On 22 June 1895 the canal was inaugurated by Kaiser Wilhelm II named after his grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm.
During the first year in operation, almost every 20th vessel suffered average. In the opinion of the president of the canal office, Carl Loewe, the solution to this problem was to establish canal helmsmen for the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Canal modelled after the canal helmsmen on the Amsterdam-Northern Sea-Canal in the Netherlands and the Gent-Canal in Belgium.
On October 9, 1899, state secretary for internal affairs agreed to the by Mr. Loewe on July 15, 1899 “proposed type of organisation“- the canal helmsmen service. This was the beginning of the formation of a new vocation, which until today is unique in Germany. On February 27, 1900, the canal administration contacted 37 shipping companies, asking them to allow for the training of the future canal helmsmen on their vessels during passage through the canal. The first eight trained canal helmsmen were already available on April 4, 1900.
The first service regulation issued on March 24, 1900, defined that each ship enlisting a helmsman had to pick up two (a squad) of them, who would then take turns. Training of the helmsmen took between two and four weeks. Only after “testing of their competence and capability” those canal helmsmen deemed qualified received their licence in form of a legitimation from the operational director of the canal administration.
The death of the canal helmsman H. J. Glüsing in an accident on July 18, 1907, had far reaching consequences. In the course of the subsequent proceedings, the Insurance Department of the Empire decided in its recourse decision that canal helmsmen are not considered a member of the vessel's crew. Thus they were considered to be employees of the Imperial Canal Office.
In order to free itself from the responsibilities of an employer, the canal office suggested the formation of a registered association, so the canal helmsmen could regulate their own affairs autonomously and in democratic self-administration. Twenty canal helmsmen founded the “Verein der Kanalsteurer e.V.” (Canal Helmsmen's Association) on September 24, 1908. Members of the Verein der Kanalsteurer e.V. have the duty to man such vessels falling under the obligation to accept a canal helmsman or ships that request a canal helmsman, respectively, in order to guarantee safe passage through the canal.
The Verein der Kanalsteurer e.V. is a union of employees who work on behalf of shipping on the Kiel-Canal. It serves as a protection of the canal helmsmen's interests as well as the performance of social concerns excluding political or religious tendencies. With regard to the regulation and realisation of additional employment and payment obligations of ship owners towards the canal helmsmen, the association functions as an employer in place of the ship owners who employ and pay the members of the Verein der Kanasteurer e.V.
The association further regulates the forwarding of canal tax fees charged by the Wasser- and Schifffahrtsdirektion Nord (Water and Shipping Directorate North) as well as the allocation procedure. The association is, in close cooperation with the Wasser- und Schifffahrtsdirektion Nord, obliged to create appropriate admission requirements for its members. No membership fees are imposed.
The association operates under the name "Verein der Kanalsteurer e.V." and has its office in Kiel - Holtenau, Schleuseninsel. It is registered in the register of associations at the Local Court Kiel.
Zur Wahrung der Berufsinteressen und der sozialen Belange der Kanalsteurer regelt der Verein auch die Weiterleitung der von der Wasser- und Schifffahrtsdirektion Nord im Verwaltungswege eingezogenen Kanalsteurerentgelte sowie das Verteilungsverfahren. Er ist verpflichtet zur Schaffung der entsprechenden Zulassungs- voraussetzungen für seine Mitglieder in enger Zusammenarbeit mit der Wasser- und Schifffahrtsdirektion Nord. Ein Mitgliederbeitrag wird nicht erhoben.
Er führt den Namen "Verein der Kanalsteurer e.V." und hat seinen Sitz in Kiel - Holtenau, Schleuseninsel. Er ist in das Vereinsregister beim Amtsgericht Kiel eingetragen.