Boat lift

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One of four old hydraulic lifts in the Canal du Center, Belgium
Counterweight lift in Strépy-Thieu

A boat lift (also boat lift ) is a device ( descent structure ), with the ships large height differences in waterways can overcome. Elevators have over locks the benefits that greater differences in height can be overcome with them and that when lifting or lowering the upper attitude is lost hardly any water. However, this is bought at the expense of the fact that lifting gear is more expensive due to a greater technical effort and that, due to the enormous weight forces, larger ships cannot be raised and lowered with them.


Ship lifts are classified according to various criteria, namely according to

  • the method of promotion,
  • the direction of the promotion as well
  • the type of drive and the counterbalance.

In the case of ship lifts that can transport several ships at the same time, a distinction is also made between twin and double lifts.

Method of promotion

There is dry and wet pumping.

Dry conveying

With dry pumping, the ship is lifted out of the water, transported over the height difference to be overcome and then put back into the water. This has the advantages that the mass of the ship and cargo alone have to be moved without additional water and that no volume is lost from the upper water to the lower water. It is disadvantageous, at least in the case of larger ships that are conveyed in this way, that there is a risk of damage to the hull if it is not specially equipped for dry conveyance.

In the simplest case, with dry pumping, the ship is pulled over land on a glide path. This is the oldest form of the ship lift, one speaks here of a tug or a boat tow . In order to reduce the frictional resistance, wooden beams or rollers can be embedded in the inclined plane. It is already known from ancient Egypt that rapids of the Nile were bypassed on such towing tracks. Instead, the ship can also be pulled out of the water and transported by means of a specially constructed transport cart running on rails. This method, also known as ship railway, was used, for example, on the sloping plains of the Oberland Canal Elbing-Osterode ( Kanał Elbląski in Polish ) in East Prussia and on the Big Chute Marine Railway in the Trent-Severn waterway in Canada.

Wet pumping

In a ship lift with wet pumping , the ship is raised or lowered while floating.

Since it remains in the water in contrast to dry pumping, the risk of damage to the hull is reduced. In addition, wet pumping is usually faster because the ship only has to be tied up, similar to a lock. As in the case of a lock, gates are used which allow ships to pass through when open and close the channel sections (approximately) watertight when closed.

The disadvantage is that with this method not only the mass of the ship has to be lifted, but also the considerably larger of the water in which it floats and possibly also that of the trough. According to Archimedes' principle , the mass to be carried is independent of the mass of the ship, since it always displaces its own weight in water . Therefore, when using a counterweight (e.g. also counter-rotating troughs) this can be adjusted so finely that the drive power remains very low in relation to the moving mass. For example, the Scharnebeck ship lift near Lüneburg only needs four electric motors , each with 160 kW power, to lift the trough with a mass of around 5,800 t .

Realization options are the trough lift (also trough lift ) and the water wedge lift .

Direction of promotion

With regard to the direction of the promotion, a distinction is made between four variants, namely longitudinal promotion, cross promotion, vertical promotion and rotation promotion. Mainly early ship lifts of the first and second types are also called Rollberg or Rollbrücke .

Longitudinal conveyance

With longitudinal conveyance, the ship is moved in the elevator in the direction of its normal travel over an inclined plane. Longitudinal conveyance is the simplest type of conveyance. But it is only suitable for relatively low inclines. Examples include the Ronquières inclined elevator , the Krasnoyarsk ship lift and the Montech water wedge lift .

Cross conveying

Here the ship is transported over a plane inclined transversely to its direction of entry. Significantly steeper gradients can be overcome with cross conveying than with longitudinal conveying. An example of this type of construction is the inclined elevator from Saint-Louis / Arzviller .

Vertical promotion

Vertical ship lifts move the ships vertically up or down. In one variant, the trough hangs on ropes and is balanced by counterweights, so no different from a normal elevator, but with significantly higher rope forces (see also: Moving rope load ). In the other variant, the trough rests on floats, which float in water tanks sunk deep into the ground, so-called diving shafts or wells. A third variant is the hydraulic lifting mechanism (e.g. in Belgium or England), in which two troughs are always connected by hydraulic lines.

Rotation Promotion

In a rotary ship lift, the ships are moved in two gondolas that rotate around a central axis, similar to a Ferris wheel. So far, only one such rotary ship lift has been built worldwide, the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland.

Type of drive and counterbalance

Until the beginning of the industrial age, only the muscle strength of animals or humans was used to move ships over land. These were either pulled directly or with the help of winches or pulleys.

