Editorial January 1, 1999 Issue


Amid all the media coverage of last October’s Hurricane Mitch and the havoc wrecked on Central America was the sea story of Fantome, a 282-foot steel-hulled, four-masted schooner that disappeared with all hands. Her story is chilling. An account in The New York Times said, “it was almost as if the hurricane hunted the vessel down.” Indeed, the events of Fantome’s last hours turned like a plot from a Stephen King novel.

Owned by Windjammer Barefoot Cruises of Miami, Florida, she was built in 1927 for the Duke of Westminster, and later owned by Guinness Brewing and Aristotle Onassis. Windjammer refurbished her at a cost of $6 million. She was queen of its fleet.

On October 25 Fantome departed on a six-day cruise from Omoa, Honduras, to Belize with 97 passengers. Mitch had already been spawned four days earlier in the Caribbean and was heading northwest. The first night out, Windjammer president Michael Burke decided to cancel the cruise, ordering Fantome directly to Belize City. There, all passengers and 10 of the crew deboarded.

Consulting with Captain Guyan March, Burke followed what is said to be customary procedure for such a large ship, and sent her out to sea to parry with Mitch in deep water. As the thinking goes, the chances of running aground or being blown ashore are too great if the ship stays put.

Burke and March stayed in constant satellite communication during the chase in which Mitch was the hunter and Fantome the prey.

She headed southeast to hide in the lee of Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. By dawn on the 27th, Fantome was sailing back and forth behind the island in 60 mph. winds. The situation was tolerable.

Then Mitch changed his mind and inexplicably turned southwest. According to the computer models churned out at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, this wasn’t supposed to happen. But it did.

None of March’s options held much promise, but the best of bad choices was to continue east into the reefs between the Honduras coast and another island, Guanaja.

By 4 p.m., winds were 100 mph. Fantome was rolling 40°, but prospects had brightened ever so slightly. Winds were shifting to the west, placing Fantome in the “navigable quadrant” of the storm, with winds at her stern. Finally, a chance to run before the storm!

At 4:30 p.m. the communication link between Burke and March went dead. Burke wondered what could have happened.

At 7:00 p.m., when the National Hurricane Center issued a new storm position, he found out. To his undoubted horror, Mitch had turned yet again, this time to the southeast. Fantome’s escape had been cut off, as if she’d been stalked.

All that were found were two life rafts, seven life jackets and some flotsam. March and the 30 West Indian crew were presumed lost.

In the ensuing days, experts debated whether Fantome should have attempted to take on Mitch at sea, or simply abandoned to her fate in Belize City. As any boat owner knows, it’s hard to leave your own vessel.

But Mitch wasn’t any ordinary hurricane. Not 100 mph. winds, but 180 mph! Force goes up by the cube.

Andy Chase, author of a book on tall ship handling, told The New York Times, “I could not have gotten under way in any direction except to the airport and the hell out of there.”

Was Burke right or wrong? It seems we’ll learn the answer in court. Lawsuits have been filed against Windjammer Barefoot Cruises by relatives of the deceased.

Maybe where Stephen King really departs from reality is by not ending every story with a bunch of lawyers. But as the Times account concluded, “no matter how good the ship and crew may be, sometimes storms win.”

—Dan Spurr

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