Through the Panama Canal
San Pedro to Florida
By Nancy Vogel

In 1995 we (Grant and Nancy) and several other residents of Leisure World in Seal Beach, California experienced a very bad cruise. Most cruises are delightful and relatively problem-free; this was the exception that proves the rule.

The cruise line shall be nameless (oh, okay, it was Regency, which not long after this went out of business). The Leisure World residents were my husband Grant Vogel and me (Nancy) of Mutual Ten; Jean and Wilma Vander Woude of Mutual Fourteen, who had an unforgettable experience; and Lorraine Hewitt of Mutual Five, who had an even more unforgettable experience. (After the cruise, we rented a car and drove to North Fort Myers, Florida, where we visited Trudy and Connie for a couple of days before flying home.)

There was a curse on the ship from the start, according to some of the passengers. To begin with, perhaps because of previous engine-room fires and repairs, the ship was two hours late in arriving at San Pedro, California to pick up passengers. The cabins were icy cold the first night, with air conditioners going full blast. Crew members were unable to fix this, and passengers finally resorted to stuffing their air-conditioning units with towels or tape.

Next, because the ship was behind schedule, our stop at Puerto Vallarta took place in the evening, disappointingly too late for any sightseeing; and our promised stop at Zihuatenejo was skipped altogether. Then the entire air-conditioning system, as we sailed into this hot tropical climate, failed, and for two or three days and nights everyone sweltered.

At Costa Rica, things began to seem brighter. We stopped as promised and enjoyed seeing the area. But as we sailed away, late in the night Jean Vander Woude became ill, and the captain and the doctor agreed that the ship, three hours out of Costa Rica now, should turn around and take him back to a hospital there. Not until morning did the passengers learn that the ship was now behind schedule again. It was a frightening experience for the Vander Woudes, to be left under such circumstances in a strange country where hardly anyone spoke English. The ship doctor told us Jean had had a massive heart attack, and we worried about him until we got home. Later we learned that his illness had not been so serious. He would have been much better off staying on the ship instead of having to contend with getting to shore, arranging for care, being driven to San Jose, and coping with airports and plane travel when they flew home the next day.

Because of this six-hour delay, it was late afternoon when we arrived at the canal. Since everyone wanted to see the passage through the locks by daylight, we anchored outside until morning.

The next day we went without incident through the first three locks, sailed across the lake, and were about to enter the first of the locks leading down on the Atlantic side. But somehow the experts who came out to guide our ship goofed; we were pushed into the side of a wall, and a hole was torn in the side of the ship. The good news: the hole was above the water line. The bad news: it was only slightly above the water line, and it wouldn't be safe to travel farther before it was repaired. In the cabin whose side was bashed out, Lorraine Hewitt of Leisure World had been lying on the bed against the wall just moments before the hit. During the impact, fortunately, she was in the shower, and escaped serious injury.

The ship was held at the lock for several hours, tying up traffic through the canal (this had never happened before, we were told). Finally we were allowed to proceed on to Cristobal, six miles farther on. There we stayed for two or three days while they (noisily, day and night) repaired the damage. Many people were moved to other cabins, some because of damage to their cabins, some because of proximity to the repair work and possible danger, some because the pounding and welding were making it impossible to sleep.

In the Panama area we were told not to stroll on the streets or go outside certain designated guarded areas. A few people were careless about this and were mugged or had their purses snatched. One man discovered on returning to the ship that his trouser leg had been quietly slashed, in a hunt for his wallet. Another man was attacked by four thugs who took his wallet, all his credit cards, etc.

Naturally the repair work set our schedule back further, and the way to remedy that was of course to skip the remaining ports we were supposed to visit, such as Aruba, Cartagena and Nassau. We were told we would proceed directly to Fort Lauderdale, where we were to disembark, appropriately on Friday the 13th (a day late, necessitating vast numbers of changes in airline reservations, etc.) Many people were fed up by now, disheartened by the prospect of sailing for additional day after day with no stops, and decided to just fly home from Panama City. Arrangements were made, and they went out to get in the bus to leave. But much later, to everyone's surprise, they came back.

What had happened? As their bus was about to start for the airport, customs officials had told them there'd be an extra ten-dollar charge per passenger. The passengers conferred, feeling that this was a ripoff, and that they'd be forced to pay other bribes before they actually got to the airport--and maybe it wasn't safe anyway, this being the area of muggings and robbery. So they decided to come back to the ship and stick it out.

Minor problems included an epidemic of flu, which hit at least half the passengers, many of whom stayed in bed for a day or two; ice cream so soft some people drank it with a straw; hot shower water that turned cold far too soon; toilets that flushed either inadequately or incessantly; a ceiling that dripped water on diners at a certain table; lots of rubble and noise due to the repair work; an elevator that got stuck several times, trapping people inside; rumors that the waiters were about to go on strike; the tedium of the last few days, sequestered in our floating hotel, surrounded by boundless bounding main.

The night before the last, there was a passenger talent show, and the highlight was a parody of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," concocted by a clever passenger and sung by a small group. A condensed version: On the first day of cruising my captain gave to me--a cruise I will never forget. Two faulty engines; three days of heatstroke; four canceled ports; five strains of flu. The rest of the song included reference to muggers mugging, welders welding, etc.

But finally it ended, the cruise to paradise. Paradise being anywhere OFF the Little Ship of Horrors.