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.
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."