My Day in The Panama Canal

In what may be a classic case of over-reaction, Carnival Corp following the Costa tragedy has now decided that nobody is allowed on the bridge of its ships except the bridge team and the pilots. You will recall that the captain of the COSTA CONCORDIA was entertaining his dancer-girlfriend on the bridge when the ship veered to close to the island and slashed open the hull.

Always in the past I gave my “Bridge Commentary” while passing through the Panama Canal, well, from the bridge! Not anymore. So I was somewhat pissed yesterday to have to give the “Bridge Commentary” from the Horizon Court surrounded by passengers chomping away on breakfast and with, for me, a very limited visibility plus the need to describe the play-by-play without being there.

I was to start at 5 am. I was there, but as so often happens on ships, the right hand didn’t have a clue what the left hand was doing. It was almost 7 am before I managed to get the right people awakened, and get a mic in hand and begin my commentary.

While our normal “Pilot on Board” is scheduled for 5 am, yesterday was not a normal day in the Canal. The pilot was scheduled to come on board at 5:45 am, something nobody thought to tell me about. Normally I check everything out with the Bridge the day before to confirm the schedule … Of course every ship is different and operates differently.

For me it’s a long day … 5 am until about 3 pm when we get through the final locks, with me talking much of the day. So, with both me and Princess looking disorganized, we managed to get things going at 7 am.

I learned that sometimes changing things, even in ways you don’t want, actually works out for the better. I loved doing the commentary from the Horizon Lounge with all the guests right there asking questions. If one person asks a question, or really didn’t “get” how something works or why, the likelihood is a score of other folks have the same question or misunderstanding. And I had stewards filling my coffee and all the food was right there. So eventually it worked out great!

So why wasn’t it a normal day on the Canal? First they were doing a lot of dredging in Culebra Cut. [Culebra Cut was renamed Gaillard Cut by the Americans to honor David Gaillard who was the American engineer who was largely responsible for the success the US had in digging through the Continental Divide. Since the Turnover, Panama has been returning to using the original Panamanian names, so it’s now usually called Culebra.] the dredging forced one-way traffic through the cut. And, the big news, in more ways than one, they were moving one of the giant new gates for the Pacific Locks through the Canal.

The rolling-type gates that will be used in the new locks are made in Italy, then brought across on specially designed barges. The gates for the new Atlantic locks have all been delivered and are sitting beside the Canal near the present Gatun Locks, awaiting installation. The gates for the new Pacific locks have to be brought through the Canal over to the Pacific side. So we got to see the process when we passed one of these gigantic gates, not the largest by the way, in the Canal making the transit. The largest of the new Pacific gates is 11 stories high!! On the picture you can see the centipede-like method of specially constructed vehicles that moves the lock gates.

While we were going through the Canal, with me accessible in the Horizon Court, people were coming up not only just asking questions, but wanting pictures (pity their friends who need to watch them, but I guess it’s easier to watch friends’ vacation pictures on iPad than a full-scale “come over for drinks and see my vacation ‘slides’” presentation), express appreciation for my lectures (Princess take note!), or get me to sign copies of my PANAMA CANAL DAY books. Incidentally, we sold out the books I brought on board and I’m hoping to have more to pick up when we get to Ft. Lauderdale.

Panama Canal Day Gates 1Panama Canal Day New Lock GAteNew Pacific Lock Gate in the Canal


Along The Pacific

Between the time we left San Pedro [Los Angeles] and begin our transit of the Panama Canal, ISLAND PRINCESS called at three ports, leaving a lot of sea days in between which are great for me because I get to talk about Panama and the Canal and give people the information they need to get the most our of their experience in Panama. If you can’t join me personally on a ship, you can get the same great information in my book PANAMA CANAL DAY: AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO CRUISING THE PANAMA CANAL.

I thought you’d be interested in the places we’ve stopped en route to Panama.

Cabo San Lucas


Years and years ago the first time I went to Cabo it was still a sleepy, fishing village. Not any more! It is one of the “Top 5 Tourist Destinations” in Mexico, crowded with tourists, time-share sales people, surrounded by mega resorts with world-class golf courses, and in general, pardon me … a touristy zoo.

