|Schooner FANTOME, c. 1941,|
Moored for several years during WWII at Lake Washington, Seattle.
Original photos from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©
When the race ended the ship built for a duke had no choice but the fate foreshadowed by its 1927 christening: FANTOME––French for ghost.
Thirty-one men had run for their lives from Hurricane Mitch for a day and a half. They sailed north, sailed south, then tacked east and west, back and forth in futility, behind a little island of cover. But it left them in a virtual vise, walled in between 50-ft waves and 100-mph winds where sea and sky merged into a vast howling whiteout.
To the south and west lay the shoals of Honduras and Belize. To the north and east, more of Mitch. Their young captain tried vainly to thread a needle to safety. But as he clung to the helm two weeks ago, drenched and exhausted, the deck beneath him listing a sickening 40 degrees––his sense of right, left, up or down, was likely lost in the maelstrom of foam and spray.
Experienced mariners can tell you what comes next. You want to lay down and go to sleep. When the ship starts falling apart, you are just waiting––and wanting––to die.
The FANTOME was the $15 million, self-insured pride of Miami Beach-based Windjammer Barefoot Cruises Ltd., a sailing line its president, Michael D. Burke, said he started 51 years ago when he got drunk in Miami and woke up the next morning in bleary possession of a $600, 19-ft sloop he dubbed the HANGOVER. Over the years, his fleet grew to six.
The FANTOME was built for the Duke of Westminster 71 years ago. In 1950, it was bought for $50,000 by William and Joseph Jones, Seattle fish cannery operators, who offered guided tours of her to benefit local charities.
Original photo from the archives of S.P.H.S.©
The ship left Seattle in 1953 and was sold to Aristotle Onassis.
Burke bought her in 1969, gave the 282-ft, steel-hulled ship a $6 million, four-masted make-over, and registered it out of exotic Equatorial Guinea, a small sliver of impoverishment in West Africa.
The seagoing pros and cons of steel-hulled vessels are the subject of Sebastian Junger's 1997 best seller, The Perfect Storm.
Steel is tough compared to wood, don't let anyone tell you different. Steel goes down faster, though. It goes down––well, like a load of steel.
Still, the FANTOME was considered a solid vessel, and when its massive sails were filled making way to windward, it was romance in motion, needing neither roulette wheels nor ice swans to seduce its passengers. Breakfast was Bloody Mary; dinner attire was T-shirt and shorts; passengers dove off the side to snorkel, and climbed back up on rope ladders––all the simple tropical pleasures that $1,500 to $2,000 per week could buy.
The 32-yr old captain, Guyan March, who had windsurfed in the British Isles from the time he was a young boy, liked to say he wasn't chopped squid either. He had piloted Windjammers since his early 20s, was respected by his crew, and was highly regarded by women for his good looks and sea tales. His brother Paul also sails for Windjammer.
Saturday-Sun, 24-25 October 1998.
The final fateful trip began in the Honduran port of Omoa Saturday afternoon, destination Belize and the Barrier Reef for six days of diving and snorkeling. But the 100 passengers were shuttled in launches to the FANTOME in driving rain that was "like having a fire hydrant in your face, said passenger Anthony Moffa.
Passengers were told not to worry. Those rains were the extreme outer bands of 98-mph Mitch, a late-season Caribbean hurricane nearly a thousand miles away, tracking northeast toward Jamaica. The FANTOME would play it safe; rather than sail north to Belize, it would hug the bay islands of the Honduran coast.
But around 2 am Sunday, while passengers dozed, the FANTOME changed course. At 6 am, passengers got with their Bloody Marys a depressing announcement from Capt. March that they were making a sprint to Belize City, where they and "nonessential" crew members would be dropped off. It would take all day.
The hurricane no longer appeared aimed for certain at Jamaica. Its path seemed erratically northwestward. It was now blowing at 127 mph, a strong Category 3, serious enough to scare a ship of any size.
Monday 26 October 1998.
The last sight that passengers had of the FANTOME crew left haunting impressions.
"I talked with Guyan as we were waiting for the launches," recalled passenger Moffa. "He was telling me that he had been on the FANTOME for about a year and had sailed for Windjammer for 10 years.
"But you could tell he was pensive, his mind was elsewhere. He was talking and greeting passengers, but he was making a mental checklist of what he needed."
Kevin Lewis, a Montserrat islander who had vacationed on previous FANTOME cruises, got to know the crew and said they were mostly Caribbean islanders like him.
