Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' story is the classic example of what can go wrong with a cruise line.
When Cruise Lines Go Bad
Cruise West, a popular small-ship expedition cruise line established for decades, abruptly closed down last week - canceling the cruises of seven of its nine ships including the remainder of a $230,000 per passenger 330-day world cruise. That ship, Spirit of Oceanus, was held in Newfoundland, Canada only to be sold to a Danish company mid-cruise. Passengers were told to pack and leave that day - and advised to seek refunds through their travel insurance or credit card providers.
Mainstream cruise lines must put cruise payments into a Maritime Commission escrow bond until the scheduled cruise sails, but this does not apply to ships registered and sailing in foreign waters. This is not the first time a small cruise line has cancelled cruises with virtually no notice or recourse for people who already paid in full for future cruises.
Windjammer Barefoot Cruises Limited (WBCL) is a classic example of how far a company can go in leaving cruisers empty handed. Founder Michael Burke (depicted as a ship figurehead above) was a very charismatic and controversial leader who claimed he had won the line's first ship in a poker game (not true).
Over the years, as the cruise business boomed, he eventually bought a famous castle in Miami Beach worth $5,000,000 with turrets and a drawbridge over a moat containing live sharks. But when Burke's six children took the helm they fought and sued each other - ransacking company assets for personal use rather than investing in the future.
The line went broke in 2007 with no official notice. Ticketed passengers flew to Costa Rica only to find the crew living on an abandoned ship with no money for food or fuel. And that was just the beginning of the charade. They had been pre-selling cruises in packages of five and ten without holding any of the money in escrow for years (this is not a normal or even legal practice for mainstream cruise lines). Additionally, with just a catalog depicting a beautiful time-share condo ship they pre-sold several years of cruises on a ship they never built. (They had purchased a research vessel and drew up plans but never started the conversion.)
Miraculously, this charade was propagated for years until the entire working fleet was lost to seizure by various island governments or sheer dilapidation. Between 2006 and 2009 two of the brothers who had been CEO died mysteriously young; while the third fled to Trinidad. The castle burnt to the ground. One daughter, said to have been the ringleader, just holed up in her brand new Miami mansion. The line's Miami corporate office was shuttered, with no forwarding address, the undeliverable subpoenas littering the ground.
The millions of dollars from pre-sold cruises evaporated yet no one has ever been held legally accountable. They were shielded by a labyrinth of island nation corporations. It is rumored the actual ships were titled to virtually penniless Caribbean peasants.
Throughout, an extraordinarily loyal group of Windjammer Barefoot fans rallied around a web site call the "Flotilla." With no love for the Burke offspring but plenty of zeal for the iconoclastic modern-day "pirate" lifestyle Windjammer Barefoot Cruises offered, they reminisce about antics like mass-moonings of passengers on "regular" cruise ships which they called "targets." Many of them contributed to air tickets home for those abandoned crewmembers.
Island Windjammer Anniversary
While other lines offer tall ship sail cruising, for years no other line offered the same "barefoot cruising" experience until late 2009 when a group of Flotilla members hired one of the former WBCL captains, bought a boat and started offering authentic "barefoot-style" cruises out of Grenada. The new company, "Island Windjammer Cruises," won the 2010 Sherman's Travel "Best Small Ship Debut" award. They hope to expand the fleet and add itineraries soon. Here is their latest news:
"Island Windjammers began offering 6 night sailing cruises on the Diamant in December, 2009. Ports of call include stunning, secluded islands such as Bequia, Mayreau, Tobago Cays, Union Island, and Carriacou. The company's emphasis is on laid-back, casual vacations. Guests enjoy leaving their dress clothes at home; shorts, swimsuits, and bare feet make up the dress code on the Diamant!"
"December 5 marks the anniversary of the inaugural voyage of the company's schooner, the S/V Diamant, based in St George's, Grenada. So Island Windjammers plans to celebrate one year of amazing Caribbean tall ship sailing cruising by hosting the Island Windjammers Anniversary Rum Cruise from December 5-11, 2010".
"We want to celebrate Island Windjammers' first 'birthday' in a very memorable way" states Liz Harvey, the company president. "Noted rum expert Dave Russell will offer complimentary tastings of an exciting variety of exotic rums, rum cocktail lessons, and presentations on the history of rum, all while sailing a magnificent tall ship through the dazzling waters of the Grenadines."
To discuss Cruise West and other cruise line closings go to:
Cruise West - will it go belly up?.
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