- by Carol Standish
The coverage of Hurricane Mitch (October '98) was both dramatic and tragically moving. The storm was of surreal proportions, an unpredictable killer which blew for a month. The news sparked a great outpouring of concern and aid to the devastated Central American countries which were hit. Today, the event has faded from memory, until, that is, you read The Ship and the Storm by veteran journalist, Jim Carrier (International Marine/McGraw Hill; 263pp; $24.95). The book drops you straight from your arm chair into the middle of Mitch - the last place in the world you want to be and you can't stop reading.
The primary vantage point is the bridge of the aging 282' four masted schooner, Fantome, cruising the Gulf of Honduras. Built in 1927 by the Duke of Westminster and extravagantly appointed, she originally "puttered up and down the French Riviera with a crew of eighty, including a footman and a gun bearer." (But "she sailed like a pig" a more recent crewmember commented.)
When she was discovered in 1969 by Mike Burke, the founder of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises of Miami, she was lying on the bottom of the Kiel Canal in Germany. " 'Her deck was awash, the masts were askew, the standing rigging was rotten, the teak was peeling away from the deck'…rusting, freezing, peeling and forgotten" by her then owner, Aristotle Onassis. Acquired and renovated, she became the star of Burke's pleasure for hire fleet.
For many years she visited to the usual ports-of-call in the Eastern Caribbean, but in 1997 the Fantome was relocated to the coast of Honduras to sail (and motor) her 128 passengers around the Bay Islands in the Western Caribbean. The area less scoured by the big cruise ships was considered a more appropriate setting for a windjammer with a whiff of the pirate about her.
Unfortunately, the Gulf of Honduras offers only a swampy lee shore to the prevailing weather and few sheltered harbors deep enough for Fantome. Both Windjammer Barefoot Cruise officials and Fantome's experienced captain, Guyan March, were aware of the risk. Nevertheless, 1998 was to be her second successful season in these virgin cruising grounds.
Carrier interviewed passengers, crew members and their relatives, as well as the corporate honchos in contact with the ship throughout the ordeal. He also sought out and interviewed residents of the Central American coast and the Bay Islands who lived through the onslaught. Photographs sharpen the keen edge of tragedy as the cast of innocents, both on land and sea, takes shape.
Mitch makes its first appearance on page 17 as a "dark squall line over West Africa" called in the trade a "perturbation." Interviews with the staff of the Hurricane Research Lab in Miami, including pilots and scientists aboard numerous flights into the eye of the storm, provide Mitch's side of the story. Carrier also mines ham radio operators and users of local and internet sites for additional first hand information. The step by step account of Mitch's development forms the other side of the nerve-wracking cat and mouse game: the ship and the storm.
Although the similarity to Junger's The Perfect Storm exists, (in fact, Junger's help is acknowledged by Carrier) the two books are very different. The Fantome and Windjammer Barefoot Cruises have a long common history, an interesting story in itself. The flavor of the Caribbean, steamy, exotic and emotional, permeates the story. Carrier provides more detail and surmises less - partly because the ship and the Windjammer office are in contact for so long, partly because he has interviewed more survivors. Being a career journalist, not much gets by Carrier. He skillfully tells a cohesive and tense story. In addition, he is a sailor himself and it shows. The dedication reads "To the men of the Fantome - there but for the grace of God go I" - or any of the rest of us.