Water ballast drive

Some ship lifts with a counterweight manage entirely without an external drive, in that the upper trough is filled slightly higher than the lower trough and is then heavier than its counterweight. To do this, the trough at the upper lock gate moves a little deeper than the one at the bottom. After going down and leveling the lower sluice gate, it is lighter than its counterweight. As with a water ballast track , the heavier trough moves down due to gravity and at the same time transports the counterweight or, in the case of twin lifts, the counter-rotating trough upwards.

Hydraulic drive

With the hydraulic drive, the troughs rest on plungers that move in underground hydraulic cylinders. The pressure required to lift the trough can be supplied by a hydraulic pump. Most hydraulic lifts are designed as twin systems, in which the lowering trough presses the working medium through a pressure pipe into the cylinder of the rising trough (counterweight principle). The water level is set slightly higher in the upper trough than in the lower trough, so that it becomes heavier. Almost all hydraulic ship lifts are designed as twin systems with water ballast drive. External hydraulic pumps are only used to compensate for water losses due to leakage, to operate ancillary units such as door drives, and possibly for emergency operation with just one trough.

Electric drive

With the exception of the two diesel-powered French water wedge lifts, all of the ship lifts opened after 1917 are powered by electric motors, but often supported by water ballast.


Almost all modern ship lifts use counterweights to balance the weight of the trough including the ship as much as possible. Counterweight ship lifts work on the principle of the Atwood drop machine . Even if the counterweight cannot actually be called a drive, its use makes the lifting process much easier, since now only friction forces have to be overcome. The principle of the counterweight was probably first used in the Zafosina cart in the late Middle Ages, in which the weight of the descending boat supported the pulling up of a boat that was approaching at the same time.

Twin and double lifts

If a "dead" counterweight made of concrete or similar is replaced by a second trough, it is called a twin lift. With one of these, one trough always moves down and the other up. A lift with two troughs that can move independently of each other is called a double lift.


Since mankind has been shipping, ships have occasionally been pulled over land - at least for short distances. In order to reduce the force required for this, plank layers were used , for example , or the subsoil was made slippery with damp clay. However, a ship lift within the meaning of this article is only used when mechanical devices are installed to make ship transport possible or easier.


Already in antiquity there was the Diolkos, a facility for the overland transport of ships. It consisted of an approx. 8 km long path with ruts to guide the cart. He crossed the Isthmus of Corinth at 79 m above sea level and spared shipping the circumnavigation of the Peloponnese .

Forerunner in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, simple wooden ramps were used, over which boats could be pulled with the help of a winch. They were called overtomes ( plural of overtoom ) and there have probably been hundreds of these transitions. They were used exclusively for the transport of small boats, with the exception of the Overtoom at Zaandam , which was in operation from 1609 to 1718. He could also lift seagoing ships of the usual size at the time. Only at Venhuizen and Rijpwetering are there still two overtoms today; they have been reconstructed, but are no longer operational.

After the closure of the last overtoms in the early 20th century, there are no longer any boat lifts in the Netherlands.

First lifts in Ireland and Great Britain

Ducart's Canal

The first true modern boat lifts were built on Ducart's Canal in Northern Ireland. This canal, completed in 1777, was supposed to connect the coal mines at Drumglass with the River Blackwater. Height differences between 16 m and 21 m had to be overcome in three places. Ramps with wooden rollers and winches designed for twin operation were created for this purpose. But the construction did not prove itself and was shut down again ten years later.

Ketley Inclined Plane

In 1788, a twin elevator with longitudinal conveyance was built on a short works channel on which coal was to be transported to the smelting works of Ketley. Boats with a payload of around 8 t were transported over a height difference of around 22 m. Carriages moving on rails carried the watercraft, which is why the term ship railway was also used . A departing and therefore loaded boat always pulled an unloaded one up. The system therefore did not need a drive, only a brake had to ensure that the speed was not too high. The factory at Ketley operated very successfully until the iron and steel works closed in around 1816.

More inclined planes

Following the example of Ketley, numerous other inclined planes were built in a row. They were mostly designed for the transport of small unmanned barges with a payload of between about five and ten tons, so-called tub boats .

One of the most spectacular constructions of this time is the underground boat lift inside the Worsley coal mine . Here boats with a load capacity of up to twelve tons could enter the pit directly from the Bridgewater Canal and be loaded there. This construction was described in detail by Francis Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater in his book Description du Plan Incliné Souterrain , published in Paris in 1812.

The lifts from the early days of industrialization are now all shut down. In most cases only remains can be seen. The Hay Inclined Elevator , which was in operation from 1792 to 1894 and connected the only a few kilometers long Shropshire Union Canal with the River Severn , can, however, be visited, as can some tub boats on the grounds of the Blists Hill Victorian Town open-air museum , a division of the Ironbridge museum complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site .

