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Ferry 'cross the Panama Canal

Capone's rum-running yacht now ferrying tourists

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The Isla Morada, which belonged to the famous U.S. Mafioso Al Capone, prepares to weigh anchor in Panama City.

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The Isla Morada, which belonged to the famous U.S. Mafioso Al Capone, prepares to weigh anchor in Panama City.

The 101-year-old luxury yacht Isla Morada has been upgraded with new navigation equipment and improved safety features. And the barrels of rum have been moved out of the bedrooms.

That's where Al Capone kept them when smuggling rum from Cuba to the Florida Keys on its way to his Chicago speakeasies.

Capone also used the bedrooms while hosting elaborate parties aboard his 96-metre-long Isla Morada with its luxury features and finishes. You, too, can lounge amid that same luxury, sipping rum as you cruise through the Panama Canal.

The Isla Morada is one of three vessels used by Canal and Bay Tours to conduct public tours of the awe-inspiring Panama Canal. For a mere $1,800, you can transit the canal in a cruise ship with 2,200 other passengers. Or you could run off to sea and view the Panama Canal from a freighter's deck, but that's a lonely life.

A more interesting option that only costs US$165 lets you lounge on Capone's yacht for an eight-hour cruise through the canal, where you will hear the story of how this engineering marvel was created.

After completing the Suez Canal in 1869, France was inspired to tackle the narrow isthmus connecting North and South America to build a canal that had been talked about since 1815.

The French effort was a disaster, mostly because of mosquitoes. More than 22,000 workers died of yellow fever and malaria. The French didn't know how to fight those diseases, plus they believed they could dig a sea-level canal, similar to the Suez, despite the 110-metre-high land bridge between the two oceans.

Then-president Teddy Roosevelt persuaded the U.S. Congress in 1903 to buy out the bankrupt French effort for $40 million and then, backed by gunboat diplomacy, he persuaded Panama rebels to revolt from Columbia's jurisdiction and create their own new country. To thank the U.S. for supporting its revolution, the new nation of Panama allowed the U.S. to build and own a canal through their country.

U.S. engineers used the massive excavations the French left behind, but knew that the canal also required traditional lift locks to carry vessels up and over Panama's high, rocky spine.

Guides on the Isla Morada tour point out the many engineering challenges along the canal, including the steep Gaillard Cut through a mountain where avalanches killed many workers.

The Isla Morada is actually older than the canal. Its wooden hull was crafted in a New England shipyard in 1912 when the vessel was christened the Santana. The first ship passed through the canal in August 1914.

Capone bought the Santana in the 1920s during the Prohibition era and changed its name to one of his favourite islands in the Florida Keys.

The U.S. government wouldn't permit Capone to sail the Isla Morada to another island where he took up residence -- Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. He involuntarily moved there in 1931 after being convicted of income tax evasion.

His yacht was seized and drafted into the U.S. Navy where it served as an officer-training vessel during the Second World War.

In the 1960s, it arrived in Panama City as a floating boutique hotel, thanks to the five luxury bedrooms Capone had crafted.

Since then, the Isla Morada has transited the Panama Canal more than any other vessel afloat. The cruise is an eight-hour tutorial about one of the world's most challenging engineering feats.

Today, 270 ship pass through the 48-kilometre-long canal each week and dozens sit at anchor at both ends waiting their turn. A fully loaded freighter carrying 4,400 shipping containers pays about $320,000 for a one-way transit. Big cruise ships pay close to $350,000 one way.

To eliminate the Panama bottleneck and accommodate larger ships, a massive $5.8-billion construction project is underway to double its capacity. Toronto native Bill O'Neill heads up the construction consortium responsible for that expansion.

You can see the expansion construction during the Isla Morada tour. You'll also hear what a significant increase in ship traffic the canal's expansion will mean to Montreal, Halifax and other East Coast ports.

For more information, see website canalandbaytours.com.

 

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 E5

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