For months Windjammer Barefoot Cruises has been saying new investors, or an outright buyer, were soon to throw the company a life raft before it completely submerged in rising debt. Any floatation device may be too late now.
The tiny, yet popular cruise line's ships are likely headed for auction. Its license to sell cruises in Florida has expired. And opinions from the fanatical customer base that drove the no-frills cruises have turned sour because of last-minute cancellations, shady refund offers and secrecy about the line's plans.
One avid "jammer" writing on the passenger hosted online message board www.jammerbabe.com said the line owed her $12,000.
License Lapsed, Complaints Lodged
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirmed Windjammer's license to sell travel products in Florida lapsed Nov. 9, 2007.
Windjammer's telephone appears disconnected. E-mail is unanswered and the post office returns letters as being to a vacant address. The Consumer Services Department considers them out of business, but the company hasn't issued any official statement; nor did it return calls and e-mails asking for comment.
Normally, U.S, based cruise lines are bonded in order to ensure that customers aren't left in the lurch by a sudden bankruptcy. Windjammer, founded in 1947, had no such bond, however.
From 2003 to 2006, Consumer Services received just five customer complaints about Windjammer. ln 2007, that number jumped to 35, and there were already 31 written complaints lodged by April 8 this year.
The Florida Attorney General's office has received 172 complaints about Windjammer and is considering whether they merit an investigation into a possible breach of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
The Better Business Bureau of South Florida gives Windjammer its lowest grade, an F, and collected 64 complaints about the line in the last three years. In comparison, Carnival Cruises Lines also received an F grade with 569 complaints. But Carnival has more than 50,000 passengers on 22 ships each day. Windjammer has less than 400 potential passengers on four ships each day.
Despite their brimstone curses, former passengers have stood by Windjammer's no-shirt-or-shoes required concept and its friendly crew. Most former passengers complained about lost cruise time, not lost money.
Recently, Windjammer fans raised funds online to fly stranded crew members to their home countries.
Some needed tickets from the Caribbean to homes as far away as West Africa.
Most of the 35 crew aboard the Polynesia abandoned ship in Aruba after they stopped receiving paychecks last summer. A few held out, hoping the company would rebound, said Johnny Kock, director of Admiral Shipping, which was Windjammer's agent in Aruba.
Kock, the Aruba Red Cross and people at the port authority brought the crew food and water until money was raised to fly the crew home.
The Auction Block
That left the Polynesia, and presumably the other Windjammer ships, held by creditors wanting their money.
Richard Lacie, commercial and cruise development manager at the Aruba Ports Authority, said the line owes about $12,000 in fees. Kock said Windjammer owes him $30,000 and a U.S.-based bunkering company $150,000. At least three companies have filed leans against the 430-ton tall ship Polynesia, which both men think will be on the auction block in coming weeks.
"I've been approached by five companies interested in buying it," Kock said. "It's people looking to start up another Windjammer without the Burkes (former owners)."
It will no doubt take considerable investment to get the 193 8-built Polynesia in compliance with 20 IO IMO standards.
Whoever buys the ship may attempt to skirt those standards, Kock said, by only sailing select Southern Caribbean ports where inspections are rare. Toe line's other three active ships - the 1959-built Legacy, 1927-built Yankee Clipper and 1923-built Mandalay - are also said to be held by creditors in Costa Rica, Trinidad and Panama.
George James, a shipping agent in Trinidad, said he hasn't put a lean on the Yankee Clipper or Amazing Grace - an inactive Windjammer ship - but won't allow the vessels to leave until he is paid. Cruise cancellations, and news of the company's financial troubles, raised the eyebrows of travel insurers like Aig's Travel Guard and Omaha-based Tra Velex Insurance Services, both of which stopped insuring passengers on Windjammer cruises last summer.
The American Society Of Travel Agents alerted its members in August of Windjammer's cancellations, advising payments made to the company by credit card should be immediately disputed. They also said Windjammer did not respond to requests for more information.