The fall of the Flying Cloud, and Captain Burke’s dream

I initially published this in 2005, and recently noticed that it’s still getting hits. Before comments were disabled by the WordPress clock, it racked up 50 of them.  Some were heartbreaking, some were spirit-lifting. So – I got permission from El Jefe to repost it today.


Something a little different this week – just to show that there are things I can write about that aren’t Freeper-oriented:

Back in the 90s, I only had one vacation dream – to go on a Windjammer Barefoot Tour.

This company had a small fleet of tall ships, and they weren’t the kind of place to wear a tux for dinner.

They were the kind of cruise where they had a “Pirate Night”, and you weren’t really sure if they were play-acting.

They were the kind of ships that had all the passengers moon the “Foo-foo ships” as they sailed past the 15-deck-high  monstrosities, fire the windjammer’s signal cannon at them as a literal parting shot, then repair to the deck bar for a rum swizzle or ten.

They were the kind of ships that could cozy up to islands and coves that the cruise ships couldn’t get within a nautical mile of.

But before I could scrape up the cash, two things happened:

The S.V. Fantome four-master from the fleet was lost with all crew in a hurricane, and suddenly, you couldn’t book online any more.

I didn’t know it, but the founder, Captain Burke, had retired and left his kids to run the business – into the ground.

And they did – with a vengeance.

Please click on the “continue reading” for the whole amazing tale of Captain Burke and his beautiful tall ships…

The Flying Cloud:




Beautiful, no?

The flying cloud as of 2009:



And if that wasn’t bad enough, Captain Burke’s marvelous, whimsical, outrageous Florida home castle burned to the ground (he was in a nursing home by then)




The story of how it all came tumbling down is here:

(a long read, but SO worth it!)

This story had everything.  A far beyond colourful patriarch, scheming brothers and sisters, draining of company coffers for personal use – a true-life “Dallas” series with tall ships instead of oil wells. Someone should really make this story into a movie.

The takeaway?


All flesh is grass?  Best laid plans of mice and men? Preen over that house/car/wardrobe as much as you like – in 50 years (or less) it’ll all be gone, either crumbled to ashes, or sold to someone who neither knows nor cares to know about you?

Or the old standby – entropy increases.

But damn, it must have been fun while it lasted!

(footage below is of the S.V. Fantome before the hurricane sank it)

My humble apologies – the footage below was taken on the Fantome’s sister ship, the S.V. Polynesia, which was sold several times after the dissolution of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises.


An infomercial for Windjammer including the perky hostess holding forth in the now-underwater Fantome, and a surprisingly young-looking Captain Burke:

50 thoughts on “The fall of the Flying Cloud, and Captain Burke’s dream

  1. Interesting story, and a metaphor for American business today–suck out the money, neglect the revenue-producing assets and then bullshit the customers, hide the cash on the Isle of Man, etc.

    Properly run, that business probably would have lasted a long, long time. They had a sure-fire thing–dedicated return customers. The proof of that is when Windjammers officially went down the tubes in April, 2008, a consortium of their customers went in together on ship purchases and started Island Windjammers in 2009, and they’re still going, with new return customers and their share of good reviews. If the Burkes hadn’t been pirates toward their own customers, they’d still be going today.

    1. True – and while Captain Burke did let his kids start plundering the business while he was still running it, at least he kept the ships afloat.
      Like I said – someone should make a movie of this.

  2. A depressing story in many ways. As one who enjoyed four of the ships (including the ill-fated Fantome), it seems like just a horrible waste.

  3. I worked on the butchering of the Portuguese ship argus to become Polynesia. She was made almost unsailable. Mike Burke was a crook. They left divers to drown on fantome during initial voyage of argus/Polynesia. The crew was poisoned by bad food when refrigeration failed and water tanks were polluted by overflowing sewage. Never paid us. Only got home after intervention from us govt. fantomes crew was left to die in a hurricane

      1. do you know if they started refurbishing her?
        , she’s been there a while rusting away

    1. I suggest you read the book about the last voyage of the fantome. “The ship and the storm” by Jim Carrier.
      We were on her for the final voyage and disembarked in belise before she left to weather out the storm on the lee side of Roatan island. They were not left to die, but there were many failures by Burke that may have saved the ship and their crew.