One of the best views of the rocks at the tip of the Baja is actually from the deck of the ship, which along with the rest of the cruise ship fleet, is anchored off shore. Local tenders assist in a rapid off loading of guests eager to explore the wonders of Cabo. This is where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez and it is a popular area not just for tourists but for sea lions. There is a natural arch in the rocks formed by the massive erosion of the sea that is three stories tall. Cabo is great for fishing, snorkeling, diving and beaching. If you work at it you can even still find beaches that aren’t jammed with tourists and tequila-fueled party people. One popular beach is nestled between the rocks and known as “Lover’s Beach.” Supposedly it was a private and secret place to carry on a tryst in the sand, which by the way is highly overrated. Nikki and I tried it once and it can get very uncomfortable as in the throes of passion sand gets where it was never intended to be. Today, like most things in Cabo, “Lover’s Beach” although still spectacularly beautiful, is crowded with tourists.

San Juan del Sur

Every time I do a contract I’m hoping for at least one port that I’ve never been to before, and this time it is San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua.  This is a very interesting port, as is Nicaragua, partly because it has so many volcanoes.  If it wasn’t for the volcanoes of Nicaragua the canal might never have been built in Panama.  Now, aside from the colonial charm of places like Granada, and the beautiful vistas of Lake Nicaragua, the area is of particular interest to me because this is where the proposed Nicaragua Canal being built by China is supposed to begin on the Pacific side.

Las Isletas in Lake Nicaragua, one of the areas environmentalists feel may be threatened by the proposed Nicaragua canal and the rush to begin without adequate environmental impact studies.


Although pretty much a nothing town, except for a fairly nice town beach just a short walk from the pier, Puntarenas is mainly a jumping off point for some fantastic shore excursions that explore the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

Beach in Puntarenas is withing walking distance of pier

Beach in Puntarenas is withing walking distance of pier

Tour of a beautiful coffee farm high in the mountains of Costa Rica

Tour of a beautiful coffee farm high in the mountains of Costa Rica

John is an old gringo like me who lives outside of Puntarenas.  Every week before the ships come in he gets Tarazzu coffee, my favorite Costa Rican coffee grown at 5,000 feet and roasts it.  He sells it as Shade Lady Coffee.  But be careful, there is another business in Puntarenas called “Shady Lady” … and from her you may get a lot more than you bargain for!  Anyway John sells his coffee and even although we grow excellent coffee, my wife always asks me to bring home some Shade Lady coffee.Puntarenas 028

Now we are off, heading for Panama and the Panama Canal.

Volendam Mar 08 043

Back At Sea

It’s been over a year since I’ve been back on Princess and I’m happy to be back, this time on ISLAND PRINCESS again as Port Lecturer.

I had a little over a month to get ready and no, it’s not just packing.  On this contract I have 22 separate lectures, bridge commentaries, etc., to prepare.  Even although I did this basic run seven years ago when I started doing this kind of “retirement” job, obviously a lot has changed and even although I may have had the basic structure of past lecturers, everything needed updated and coordinated with the itineraries I’ll be doing on ISLAND PRINCESS … so a LOT of work before I even get to the ship.

ISLAND PRINCESS was built especially for the Panama Canal itineraries and is a Panamax ship, the largest vessel that can sail through the existing locks.  It was christened in 2003, holds 1,970 passengers and 900 crew.

PRINCESS PATRICIA the first Princess ship that sailed from Los Angeles to Mexico.

This is a special time to be back on Princess because it is the 50th Anniversary of Princess Cruises.  And it is a special time for me to be doing the Panama Canal run because it is the 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal!

Yesterday we left San Pedro, the port for Los Angeles, and today are at sea headed for Cabo. We’ll make our way down and through the Panama Canal onward to Ft. Lauderdale.  Then we’ll be doing the round-trip Ft. Lauderdale itinerary that goes through Gatun Locks into Gatun Lake where we disembark guests for Panama Tours.  The ship goes back through the locks where we stop at Colon to pick up the tour guests and then head onward to a variety of Caribbean ports before ending up back in Ft. Lauderdale for another run of … still going … “The Love Boat.”

People tell me, and I guess that they are right, that I have the “ideal” retirement … living in the mountains of Panama part of the year and spending time getting paid to sail on fantastic cruise ships.

Things Change

If there were a mantra for living in Panama it would be “things change!”  In fact, if there were a mantra for life it would be “THINGS CHANGE!”  Living in Panama I’ve learned that you always have to be expecting change and to have a “Plan B” in mind.  In Panama, also  Plans C, D, E, F, etc.  But here, as everywhere else, the secret is to keep plugging and respond as positively as possible to the changes life throws at you, whether they are the gigantic life-altering changes, or the little “that’s interesting” changes.

