How a Hurricane Devastated a Populous and Sent a 679-Ton Schooner to a Watery Grave

A powerful storm brewing in the Eastern Caribbean Sea and barreling north became Hurricane Mitch on October 22, 1998. As a Category 3 hurricane, Mitch was expected to continue on a northerly path into the Gulf of Mexico, posing a risk to Jamaica and possibly the Yucatan Peninsula.
SV Fantome 7 photos
Photo: By Csnavely0319 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
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However, by the following morning, Mitch changed course, headed almost due west from the Eastern Caribbean and took direct aim at Honduras and Roatan while gathering strength. By now, Mitch had strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 180 mph (285 kp/h).

Mitch would eventually roll right over the island of Roatan before making landfall in Honduras. Before sweeping north over Central America and heading into the Gulf of Mexico, Mitch would claim the lives of over 11,000 people in Central America, including roughly 7,000 in Honduras and 3,000 in Nicaragua.

All told, the hurricane would be responsible for 19,325 people in Central America, the United States, and Jamaica, making it the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record.

While many people witnessed the devastation and loss of life on the ground and on television, there was another very significant loss of life at sea.
SV Fantome
Photo: Wikipedia
The S/V Fantome of the Windjammer Barefoot Cruise line was preparing to depart the harbor of Omoa, Honduras, on October 24, for a six-day Cruise when the news of Hurricane Mitch was announced. Captain Guyan March decided to take shelter in the Bay Islands just off the coast of the mainland and wait for Mitch to pass on its northerly route.

As Mitch turned directly towards Honduras, Captain March decided to head to Belize City, where the passengers and non-essential crew would disembark. The Fantome would then leave Belize City and run north ahead of the storm however, it was unlikely the Fantome could get away from the Yucatan and the storm's reach at which point the decision was made to head south.

The plan was to make it to the lee side of Roatan in case Mitch made landfall in the Yucatan or Belize. The thought was that being on the south side of the island would protect the Fantome from damaging swells and severe winds. Captian March was unaware that Mitch had made a turn to the south, packing Category 5 winds heading for a direct hit on Roatan.

The decision to risk losing the Fantome at sea rather than riding out the storm on Roatan on the afternoon of October 27, would seal the fate of the legendary ship and its 31 crew members. Mitch had weakened but remained a dangerous Category 5 hurricane. The Fantome was just 40 miles (64 km) south of Mitch's eyewall and battling 100 mph (160 kp/h) winds in 40-foot (12-meter) seas when radio contact was lost.
SV Fantome
Photo: Fantome Facebook
On November 2, 1998, a search of the area by a helicopter from the British destroyer HMS Sheffield located life rafts and vests labeled "S/V Fantome" off the eastern coast of Guanaja, just off the coast of mainland Honduras. No sign of the S/V Fantome has ever been located.

The S/V Fantome was a marvel of a 20th-century stay-sail schooner. Originally commissioned for the Italian navy, it was completed in 1927 by the Duke of Westminster. The 679-ton schooner would change hands a couple of times before spending its time in Alaska and finally Seattle during World War II.

Windjammer Barefoot Cruise owner Michael Burke purchased the mighty ship directly from Aristotle Onassis sight unseen, in 1969. The 282-foot (85.95-meter) ship was completely refurbished and became the flagship of Windjammer's fleet of six other sailing vessels. The Fantome served cruise passengers throughout the Caribbean and the Bay of Honduras for 29 years before that fateful October 1998 afternoon.
SV Fantome
I was fortunate to have sailed on the Fantome on two occasions shortly before it sank. I always had questions about the decisions that were made during the days and hours leading up to the sinking. In addition, I have read several books about the sinking and came away believing the crew acted with a tremendous amount of skill and bravery to do whatever they could to save the SV Fantome from a watery grave, but nothing prepares a sailor for the ferocity of a Category 5 hurricane.
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