Which is the Busiest Canal in the World?

Ever wanted to be part of something bigger? Well the truth is that, depending on where you have graced the decks, you might very well be. Navigating sections of waterways has been the backbone of civilisation for thousands of years. Commerce, trade and travel all has its foundations aboard boats, and to an extent still does. But which is the busiest canal in the world? In this article we are going to take a look, and then you’ll know too.

Let’s play a game…

So, prizes awarded for the correct guess… And by prizes we mean ‘bragging rights’.

Let’s have your offer. Which is the busiest canal in the world?

Ok so we are going to hazard a guess and say that you boldly and loudly proclaimed either “The Panama Canal” or decided you’d be smart and said “The Suez Canal” … And our answer to you is that, sadly, you’d be wrong if you said either.

Whilst these canals are some of the busiest in the world, they don’t hold the title of ‘The busiest canal in the world’… For the answer we need to look a little closer to home… No, it’s not the Cheshire Ring before you get all excited.

So which is the busiest canal in the world?

Ok, here we go… It’s in fact the Kiel Canal in northern Germany! The Kiel canal connects the Western side of the Baltic Sea to the south Eastern side of the North Sea. By cutting through the land, the Kiel canal saves hardy seafarers a journey of around 680 miles. The canal itself is by no means the biggest in the world, it comes in at a modest 60 miles. But still, when you think of the engineering that has gone into it, it is still pretty impressive. Looking at it logically, it is that big that it kind of makes Denmark an island!

When we say the busiest canal, we need to quantify it. How busy is busy?

Well let’s tell it like it is.

Every year somewhere in the order of 63,000 boats transit the canal. Doing some basic maths that means that each day sees around 170 or so transits. That’s a lot of boats.

People often confuse the busiest with the most distance saving. Whilst the Kiel canal saves 680 miles, the Panama Canal saves sea voyagers a journey of more than 8000 miles! However, if we are talking about the busiest canal in terms of transits the highest ever recorded on the Panama Canal was just over 15,000 in the 1970’s, still small by Kiel’s standards.

For the Suez we can observe something similar. The distance you would save by using the canal instead of going ‘the long way around’ would be somewhere in the region of 5,500 miles! The Suez saw just a fraction under 19,000 boats transit its waters in 2019. Again, that’s less than a third of the traffic of the Kiel Canal.

Which is the busiest canal in the UK?

Ok, so we are going to have to scale down our ideas for this one slightly. How we count is important too. With the bigger international canals vessels normally count as a ‘transit’ if they enter at one end and leave at the other. With our waterways, there is no real destination, the journey is what it’s all about.

Perhaps the easiest way to reach a conclusion to our question is to focus on an individual lock. That would allow us to see how much traffic ‘transits’.

By using this metric, the busiest canal lock in the UK is on the Oxford canal. Specifically, Hillmorton lock 2 and 3. In 2015 the lock was used a total of 9,101 times! That’s quite a lot of narrowboats, working out at around 25 transits per day on average. When you consider it takes around 15 minutes to traverse a lock, and there is little to no movement during the hours of darkness, the lock was pretty much in constant use!


So, there you have it. If it comes up in a pub quiz question, now you have the answer! Which is the busiest canal in the world? The answer is the Kiel Canal. We much prefer the sedate life, and much smaller boats. You can’t stop for a pint and a sandwich on the Panama Canal that’s for sure.

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