It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since I was at sea, so wanting to get back in the swing of things I agreed to do several “one-off” cruises this fall, one for Celebrity and four for Silversea. While in the Canary Islands on Celebrity I experienced loss of vision in my one eye several times.  Once when attempting to start a talk, while an inexperienced AV guy tried to figure out PowerPoint, I was stalling by telling jokes I’ve used many times and in the middle of the joke I forgot the punch lines.  I ended up in the medical center with the ship’s doctor sending me to an ophthalmologist.  When the eye doc said there was nothing wrong with my eyes, the ship doctor, fearing a stroke, sent me back home to Seattle for a whole string of tests.  Tests which proved … drum roll! … I’m normal, much to the surprise of some of my friends.  But in the meantime, not to leave Silversea hanging at the last minute, I had to cancel my four scheduled cruises.

The silver lining was getting to spend some time with my daughter and her family in Seattle.  I’m now with my other daughter in Sonoma County working my way back to Panama.  And the other day … Princess called.  They want me back at sea, doing my favorite run through the Panama Canal on ISLAND PRINCESS … starting mid-November!

Island Princess in locks

Since 2014 is the 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal, and with all the expansion construction going on, this is an exciting time to do the Canal run and be able to introduce a shipload of folks [1,970 passengers, 900 crew] to Panama.  Plus, no long-haul flights!  I start with a Canal transit from Los Angeles to Ft Lauderdale in less than a month, and then do the partial transits round trip from Ft Lauderdale.

New Picture (3)



Along The Way of St James

In the movie THE WAY, Martin Sheen plays Tom, an irascible American doctor who comes to France to deal with the tragic loss of his son (played by Emilio Estevez). Rather than return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage “The Way of St. James” to honor his son’s desire to finish the journey. What Tom doesn’t plan on is the profound impact this trip will have on him. Today 100,000 pilgrims a year still follow “The Way of St. James” from France into Spain and one of the highlights of their pilgrimage is to visit the magnificent cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, about 1.5 hours from the port of Vigo, Spain.

 In the middle ages anywhere from 500,000 to 2,000,000 visitors a year poured into northwestern Spain. Many who came were guided en route by what is considered to be the world’s first travel guidebook written in 1130 by a French monk. Not everyone could make the almost impossible pilgrimage to the Holy Land so for many Europeans the trip to Santiago was a possible alternative. The distinctive pilgrim garb was a simple hat and a shell. Visit Santiago de Compostela today and you will see, in addition to the tourists, pilgrims by the scores with their hiking shoes and backpacks who are walking “The Way of St James”.

 So, what’s the fuss? According to tradition (that marvelous word that covers a multitude of religious tourism sites around the world, and perhaps a multitude of related sins as well) Apostle James brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula then was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 AD. Here’s where the legend gets interesting, and perhaps a bit dubious. The legend that the remains of the Apostle James were brought to Galicia for burial in an anonymous field. In 813, guided by a bright star no less, a shepherd found the burial of St. James at Santiago de Compestela The shepherd took the story and the bones to the Bishop, who recognized opportunity when it came knocking. The declared the bones to be the remains of the Apostle James and built a church. Reportedly miraculous events started occurred as a result of people praying to the bones of St. James.

 Pilgrims, religious tourists with money, started flocking to Santiago de Compestela and as many as 2 MILLION people a year hiked across Europe (without benefit of tour buses) to make a pilgrimage to the town. The present church constructed 1075-1128. The mystical attraction is to climb up above the high altar where there is a quirky-looking silver statue of St. James, place your hands on his shoulders, and make a prayer or a wish. I made mine, but if it happens it will be God above, not St. James or a silly-looking statue that gets the credit. (I go direct!) But anyhow the church is still a big tourist attraction for everyone from pilgrims to popes.

The inside of the church is impressive without a doubt! And I got to attend a service – standing room only by the way – with the music of the giant organ thundering and rolling through the stone arches. So how does any church, even a church with the relics of St. James, get a standing room only crowd of tourists and locals? Well, as the early churchmen discovered (and fellows like Robert Schuller tried to copy in more recent years) you’ve got to add some zing. Some flash! Some pizzazz! And they found it in Santiago de Compestela in the form of a giant incense burner which at the end of each service, “representing the prayers of Santiago de Compestela”, is filled with incense, set afire, hosted and then swung from the top of the cathedral back and forth soaring of the heads of the awe-struck congregation! It is impressive and quite a show!

