Historic Tragedy near Guanaja’s Shores
By Elke Jackson-McNab A pioneer in the floral industry on Roatan, Elke loves refurbishing, decorating, antiques, beautiful new and vintage things. Elke is very devoted to her family and her Christian life. She remembers vividly her interaction with the captain and crew of the Fantome in 1997, when this beautiful vessel first arrived to the islands.
The Fantome, originally named “The Flying Cloud” was considered one the world’s most luxurious yachts when she was completed in 1927. By 1998 this four-mast, 282-foot, steel-hulled staysail schooner was owned by Windjammer Barefoot Cruise based in Miami, Florida.
The yacht was built by the Italian navy and purchased before its completion by the Duke of Westminster. A few years later “The Flying Cloud” was sold to Nelson Warden, who died two years later and his wife let the yacht her go. “The Flying Cloud” was then acquired in auction by Arthur Guinness, who renamed her “Fantome” which in French means ghost.
In 1956[U1] it is said that Aristotle Onassis “the Greek Tycoon,” purchased her as a wedding gift for Princess Grace of Monaco. Onassis did not receive an invitation to the wedding, so he just left the yacht to rust at a port in Kiel, Germany. In 1969 Captain Michael Burke Sr., owner of Windjammer Barefoot Cruise, bought her from Onassis. She was half sunken and rusting. When he first saw the Fantome, he was a bit disappointed, she was a wreck, but he could see her potential. He then refurbished the schooner at a cost of $6 million US, and she became flagship of his tall ship barefoot cruise line[U2].
Windjammer Cruises was a different kind of cruise. It was a very relaxed, go barefoot cruise. No special dress code was required and sometimes it was a you did not need any clothes at all.
In the spring of 1997 Mr. Allan Hyde, and Michael D. Burke Jr in Miami, made arrangements for Roatan to be one of the destinations of the Fantome. Mr. Allan offered me the job to assist him with the arrivals of this vessel. I knew very little about what I was supposed to do. I was fresh out of nothing: I never used my college degree much and knew no one with any experience in cruise ship arrivals. I had my sail up to where ever the wind blew, so I went for it.
Fantome that was the first cruise ship to dock there.
Captain Paul and another representative from Windjammer in Miami come to the island in early April 1997. We toured them around so they could see the beauty of the island. There were not that many options for tourist back then, but they seem pleased with what we had to offer. Roatan did have some of the most beautiful beaches, and diving spots.
I remember the excitement I felt the day the Fantome arrived to Roatan. It was the summer of 1997 and the cruise port dock in Coxen Hole was almost completed. In fact it was the Fantome that was the first cruise ship to dock there.
We arrived early that morning: Mr. Allan, his son Shawn, Nadeen, the customs agents, and I. We soon saw her sailing in, slowly on horizon. The Fantome was a beautiful ship, she was majestic, something you thought you would only see in a movie.
Everything was well kept, polished, even though she was 70 years old, Fantome still preserved her original beauty. Captain Guyan March was always very friendly. He was a handsome blonde British born man, who had started very early at sea. At 32 he was considered Windjammer’s “golden boy.”
The Fantome only came to Roatan a few times. I remember the last time I went to receive, and entered this ship. We waited in the lobby to be attended, an in a few minutes the deck was covered with nude men. They just stood around talking to each other; some with drinks in their hands, laughing, and chatting as if they were all wearing tuxedos. I had never, ever felt so out of place in my entire life. I acted as if it all was perfectly normal to me, and did my job.
As I met with Captain Guyan, he explained to us that it was a nude cruise for gay men, and asked if there were any nude beaches on the island. Later that afternoon we returned to the vessel with paperwork, and found the passengers jumping off the ship into the sea, having a merry good time. And again, yes they were all nude.
The deck was covered with nude men.
I don’t really know much more about the Fantome and her crew after this. They change route, and moved to Omoa, Cortes where she was home-ported. The yacht sailed to Belize, Hog Islands and Utila. Passengers would fly to San Pedro Sula, and then they were shuttled to Omoa to meet the ship. I never quite understood why they left Roatan.
According to what’s documented the Fantome left Omoa, Cortes, with Captain March, and his crew on October 25, 1998 headed for Belize to drop off the 97 passengers, and all non-essential crew. Fantome was left with 31 crew, one being a Honduran “Jesús Hernández,” who could not get off in Belize because he did not have the correct paperwork.
October 27, 1998, was a historic day in my life. Mitch, a category five hurricane, and one of the most devastating storms, blew with a relentless intensity. The island of Guanaja was left looking as if a fire had destroyed all the trees on its once green and beautiful hills.
Entire communities were devastated in Guanaja. Yet God wrapped his arms around the island and saved the islanders lives. October 27 was also my husband’s Birthday; he turned 32, the same age as Captain Guyan. Sadly, it was the last day for the Fantome, and her crew.
Guanaja was left looking as if a fire had destroyed all the trees.
I was devastated to learn about the Fantome’s demise. Windjammer headquarters in Miami had been in touch with Capt. March all day via satellite phone trying to direct the boat to safety. Fantome was trying to find shelter on the lee side of the Bay Islands.
Shawn Hyde, Mr. Allan’s son, recalled an early conversation between the agent in Belize, his father, and the captain regarding what they would do in the event of a hurricane. The Captain answered “head out to sea.” Someone then said: “Well that’ll be the last you’ll see of her.”
Captain March found himself in a very difficult position, inside the small bridge room where he, and first mate Crispín were in had only one window about two by three feet. He described to headquarters that they were facing over 100 miles an hour winds, and up to 30-40-foot seas, the ship was being battered from all directions, the Fantome was taking 40 degree rolls. I cannot even begin to imagine the horror they faced in those last hours.
At 4:30 pm October 27 1998, the satellite phone went dead, and headquarters lost communication with the Fantome. Capt Guyan March, and his crew members lost at sea in a merciless deadly storm. Fantome rests at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, likely somewhere south of Guanaja. Yet what exactly what happened we will never know.
“Well that’ll be the last you’ll see of her.”
A couple days later, on November 2, two life rafts, seven life jackets, a life ring, and part of a wooden staircase were discovered by a helicopter dispatched by British destroyer the HMS Sheffield near Guanaja.
Even so many years later there are families, and friends who remember that dreadful day and Miss Captain March, his crew, and the Fantome.