Latin America

Al Capone on the Panama Canal

The rum-running boat belonging to the late Chicago mafia boss has been re-purposed

Panama City -
Al Capone's former smuggling vessel is now used by tourists at the Panama Canal..
Al Capone's former smuggling vessel is now used by tourists at the Panama Canal..

More than 85 years ago, the Islamorada was used for high-speed secret missions. Under Al Capone’s command, the wooden yacht regularly navigated through the Mona Passage – the rough waters between Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico – the Florida Straits, and the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti.

The infamous Chicago gangster used the vessel during the 1919-1933 Prohibition era to smuggle rum, whiskey and contraband from Cuban and Dominican markets.

The famous Chicago gangster used the vessel to smuggle rum and whiskey during Prohibition

During the Roaring Twenties, the liquor was sold at speakeasies in the United States during a time when it was illegal to make, transport, sell or buy alcoholic beverages in any US jurisdiction.

Today, the Islamorada – named after one of the keys near Miami where Capone had an operations base – no longer runs rum, but instead ferries passengers on excursions through the Panama Canal. It is now owned Canal&Bay Tours.

Built in 1912 in Massachusetts, the luxury yacht was intended for the high-price consumer market – for a wealthy magnate, or for a person with an impeccable or dubious reputation, such as Capone.

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The Chicago mafia boss, who controlled the city’s prostitution, illegal gambling and alcohol sales, bought the ship in the 1920s for his clandestine rum-running missions, and it was fitted with five luxurious cabins, bars and a casino.

After many attempts to criminally charge Capone, federal agents finally nabbed him for tax evasion, and he served a prison term from 1931 to 1939.

Unable to make a gangland comeback, he retired to Miami Beach, where he died in 1947.

After the US government confiscated the Islamorada, it was used by the army as a minesweeper during World War II.

Under new ownership, the vessel was anchored in Panamanian Pacific waters and served as tourist boat for trips through the canal as well as a hotel.

The ‘Islamorada’ was used by the US army as a minesweeper during World War II

Now the three-level, 96-meter long vessel can transport up to 104 passengers and travel more than 12 knots per hour, reaching the canal’s Pacific locks from the Atlantic, and vice versa, within eight hours.

“It is a very old vessel that is handled manually but it is in excellent condition,” says Eduardo Espinoza, its Panamanian captain, in an EL PAÍS interview. “She’s sensitive but you have to know how to handle her.”

“It is wonderful to know about her dangerous past and to realize that there were captains who, with Capone, made some delicate but daring voyages. For this reason, it is part of seafaring history. But now she is on another mission.”

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