Venice, Italy – Richard’s Quick Guide

I am busy preparing for my contract on RUBY PRINCESS and thought you might appreciate the following information if, and when, you visit Venice

Venice, Italy – Richard’s Quick Guide


  • Ship Tour – Cruise line does all the research and planning and you sit back and enjoy. The best way to see the most in a limited time and can be the most cost-effective. Ship does not leave until all ship tours are back.
  • You Do It All – “Independent.” – For people who like to do their own research & planning using travel guidebooks, Internet, etc. You do the work and you are independent. It is your responsibility to get back to the ship on time. [Independent group tours generally are best booked online in advance based on recommendations you trust.]


  • Richard’s Port Talks – Live and on cabin TV
  • Tourist Information Web site:
  • Cruise line-provided port map & guide delivered to your stateroom – depending on port of call may be more of a shopping information sheet on some cruise lines giving you step-by-step directions to “preferred” shops with whom the cruise line has a marketing agreement
  • There are many detained and interactive maps available online
  • 1 km = .6 mile


  • Italy is part of the Euro-zone and uses the Euro
  • Check Internet for current rates – of course anyone who changes money for you makes money by giving you slightly less than the going rate, but you knew that.
  • Tipping: If “service included” locals leave additional small coins up to 1 Euro, if not included 10-15% – Tour Guides: around $4-10 per person, depending on the length of tour, bus driver $1-4 per person, depending on length of tour. [Tour guides receive most of their income from tips and generally bus drivers and guides do not share tips.]

Getting Around

  • Vaporetto is Venice “city bus” – About 6.50 Euro for 60 minutes going in one direction – 12 “iMob” or tourist pass costs around 16 Euro – Buy tickets at ticket counter or pay conductor – You must validate tickets in yellow machine to avoid fines.
  • Gondolas haggle somewhere between $125 – 150 US for hour ride.
  • Water Taxis are very expensive – Within the old city can easily cost 30-50 EU or more.
  • 7 Traghetto [“ferry”] points on Grand Canal where old gondolas will take you across the canal for around a Euro.
  • “People Mover” that will take you from the port to the Piazza Roma where you can connect with the train, buses to other parts of Venice and the Vaporetto that will take you to St Mark’s. “People Mover” 1 Euro coin.
  • There is a yellow Water Shuttle that takes you right to St Mark’s Square.
  • Usually there will be a cruise line Shuttle boat that will take you to St Mark’s Square.
  • It is possible to walk from St. Mark’s Square to Piazza Roma using the People Mover to get between Piazza Roma and the ship. The route isn’t well marked but since the train station is by Piazza Roma, just follow the procession of people with roller board suitcases.

Helpful Hints

  • Venice can be mobbed at the height the season – Locals feel as if they are being crowded out by “Veniceland”.
  • If you are able, Venice is best explored on foot – you WILL get lost, but just ask directions.
  • Expect long lines if you are on your own at St Mark’s, Bell Tower, and Doges Palace, all at St Mark’s Square – Best way to avoid the lines, somewhat, is to take a tour. If you are the independent sort, pick the one you really want to see and be there first thing in the morning. If the ship isn’t arriving until afternoon either take the tour, or try to get in just before closing, and make a fast tour.
  • Dress respectfully for churches.
  • Watch out for pickpockets – crowds of tourists equal pickpockets at work – so be “street smart” and aware of your surroundings.
  • Watch where you walk!
  • Because of all the Canals bridges are often steep and few are “accessible” and those that are require a wheelchair occupant to also be an Olympic power lifter!
  • Gelato is less expensive away from St. Mark’s Square on the back streets.
  • Most Venice restaurants add in an extra fee just because you are sitting in their restaurant.
  • It isn’t so much about what you “see” as what you “experience”.
  • Shops open 9am-1pm, 3pm-7:30pm – “tourist shops” with “Chinese goods” more often open all day.


