From frigates to the zodiac, Philippe Hermann, captain of the port of Brussels: ‘We are the eyes and ears of the canal’

The wind carries a strong sea bouquet that day along the channel. From afar, you can imagine yourself at the fish auction in Ostend. But as you approach the entrance to the harbor master’s office, a nausea awaits you, and an unbearable exhale emanates from a blue container. We won’t come close to smell it up close… 3 floors above, Philip Hermann can no longer hold it. ‘It’s awful,’ complains, closing one of his large windows with a breathtaking view of BRYC and Heembeek Pier. “This is the dead fish we were fishing for a few days ago. We brought back a cubic meter”. Evidence that the canal is not a water desert. “There is life! 19 kinds of fish!”

This rather painful job is usually the type of work that the captain of the port of Brussels manages with his team of 38 people. Fifteen of them are intended for the maintenance of 14 km of waterways in the Brussels region. “The navigation team collects 250m3 per year”It is about Philip Hermann. ‘Not only because of rudeness’. In fact, the overflow from the Brussels sewers flows into the canal in case of heavy rain, which can lead to breeding. “Otherwise, the streets would be flooded with water. And so we find everything: mice, droppings, but also everything that people throw in pipes. Bumpers, engine oil, paint residue …” The two harbor cleaning boats will soon be joined by a new state-of-the-art “100% electric” machine.

Frigate and towers

Another mission of Captain Hermann: control of the waterway. This professional soldier, with a master’s degree in marine sciences, has 25 years in the Navy. “Including 12 navigations on cruisers, frigates, or fishermen.” Anderlechtois by birth now enjoys the powers of the Judicial Police. Its territory is less extensive than in Antarctica where it used to moor: the channel and its banks, but not its docks. “I lived in Molenbeek, Berchem, Lacon. The canal is my neighbourhood. I was tempted by this job. After the Army offices, I wanted to reconnect with the naval industry”admits the person who now lives in Koningslow, a stone’s throw from the De Wand district.

From the fast zodiac, “Real water police car”He and the three “Canal Cops” make sure the rules of the Brown Water Trail are enforced. “You can’t swim there, lay there as you like, pour water on it or fish there”, Chief summarizes. There are also fines for speeding there: 8 km/h between the Anderlecht locks and Molenbeek, 4 to 16 km/h from Vilford to the center where heavy cargo vehicles are prohibited. “The tonnage is limited to 1,350 tons after the Fergut Basin because the bridges are very low and the padlocks only accept a maximum of 80 metres. But in the outer harbor you can see 6,000 tons of tankers.”

Tankers and boats

Annual traffic on the canal is estimated at about 10,000 boats, about 30 to 40 boats per day in the outer harbor and “about fifteen” in the south. Enough to transport 7 million tons of cargo, of which about 5.5 million are unloaded in Brussels. There is not a lot of conflicts between sea monsters and oars? “Very few. All boats are professionals. Commercial navigation has always taken precedence over fun and leisure activities.” However, in Brussels there are 4 rowing clubs, kayaking clubs and a sailing center. About sixty cruise ships are added to it annually, half of which are in April.

We’d almost be surprised, but Brussels is…a seaport. This means that it can accommodate naval ships, thanks in particular to the open bridges over the Scheldt River from Antwerp. “Hence the captain’s presence since 1936”Its occupant testifies. who is known as “Director of Operations”Far from commercial considerations that distribute franchises to banks. “We provide an impeccable infrastructure for port trade owners.” Including dealing with engineering structures that define the navigational part. Buda Bridge, Hospice Bridge, Molenbeek Pedestrian Ring Bridge and Locks 2. 22 agents were assigned to it. “We monitor the water level upstream of the locks: they have to be steady, boats can’t scrape the bottom. We guarantee them enough draft.” This is done by opening and closing the doors to retain or release water.

Mattresses and tires

The captain too “Eyes and Ears of the Harbor”. On the control screens, the flight attendants monitor the waves and also the territory of the port area, in addition to 106 cameras in the operations center, 3 electric bikes are constantly patrolling. “We prepare up to 3,000 to 4,000 reports annually.” Every anomaly is reported: from innocuous secret deposits to channel dives. “It’s the diversity that I love about this job.”smiles Philip Hermann, who intends to extend his lease beyond the 56th birthday he just celebrated. Buoyancy tests on a pedalo, Scouting boat towing, Helping firefighters retrieve a body, Lock locked by a tire, Supporting police in search of a gallery or floating mattress that interferes with navigation.

And of course the outings on the boat, in between the administrative chores. “A few hours patrolling, chatting with locksmiths, meeting boatmen. I’m a sailor. I’ve always been a sailor. Since the water scouts when I was 10, across the street.”

This Sunday, May 29th, is Port Day

There is no doubt that the future of Brussels passes through its channel: for logistics, for housing, for entertainment. You will be able to get a clearer idea of ​​what this future holds for the capital during Fête du Port, on Sunday 29 May. If the weather doesn’t cause waves, approximately 20,000 spectators are expected at Heembeek Quay, opposite the harbor master’s office.

Several boats will be docked there that you can visit: a science steamer (photo below), a military star, a sailing school and even a unicorn, a replica of Louis XIV. Demonstrations of the machines of the future like flyboards and hoverboards, extreme diving, rowing competition, firefighter divers, giant fish or rescue dog shows will amaze you. You can also visit the very beautiful BRYC area and the atmosphere of a short vacation. Don’t forget to use sunscreen.

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