing back on course. This was my test as I was the only one on hand. 

Jos came back to the bridge in a rush, still wet, just as I was mid-maneuver and bringing her back on course. He had felt the ship turn while in the shower. I could see the concern on his face, but then, I could also see that he was pleased with me. I felt great!  

The next night, in Rotterdam, Jos paid me my wages. It was more than enough to pay for the Eurail pass. He wanted me to stay on, and had I not had obligations back in the States, I would have done so. It was a fine opportunity.  

Before dawn the next morning, I left the Gray Goose for the train station to get the train to Utrecht. At the station, before boarding, a breakfast of good ol’ American Pepsi-Cola and a Hershey Bar was seventh heaven!