      1. A boat the size of Fantome, with her limited speed and shallow draft and rounded hull was in dangerous waters, even on a calm day, in the western end of the Caribbean. She should have avoided being there. There was just no way to get out of town quick enough if bad weather was even a week away.
        One man’s opinion.
        I sailed her in 1973 and 1974 as part of the deck crew

  4. It was an interesting time. I was on her when she went into the reef off Virgin Gorda in 1975. The stories the crew told about the ship and the companyseemed unbelievable, but turns out most of them were true.

      1. The wife and I sailed on the Fantome three times. On our first voyage the Capt was a little bloke from the Isle of Wight. The next two times were with Capt. Guyan. For the life of me I can’t remember the first Captain’s name but I heard that he was fired when h got drunk t a company party and urinated on the Boss lady’s feet. That sounds like something he would do. If any one can remember him let me know. Those three trips were the best vacations I ever had.

    1. Hi Marc,

      I was there with you that night when it went onto the reef. I was 16 years old at the time and was sailing with my parents. If possible, I’d like to correspond with you about your memories during that stormy evening. My email is

      Mark Gropp

      1. After 66 years of sailing I can say that the longer that sailing dreams last, the more likely that they will come to grief. Do remember that Michael Burke allowed people with no experience on to sailing boats, 100 to 300 feet in length, and showed them things that they had never seen before, at a price that they could afford. In 1973 & 1974, when I was part of the crew of the Fantome, I would see groups of young people who could only afford to sail if they all got into a Maverick and drove from their home state of Ohio, or wherever they were from, and got out in Miami, and relied on Chalk’s to get them to the greatest vacation of their lives. No one doin that today. we should be pleased that it happened, and feel inspired to not let opportunities whiz by.

      2. I was chief engineer on the flying cloud
        In 1989 was anybody on the ship in that year? Please get in touch
        Roger shefford

      3. I have emailed you. It was a memorable evening, and few days after that. I went back there about 23 years ago. Aubry’s Big Bamboo building was there, but it was closed. I talked to some locals that said he had moved off the island.

  5. I remember Capt. Guyan well. If it weren’t for him we would have been left on the Honduras shore during Hurricane Mitch. He insisted on picking us up and taking us to Belize for evacuation. The company said we were not their responsibility until we boarded.
    Fare thee well Captain.

  6. My wife and I sailed on the S/V Flying Cloud in 1990. Remembering that trip today I searched for the Flying Cloud and was really sad as I read of the end of “Barefoot Cruises”

    1. I was chief engineer on the flying cloud in 1990.I was surprised they were allowed to sail it any were as she was a complete wreck down below,not been into dry dock for 7 years

      1. I was told after they pulled it off the reef in 74/75 that they just patched it, pumped it out and kept going because they could not sail it anywhere that had a suitable dry dock.

      2. Roger, I was on the Flying Cloud in July 1988, were you chief engineer at that time? Christine

  7. I sailed Flying Cloud in July 1973. A propeller shaft problem off Martinique almost sank her and we were towed in. Anybody else out there on that fateful voyage?

  8. I sailed on many of the fleets ships many times. It was indeed a unique experience to say the least. Rum swizzles, topless passengers, sleeping on Deck, visiting Island so small that I rented the police chief’s car on one of them. Unbelievable memories for me.

  9. The pictures above breaks my heart. My husband and I went on a 10 day cruise to the BVI on the SV Flying Cloud with Captain Adrianne at the helm back in the 90s. We had so much fun on this casual yet classy voyage. RIP SV Flying Cloud 🙁

    1. I was the purser on the Flying Cloud for the first half of 1994 (and then moved to the Fantome). Perhaps we were on at the same time. My “name” at the time was Hollywould.

    2. I was married on the Flying Cloud in August of 1994. Anyone out there possibly a shipmate?

  10. I was lucky to have sailed on The Flying Cloud in the late 1980’s. It was a fabulous, fun adventure throughout the BVI. Someone told me years ago that the SV Fantome, which was sadly lost with so many crew members on board, was the original 4 mast SV Flying Cloud. Can anyone clarify this for me?

      1. Thank you. I’m still confused. The photo in the article show a decimated SV Flying Cloud, so did a hurricane destroy her, too?

