Karlheinz Eder is the managing director and captain of the world’s oldest private shipping company. With an excitement for historical ships and a joy for interaction with people, he charts a clear course for success for Lake Traun Shipping in the Salzkammergut.
“Today we have truly perfect weather,” Karlheinz Eder happily states as he pushes off from the town square in Gmunden aboard the historical paddle wheel steamer ‘Gisela’. Lake Traun is definitely at its most beautiful on this warm day in late summer. The autumnal colours of the trees are reflected in the water. The rocky Traunstein Mountain shines in the light of an already much lower sun. In the blue sky, groups of migratory birds can be seen now and again as they make their way south. Today, the wind remains calm much to the delight of all passengers on board. With the poise and grace of a 147-year old lady, the steaming ‘Gisela’ cuts through the serene surface of the lake. Quite appropriately, she always makes her traditional last voyage of the season on ‘Memorial Day’. Afterwards, she will be removed to the shipyard for the winter break.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the Inner Salzkammergut was only reachable from Gmunden by water. Therefore, shipping on Lake Traun has always held great importance. In 1839, a steamship company was established on Lake Traun by two Englishmen, John Andreas and Joseph John Ruston I. On 15 May 1839, the first official journey of the wooden steamship ‘Sophie’ took place with regular runs between Gmunden and Ebensee. The ship was named after the Archduchess Sophie, mother of Emperor Franz Joseph I. Additional steamships, which were all named after female members of the royal family, were added. One of these, the ‘Gisela’ was named for the oldest daughter of Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Franz Joseph I. The ship has been in service to Lake Traun Shipping since 1872.
In 1984, Karlheinz Eder took over the company from his father Karl and at the time, was the youngest director of a shipping company in Austria. “The most significant factor in our success story is that we’ve always tried to remain authentic in the preservation of these beautiful, old ships. We don’t have any paddle boats with built-in electric or diesel motors. This ship still operates with the original steam mechanism from the time of the Danube monarchy,” explains the proud captain during a tour of the ship. Through an opening on the deck, you can watch a machinist working on an engine with giant, rotating cylinders. Especially the eyes of children and their fathers begin to gleam when things hiss and smoke, and they can watch the joyful interplay of captain, machine and machinist in close proximity. Karlheinz Eder also admits that even after 40 years, he is still as excited about this career as he was on the very first day. “This job is something special because you amass such a wide array of knowledge. You are challenged technically, you are somewhat involved in marketing and continually do a bit of market research in conversations with guests. You are out and about on one of the most beautiful lakes in the Alps and always in the fresh air. Where else can you do this?” Eder rightly asks.
For a while now, the old ‘Gisela’ has no longer been solely dedicated to liner shipping. Over the year, Karlheinz Eder has cleverly positioned the historic gem as a floating event platform. From civil weddings, theatre and concert events to exclusive product presentations and company incentives, ‘Gisela’ has seen it all. For a film with screen legend, Michel Piccoli, she was decked out as a Norwegian postal ship, and she also had a role in the beloved television series, ‘Schlosshotel Orth’. It requires a lot of creativity to prove oneself with historic shipping in comparison to modern motor shipping. “For the conservation of a ship with originally authentic engines from the last century, I require my own network. I cannot care for the ‘Gisela’ on my own, neither can I send her to a workshop for repairs. Everything is custom-made,” states Eder and he continues “for example, for a long time, we have only been able to get the oil for the compound steam engine with the oscillating cylinders from Scotland.’
Shipping has been a reality for Karlheinz practically since the cradle. At age four, he was allowed to steer his first ship under the watchful eye of his father. “My father built a ship himself although he had never studied ship building,” the businessman remembers. “I witnessed how he first laid the keel and then how the bare skeleton of a huge ship - in my eyes - began to slowly emerge. I just couldn’t imagine that this heavy structure would one day be able to float. But it still does even today!” Eder laughs. “And in East Germany and still in use for public transportation.” Reverently he tells of his father’s life-long dream to one day acquire the large Lake Traun Shipping company and how he much he always believed in the realisation of this idea. In 1951, Karl Eder, Sr. joined the shipping commerce on Lake Traun with a small competitive company. His 20-minute ‘castle trips’ with the small motorboat ‘Erika’ soon enjoyed great popularity. He was able to expand the young shipping company to such an extent that finally, at age 67, he was able to take over the entire fleet of Lake Traun Shipping. “When you have seen and experienced all of that, it naturally makes a great impression. I simply grew into everything here and so the famous saying from Antoine de Saint- Exupéry became my maxim by which I still continue to live today: “If you want to build a ship, then don’t call the people together to gather wood, hand out tasks and divide up the work, but instead teach them a yearning for the great, wide ocean.”
“Nothing is fast with the ‘Gisela’,” Karlheinz Eder cheekily states as he steers into the still-warm afternoon sun towards Ebensee on the southern shore of Lake Traun. “This ship normally travels at 36 revolutions per minute. That’s pure deceleration!” The shipping director and passionate captain, who claims to recognise all of his ships based on the sound of the engine and smell, once again becomes enthusiastic as he departs Ebensee under fantastic weather conditions. “Just the feeling that I get, when the ship starts off, is difficult to describe.” Twelve paddles on either side of the ship provide drive. Four to five paddles per wheel are continually in the water. “Already after 50 metres, I notice how all my stress falls away. The beat of the paddles against the water is almost meditative for me.”
Historical shipping has a great tradition in the Salzkammergut. The combination of the incomparable flair of old ships and the picturesque landscape of the Salzkammergut constitutes a very special type of pleasure and an unparalleled experience for nostalgics. Shipping in the Salzkammergut leaves no desire unfulfilled: from the oldest wheel steamers to zesty motorboats, everything is available. Historical attractions, modern liner shipping or individually-tailored boat trips. A journey over the blue, turquoise or green, crystal-clear, gleaming water on one of the gorgeous lakes of the Salzkammergut will always be an impressive way to discover these jewels of nature.