Updated: Apr 27, 2021
Cruising under sail is not a new thing. When the commercial leisure cruise phenomenon was born in the 1840’s, ocean shipping was in the midst of the great transition between wind and steam and many a historic leisure cruise took place on vessels that were at least partly wind powered. But by the 1870’s steamships had all but replaced sailing vessels for mainstream passenger transport and no one would dream of going on an unreliable, uncomfortable and archaic sailing vessel for a commercial cruise experience … until the late 1940’s, that is!
On a sunny morning in 1947 in Miami Beach, 23-year-old US Navy veteran and house painter Michael Burke awakens dazed and hungover on the deck of a 20ft / 6m Bahama Sloop sailboat. Piecing together the jumbled memories of the merry night before and the crumpled deed in his pocket, he realizes he is now standing on the impulse purchase he spent most of his savings on last night. Using a half-empty bottle of Whiskey next to him, he dubs the boat The Hangover and starts an adventure… or so the story went (it may not have been quite that serendipitous). But either way, in 1947 Mike Burke gets a sailing boat and a chance to pursue his life-long passion for sailing. He begins taking friends out for sailing trips to nearby Bimini and Bahamas, a passionate and fun-packed habit that soon reaches such a frequency that he starts asking his friends to pitch in for supplies to finance the jaunts. And that’s when the idea hit him – what if you could make a living having such fun, forever sailing, partying and enjoying the good life with likeminded souls?
Mike loved sailing! Not motor cruising, but proper sailing, on a proper sail boat – the bigger, the better, in fact. He especially loved the large square-rigged or fore-and-aft-rigged merchant vessels from the Age of Sail, known as Windjammers. What if he could get his hands on one of those and forever work his passion? Yeah, run his own ‘cruise line’ - wouldn’t that be swell? But not like those old-timey cruises, on them big foo-foo tubs, where all the drips and the geezers go! No, that would be square, you dig?! Something hip and cool for all the camp happy cookies! ...did Mike Burke talk like that in the 40’s? I don’t know! Did he give off that sort of vibe? Yeah, he kind of did! Mike was a colorful character, in personality as well as in vocabulary. How you felt about him depended entirely on whether you shared his passion or you stood in the way of it. The former would likely find him jovial, charismatic, passionate, resourceful, adventurous and eccentric with a salty humor whereas the latter would find him two-fisted, impatient, reckless, stubborn, stingy, nonconformist and tyrannical with a short temper. But as it turned out, one set of traits would serve him very well in building a devoted fan base whereas the other – rough as it was – would serve him well in building a cruise business empire from scratch.
To grow more passenger volume Mike engaged in a ‘horse-trading scheme' (his words). He traded the 20ft Hangover in for the 40ft / 12m sloop Red Witch. Next, he traded the Red Witch in for the 60ft / 18m schooner Comrade. Then the Comrade for the 65ft / 20m ketch Dodge Trophy, then the Dodge Trophy for the 80ft / 24m schooner Tondeleyo. His unfailing ability to consistently trade up, smaller for bigger vessels, was due to the bigger catches being old and in pretty poor shape. Once Mike acquired a 'new' vessel, he put all of his energy and skill into restoring them, thereby significantly boosting their value for the next swap. In between he kept the restored ships running fishing trips, charters, mini-cruises and every other kind of profitable venture around Bimini and the Bahamas to make his daily living, in the process building a great reputation for fun and adventurous sea travel and a large customer fan base.
What drew the guests to Mike’s operation was his contagious joy and unbridled passion for what he did, the comradery and rapport he was able to build around the shared love of sailing and the sheer hedonistic and sometimes juvenile fun he was able to cultivate onboard. I do not have much documentation of what those early cruises were like but I am getting a distinct ‘frat-house’ vibe from the references. A vibe strong enough to laugh off the countless teething troubles Mike's little start-up suffered. His jury-rigged repairs of the ships did not always take, but no matter how many breakdowns happened or how often the onboard toilets clogged, he was always able to turn the mood of the group for the better; ‘Aaarrh, to Hell with it! Who’s up for another Rum Swizzle?’. Issues that would make the modern cruiser lose their cool and scream for a full refund were shrugged off with a laugh – you had to be game for anything when sailing with Mike and his fans wore that attitude like a badge of honor. It is not uncommon for scruffy, underdog start-ups to adopt a party-hearty, Devil-may-care attitude in the beginning (that’s how Carnival Cruises got started, for one thing). After all there’s nothing to lose and everything to win, but once that balance tips and there’s brand value at stake, most start-ups inevitably turn more conservative and mainstream. Not so for Mike’s outfit. The party-hearty, Devil-may-care attitude became the brand.