      2. This is difficult
        She was not deep and she was round bottomed
        She may have lost electricity and therefore steerage and gotten between waves sideways and her rig then would sway back and forth until something broke and a mast could have puncture he hull
        She had no watertight doors
        Loss of electricity is also in her case loss of bilge pumps
        I feel that this is like saying “what did your husband look like while he was having his stroke ‘
        I do not like this kind of speculation

      3. ” The photo in the article show a decimated SV Flying Cloud, so did a hurricane destroy her, too?”

        No. Neglect destroyed her. She sat and decayed in that berth while people fought over her ownership, until there was nothing left to own.

  11. I sailed on the Flying Cloud in 1969 (or perhaps it was 1970) from Martinique to Grenada on a Windjammer Barefoot Cruise. It was on that trip that the Captain told all the passengers on the first morning to remove our watches as we would not be needing them. My husband loved the idea so much, he never wore a watch again except when scuba diving! In fact, it was on that trip that he said, ” The next time we do this, let us do it ourselves.” It took us a little more that a decade, but finally we learned how to handle a sailing yacht and started chartering in the Caribbean (mainly in the BVI’s) for years until he passed away in 2008. We never sailed the Windwards again, but what a memorable time we had on the Flying Cloud!
    P.S. Our Captain was from Minnesota,and the name Burke sounds familiar, but I am not positive that it was him. Does anyone know the hometown of Captain Burke?

    1. ” Our Captain was from Minnesota, and the name Burke sounds familiar, but I am not positive that it was him. Does anyone know the hometown of Captain Burke?”

      Captain Mike Burke was the matriarch of the Windjammer fleet company, not a ship’s captain.
      He lived in Miami (please see the above post and imbedded videos for particulars).

      1. He did start as Captain, sailing people from Miami out to Bimini. Whether he was a ‘real’ Captain, I can only speculate.

  12. I can’t believe I finally found an article about the Flying Cloud. I sailed the BVI on her for 3 weeks in ’77. Best time of my life, but travels took me elsewhere and I never got back to the Caribbean. What a sad story this is, but thanks for telling it.

    1. I sailed in the employ of Michael Burke aboard the Fantome 1973 to 1974. I returned to the States and started a 200 acre outdoor Museum that is alive today. My time with Burke, and others, Andersen, Maskell, Kitchen, amoung them, changed my life. Not a day goes by that I do not think of her. Her loss was as if an old lover had perished.

  13. I also sailed on the Flying Cloud around 1999 loved it I’ll never forget the trip got great pictures throughout the Caribbean

  14. I was aboard FC in summer of 1973 when she almost sank and I am looking for anybody who might also have been aboard.

  15. My husband and I sailed on the Flying Cloud for our honeymoon in June of 95. Best vacation we ever had. In Feb 97 we sailed another Windjammer (can’t remember the name) out of Playa Del Carmen.

  16. Greetings “Old Salts”,

    I was happy to find this blog while endeavoring to locate any remaining ships from the original Windjammer fleet for a cruise while age still allows us to do so.

    My wife and I were aboard the Fantome (bless all lost) during our honeymoon in 1974 and Flying Cloud in 1978. Recall being allowed to steer the Fantome by the stars and mast on incredible nights. My wife was 4 months along with our first child in 1978 but I was the one who got sick from spending too much time late at night in the bar (with maniacs from Iceland) and high winds under sail on a windward island course.

    I have “The Ship and the Storm” by Jim Carrier detailing the loss of Fantome to Hurricane Mitch and suggest a read before some criticize those in charge at the time. Mitch made course changes unheard of in recorded history (or since) for a storm system in that area and it was as if the Fantome was being hunted. When Mitch caught up he stalled over her rather than blowing on by with 180 MPH winds and 50 foot seas. Passengers were previously let off along with all but the basic crew who volunteered to remain on board. The end result was a loss of 13 for Windjammer Cruises and over 10,000 ON LAND for Honduras. I think they did pretty damn good by comparison and still remember seeing passengers (who had too much fun) stumbling down the staircase to the saloon in 1974 which was the only part of the ship found after Mitch.

