The world’s largest sea lock at IJmuiden will enable the new generation of giant ships to reach Amsterdam

The long-awaited new sea lock at IJmuiden opens on Weds (26 Jan).

This massive marine engineering project at the gateway to the North Sea Canal (Noordzeekanaal) which leads to Amsterdam, got underway back in 2016. Now, finally* the new lock, which replaces the old North Lock (Noordersluis)** that had been in operation for almost 100 years, can be used by some of the world’s largest ships in order to reach the port of Amsterdam.

By my calculations, at 70m x 500m x 18m deep (230ft x 1,640ft x 59ft), the new lock could take the world’s largest cruise ship – Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas – or the infamous Suez Canal-blocking Ever Green container ship… should either want to visit downtown Amsterdam.

It’s just bigger than the current world record holder, the Kieldrecht Lock in Antwerp (68m x 500 x 17.8), and the new ‘Panamax’ locks on the Panama Canal (55m x 427m x 18.3m).

Aerial view of the new sea lock at IJmuiden under construction
IJmuiden sea lock under construction (Photo: Dronewar79 CC BY-SA 4.0)

The history of access to the Port of Amsterdam is an interesting one, and is the subject of a new exhibition opening the same day as the new lock at Amsterdam’s maritime museum, Het Scheepvaartmuseum.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as ships grew in size it became increasingly difficult for them to reach the cities located around the shallow Zuiderzee – now called the IJsselmeer & Markemeer. Only small ships could reach Amsterdam at the bottom of the Zuiderzee and even that required a lot of dredging to prevent the entrance to the IJ from silting up.

As a result most large ships, like those of the Dutch East India company, stopped at the entrance to the Zuiderzee in the ‘roads’ off Den Helder and off-loaded onto lighters.

In the early 19th century, King William I of the Netherlands began a programme of infrastructure improvement, including dealing with the problem of access to Amsterdam. The obvious solution was to build a canal straight out west to the north sea***, but they didn’t have the technology or resources to dig through the dunes to the sea. So instead they started construction of a 75 mile canal northwards (connecting up several waterways & lakes on the way) to the new naval harbour of Nieuwediep on the outskirts of Den Helder.

The North Holland Canal (Noordhollandsch Kanaal), blue on the map, is a masterpiece of civil engineering that allowed ships to reach Amsterdam in 11-26 hours. But its success didn’t last long – just half a century.

The trouble was/is, those pesky ship owners who keep building larger and more efficient ships as soon as technology allows. As a result, business grows for ports that can handle them. Ports that can only handle smaller ships have to watch as trade switches to their competitors. Within a couple of decades, Amsterdam needed a bigger canal!

It was under King William III in 1865 that the Dutch finally bit the bullet and started digging out the route of the river IJ and then extending it out through the sand dunes to end with a sea lock at a place they named IJmuiden (Mouth of the IJ).

Coloured drawing of 19th century construction works in the sand dunes.
The work in the construction pit of the first lock. Lithograph, No.3 in a series of eight plates by Johan Conrad Greive jr., 1876. (The Maritime Museum Collection)

The construction of the North Sea Canal (red on the map above) and its sea lock were major national projects in the nineteenth century. Various photographers and artists were commissioned to record the work. The Scheepvaartmuseum’s new exhibition shows documents and  historical images of the construction and the festive opening of the first sea lock on November 1, 1876, by King William III.

Of course, those pesky ship owners just keep going, which is how & why we are celebrating this colossal new sea lock this week… and is no doubt how & why somebody somewhere is probably drawing up plans right now for an even bigger sea lock!

If you want to visit Zeesluis IJmuiden it’s easy. There is a public road across the sea locks at the entrance to the Noordzee Kanaal – it’s a condition of the charter. You can see it on Google Streetmap.


* They originally hoped to open it in 2019.

** The Nordersluis (North Lock), next to the new lock, is 50m wide and 12m deep and at 93 years old it is approaching the end of its technical lifespan.

*** Plans for such a canal had been drawn up since 1626.


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