In Prussia , five so-called inclined levels were completed on the Oberland Canal between 1860 and 1881 , which are still functional today.

Start of vertical funding

Dry conveyance: the barge houses in Saxony

Boat lift house at Halsbrücke
Boat lift house near Großvoigtsberg

The probably first vertical ship lift in the world was built in 1788/89 north of Freiberg in the valley of the Freiberger Mulde near Halsbrücke in the course of the Churprinzer mine canal. This so-called barge lifting house could lift barges weighing almost three tons by means of pulleys by almost seven meters. 6 people were required to operate.
Another barge hoist followed in 1791 along the Christbescherunger Bergwerkskanal near Großvoigtsberg . In both cases, dry pumping was used.

The restored masonry of both boat lift houses can still be viewed today.

Wet pumping: Grand Western Canal

Remnants of the Nynehead lift in the Grand Western Canal
Scheme of the lifts in the Grand Western Canal

The Grand Western Canal was originally intended to connect the Bristol Channel and the English Channel , but the southern branch to Exeter was never completed. In addition to an inclined plane with wet longitudinal conveyance at Wellisford, a total of seven vertical lifts were built on this canal . These vertical lifts used the counterweight principle, whereby two troughs were connected to each other by wire ropes and rollers. The systems, which were put into operation between 1830 and 1836, were the first vertical lifts in the world with wet pumping. Due to the low volume of traffic and increasing competition from the railroad, this canal was closed again in 1867. Only the remains of the wall remain from the hoists.

Chard Canal: First inclined levels with wet pumping

For a long time, wet longitudinal conveying was avoided. The fear was too great that the water in the trough could spill over during transport, especially when accelerating and braking. Probably the first inclined planes with wet pumping were four systems designed for tub boats on the English Chard Canal , which connected the town of Chard in the county of Somerset with the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal . The canal, which opened in 1842, was never profitable. The operating company became insolvent as early as 1853, and the canal was closed again in 1866.

Anderton hydraulic boat lift

Main article: Anderton ship lift

The Anderton ship lift, built between 1872 and 1875, faced two challenges for the designers: On the one hand, not only tub boats but full-fledged narrowboats should be able to be transported by wet lift for the first time , which would increase the weight of the filled troughs to over 250 t, which has never been done before achieved value. On the other hand, there was not enough space to overcome the 15 m difference in height between the Trent and Mersey Canal and the River Weaver on an inclined plane. It was therefore decided not to hang the two troughs on wire ropes running over pulleys, but to support them on plungers running in underground cylinders.

Although the hydraulic operation often caused problems, the Anderton lift became the model for a number of other hydraulic ship lifts, including the four lifts on the Belgian Canal du Center . Anderton itself was converted to electrical operation with ropes and pulleys at the beginning of the 20th century and only switched to hydraulic operation again in the course of restoration in 2001.

Swimmers instead of counterweights: Henrichenburg

Main article: Henrichenburg ship lift

The old Henrichenburg ship lift , opened in 1899, used floats for the first time instead of counterweights. The trough rested over supports on five air-filled hollow bodies made of steel, which moved up and down in 40 m deep water-filled shafts. Because of the supports, these hollow bodies remained completely covered with water even when the trough had moved all the way up. The buoyancy of these floating bodies was calculated in such a way that it exactly balanced the weight of the water-filled trough.

The principle of buoyancy was later also used in the Rothensee ship lift opened in 1938 and in the new Henrichenburg lift (1962).

Montech and Fonserannes water wedges

Main articles: Montech water wedge lift and Fonserannes water wedge lift

In the course of modernization work in 1973 on the Canal latéral à la Garonne near Montech , a lift based on the water wedge principle was put into operation for the first time. It replaces five locks. This elevator was in operation until an engine failure in May 2009.

In 1983, a second water wedge lift was built on the Canal du Midi next to the Fonserannes lock staircase . Here too, as in Montech, the reason was that inland shipping promised a faster passage through the height difference. In addition, the locks from the 17th century had become too small for the standardized cargo ships. Since its completion, the water wedge lift has suffered from functional problems with long-term business interruptions. In addition, since cargo shipping on the Canal du Midi had almost come to a standstill - the last commercial barge finally ran in 1990 - and the leaders of the leisure boats, which were growing rapidly at the same time, preferred the longer, but much more spectacular journey through the six-step lock staircase, that was the case Water lift used very little. The last transport by ship took place in 1999 and the decision to officially decommission on April 11, 2001.

