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50 years on the Rhine

Captain Toni Alfter looks back on his time at KD
A spring day in a small neighbourhood in Sinzig. Here, where the River Ahr flows into the Rhine, lies the home of Toni Alfter (64), an experienced captain and a member of the large KD team for half a century. Captain Alfter has just retired, and RheinZeit meets him one morning as he is enjoying a cup of coffee on his sunny terrace. Today he has time to indulge in a little nostalgia.

RheinZeit: Captain Alfter, you began your training with KD on inland waterways at the age of 14. You ended your career as Captain in Charge of the MS RheinFantasie, one of the most modern ships in Europe. Was your job a childhood dream come true?

Toni Alfter: Unfortunately I’ll have to disappoint you here (he laughs): originally I wanted to become a precision engineer, but my preferred employer, a research laboratory for high frequency physics, was too insular. Being cooped up inside wasn’t my cup of tea. My attention was drawn to inland waterways through my sister, who married her husband, a ship’s engineer, on a cargo vessel. That’s where my wish to become a sailor came from.

RheinZeit: Here’s another typical little boy’s question: How do you become a captain?

Toni Alfter: In Germany, trainee inland sailors take their sailor’s exam after a three-year apprenticeship on a training ship. After at least another four years, in which you must prove you have sailed over long routes, you can obtain your Rhine captain’s licence. This entitles you to command a ship on the Rhine – from Basel in Switzerland to the open sea in the Netherlands. I personally initially worked as a helmsman with a licence from 1975, and then from 1976 as an independent captain for KD.

RheinZeit: That’s a long time on the water! Looking back, what’s the most attractive thing about being a captain?

Toni Alfter: For one thing, being a ship’s captain gives you a great deal of freedom. On board you can assign the work yourself, for example. And I’ve always really enjoyed dealing with people – with crewmembers, but also with the many guests on my trips. Most of the KD guests on our ships are on holiday or party excursions, and generally they are in a good mood – contact with them was always a great deal of fun.

Toni Alfter:

"... the Rhine, epitome of romanticism, the castles and the stunning panorama, is always an experience.“

RheinZeit: In your 50 years at KD, many things must have changed in the boat tour sector.

Toni Alfter: That’s certainly true! Looking only at ship propulsion, there has been a giant leap forward over this period. Back in the day we began with steamers which were steered using separate rudder areas. Today modern propellers do that themselves. The fittings in the wheelhouse have also changed immensely. Whereas a large wheel, the telegraph for the engine room and a fuse box were sufficient then, nowadays the captain stands at the centre of a control console packed full of technology.

Actually, keeping up to speed with technical matters has always interested me, but it was also a challenge. The change really was enormous: In the 80s, the technology which had existed for over 100 years was brushed aside in just a short time.

RheinZeit: What experience at KD has impressed you the most?

Toni Alfter: I don’t have to think about that question long to answer it: In 2011, I was privileged to join my colleagues as a practical consultant on the KD side over the months it took to build the MS RheinFanatasie in the de Hoop shipyard in Holland. I got to know all the technical innovations inside out and was then allowed to take command of the vessel.

RheinZeit: Now that you’re becoming a landlubber, Mr Alfter, what will you miss the most?

Toni Alfter: In addition to the great team spirit at KD, the city of Cologne. For many years the bank of the Rhine in Cologne’s old city was the starting point for my trips on the MS RheinFantasie. Over this period, I got to experience the cathedral city with its very special atmosphere in the summer season. I’m a Rhinelander myself and simply feel at home here – and I can also speak the Cologne dialect (he laughs again). The Rhineland mentality reflects my attitude, too – to reach out to others.

RheinZeit: Thank you very much for talking to us.

About the person

Toni Alfter was born in Remagen on the Rhine on 31 October 1951. In 1966, he joined KD as an apprentice, received his Rhine captain’s licence in 1975 and one year later began his career as a captain on the Rhine. Mr Alfter is married and has one son. After 50 years working for KD on the water, he is looking forward to an active retirement, occupying himself with activities which have absolutely nothing to do with ships, such as baking bread, building props for the local theatre group and transporting wood with his restored old tractor.

Favourite route: Cologne – Bad Hönningen. Starting from the cathedral city of Colgne, passing through Bonn and the idyllic landscape in the Siebengebirge mountains which is dotted with castles and ruins. Stopping in the charming little town of Bad Hönningen on the Middle Rhine with Arenfels Castle towering proudly above it, surrounded by idyllic vineyards. “Romantic!”

Favourite ship: The Wappen von Köln, built in 1966/67 and part of the KD fleet until 14 July 2012. “A ship that suited me in terms of handling. We made a good couple!”

Favourite guests: “I felt particularly close to guests – who had often travelled a long way – for whom the UNESCO World Heritage Site Upper Middle Rhine Valley was their dream holiday destination. Their overwhelming amazement at this embodiment of the romance of the Rhine with its castles and fascinating panoramas was always something special.