From the Stacks: Pilot “Autograph” Books

We have multiple personalized “autograph” books in the collection, originally owned by Canal Pilots. These books are full of the stamps of ships that passed through the Panama Canal, as well as the ship captains’ signatures. These autograph books belonged to Robert R. Will and Jack R. Ward.

Do you know anything about this type of book? Is this common practice in canals, or unique to the Panama Canal? Was the collecting of autographs in lieu of or in addition to receiving the traditional coffee cups from ship captains?

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  • Robert Dryja

    The piloting of a ship through the Panama Canal could be both social and serious at the same time. Socially, it was possible to take a complete or partial transit of the canal as a guest of a ship’s captain. I once rode in a pilot launch out to a Norwegian ore carrier, climbed aboard with the pilot, and then spent the day watching as the ship was guided through the canal. This included a four-course lunch and a tour of the engine room. I watched huge pistons move up and down and learned that several thousand tons of fuel would be used in sailing from Chile to Norway. Scandinavian ships were recommended because of their nice meals. English ships were considered to have dull meals in comparison.

    At the same time a transit was serious business. The pilot watched/monitored all operations from the moment he boarded until he left with the completion of the transit. He was in command while aboard, legally over the captain. If anything wrong happened to the ship, (run aground, sink, etc.) it was the responsibility and liability of the Panama Canal company to repair/compensate. A freighter once passed too close the side of Galliard Cut, cutting its side. It then slowly and partially sank into Gatun Lake.

    The pilot log was a nice way to document socially and business-wise that a pilot had completed a transit safely.

  • Peter Swain

    These logs appear to be well after the give away treaty was signed. Late period of US operation of the canal. Love the zone during its glory days.

  • Lew Stabler

    Sometime during the early 80s, my wife, Sue Stabler, wrote an article for the Spillway about Captain Frank Kerley and his collection of ship’s cups and his multi-volume collection of logs of ship’s seals and masters’ signatures. I went with her to Frank’s house in Margarita while she interviewed him for the story. He had over two thousand cups on display on custom built shelves that were on every wall in the living and dining room.

    We both actually met Frank a couple years earlier when Sue and I were guests of the ship’s captain aboard the Overseas Washington. Frank was the second-control piIot that day. I don’t recall how many volumes of the signature logs he told us had collected, but he told us an interesting, but sad, story about the fate of one of those logs. When a pilot boards the ship for a transit, normally a small manila line is lowered to the pilot launch so the seaman on the launch can tie the pilot’s tote bag to the line to be hoisted to the main deck of the ship by one of the ship’s crew. Frank told us he never allowed anyone to hoist his bag for fear someone would accidentally drop it into the water with a volume of his signature logs in it. So he carried the leather bag in his hand as he climbed up or down the pilot ladder on the side of the hull. On one transit, while de-boarding, the mate insisted on being allowed to lower Frank’s bag on a heaving line. The mate was mortified that the pilot wanted to hold it in his hand as he climbed down the ladder. The mate practically pleaded with Frank to let him lower the bag, and Frank finally relented. As Frank watched, the mate hastily tied the line to the bag’s handle, swung it over the side, and proceeded to lower the bag. Naturally, in keeping with Murphy’s Law, the knot came undone, and Frank watched, horrified, as the bag plunged into the water and quickly sank. He told us that he never again allowed anyone to hoist or lower his bag.

    I have no idea what happened to Frank’s collections of cups and logs. Maybe one of your readers has more information.

  • Christopher Ward

    I was amazed to find my father’s canal transit diary on your website (Jack Ward was my father). I remember transiting the canal with him many times (Pilots were often allowed to bring guests on board with them). He also had a huge collection of coffee cups (hundreds of them). Spending time with him in Panama made me so interested in that country’s history that I went on to earn a Ph.D. in Panamanian history at the University of Florida. My book, Imperial Panama (Univeristy of New Mexico Press) is a history of colonial times with a special empahsis on the historic Portobelo fairs. I see that your museum is part of the George Smathers Library. As a graduate student I was one of the people who helped organize his papers for the PK Young library, back in the 1980s.

    Anyway, this brought up lots of old memories.

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