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Panama Canal - Mules and Donkeys

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Arrival at the Panama Canal always involves an early start for the ship’s company. Usually arriving very early morning. For the Purser’s department this means getting all the paperwork in order for the arrival of the Panamanian officials to clear the ship for transit of the canal. From what I remember this is a pretty formal affair and normally runs smoothly. Unlike clearance for Suez, which is almost as corrupt as it comes, but that is a story for another day.

Documention required to transit

the Panama Canal in 1952



Meanwhile the Panama Canal Pilot will arrive on board to take the ship through the canal. During the last one hundred years, the Panama Canal Authority has appointed a few "Panama Canal Honorary Pilots". Generally, masters, who have successfully completed 100 transits through Panama Canal. Commodore Ronald Warwick master with Cunard Liners who has commanded RMS Queen Marry II was awarded honorary pilot of Panama Canal by Panama Canal Authority for crossing Panama Canal for more than 50 times.

Transit of the canal normally takes about 8 hours, but bear in mind this will save around 22 days sailing around South America via Cape Horn. It costs around $450,000 for a ship to transit the canal. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty, which handed control of the canal over to the people of Panama in 1999. Since gaining control, the Panamanian government has raised the prices of passage for ships in order to help the local economy. In 2006, the people of Panama voted to expand the canal. A third set of locks has allowed for even more – and bigger – ships to pass through.

Once the clearance has been granted for transit it is then a fairly relaxed day for the Purser’s staff, most of the passengers are on deck watching the transit leaving the Purser’s office fairly quiet for the day. On Island Princess before breakfast, we would head for the officer’s deck aft of the wardroom for a Tequila Sunrise Party as the ship slowly approaches the first set of locks. This was usually drunk from teacups as passengers were often looking down from the deck above.

Transit the canal on ss Oriana and mv Island Princess

My first trip through the canal was on SS Oriana. I remember looking down the side of the ship and seeing how close she was to the lock walls. The original locks were 110 feet wide, Oriana squeezed in at a mere 97 feet leaving a little over 6 ft either side. A ship that is capable of transiting the canal is called a Panamax 965 ft long, 106 ft wide, 41.2 ft draft.

Since the new locks were opened in 2106 New Panamax vessels can pass through the locks.1200ft Long, 160.7 ft wide, 49.9 ft draft.

Vessels are positioned in the locks by Mules, these are engines that run alongside the ship positioning the ship in the lock, holding the ship in position. I wonder how many new seafarers have been told they had to go ashore and feed the mules to coax them through the locks.

Lunch is generally served on deck whilst passing through the canal so that passengers don’t miss any of the excitement. It is interesting to see the difference from the deck buffet on Oriana, everything was laid out on trays and kept in the larder until the last minute when it was carried up on deck. The average temperature on deck would be over 80 degrees with high humidity and none of the buffet in those days was refridgered.

A year later I transited the canal on Island Princess, the buffet had moved on thanks to the Italian catering company that ran the food and beverage operation on Princess Ships at that time. Generally, much more decorative and more ice used to keep the food chilled, hot food had also started to make its way onto the deck buffet. The assistant chief steward at this time was a guy called Bruno. Rumour had it that the chief steward had started life at sea in sailing ship days as a cabin boy. He reached retirement age and went home to be with his wife. A few months later he was back on Island Princess, his wife could not stand him being at home for long and he hated being ashore. I heard tales like this many times during my short time at sea.

On east bound trips thought the canal we would arrive in Panama City in the late afternoon, for a series of shore excursions for the passengers. Back in the 70’s Panama was not the safest place in the world to visit. We would always warn passengers not to wear jewellery, not to carry bags and to carry money hidden in a body belt or similar. Every time we would have to deal with passengers that had been mugged whilst ashore.

Meanwhile crew members would head ashore for other forms of entertainment, in particular the donkey show that was rumoured to be taking place in the city. Even if the donkey was dead in the city the mules were hard at work on the canal.

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Mar 17, 2021

Panama Canal transit on ORSOVA 1968. Wearing heavily starched whites, walked out on deck and the humidity was so heavy the whites just immediately gave in and drooped into a sodden mess!

Salty Seadog
Salty Seadog
Mar 17, 2021
Replying to

Yes I remember the humidity. But by the time I sailed we were in shorts and not starched. However our mess jackets were started and I used to dance all night and by the end of the night they sometimes looked liked old rags with all the pirspiration.

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