Life in Salt: An Interview with Award-Winning Journalist, Sailor, and Author of The Ship and the Storm, Jim Carrier

by Owen James Burke

jc on ranger

(Photo: Dan Conklin)

“…the most fun that I’ve had was [when my wife and I] did the Algarve, and we did 30 miles in a month, so we’d just go into ports and anchor and go ashore and eat fresh sardines and drink wine.”

Jim Carrier is an award-winning journalist and author, a former staff writer at the Denver Post, and a contributor to the New York Times, Cruising World, Sail Magazine, and he’s quite a banjo picker. He’s also no slouch of a sailor.

In 1997-1998, after 13 years at the Denver Post, things were changing in the print world, and Carrier sensed it was time for a change himself. He picked up, left Denver, and bought a boat in the Florida Keys. It just so happened 1998 saw a particularly treacherous (and deadly) hurricane season in the Caribbean, and especially so for the 282-foot four-masted Windjammer schooner Fantome. The ship — along with its full crew of 31 — met its end on October 27th, 1998 in Hurricane Mitch, which was estimated to have brought up to 50-foot waves and well over 100 m.p.h.-winds to the Bay Islands off mainland Honduras.

Carrier’s book, The Ship and the Storm, pieces together the last few days of the Fantome, the beloved flagship of the Windjammer Barefoot Cruise fleet. His detailed account of not only the sinking of the Fantome, but the captain, Guyan Marsh, the 30-member crew (all of whom perished) and the charismatic Michael Burke and his Barefoot Cruise empire is objective, investigative journalism at its finest.

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Scut: So, I’d really like to talk about the Fantome, but also about you. What first drew you into the sea?

JC: Well, I’m from upstate New York, Finger Lakes area. Early on I was involved in watersports and small craft — mainly canoes and kayaks — and I was a water safety instructor. I got into radio after college in the 60s, and my first big job was at a radio station in Fairfield, Connecticut. We spent a lot of time broadcasting the weather for sailors in particular, and commuters. I lived in Norwalk, and there you see the Sound and the sailors. It was a dream of mine to go to CBS news, and Walter Kronkite was the guru at the time. He was a big sailor — he had a yacht at the Stanford Yacht Club. So, consequently I bought myself a really funny little boat called a ‘Snark’, [also the name of Jack London’s boat,] kind of a fiberglass bathtub, and when I’d get off of work, I’d go to Norwalk Beach and launch it and try to figure out how to sail it. It taught me to have the patience and how to feel the wind.

As it turns out I ended up being in the Midwest, in Colorado and South Dakota, and there wasn’t much sailing out there. But I had a girlfriend who had a friend who had been the captain of the Sequoia, the presidential yacht that was based in the Potomac. So I got a chance with her, and him and his wife to go do some bareboating in the Virgin Islands, and that was like heaven. I caught the infection at that point, took some sailing lessons in the lakes in Colorado, and got my ASA certification so I could bareboat myself.

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Ranger at port in Burriana, Spain

I had been at the Denver Post roaming all over the west for about 13 years. What has now become a tsunami of change in the newspaper business was starting to happen then, and I was more or less driven out in ’97-’98, so I decided to buy a sailboat. Looked around and bought this old LX Seabreeze — I named her ‘Ranger’, cause I was called ‘The Rocky Mountain Ranger’. Saved up some money and moved aboard, and started writing for Sail Magazine, and then later Cruising World. Anchored off Key West, freelancing for the New York Times in the summer of ’98. That’s when Hurricane Mitch came through the Caribbean, up the Yucatan Peninsula, and back across Key West. In the remnants of Mitch, which actually killed some people in Florida, I wrote a big piece about it for the New York Times, and it led almost immediately to a book contract with International Marine, so I spent a year doing that.

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The Fantome under sail (Photo: searchamelia)

Scut: So, what was the biggest surprise in your research of the Fantome?

