Editor's Update: On Friday, Shannon Manno, a Windjammer spokeswoman, did contact Cruise Critic to say that "we have done everything possible to resolve the crew issues and are confidant that all of the ships, with the exception of Yankee Clipper in wet dock, will be sailing this weekend."
Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, one of America's last family owned cruise businesses, is seriously close to financial collapse, according to Cruise Critic's own research and stories today in the Miami Herald and Wall Street Journal. The Miami-based Windjammer operates a fleet of sailing vessels that are renowned for their ultra-casual attitudes, camp-like ambience, and itineraries in the Caribbean and Central America that focus on genuinely off-the-grid ports of call.
Two of its four vessels are currently embroiled in crew labor disputes, and the turmoil is impacting passengers, according to posts on both Cruise Critic's Windjammer forum and Jammerbabe, a Web site devoted to the line.
Windjammer's Yankee Clipper was, according to the news reports, detained in Grenada by port authorities there. Polynesia is stuck in Aruba. Passengers who'd planned to board Mandalay in Panama are stranded there. Legacy, Windjammer's flagship, we hear, is stuck in Costa Rica.
Information being provided by the company to passengers has been consistently misleading; stories of executive staffers flying into the ships' Caribbean or Central American ports with fists full of cash -- to pay crew members and other bills that are in arrears -- abound.
Indeed, Pam Rhyne writes to us to say that "We have just returned from Panama with a failed attempt to cruise the San Blas Islands on the Mandalay. We are concerned that your article stated that the Mandalay did not sail due to the hurricane and fear this is the company's attempt not to reimburse us for the trip.
"When we got to the hotel we were informed that the ship was tied up and would not sail due to financial difficulties. We were also told that the crew had not been paid for three months and that the food for the ship was in a container but would not be off-loaded due to the fact it had not been paid for. We were forbidden to board the ship and Windjammer would not pay for our hotel, food, or tours that were promised at first."
Adds Rhyne, "does this sound like the problem was the hurricane? Heck no. We decided to fly home."
A company spokeswoman, who told us someone would be in contact today to answer questions, was not able to provide any information to Cruise Critic and the promised interview never materialized.
If the folks behind Windjammer were mum, passengers, however, were anything but. Many, intensely loyal to the Windjammer experience, had plenty of insights to share. Cruise Critic Member gzyteck wrote that this week's turn of events was a "disaster waiting to happen. Just spent a week on the Polynesia, what a bucket of bolts. Windjammer needs to put some cash back into their fleet before the whole thing sinks."
And eclecticbubba, in a posting on Jammerbabe's forum, offered details about a cruise aboard Legacy earlier this month. The first mate had walked off the job. "We all took the Windjammer 'make the best of it attitude,' but through the week it became painfully obvious that the company is in some trouble. The crew reports that maintenance hasn't been done on the ship in about six months ... and there were lots of problems." Among them? The poster cited a gangplank that collapsed, poorly maintained deck tarps and rotted decking.
The Miami Herald report noted that the company had agreed to sell a controlling interest to equity firm TAG Virgin Islands. That deal could be completed by next month, and the trust that operates Windjammer has permitted the new majority owner to serve in an advisory capacity.
Surprisingly, a check of major travel insurers, such as TravelGuard and Access America revealed that Windjammer had not been added to the "will not cover" list for financial insolvency.
Rich History, Unique Cruises
Cruising's most casual, free-spirited option, the eccentric Windjammer (the line really does mean it about going barefoot) consists of a fleet of four vintage tall ships. Windjammer was founded in 1947 by Captain Mike Burke who took a dilapidated 70-ft. ketch that he presumably acquired for $600 during a drunken binge and began offering ultra-informal trips to the Bahamas.
The line ultimately expanded to eight ships, seven of which were vintage sailboats. Amazing Grace, a 94-passenger freighter, was considered the line's supply vessel, and in addition to offering more "cruise like" experiences, it also trawled the waters of the Caribbean to bring food and other items to the fleet's sailing ships.
At this point the line operates four vessels, all vintage. The 72-passenger Mandalay was built in 1923. Yankee Clipper, which carries 64 passengers, was launched in 1927; the 126-passenger Polynesia debuted in 1938; and the 122-passenger Legacy came out in 1959. As we note in Cruise Critic's Windjammer corporate profile, the dates "refer only to the ships' provenances, not their last refurbishment."
All were considered to maintain reasonable safety codes and standards, though none, except Legacy called at U.S. ports -- and so weren't required to adhere to the tougher American regulations. Legacy, for a time, was based in both Miami and the U.S. Virgins' St. Thomas, and did try hard to pass stringent CDC Vessel Sanitation inspections, though its most recent -- which took place in May 2006 -- netted a score of 72, well below failing.
And while offering one of cruising's most eccentric experiences, the company had, in recent years, toned itself down, marketing to families and attempting to achieve an air of respectability. Passengers are no longer permitted to climb the riggings and howl at the moon, for instance. Still, some traditions remain. Captains, crew and passengers continue to walk around barefoot. Story Time with the captain is still a highlight of the day. Rum swizzles are complimentary at cocktail hour (as are Bloody Marys at breakfast). And overall, Windjammer's unique, easy-does-it, almost-anything-goes atmosphere still permeates.
An Era of Troubles
At one time, the family owned business, with Captain Burke at the helm, thrived. But a series of disturbing and tragic incidences forced the company to change course. Its beloved Fantome, according to Jim Carrier's fascinating The Ship and the Storm: Hurricane Mitch and the Loss of the Fantome, dropped passengers off in Belize and attempted to outrun the powerful storm. The ship -- and its crew -- were lost. Fantome had been self-insured by Windjammer so the losses were financial as well.
Captain Burke suffered an incapacitating stroke in 2005. Daniel Burke, who helmed the company in the early 21st century, died of a drug overdose. There was family squabbling -- one sibling had been accused of embezzling company funds. The Miami Herald says that Windjammer had most recently been owned by a family trust controlled by a U.K. lawyer.
Starting in 2003, Windjammer had attempted to expand beyond its signature offerings by refitting and introducing a new ship, the 1963-built Discoverer, to be renamed Le Mer, and selling it via time shares. The ship never debuted, though time share customers were permitted to use their options to sail on the fleet's four sailing ships.
Most recently, reports of financial problems, ranging from crew members who worked for up to three months without being paid to deferred maintenance on the fleet's repair-needy ships, have surfaced repeatedly.
What's to Come
In the Miami Herald report, Jerry Ceder, a representative from TAG Virgin Islands, says that bills have been paid. Legacy was permitted to begin sailing. Mandalay, according to a quote from Ceder in the Herald, is dock-bound in Panama because of Hurricane Dean, rather than because of financial issues.
Actual on-the-scene reports from Windjammer passengers, as related on Cruise Critic's Windjammer forum, dispute Ceder's account.
On Cruise Critic's Windjammer forum, one member writes that she's hopeful. "You see I am a loyal WJ customer not because of Miami but because of the wonderful men and women who sail the grand old ladies. Yes, they are apparently in disrepair. I'm sure for a multitude of reasons and that is sad. But to me there is nothing better as the ship sails than the sting of salt spray on your face and the wind in your hair. The majesty of these ships is a sight to behold and the sound of Amazing Grace leaves me with tears every time. It is an intangible and holds no monetary value yet has been one of the greatest gifts I have personally received in my time on Earth. There are many others who feel the same."
We'll keep you posted.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor