The Ship and the Storm: Hurricane Mitch and the Loss of the Fantom

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by : Jim Carrier

Built for luxury on a grand scale, the Fantome was a 282-foot, steel-hulled, four-masted schooner commissioned by the Duke of Westminster in the Roaring Twenties to idle along the French Riviera. She was rescued from mothballs in 1971 by self-made Miami entrepreneur Mike Burke, founder of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Ltd., who purchased the tall ship from Aristotle Onassis. For the next twenty-seven years, the Fantome lumbered through the Caribbean, carrying passengers on weeklong fantasy cruises, spiced with rum and sun.

Captain Guyan March, thirty-two years old, had spent his entire professional career aboard Mike Burke's aging fleet of tall ships. When he agreed to command the Fantome in the uncrowded waters of the Gulf of Honduras during hurricane season, he knew that a storm would leave him little time to run and few places to hide.

In October 1998, as March and his crew—most of them West Indians and most still in their twenties—neared the end of another cruise season, Tropical Storm Mitch whirled to life like a nebula in the southern reaches of the Caribbean. While hurricane specialists in Miami struggled to decipher satellite photos and conflicting readings, Mitch moved north, then west, ultimately growing into the fourth most powerful Atlantic storm on record as it plowed toward the Gulf of Honduras. After discharging his 97 passengers in Belize, Captain March—with First Mate "Brasso" Frederick, Second Mate Onassis Reyes, and twenty-eight other crew—took the $20 million uninsured ship to sea to try to dodge the approaching storm.

Mitch would become the most destructive hurricane in Western Hemisphere history, leaving 18,207 people dead or missing. It would devastate Honduras. First, though, it would corner the Fantome in a deadly game of cat and mouse, confounding the experts' predictions and countering the ship's every move with eerie precision. Descending on the ship, it would expose every unexamined assumption to 180-mile-per-hour winds and 50-foot seas.