With 31 crewmembers aboard, a 282-foot four-masted schooner operated by the Miami-based Windjammer Barefoot Cruises was lost at sea, apparently victim of Hurricane Mitch, which swept across the Caribbean Sea in late October.
The 71-year-old Fantome, once owned by Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, was last heard from October 27th as the vessel was attempting to get out of way of the hurricane’s track and enter the navigable semicircle, or eastern side, of the storm as it approached Honduras. A week-long search by the U.S. Coast Guard found only lifejackets and two empty life rafts. All crew are feared lost.
The vessel began what was intended to be a six-day cruise on Sunday, October 25. As Mitch tracked westward, however, the captain and land-based officials agreed to disembark 100 passengers in Belize City. Ten nonessential crew also left the ship, according to the company.
The vessel’s captain originally hoped to sail north around the Yucatan Peninsula to be clear of the storm. After discharging passengers on Monday, October 26, the vessel headed southeast instead, since reports were then predicting the storm would slam into the Yucatan.
"It was determined at this time that the idea of running north was no longer a safe option because of the vessel’s speed and the forecastThe ship did not have the speed to make the distance and outrun the storm before it was forecasted to reach the coast," said Michael Burke, president of operations for Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, in a statement. With land on three sides, the vessel was essentially blocked in by the storm. "So the only available option was for the ship to go southeast and seek shelter from the seas behind the island of Roatan. This would give Fantome protection from the large swells produced by a storm such as Mitch."
Unfortunately, the storm changed course to the southwest. Fantome’s captain then chose to sail due east, the statement explained, in hopes of reaching the navigable semicircle of the storm. It is believed that the vessel never cleared the island of Guanaja, which is 20 miles off the north coast of Honduras. A final report from the skipper at 1630 on Tuesday, October 27 to Miami headquarters described wind speeds at 110 knots and seas more than 40 feet.
Two empty life rafts, assorted debris, and nine lifejackets, each stenciled with the name Fantome, were found off the Honduran coast and washed ashore on Guanaja. Fantome’s master was British, the crew were from Caribbean nations. The vessel was not insured by Lloyds of London but was reportedly self-insured by Windjammer, meaning that the company’s six ships pooled insurance costs and claims. Fantome was reportedly worth between $10 and $15 million. At least five lawsuits were filed in Florida by crewmember’s families, accusing the company of putting the ship before the lives of the crew.
"Windjammer has been in existence for 51 years," Burke said later in his statement. "Every year we are threatened by approaching storms and every year we inevitably have to take evasive action to get out of harm’s wayWith Mitch and Fantome we were provided with very few viable options. Fantome had nowhere to run."