The 282-foot, four-masted schooner S/V Fantome, with 31 crewmen aboard, disappeared off the coast of Honduras on October 27. Its last assumed position was overrun by Hurricane Mitch, the fifth-fiercest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded.
Built during World War I by the Italian Navy, Fantome had since 1969 been part of the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' fleet, which specializes in Caribbean sailing vacations. The US$15 million Fantome, self-insured by its owners, had cruised various areas including the Bahamas and Leeward Islands before shifting to the Gulf of Honduras about 2 years ago to sail itineraries in the Honduran Bay Islands and Belize's Barrier Reef during the Summer/Fall or hurricane season.
Fantome, according to a recent New York Times report, was no stranger to storms, having had brushes with two previous hurricanes during its years in the Caribbean. Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' founder and President of Operations Michael Burke says, "We have six ships operating year-round in the Caribbean. Every year we are threatened by approaching hurricanes and every year we inevitably have to take evasive action" Nevertheless, prior to this tragedy, Windjammer had logged a 50-year history without losing a human life at sea.
But Burke admitted, "With Mitch and Fantome, we were faced with circumstances that provided us with very few viable options. Fantome was boxed in a corner with the Yucatan Peninsula to the west and Honduras to the south. Fantome had nowhere to run"
Fantome was home-ported in Omao, a small harbor just southwest of Puerto Cortéz in Honduras. Ninety-seven passengers embarked Sunday afternoon, 25 October, expecting a 6-day cruise to Belize and its Barrier Reef. Feeder bands from Hurricane Mitch, its center still hundreds of miles away and tracking toward Jamaica, caused rains so heavy that as passengers were shuttled in launches to the Fantome, one passenger (quoted in a Seattle Times interview) said it was "like having a fire hydrant in your face."
Plans B and C
Captain Guyan March, 32, informed his passengers that since Hurricane Mitch was moving northwest, Fantome would go east to the Bay Islands rather than north to Belize. But by the time the ship got underway at midnight, the cruise had been canceled entirely. From Windjammer's Florida headquarters, Burke was in contact with the ship by sat-phone: "Sunday the captain and I discussed our options for avoiding the approaching hurricane. We agreed to go directly to Belize City and discharge passengers and all non-essential crew."
Monday at 1130 EST the vessel arrived at Belize City after a rough crossing. As the passengers and ten of the crewmembers disembarked, Mitch intensified and headed straight for Belize.
As soon as possible, the vessel again got underway. If she stayed, Burke said, she could have been sunk or run aground. "Our intentions were to go north past Cancún and Cozumel to get out of the area and avoid the storm." Burke stated, "This was really our only choice at the time, since the land locked us in on two sides. Puerto Cortéz, just west of Omoa, is the only harbor in the area [but] it would not have provided any protection from a north wind."
Fantome made her way through the Barrier Reef and arrived in open water at approximately 1500. Burke said, "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 forecast for the storm to strike the Yucatan coast. The wind was from the north-northeast and forecast to increase. The ship did not have the speed to out-run the storm before it was forecast to reach the coast.
"Belize was also in harm's way. So the only available option was for the ship to go southeast and seek shelter behind the island of Roatan This would give Fantome protection from the large swells produced by a storm such as Mitch. The forecast path of the storm was still west-northwest, which should have taken it well north of Roatan and the mainland of Honduras."
The Fantome covered the 120 miles to the south side of Roatan by 0500 Tuesday 27 October. There she tacked east to west in the lee of the island, and reported winds gusting to 60 knots from the west-northwest, and large to moderate seas. Burke said, "The captain reported that the ship was taking the weather fine, and that he was finalizing his heavy-weather preparations."
Tuesday's 0700 position confirmed that the storm was continuing to track in a westerly direction. But the 1000 position showed an unexpected turn toward the southeast, and then the 1300 position showed the storm's center had jogged to the southwest and was heading directly for Roatan.
"That's when things turned bad," Burke said. "It was just not an option to stay in the path of a storm with Mitch's power." And with high winds from the west-northwest, it was impossible for the ship to make any headway to the west away from the storm's new path.
Burke said, "At 1315 the captain and I agreed that we had only one choice, and that was to run east to try to get to the eastern semi-circle of the storm, where the wind would shift to west-southwest and eventually south, taking us away from land." This meant the Fantome had to clear the 24-mile-wide reef-lined passage between the island of Guanaja and the Honduran shore before reaching open sea. By then the winds were 70 knots, and Fantome was rolling heavily, Burke reported.
By 1600 Tuesday, Hurricane Mitch had again shifted direction, this time making a course due south of its 1300 position. The ship and the storm were both now on the same line of longitude, separated by only 45 miles. The captain reported a change in the wind direction from the west-northwest to due west.
At last report, Fantome was at 16·14'N, 86·04'W, about 10 miles south-southeast of Guanaja Island, running slightly north of east at approximately 7 knots toward its objective of the "navigable" quadrant of the hurricane. Reports from the ship told of fighting 40-foot seas and 100-knot winds, and taking 40-degree rolls. The captain, said Burke (as quoted in the New York Times), "was in a battle for his life."
At 1630 satellite communication with the ship ceased. Between 1600 and 1900 Tuesday, the storm's path changed yet again, to the southeast straight toward the path of the ship. As dark fell, the hurricane was 10 miles from the Fantome's assumed position. At 2200 the eye reached Guanaja.
"Then the worst thing happened," Burke said. The storm's forward motion stopped. Hurricane Mitch, with sustained winds of 150 knots, remained stalled over the area for the next 2 days.
Search crews found the first piece of debris from the Fantome on Sunday, 1 October: a lifejacket with "Fantome" stenciled on the back was found washed ashore on Guanaja Island. Two liferafts and a total of seven lifejackets were located in the vicinity of Guanaja during the 7-day search. The serial number of the first liferaft identified it as belonging to Fantome.
Windjammer spokesman James Canty, when asked whether he thought that Fantome's 31 crewmembers had perished at sea, said: "As much as I hate to say it, yes."
The eye of Hurricane Mitch never got within a hundred miles of Belize.
Information from the Associated Press; the New York Times; the Seattle Times; the US Coast Guard Seventh District; and statements made by Michael Burke made at a November 3rd press conference were used in preparing this report.
Several relatives of the missing Fantome crewmembers, most of whom were Caribbean nationals, are in the process of taking legal action against Windjammer Barefoot Cruises as this issue of Compass goes to press. Meanwhile, Windjammer has set up a trust fund for the crewmembers' families. For more information contact Windjammer at tel (800) 872-4020, or see website www.svfantome.com
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