Rotary lift: Falkirk Wheel

Main article: Falkirk Wheel

The design of a rotary hoist was submitted as early as 1903 in response to a tender for the construction of a ship hoist near Prerau in the Danube-Oder Canal and was awarded second place.

However, the Falkirk Wheel is the only rotary ship lift in the world to date and, alongside the Anderton lift, one of only two lifts still in operation in Great Britain.

All previously mentioned ship lifts were originally built for cargo shipping. The Falkirk Wheel, which went into operation in 2002, is used exclusively for recreational boating. It re-establishes the connection between the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal after the lock staircase originally connecting the two canals was filled in and built over in the 1930s.

Records, special features

The Krasnoyarsk boat lift on the Yenisei is 102 m long - until the opening of the Chinese lift on the Three Gorges Dam - the largest boat lift in the world. It is an inclined plane without counterweights with a self-propelled trough and a turntable at the top. It was built from 1970 to 1976 by Lenhydroproject (LHP).

The currently largest vertical ship lift in the world (with counterweights) was opened in 2002 in Belgium in the province of Hainaut (French: Hainaut ) in the Canal du Center and is known under the name Strépy-Thieu . It has a lifting height of 73.15 m and has two independent troughs, each weighing 8,000 t. It replaces the four hydraulic lifts in the old part of the canal, which have become too small for commercial freight shipping over the decades, but which should continue to be preserved for tourist reasons.

As a construction of superlatives, a vertical ship lift with counterweights that overcomes up to 113 m was built in 1994–2016 according to planning by Krebs + Kiefer on the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in the People's Republic of China . Fluctuating water levels of up to 30 m in the upper water and up to 21 m in the lower water have to be managed. The trough was 120 m long and 18 m wide and accommodates ships with a length of up to 84.5 m, a width of up to 17.2 m and a draft of up to 2.65 m. Its weight including water is 11,800 t. Ships of up to 3,000 t are lifted in it. The previous transfer time of a ship through the existing locks is three to four hours. The boat lift reduced the transfer time to forty minutes.

In France , Arzviller in Lorraine has the Saint-Louis / Arzviller boat lift, a cable-stayed boat lift with a trough of 900 t and counterweights that overcomes a lifting height of 45 m.

A boat lift was built on the upper Main in 1934 at the weir in Hausen near Staffelstein . With it, water hikers could overcome the barrage there in their folding boats . The Hausen boat lift was shut down around 1956.

List of boat lifts






  • Inclined dry elevator in the canal of Biwako near Kyoto (closed)
  • Inclined dry elevator in the Kamogawa Canal near Fushimi (closed)




  • Self-propelled inclined elevator (rack railway) at the Krasnoyarsk reservoir : with a trough of 90 m × 12 m and a load capacity for ships of max. 2,000 t by 2016 the world's largest ship lift
  • Inclined elevator with cross conveyor at the Sajano-Schuschensk reservoir (only planned, not built)

Czech Republic

United States

United Kingdom




  • Inclined elevator with longitudinal conveyance at the Thác Bà reservoir in the Yên Bái province , approx. 150 km northeast of Hanoi (closed)


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  • H.-W. Partenscky: Inland waterways engineering . Boat lifts . Springer, Berlin a. a. 1984, ISBN 3-540-13704-1 .
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  • Hans-Joachim Uhlemann: The history of the ship lifts . DSV-Verlag, Hamburg 1999, ISBN 3-88412-291-6 .
  • Helen Harris & Monica Ellis: The Bude Canal . David & Charles, Newton Abbot 1972, ISBN 0-7153-5574-0 . (in English)
  • The International Canal Monuments List
  • Hans Herzberg: The first German ship lift (near Henrichenburg ). With three illustrations based on original photographs and a drawing. In: Reclams Universum: Moderne Illustrierte Wochenschrift 27.1 (1911), pp. 21-23.
  • Walter Hefti: Unconventional mountain railways . Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel and Stuttgart 1978, ISBN 3-7643-1005-7 .

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Meyer's Large Conversational Lexicon . 6th edition. Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig / Vienna 1909 ( [accessed on July 1, 2019] lexicon entry "Schiffhebewerke").
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  3. Description of the plan incliné basement
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  7. La Pente d'eau de Fonseranes, qu'est-ce que c'est? In: OFFICE DE TOURISME Béziers. June 2017, accessed October 23, 2017 (French).
  8. ^ L'histoire du Canal du Midi. In: OFFICE DE TOURISME Béziers. 2017, accessed on October 23, 2017 (French).
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  13. Main hiking tour 60 years ago at, accessed on December 5, 2018
  14. Le transbordeur de Beauval at, accessed on June 6, 2018
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Web links

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