Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' flagship, the 676-ton, 128-passenger Fantome, was lost at sea during Hurricane Mitch with 31 crew aboard. In addition to the assumed loss of life, the tragedy has serious financial consequences for Windjammer: the self-insured vessel's value was estimated at $10-$15 million; its loss translates into an 18 percent decrease in fleet capacity; and a slew of lawsuits have now been filed by the lost crewmembers' families.
Coast Guard searchers located debris from the vessel, but no bodies had been recovered at press time. The Fantome first attempted to sail north toward the Yucatan Peninsula, however, following a change in Mitch's course, the Fantome doubled back, dropped off its 100 passengers and 10 non-essential crewrnembers in Belize City, then headed south for Roatan Island off Honduras in an attempt to skirt the storm and save the vessel.
Another change in the storm's course prompted the ship to turn to the east, at which point the storm shifted yet again and crossed the vessel's path.
The Fantome was captained by Britisher Guyan March, with its crew from Guyana, St. Vincent, Jamaica, Honduras, Antigua, Nicaragua, Panama, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Romania. Last week, Windjammer officials were personally meeting with families of the crew, offering them the equivalent of two months' wages, and setting up a trust fund for additional money. According to a report in the Orlando Sentinel, two months' pay amounted to $300 for kitchen helpers and $500 for an engineer - an assertion which Windjammer did not dispute.
By press time, five $1 million lawsuits had already been filed on behalf of crew families by the Miami law firm of Hugett and Scornavacca. That sum would have been far higher, said attorney William Huggett, "but unfortunately, the Death on the High Seas statute does not allow you to sue for pain and suffering, only for the loss of support - whatever the individual would have earned to give his family."
The lawsuits hinge on whether the decision to ride out the storm and not anchor the ship in a hurricane hole in Belize City was made entirely by Captain March, or whether company executives played a role. According to Huggett, "It is our contention - and their admission - that they (the company) did (influence the decision)." He referred to published news articles in which a Windjammer spokesperson appeared to acknowledge executives' involvement.
The Windjammer spokesperson countered that it was standard practice for ships to ride out storms, and that the suits represented "false accusations from a self serving personal-injury attorney."