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With or without onboard sex, legions of customers found the laid-back Windjammer style to their liking, and they came back year after year. The company prospered. Burke won't reveal the firm's exact revenues but says an annual gross of $25 million is in the ballpark. The Fantome was Windjammer's flagship, three years younger than Burke but with an equally colorful past. Built in Italy and launched in 1927, the ship had a riveted steel hull, oak columns, and carved stairways. When Burke bought the ship in 1969 from Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, it had been moldering for years in a German canal.
After a six-million-dollar refitting, the Fantome sailed again with room for 128 passengers and a crew of 45 on cruises that were both luxurious and leisurely. But Windjammer critics charge Burke ran a cruise business that put profits ahead of safety. The fleet's six ships are registered in Panama and fly various foreign flags of convenience that allow the fleet to skirt U.S. regulations.
Registered in Equatorial Guinea, the Fantome was considered a slow and plodding vessel in heavy seas, but sturdy. Its seaworthiness was tested when Hurricane Mitch blew into the western Caribbean Sea with winds approaching 140 miles per hour. Through telephone conversations and e-mails, Burke's son, Windjammer fleet operations chief Michael D. Burke, and Fantome Capt. Guyan March decided to put the passengers ashore in Belize. Then the ship headed south to try and hide.
"Basically they knew the hurricane was brewing, they got all the American passengers off, and then sailed right out into a Category 5 hurricane and were never seen again," says Miami attorney William Huggett, who represents all the families suing Windjammer. "The ultimate tragedy is that if they had beached the boat, they might have been saved."
Today Burke is alone in his castle. June, his wife of some four decades, lives nearby, and his six children and eighteen grandchildren all have their own homes. So as he looks for a buyer Burke has time for reflection. In his eighth decade he still voices allegiance to the "red wine, fat steaks, and no moderation" credo by which he marketed himself and his ships. And in showing a reporter around his cavernous house he can't resist pointing out an unfinished hot-tub grotto adorned with carvings of busty maidens. "This would be a great place for sex, don't you think?" he says with a grin. But at the end of a 54-year career as a cruise-industry captain, Burke remains haunted by the disaster of the Fantome. "The ship couldn't stay where she was in Belize," he recalls, "so we tried to run south as the storm turned north. But the hurricane followed the ship, like it was tracking us. Weird. That had never happened before."
In the months after the tragedy, Burke says, "I was having trouble coping." He began taking antidepressants even as he replayed his visions of the doomed crew's last hours. He pictures them huddled in the salon, waiting to die. At times, he admits, he has wished he'd gone down with them. Burke is not religious. "Most older people get worried about where they're going and turn to religion," he says. "But I'm comfortable. I haven't hurt anyone. I've sailed around the world five times, and I think I've brought bliss to a lot of people through cruises." He does agree, however, that the ending is bittersweet. "When I go sailing I will carry those memories with me," he says, sitting hunched at his kitchen table and peering up from under the bill of his Windjammer cap. "I live with the awful awareness of what happened. But being out at sea feels better. It's my own cure."