    On a lighter note, my wife found a pre-owned, large book titled “Barefoot Pirate” – The Tall Ships and Tails of Windjammer by Ed Crowell and Robert Schachner on the internet. It was somebody’s copy autographed by passengers and crew in 2006. It is about 12 x 9 inches, 290 pages, and describes all manner of things, crazy Windjammer history, and all the ships from day one. Also a memorial to Fantome and crew.

    In any event, I was searching for any ships remaining from the fleet and “Sail Windjammer” appears to have purchased the “Mandalay.” I had read somewhere a group of loyal Windjammer passengers created their own company after the original corporation was destroyed from within and this might be the group. In any event, the website looks like Mandalay is sailing, open for business, and activities are somewhat the same per pics on their site. Two differences were noticed from our original experiences: 1) passengers were swinging out over the water as we did BUT were wearing clothes and 2) pitchers of rum swizzles are pictured whereas ours were always in a giant punch bowel and one just dipped in as required. I will endeavor to revise both practices.

    Hope this helps anyone who wants the initial experience or to recall the past for a week.

    Boat Drinks,

    Bill Miller

  17. I had the opportunity to take a Windjammer bear for crows and that cruise was on the flying Cloud!! The best trip of my life. Island hopping around the British virgin islands on the flying cloud was magical. Your pictures from 2009 brought a tear to my eye.

  18. I too remember saving my money to take a windjammer cruise in the early to mid eighties and thinking it was the best money ever spent. I cant remember which ship I was on( they left out of Antigua back then ), but I do remember the short English captain and pirates and pimps night, The buffet laid out on top of the cargo hold and the cockroaches running to the food faster then we did, The night several of us slept on the stern deck and watched the stars was euphoric. The cold showers were bracing! Meeting up with one of the other ships and having a drinking contest was a major hoot. Years later when I lived in St. Thomas (1989-1993) I remember a first mate on one of the ships a tall blond fellow with a beard who I used to drive around the island when they were there and keep him entertained on his time off. He used to tell me all kinds of stories of shipboard drama. Often wondered what became of him. Its a shame all good things come to an end. Now I just sail my 34′ Hunter off of jersey and pretend its a windjammer. LOL

  19. my wife and I sailed out of Tortola on the Flying Cloud for a week long sail in 1997. it was our first date. And many more followed.. Capt. Adrian was the master and it was a wonderful memorable trip.. sad to learn what happened to her.. does anyone know where that final picture was taken?

  20. Back almost 50 years ago I sailed, in November 1970, on the original Polynesia, which took about 40 passengers with a crew of 8 or so. This was a special sailing out of St. John’s, Antigua. The three ships in the fleet at that time, with the others being the Yankee Clipper and the Flying Cloud, took off together on a 10 day journey to Barbuda on the first day, then on to Saint Bart’s (Barthelemy) where we arrived on Nov 5th not having heard any news for 3 days to find all the flags at half-mast. Surprised, upon making enquiries, we learned that President de Gaulle had just died and the French territorial island was recognizing that fact. Next it was off to Saint Maarten, the French and Dutch island, followed by the remote Saba Dutch island. Montserrat followed and I recall many of us taking transport up a track to the rim on the volcano – Soufrierre – to watch it bubbling away down below us. It, of course, erupted 20 years later destroying the community of New Plymouth and much of the south of the island. Saint Eustacia, then Saint Kitt’s and Nevis completed the island visits. Then we returned to English Harbour on Antigua.

    Three ships sailing together was fabulous. We young singles were in the Polynesia with couples on the other two ships. Each vessel took turns in hosting parties on board for the other ships so we got to know them and their passengers too. Barbecue parties on the beaches for everyone were a great favourite. On the Polynesia we were allowed to take the helm if the weather was kind. It amazed me how such fabulous food could be produced by the crew from such cramped galleys. Rum swizzels every evening, sleeping on the cool deck because below the air conditioning failed, I remember well. I still have the Kodak slides I took on the trip so the experience can come back very clearly.

    The following year I sailed on the Yankee Clipper out of Trinidad, north, visiting many islands on the way to Antigua. Then in 1981 I again sailed on her on a round trip out of Saint Maarten. Now 81 years of age I would jump at the opportunity to relive these wonderful experiences – thank you Michael Burke and all the crews of these classic sailing ships.

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