  • St Mark’s Square – the heart of Venice, shuttle boats and Vaporetto will let you off within what is for most people a short walking distance to the Square.
  • St Mark’s Cathedral – the center of the Square. Long lines anytime of year, but particularly in the summer. Best bet is to take the ships’s tour or arrive early in the morning.  The remains of St. Mark and the lions above the door were both stolen from Alexandria, Egypt.
  • St Mark’s Bell Tower – “One of the greatest erections of all time.” There will be a long, long line, particularly in summer to climb to the top. The view from the deck of the ship, if the ship sails in through St. Mark’s Canal and the Canal de Giudeca is just as good if not better.
  • Doge’s Palace – Residence of the Doge who was elected for life and the seat of government 1309-1424. Not to be missed. Long, long lines particularly in summer. If you are not on a tour the key is to be first in line in the morning. Open from 9am-6pm. approximately 15 Euro.
  • Grand Canal – Vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal is a great, and relatively inexpensive, way to view many of the Venetian Palaces on the Grand Canal. You can get the Vaporetto at Piazza Roma (where the People Mover takes you) or at the Vaporetto stop near St. Mark’s Square.
  • Rialto Bridge – Can be seen from the Vaporetto if you are taking the Vaporetto down the Grand Canal. There is a Vaporetto stop at the Rialto Bridge. You can walk to the Rialto Bridge from St. Mark’s Square or vice versa. There are some signs, or you can just ask or follow the crowd. There is a market on the opposite side of the Bridge from the Vaporetto stop and St. Mark’s. In the morning there is a vegetable and fish market there as well.
  • Rialto Market – On the opposite side of the Bridge from the Rialto Vaporetto stop and St. Mark’s. In the morning there is a vegetable and fish market there as well. Lots of Made in China souvenirs.
  • Guggenheim Museum – If you’ve been to Venice before the Guggenheim is in the former home of Peggy Guggenheim houses her collection of modern art, reputed to be one of the finest in any small museum. Vaporetto stop on the Grand Canal. 10am-6pm, closed Tuesday. 12 Euro.
  • Gallerie del Accademia – Venetian paintings from the 14th to 19th century. Open 8:30am-6:30pm, Tuesdays until 1pm. 8 Euro.
  • Murano is the island home of Venice’ famous glass. The real thing is expensive. The Made in China knock offs are inexpensive. Much of the glass currently being sold in souvenir shops is Made in China. Know what you are looking for, do some research, and buy the real thing if that’s what you want. If you just want something that looks something like Venetian glass go for the Chinese stuff. You can get there by Vaporetto or tour.
  • Burano is a small island which I think is more interesting than Murano. Brightly colored houses, canals, and lace making. You can get there by Vaporetto or tour.

Copyright 2012 RLD – May not be reprinted without permission. Information provided by local agents and believed to be accurate but not guaranteed.

What do you do?

One of the questions folks always ask me when I am home in Panama is what I do on board ship?  I always laugh when they ask if I’m the Captain!  I wish!  But because I’m “mature” I guess that seems like a logical assumption.  When I tell them I lecture on board they always want to know what I talk about.

So . . . in case you’ve wondered . . . here are a few clips I posted on YouTube that will give you an idea.  These are ship recordings that we replayed on cabin TV for our guests during the sailing.  Sometimes the quality leaves something to be desired, but you can get the idea.

I can’t embed these . . . but if you click on the link it will take you to YouTube . . .

“Holy Cities” - This is the first 15 minutes of a lecture on the “Holy Land” for ports in Israel. The entire port lecture was 6o minutes. This was recorded on PACIFIC PRINCESS to be run continuously on cabin TV. Unfortunately due to limited equipment the slides are recorded by a camera filming the projection screen (sometimes moving with the ship!) and not pulling directly from the computer so the quality leaves much to be desired.

“Enchanting Egypt” – This is a 15 minute clip from the middle of a talk for Port Said and Cairo for a series of Egypt cruises on Princess calling in Egypt 8 months after the 2011 February Revolution. The interesting thing about the first part of this clip, is that once I started asking people to check out the prices and quality of cartouches onboard before going off on tour to Egypt, the number of cartouches being sold in the jewelry shop on board zoomed from 2 or 3 per cruise to as many as 27 per cruise.

“Let The Adventure Begin”  – This is a clip from a video designed to be shown to guests on ZUIDERDAM on embarkation day.  Part of my assignment as Travel Guide was to soft sell shore excursions.  This section deals with Panama and a little part of Costa Rica.

“More Than Johnny Depp: The History of Piracy” – This is a 15 minute clip from a 55 minute talk on the history of piracy, tracing it from it’s beginnings right up through the present day.