The ashes of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises were still warm when a group of fans decided the fun couldn't end. Two years after the demise of Captain Mike Burke's storied sailing empire, a new company owned by 30 "Jammers" is setting sail in his wake.
Island Windjammers (www.islandwindjammers.com), as Burke's Barefoot line did 59 years ago, is starting with one boat, a dream, and no experience. Its venture is both shadowed by Burke's failings and buoyed by his goodwill.
Having started in November 2009 with a 12-passenger schooner based in Grenada, the company plans to cruise in the Grenadines with one-week trips patterned after the Barefoot model.
Burke and his children became millionaires converting old, classic schooners into sailing B&Bs, employing gracious but underpaid Caribbean citizens, adopting a faux-pirate alternative to behemoth cruise ships-and sailing where no one else did, a policy that made for hassle-free, regulation-free vacations.
But the company died nine years after the 1998 loss of 31 crew and the flagship Fantome in Hurricane Mitch off Honduras, a shipwreck that exposed the company's exploitation of developing countries willing to forgo Safety of Life at Sea rules written after the Titanic disaster.
Trying to hide its money from lawsuits, Windjammer let its fleet deteriorate as the Burke family experienced death, illness, and business troubles. A stroke left Mike Burke disabled. One son died of a drug overdose. Brothers and sisters fought for control. And in July 2009, Captain Burke's Miami Beach "castle" burned to the ground, and his youngest son, Joseph Conrad Burke, who'd tried to keep the company afloat, died in his sleep.
The seeds of Island Windjammer began when Liz Harvey, a nurse from Acworth, Georgia, joined with 100 other Jammers to invest in a new company. "Nobody wanted to see the windjammer experience disappear," she said. "So we started to put a company together."
Harvey, like the new company's staff of four, has no marine experience. It "started as a romantic idea," she said, "but we managed to take away pretty valuable lessons from Windjammer. The Fantome tragedy has left a mark on everyone involved."
A core group of 30 investors bought the 100-foot Diamont, a 1978 fiberglass brigantine registered in Panama, a flag of convenience that's targeted by the U.S. Coast Guard because of that country's soft enforcement of the SOLAS rules. Diamont wouldn't be allowed to carry passengers in U.S. waters, in large part because of its wood interior. Ships based in the Grenadines are also on a U.S. Coast Guard watch list.
Island Windjammers vows to upgrade the ship to near-international standards, sail within 20 miles of coasts, abandon cruises when they're threatened by hurricanes, and follow environmentally sound practices on board. The principals take no money; the crew of five, all Windjammer veterans, including the captain, will be paid flat salaries. A week's cruise with meals and drinks costs US$1,300 to US$1,700 per person.
"I couldn't care less if I ever see a dime back," said Dianne May, a paralegal tax expert and company investor from Hilliard, Ohio, who sailed 18 times with the Burkes. When Windjammer died, she said, "I felt I'd really lost something in my life. Just being able to go and sail again-it's just for the fun of it, really."