By the late 1950’s his horse-trading scheme landed him his biggest ship yet, the 150ft / 46m schooner Janeen (later renamed Polynesia), followed in the early 1960’s by the 96ft / 29m brigantine Yankee – this time a purchase, not a trade. For the first time, Mike Burke – now operating under the official company name Windjammer Cruises Inc. – had the makings of an actual fleet. Not for long, though. In 1964 the Yankee runs aground in the Cook Islands during an ambitious Windjammer World Cruise and is declared a total loss.
The setback is temporary as Mike somehow finds the resources and opportunities to add 4 new sailing vessels to his fleet in the 1960’s. In 1965 he buys the S/V Pioneer – a 172ft / 52m schooner from 1927 previously used as a private yacht and renames her Yankee Clipper. That same year he acquires the S/V Valor - a steel hulled 110ft / 34m auxiliary schooner from 1928 and names her Mandalay (however, she lasts less than a year in the fleet as she founders on a reef in Biscayne Bay on New Year’s Day 1966). Two years later he snatches up the S/V Tuxtla, formerly the Oisseau des Isles, a French Navy cadet training ship from 1935. The 208ft / 63m barquentine is renovated from a cargo-carrier configuration to a passenger ship and is renamed the Flying Cloud. One year later, in 1969, Mike scores his biggest coup.
A ship broker leads him to an abandoned shipyard in Kiel, Germany, and to the rusting, partially submerged hull of the S/V Fantome – a 1927 staysail schooner, built as a private yacht for the Duke of Westminster and later owned by Aristotle Onassis. The 282ft / 86m, 679-ton, steel-hulled ship may have looked like a wreck to everyone else, but to Mike she looked like a golden opportunity. He buys her for a measly $100.000, raises her, patches her up and moves her to Skagen, Denmark for repairs to make her seaworthy for the Atlantic. Using his signature mix of penny-pinching, bartering and jury rigging he managed to get her across the Atlantic in one piece, got her cleaned up in a 6-million-dollar refit and instated as the new flagship of the Windjammer fleet.
In her new cruise configuration, she accommodated 128 guests and 45 crew. As with the other ships with a private yacht past, all the large staterooms and lounges were torn out and the space converted to smaller bunk bed rooms to optimize capacity. In general, cabins on Windjammer were never large nor luxurious. They did not need to be - you did not need a place to rest or change to formal night. You could rest anywhere you wanted and for a cruise line whose idea of 'formal night attire' was to change into a clean T-shirt, there was not much need for extravagant changing facilities. You barely even needed it to sleep since it was perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, to drag your mattress up on deck and sleep under the stars.
The reputation for fun and adventurous cruises was not the only reputation Mike acquired while building the Windjammer brand. In South Floridian maritime circles, he became known as 'the guy who sank more schooners than any pirate’. Hyperbole to be sure, but the safety record of Windjammer was really less than stellar. Actual shipwrecks aside, the early company history is peppered with fires, collisions, breakdowns, malfunctions and other perils of the sea – much of it caused by Mike’s foolhardiness and propensity for cutting corners in renovation and maintenance. Patience was not one of his virtues and he had very little of it with authorities and regulations. Why bother putting in extra work bringing one of his ships up to specs, when it would sail just as well with one of his makeshift fixes? That is why he kept his ships in open registry and out of US ports as much as possible so he could skirt federal maritime regulations. ‘What do them Coast Guard boys know about sailing anyway!?’, you could almost hear him say.