"They all had families they were forced to spend a great deal of time away from," he said. "I got the impression they weren't very well paid––a few actually confided to me that they weren't––but they loved their jobs and did it extremely well.
"I remember being struck by the engineer––a tall, dark handsome guy from Trinidad, who during he day would be dressed in overalls, but would surface at night in an impeccable white uniform to dance with the passengers."
Windjammer owner Burke agonized by satellite phone with his skipper. "Our intentions were to go north past Cancun and Cozumel to get out of the area and avoid the storm," Burke said. "This was really our only choice at the time since the land locked us in on two sides. Puerto Cortez, just west of Omoa, is the only harbor in the area. It is open to the north and would not have provided any protection from a north wind.
FANTOME was boxed in a corner," he said, "with the Yucatan to the west and Honduras to the south."
By 3 pm, the FANTOME was under way, plowing past the Barrier Reef, headed north. If all went well, the FANTOME would wait out Mitch in the peaceful Gulf of Mexico.
Even under full sail, the FANTOME could do no better than 9-mph. Burke and March feared the storm might catch the ship before it cleared the Yucatan.
Mitch was now blowing at monster strength––178-mph, the 5th most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. It was slowly bending northwest, as the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade had predicted. So March turned south.
Tuesday 27 October 1998
"Our computer models kept forecasting it to move northwest toward Belize and the Yucatan," said Max Mayfield, the hurricane center's deputy director. "It didn't do that. It slowed. Basically, it stalled off the coast of Honduras."
At that point, everything changed for forecasters. "It is very unusual," said the hurricane center director Jerry Jarrell. "In late October, early November, they typically go northwest or turn north."
"Realize that when you're making forecasts, you're thinking you're right," said Jarrell. "it's the sort of thing you're almost psyched up about. You almost convince yourself this forecast is right. We had so much evidence going for the forecast we were making, we were actually pretty slow to give it up. I think correctly. It pays off every other time. Certainly not this time."
Around noon Tuesday, with forecasters still predicting the storm would bend west and northwest, Mitch dipped south, and then began churning directly toward Roatan.
FANTOME's shelter suddenly looked like ground zero.
The ship set sail to east, hoping to slip out as the eye passed above.
Instead, Mitch kept coming and coming, trapping FANTOME between the dangerous coastline and the eye, the proverbial rock and a hard place. Forecasters know what happened now, said Mayfield. "The steering currents just collapsed. The computer models didn't see that."
FANTOME's captain, Mayfield and Jarrell said, did what he could do with the information he had. The Gulf of Honduras sits in a triangle of coastline that turned into a deathtrap.
Around 4:30 pm, the FANTOME had moved east of Roatan, about 40 miles south of Mitch's 155-mph eyeall. March told Burke that he was fighting a 100-mph gale and 40-ft waves. And Mitch was taking dead aim at him.
Then the FANTOME apparently lost its satellite antenna. Burke pleaded with ham radio operators to search their frequencies for a signal. There was none. Thirty-one souls were cut off from the world.
Wednesday 28 October 1998
Few live to describe what it's like in the fury of a hurricane at sea.
Mitch was way, way off the Beaufort scale––a hell where sailors would hardly be able to tell the difference between sea and air.
The near-complete disappearance of the 282-ft ship provides a clue as to what may have happened.
"It's a sign the boat went down quickly," said Thomas Danti, dean of instruction at the Chapman School of Seamanship in Stuart, FL. "Very quickly."
The 71-yr old ship lacked the watertight bulkheads of newer vessels and while its heavy steel hull made it a solid-riding, durable, vessel it also meant that should it founder, it could sink like a stone.
The vessel's life rafts as well as its emergency beacon were designed to release and float if the ship capsized, but they might have been trapped in pockets of the upside down ship as it sunk in waters 1,100 to 1,400-ft deep.
Monday 2 November 1998
On the fifth day of an intense search, the crew of the Monty 45 helicopter, dispatched from the British frigate HMS SHEFFIELD, spotted debris in the waters near eastern Guanaja, off Honduras: Eight life vests, two life rafts. Stenciled on them: SV FANTOME.
Now FANTOME truly was a ghost ship.
Text by Cynthia Corzo, Curtis Morgan, John Barry for Knight Ridder Newspapers.
Published by The Seattle Times 8 November 1998.