Sad end for beloved, unique charter firm

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The end finally came to Windjammer Barefoot Cruises

“It’s the end of an era after 60 years,” says auctioneer Jim Gall. “Everything will be sold to the bare walls. Nothing stays.” Even the weather-worn wooden sign outside that read, “Windjammer Barefoot Cruises,” went on the auction block.

Nearly a year after the company's last charter cruise an auction of all the sculptures and mementos collected over six decades was held.

The Sept. 27-28 auction of some 10,000 items at Windjammer’s Miami Beach offices — the nerve center of its defunct fleet of funky, old sailing ships that gave the Average Joe and Jane a laid-back island-hopping experience — was the latest indignity in the sad Windjammer saga. The company, a British Virgin Islands corporation, still hasn’t declared bankruptcy in Florida, but the state’s Division of Corporations lists Windjammer as inactive now, and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reports the company has not been licensed to sell travel in Florida since November 2007. That was after it cancelled most of its fall sailings in the Caribbean, leaving many paid-up “Jammers” — loyal Windjammer cruisers — with neither a cruise nor a refund.

“It’s sad. It’s been coming for a long time,” says Tom Pitmon, a 23-year Jammer from Miami Beach, as he sorted through boxes of Windjammer paraphernalia for souvenirs. Pitmon had sailed a dozen times on Windjammers — more than 20 weeks since 1985. “For a long time, it was a great thing — a very enjoyable vacation.”

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Now he was in a second-floor storage room in Windjammer’s sprawling Bay Road offices, pawing through T-shirts and CDs and postcards and posters. “They had a real unique thing,” he says. “It was like camping on the sea. It wasn’t plush, but I liked that. They had a window of time when they reached a lot of people.”

The offices appeared to have been simply abandoned one day. Computers still sat on desks. Employees’ personal items — photos of families, calendars, business notes — remained tacked on divider walls. Photos of the fleet — the 294-foot Legacy, the 197-foot Yankee Clipper (the oldest in the fleet at 81 years), the 248-foot Polynesia and the 236-foot Mandalay — hung on the walls of a long hall, though it seemed a disgruntled anti-Jammer had come through with a hammer and smashed the glass of every one — broken keepsakes of a broken company.

The building, owned by a Panamanian company affiliated with Windjammer, was bought at auction in October by Fifteen Group, a Miami developer, for $2.82 million. That was enough to pay off the mortgage-related debt, according to Fort Lauderdale attorney Jon Polenberg, who represents two of the Michael Burke family, Windjammer’s owners.

Everything in the building was auctioned off for an undisclosed amount, according to auctioneer Gall. “All the history of the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises has been sold off,” Gall says. The money will be used to buy storage for decades of Windjammer records — boxes and boxes of them piled two stories high on racks — until lawsuits play out or a judge orders them destroyed, according to Polenberg.

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“The company has not operated in awhile,” Polenberg says. And the ships? “[They] are in arrest in foreign jurisdictions” he says, laid up with liens for unpaid bills and crew wages. At last report, Mandalay was in Panama, Legacy in Costa Rica, Polynesia in Aruba and Yankee Clipper in Trinidad, according to www.jammerbabe.com, a Web site for 3,000-plus loyalists who sailed with Windjammer and still keep up with Windjammer happenings.

Outside under the auction tent, a wooden stern plate carrying the name Fantome, the four-masted Windjammer that took its 31 crew to the bottom in Honduras’ Bay Islands 10 years ago in Hurricane Mitch, sold for a bargain $350. It was the first sale of the auction.

“It breaks my heart,” says Nancy Church, who worked in the accounting department at Windjammer for 10 years. “I was a short-timer,” she says. “Windjammer was family-owned, but we had so many longtime employees. We always felt like we were all in the same boat” — struggling to keep afloat.

At its zenith, the company employed probably 70 people in Miami Beach and another couple hundred crew — 40 to 50 on a ship, she says.

Church says the genius of Windjammer was that guests weren’t expected to show up at dinner in a starched shirt or formal gown. “You get on the boat and take your shoes off,” she says. “It’s really intimate” — lots of antics, games, an endless supply of liquor, and beach stops at small islands for barbecues and snorkeling.

Pitmon suspects Windjammer began to sink because of a combination of poor management and cruise economics after the Burke children took the helm from patriarch Michael Burke. “The economics of the cruising industry was working against them,” Pitmon says. “The big [cruise] ships charge less and give people more for their money, or what they perceive as more for their money.”

The age of the fleet — and a requirement to bring the ships up to international Safety of Life at Sea standards by 2010 — may have been the death knell for the fleet anyway, says Church. Legacy, the newest Windjammer, was 49 years old, Yankee Clipper, 81, Polynesia, 70, and Mandalay, 72.

One of the liens that Florida’s Division of Corporations has recorded against Windjammer is $668,000 filed by NCMIC Finance Corp., a credit-card processing service in Clive, Iowa, for “chargebacks” — money it must reimburse to credit-card holders who booked passage on cancelled Windjammer sailings.

Family legend has it that Capt. Michael Burke Sr. started Windjammer Barefoot Cruises in 1947, either after buying his first schooner, the Hangover, for $600 or after winning it in a poker game.

Church hopes Windjammer can rise again like a Phoenix.

“That’s why we all stayed here, stayed here, stayed here,” she says.

There were no signs of the Phoenix rising.

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.