It was not always the hardware that failed – the human factor was not always up to spec either. While the Captain and officers tended to be trained sailors, typically from the US or the Commonwealth, the deck crews were usually sourced from poor Caribbean island communities. Their educational background was questionable and their nautical skills came from working their small family fishing boats, but they came cheap and eager. They had to be quite versatile too. Due to the small crew size, everyone had to be a jack of all trades and be ready to climb the rigging, run the ship, tend the bar, serve the food, turnover the rooms and - when day turned to night - animate the guests with local music and dance. By the way: one can also speculate that Mike’s penchant for having the crews be an integral part of the famed party atmosphere onboard did not necessarily instill or reinforce the most diligence or vigilance in his men (and consequently did not do much for his safety record). The combination able seaman and able party animal is a rare one, after all.
By the beginning of the 1970’s Mike runs a fleet of 5 ships under the very successful Windjammer brand. As 'admiral' of the fleet, he is now no longer able to captain the ships anymore but has successfully instilled the spirit of his captaincy in his crews. It was about this time that the ‘Barefoot’ part of company branding started to appear. The ‘Barefoot’ part referred to the signature no-shirt-no-shoes atmosphere onboard. Literally the first thing you did when you boarded a Windjammer was to kick off your shoes, because if you weren’t feeling the weathered wood beneath your feet, ‘you weren’t really there, man!’
The ‘frat-house’ vibe had not exactly disappeared, but had percolated into some time-honored traditions, antics and games that had become signature highlights of the Windjammer cruise experience, like the 5 o’clock Rum Swizzles or the 9 o’clock Captain’s Story Time (the light-hearted Windjammer version of a modern cruise captain’s noon announcement on the tannoy) or the playing of ‘Amazing Grace’ whenever the sails were hoisted. One particularly Windjammer thing to do was to poke fun at the traditional large cruise ships (or ‘foo-foo ships’ in Windjammer parlance) whenever they came across them with a mock Pirate attack – hoisting the Jolly Roger, performing a sail-by, firing a blank round from the signal gun and – if guests were game - a broadside of exposed buttocks towards the shocked mainstream cruisers. Obviously, this was more likely to happen after 5 o’clock!
Days onboard did not offer as much structure or as many options as a traditional cruise ship, but that was by design to give people more time to socialize and talk. Weather permitting, most people hung out on deck for most of the day, partly because the cabins did not offer much in the way of space or comfort, but mostly because Windjammer guests were just generally a congenial and gregarious lot. The atmosphere onboard was very laid back and homely, to the point where many of the ships carried pets – at one point the crew of the Flying Cloud kept a ship’s cat referred to as ‘Cooking Fat’, which seems like a weird name until you reverse the initials and apply an islander accent. Guests could participate in the actual operation of the ships as much or as little as they liked, and the crew always made sure that was both energizing and entertaining. Meal times were intimate and informal, taken family-style either on deck or in the dining room as conditions allowed. Depending on the size of the ship and the dining facilities there were one or two seatings and everyone was free to move around and seek new table mates as they saw fit.
A Windjammer TV promo showcases the brand experience, possibly mid-90's production
As the Rum Swizzles got poured and spirits started to lift, the onboard Activity Director would animate guests with party games, scavenger hunts, crab races and racy contests, ensuring everyone was uplifted for dinner and the ensuing costume party (pajamas, pirate, toga or cross-dressing seemed to be the favorites). There'd be live music (courtesy of the crew), dancing on deck, rum drinks galore and uproarious entertainment. If you eventually made it to your cabin to pass out, then that was fine – otherwise there was always the deck. Port days offered some shore excursions but the ships were just as likely to simply anchor near a great beach, dinghy ashore and spend a relaxed day picnicking and snorkeling. It was like camping at sea … if the camper was your grandparents vintage model from 1935, stuffed with all your best high school party buddies.
This much informality, minimal dress code, rum swizzle and romance of sailfaring could of course only lead to one thing: Sex! Windjammer was never shy about using the prospects of sex and romance as marketing lures, so much so that they once invited porn actress Marilyn Chambers on a cruise as a featured guest and proudly advertised "You'll get a royal bang out of this princely voyage!". And they did not care who did who because they were out advertising gay charters years before the mainstream cruise lines fell on that particular goldmine. While the romance and carnal pleasures were no doubt alluring to some, it was the incredible comradery engendered onboard that kept the Windjammer regulars coming back again and again. ‘Jammers’, they called themselves – the countless repeat cruisers who got hooked on the spirit and joviality of the intimate and carefree concept, who formed life-long friendships and relationships with fellow guests or crew and who would meet up at shoreside 'Jammer-cons' too. To these guests Windjammer was more than just an eccentric choice of vacation – it was a way of life and a roaming band of merry comrades that they just couldn’t wait to get back together with.
With his failed 1964 World Cruise in mind, Mike had by this time likely decided to keep his operation a purely Caribbean one with only some occasional sorties into the Pacific via the Panama Canal. The idea of sending his slow, archaic and maintenance-heavy ships across the world oceans may just have been a little too risky for the otherwise bold adventurer. Keeping his ‘eggs in one basket’ also enabled him to run and re-supply the fleet with relative logistical ease out of his Miami office. The standard format became the one-week-cruise and true to the lines off-the-beaten-track nature, embarkation / debarkation port could be any little Caribbean village that guests were able to get to, and ports of call were also likely to be small, quaint hamlets, rather than marquee-name ports (it was probably no coincidence that these 'Nowhere-ports' charged far lower port/docking fees either).
But whether they actually got to the advertised ports of call was sometimes anyone's guess. To paraphrase Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) itineraries were '..more like guidelines, than actual schedules' and the Windjammer ships would often stray from a published itinerary on a whim or a weather report - that was just part of the charm. True Jammers went for the ship experience - the destinations were incidental. The 1970’s also saw the fleet addition of the S/V Argus – a 248ft / 76m schooner from the Portuguese Grand Banks Fishing Fleet, bought by Mike in 1975 and renamed the Polynesia (presumably the old Polynesia, ex-Janeen, had left the fleet at this point).
A standard cabin w. bunkbeds on the Polynesia, christojay.com/ABC-trip
The 1980’s saw three more ships added to the Windjammer fleet. First the Vema in 1982 (launched 1923 as the SV Hussar - a 163ft / 50m three-masted schooner built as a private yacht for American financier E.F. Hutton) which was renamed Mandalay (II – presumably). Next, the MV Amazing Grace in 1988 – formerly known as the Pharos (1955), this 257ft / 78m steel-hulled twin screw motor ship was a Scottish lighthouse tender and the only non-sailing ship to ever enter the Windjammer fleet. She was actually added to the fleet as a supply ship, constantly crisscrossing the Caribbean to re-supply its wandering fleet mates, but the ever-entrepreneurial Mike Burke saw no reason why she could not also be a cruise experience. Despite having the undeniable feel and comfort of a tramp steamer, she became a special favorite of the Jammers as it gave them a certain ‘insider’ status and a truly exclusive experience that allowed them to check in with their favorite ships/crews. Lastly, the 294ft / 90m four-masted Barquentine France II, a former meteorological research vessel, was added to the fleet in 1989 and renamed SV Legacy.
It was a tragic and horrible shipwreck that marked the beginning of the end for Windjammer. On the afternoon of Tuesday 27 October 1998, the Fantome goes down in the fury of Hurricane Mitch with 31 crew onboard after a 2-day futile attempt to outrun the storm. No survivors or bodies are found and no wreckage larger than a raft is ever recovered. It is one of the most heartbreaking and chilling stories of peril at sea I have ever heard and I wish I could tell you the full story right here, right now, but it would take too long and stray too far off topic. Here’s a reading tip though; The Ship and the Storm, by Jim Carrier. The impact on the highly familiar Windjammer community, corporate as well as fan-based, was devastating. So was the impact on the company liquidity – the Fantome, valued at 15 million dollars, was not insured. That was one of the areas that Mike had chosen to skimp on in his rush to grow the brand and keep the cash flowing. More than a dozen lawsuits brought by the families of the lost crew members had to be settled, depleting the company coffers even further.
The first decade of the millennium becomes a slow death spiral for Windjammer. Poor management (now under Mike’s son, Daniel Burke), shifting cruise economics with larger ships offering cheaper mainstream cruises and tightening international safety and maintenance regulations on an already aging and maintenance-heavy fleet contribute to the liquidity crisis. No ‘new’ ships are added anymore and the existing ones begin to suffer from an increasing lack of care and maintenance, as funds are stretched thin. From the mid-2000’s guest complaints start to multiply – even the devoted Jammers who stuck with Mike through everything start to notice that this is no longer the occasional hitch that can be shrugged off in the name of a good time, but rather a systemic decay that is spoiling the entire experience. Personal tragedy adds insult to injury – in 2005 Mike Burke suffers a stroke that leaves him partly incapacitated and in 2007 his son Daniel, the President of Windjammer, dies of a drug overdose.
In November of 2007 Windjammer just ceased to be. When their Florida license to sell travel products lapsed on November 9, 2007, the operation simply fell apart. There were no press statements and no declaration of bankruptcy. From one day to the next the phones were simply disconnected and emails went unanswered. Subsequent inspection showed the Miami office had simply been abandoned and partly vandalized. The four remaining ships were unceremoniously impounded in whatever port they happened to be in for non-payment of services and their crews left stranded. Normally US-based cruise lines are bonded to provide financial security to re-pay passenger deposits if the company goes bust, but this was yet another area where the Burke management had skimped on attention and commitment, so hundreds of Jammers lost their deposits on future cruises, though many of them professed to not lament the financial loss as much as the loss of their favorite cruise experience - many of them actually helped crowd-fund the relocation of the stranded crew. All in all, it was a very ignoble end to the 60-year legacy of a unique niche cruising product fueled by passion and fun.
Michael Burke passed away from pneumonia in May of 2013 at age 89.
Windjammer Barefoot Cruises was not the only provider of cruises under sail in the post-WWII era, but it was the only one to transcend the ‘little league’ operational level and become the longest-running operation under one consistent brand to build up an actual ‘fleet under sail’ and obtain official cruise line status. They preceded the beginning of the contemporary cruise industry in the 1960’s and not only survived, but thrived through the first boom of modern cruising. They democratized the sailing yacht experience and proved the concept of cruising under sails in modern times, thereby creating a niche market that – for the longest time – they alone would dominate. They reveled in the part of ‘perpetual underdog’ of the cruise industry and found their pride and joy in the communities they built, rather than the market shares they captured. They were sometimes barely legal and barely safe but always fun. But now they are gone with the wind and the Caribbean cruise scene is just a little poorer for it.
It is all the sadder considering it did not have to end this way. If the incorrigible Peter Pan at the helm had checked his Carpe Diem management style, reined in his contempt for regulations and diverted some resources from growth to consolidation, insurance and fleet upkeep, the loss of the Fantome might not have started the downward spiral to oblivion. Windjammer might still have been around, blasting Amazing Grace over the Caribbean waves and faux cannon broadsides at megaships.
But if you want to go cruising under sail you still can. Quite a few sail-based cruise companies entered the scene after Mike had paved the way; Sea Cloud Cruises (1978), Windstar Cruises (1984), Club Med (1991), Star Clippers (1991) and Tradewind Voyages (2020). Some of them are authentic vintage sailing vessels, others are upgraded replicas for the modern age and others still are cruise yachts with a sail gimmick. They’ll all cost way more than a trip with Mike and likely won’t fully deliver on the laid-back, juvenile, few-holds-barred fun of a Barefoot Cruise. But if that’s what you are missing, there is a tiny silver lining to the tale.
In 2009, the Jammer community rallied 100 investors around a ‘rebirth’ of the Windjammer experience. A core group of 30 investors bought the 100ft / 30m S/V Diamont - a 1978 fiberglass brigantine – and started a cruise operation named ‘Island Windjammers’ out of Grenada, crewed by former Windjammer staff and operating one-week voyages on the Barefoot model. The fleet has since been expanded in 2015 with the 156ft / 48m schooner S/V Vela. It’s reportedly a slightly more mature, more safety-conscious and housebroken version of the Barefoot concept, but it is unmistakably Windjammer, rum swizzles and all. Thus 60 years of Mike Burke's legacy lives on ... under new sails and new management.
So, here's to that!
This is the fifteenth article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.