Based on extensive interviews and on-site research, this well-executed, emotionally fraught disaster narrative examines the fates of several luckless groups—Honduras’ beleaguered citizenry, the doomed crew of the steel-hulled schooner Fantome, and the ship’s all-too-human corporate masters, Windjammer Cruises—during the devastating 1998 Category 5 Hurricane Mitch.
Fantome’s experienced crew was ordered to sea ahead of Mitch for evasive purposes, yet the “rapid intensifier” storm pursued them, ultimately destroying the ship and 31 crew members. Mitch then wrought havoc in Central America, debilitating much of Honduras with 37 hours of torrential wind and rain followed by inexorable flooding and mudslides. Although Carrier maintains this broad scope in considering the disaster’s toll, he focuses on specific personalities, as well as on the cultural histories behind them: youthful Fantome captain Guyan March, prominent among a contemporary generation of multinational, underpaid seamen, and Windjammer founder Mike Burke, who parlayed a cruise operation with a 1950s-era emphasis on alcohol and promiscuity into an upstart travel empire reliant on older ships and cultish repeat travelers, the scornful antithesis of Carnival-style leisure. (Burke’s son Michael was running Windjammer during Mitch; he was striving to modernize the company and discusses his role in forthright conversations here.) The narrative hopscotches from topic to topic, and some of Carrier’s conclusions about the Fantome’s denouement are decidedly creative, but the author succeeds in illuminating the subtle, heartrending social contrasts and human foibles that contributed to the tragedy. He unsparingly depicts Windjammer as more concerned about the ship than its West Indian and Bahamian crew, and catalogues decades of cut corners and safety shortfalls masked by Burke’s promotion of raunchy nautical hedonism. Similarly, miscalculations of both US weather forecasting and Central American disaster preparation clearly contributed to evacuation failures, destruction, and suffering in Honduras.
Carrier does a first-rate job of giving individuated life to the star-crossed crew of the Fantome, rendering this dark drama of duty and courage amidst nature’s fury gripping but never exploitative.