A Dutch passenger ferry capsized after it was rammed by a German barge early Friday on the Amsterdam—Rhine canal, with the ferry captain still missing several hours later, police said.

The collision in the darkness occurred about 30 kilometres south of Amsterdam at 7 am (0500 GMT), with ferry company officials saying the one fortunate aspect was that the vessel was empty of passengers.

“Normally at this time of day it is filled with schoolchildren,” a spokesman for the ferry operator Swets ODV said. “But luckily we now have school holidays.” Initially it was feared that perhaps as many as a dozen passengers were on board, but later it was determined that the ferry was empty and was on its way to the other side of the canal to pick people up.

However, the captain was thrown overboard and an intensive search had failed to locate him as of mid—afternoon, police said.

“We have intensively searched the entire area with divers and a helicopter with thermal imaging but found no—one in the water,” Dutch National Police Corp (KPLD) spokeswoman Carine Portengen said.

Witnesses said the small pontoon ferry was upended by the collision with the cargo—laden barge, between Breukelen and Nieuwer Ter Aar on the 72—kilometre long canal.

The ferry ended up floating upside down, with the canal closed off for hours during the search operation.

The captain of the German barge, which originated from the Ruhr industrial city of Duisburg, was questioned by Dutch river police and tested for alcohol.

The test showed that he was sober and there was no grounds for detaining him, the KPLD said.

The canal, opened in 1952, links the port of Amsterdam with the Waal, the largest arm of the Rhine River.

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