Ships and wind-ups go together. Deck cadets are warned about some of it during their two-week induction course. To be fair, two weeks is nowhere near long enough to prepare a bunch of sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds for life at sea. Apart from the basics, which mainly focused on safety, we were advised that being sent to the engine room to ask for a long weight would result in a long wait. We were told that there was no such thing as a sky hook, striped paint, or left-handed screwdrivers. But we weren’t told about the mules in Panama.

Gatun Locks. I took this photograph in 1975 on the Stolt Sheaf when we were headed in the opposite direction (Pacific to Caribbean).

It was our very jovial happy-go-lucky second mate on the Sheaf Royal who told me about the mules. He was leaving the ship in Cristobal before we entered the Canal, but prior to paying off he suggested that I visit the chief cook and get some carrots to feed the mules. He explained that ships cannot pass through the locks of the Panama Canal solely under their own power. He added that it was not possible to use tugs because of the lack of space in the locks, and that mules are used instead. He wasn’t lying. He just wasn’t telling the whole truth.

Mule in Gatun locks. Note the wires leading to the ship’s bow. (Photo taken in 1975 on the Stolt Sheaf.)

I didn’t ask the cook for carrots, but I sort of believed the second mate. After all I was sixteen and he was an old man of twenty-three! When we arrived at the first locks I discovered that the mules were actually specially designed railway engines. Wires from the mules are secured to bits on the ship and the mules act as land-based tugs. Clever stuff. Well, it seemed so to me. And no carrots required.

Close-up detail of a Panama Canal mule. In this case made fast to the Stolt Sheaf in 1975.

I always believed that mules (the ones with four legs not the ones in the locks of the Panama Canal) were stubborn creatures. According to Wikipedia and other websites I was wrong. I hadn’t realised that quite the opposite is true:

A mule gets its athletic ability from the horse and its intelligence from the donkey. Donkeys and mules have been labelled stubborn for centuries, but it is really only an abundance of common sense and a strong desire for self-preservation that might make them inclined to resist. Mules and donkeys actually have a natural attraction to humans. When treated with patience, kindness and understanding, they learn to trust and obey (Source: Mule Facts). While the writer of the Psalms seems to disagree, he does give good advice (see below). I also like that mules learn to trust and obey (I know a song about that) when treated properly. Be a mule. Trust and obey.

The LORD says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you.

Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.”

Many sorrows come to the wicked, but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the LORD.

So rejoice in the LORD and be glad, all you who obey him! Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure! (Psalm 32: 8-11 NLT)