One Last Cruise

Equal parts myth and magnate, Mike Burke prepares to forsake his castle, stow a lifetime of memories, and get to sea once more

FOR SALE: Castle, 6 BR, 11 BA on Biscayne Bay, sauna, gym, wine cellar, billiard room, pool, 5 wet bars, tower guest house, gargoyles and statuary, drawbridge, saltwater moat, and 14 sharks. $6 million or best offer.

More than three years after Hurricane Mitch claimed his four-masted schooner Fantome and all 31 crewmen aboard, Capt. Mike Burke is heading out to sea. Although 77 years old and hobbled by gout, the wealthy founder of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises says he wants to follow the sun on a farewell tour of the Caribbean and Mediterranean ports where he earned a reputation as a hard-living sailor and party-boat pioneer.

Burke says his plan to set sail on his 92-foot yacht Tondeleyo, with just a cook and mate aboard, is an admission that time is short. "I don't want to sit here and die," he explains, "so I'll go out and fight a couple of gales."

But going to sea, and leaving a still-thriving business in the hands of his six adult children, also represents an attempt to shake off what Burke calls "the continuing nightmare" of the Fantome. The 282-foot ship disappeared off the coast of Honduras in October 1998 when it sailed into the maw of the powerful storm its captain was attempting to outrun.

Windjammer has settled with several of the victims' families, paying up to $200,000 to some. But at least eleven lawsuits are still pending in Miami federal court. Those suits charge that the owners and captain of the Fantome acted negligently by ignoring weather reports and leaving port. The suits ask for one million dollars for each family.

"The Fantome is there 24 hours a day," Burke says. "It underlies everything. I knew those people. And the loss hurt us, the general morale of the company. But I'm not running away. I'm going out there looking for freedom, freedom from the lifestyle I have now. You know, a sailor is owned by his possessions."

Among Burke's possessions, none is as visible as his home at 4462 North Bay Road. Miami Beach's most phantasmagoric abode, it is a faux-stone castle Burke built seven years ago to indulge an enduring boyhood fascination with knights, dragons, and damsels in distress. Unloading it won't be easy. "It will take someone as crazy as me," Burke allows. The problem is not just the sharks, which patrol the front of the castle in a 65,000-gallon saltwater pool crisscrossed with stone footbridges and fringed with palms. There are also the fierce-faced gargoyles, the bas-relief sculptures of knights and dragons, the suits of armor, the turrets and parapets, the great hall and grottos, and the ornate dark-wood cabinetry that lends the interior a medieval gloom. On the sunnier side, there is a heated, lagoon-style pool extending into the house, a twisting 30-foot slide, and 200 feet of bayfront that affords a grand view of downtown Miami.

Some neighbors have complained that the castle would be more appropriate as a video arcade or a disco in a Merry Olde England theme park than as a single-family residence on one of the priciest streets in South Florida. But realtor Jeffrey Cohen of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell says there is a buyer somewhere. "People have to be a little on the fringe to even present this home to them," acknowledges Cohen, who had the listing for several months last year. "I showed it to lots of people from the music and movie industries, and to dot-com guys with lots of money. But after 9/11 things froze." The lot itself is worth $2.5 million, according to Cohen. "I think the house could sell for about four million dollars to someone who then spends another one million to put in a circular driveway and a garage," he estimates.

If he can't sell the castle, Burke says, he'll lease it or close it up for awhile. "Now," he says, "I just have an ache to go sailing." Burke's affair with the sea began in New Jersey, where he was born Nathan Mendelson to Russian immigrants. His father was a kosher butcher. After a stint aboard a navy submarine during World War II, Burke was discharged in 1946 and came to Miami, taking the name of a buddy who was lost at sea.

The first boat he owned was a 22-foot sloop he christened the Hangover, and the story of just how it came into Burke's possession has varied over the years. For a while the legend was that Burke woke up on the deck one day and found out he'd won the boat in a poker game. In another version he pulled it up from the ocean floor in the Bahamas and took title for $200. Burke now says the hangover story is bogus; he never played poker. "Someone might have embellished on these stories," he confesses.

That Burke has a talent for invention is undisputed. He invented himself, a personal history bursting with bawdy adventure and sexual philandering, and eventually a niche market in the cruise industry. Once the thought of vacationing aboard a wave-tossed sailing ship struck most landlubbers as queasy folly. But Windjammer sold the romance of the high seas, and then promoted romance on board. The rum swizzles flowed freely, and passengers were encouraged to shed their inhibitions and their clothes. One Windjammer cruise set sail with porn star Marilyn Chambers as the featured guest. "You'll get a royal bang out of this princely voyage," read an advertisement.

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