JC: The degree to which sailors, and people living on Hurricane coastal areas assume that the forecast is correct, and that the lines painted by forecasters in Florida didn’t have any variable to them, or error rate. And I was one of those people. I had skirted around several hurricanes in the Caribbean by just going to the other side of the island. But in those days, the Hurricane Center’s error rate was 100 miles a day, so the cone of uncertainty was huge 3 days out — it was maybe 300, maybe 500 miles. That’s gradually been reduced by better data and modeling, but in those days they acknowledged that the error rate was huge. Anyone who is really interested shouldn’t just look at the forecast, they should look at the discussions posted every 4 hours by the hurricane forecast room itself. In that, they talk about their uncertainty. And as I researched this particular storm, the uncertainty was huge. Between the lack of data and the fact that the storm stalled, it just wasn’t doing what the models or what history had predicted. So while they were assuming that it would eventually curve up towards the Yucatan, they were also signaling that they were not very sure of that. Nonetheless, as they do every four hours, they plotted a line. The Windjammer people back in Miami and on the boat were assuming that would be the line, and if they did what they’d always done and hid in the lee of the islands, they’d be ok.

The other thing that surprised me was the degree to which the captain and the company failed to read the forecast of the size of the storm, and how you would have tropical storm warnings with fairly big seas in an area where they were planning to continue their cruise. It would’ve been impossible for them to have any kind of fun in all of that. So, if [Captain Guyan] Marsh would have just been a guy on a sailboat, he would’ve abandoned it much earlier. But he was a company guy, and so was trying to keep the cash flow going with passengers, and by the time the cruise was about to begin, it was already shitty weather. So they would’ve had to put people back onto boats, and they would’ve been miserable and pissed off, and that was something he didn’t want to do. When he got to Belize and dropped the passengers off, if he had just looked at that big black cloud, he would not have gone out into it.

Scut: You say had Marsh not had a satellite phone with which to call his boss, he would have looked at the sky and decided not to go out. Do you think the advent of satellite technology makes a captain’s job easier or harder these days?

JC: Well, on the one hand, you have more material. I think someone sitting in a bar in a port down there had a better sense of the size and danger that this storm posed than anyone sitting on a boat, because you could watch the weather channel, or its equivalent. You could see not only the visible satellite pictures, but also the forecast. Now, the National Hurricane Center specifically talks about the zone of error or uncertainty, so it’s much more graphically presented that around this big circle of motion is a place that’s dangerous. I fully expect that there will be a disaster akin to ‘Into Thin Air’ on sailing boats and regattas, because of peoples’ reliance on GPS data, when they think that they have plenty of time to do stuff, and often they don’t. I know a number of well off, and well equipped, and well meaning sailors, who venture closer to the edge of danger than they are capable of handling. Because you can see the storm, and you’re not in it right now, you somehow feel safer, but there’s too much uncertainty; any time there can be a chain of disasters, and then pretty soon you’re in the water. Some of those events you can be responsible for, some you aren’t. Whatever — there are all kinds of things that go on. It’s a very complicated chain of events, and in this case it was the decision to sail in that corner, where you’re essentially on a lee shore everywhere, taking a big tub of a boat into a hurricane zone without really thinking about where you can go to escape it.

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When we sailed across the Atlantic, there was a guy who was a real estate agent in Miami and he and his wife had a big boat and lots of money. We got into some shit between the Azores and Portugal. It wasn’t even a storm, it was just a 25knot headwind, with 15-20 foot seas, and everything got wet, we were tossed, his wife got deathly sick, and my boat was soaked — it leaked water everywhere — and so was his. And all the electronics went out, so in the end, he wasn’t any better off than I was, in fact he was worse off because he had a sick wife, and so it was a struggle for him to get there.

I think it’s amazing when you look at the displays now that will combine into one screen radar, GPS, depth soundings, wind, and all of that. It’s like you don’t have to do anything. The boat will take you into port, weave you up an inlet of some kind — that’s relying way too much. I’m so old fashioned that I never fully embraced electronic charts, because of the possibility of them failing.

I’ve become much more gun-shy of hurricanes, having written this book. For example, if there was a hurricane coming anywhere near the Keys, I would not stay in the Keys. I thought it was an adventure when I was there in ’98. The island is only 14 feet high, and even though you have the barrier reef which cuts the power of the storms, it would not take a very big storm surge to wipe the island clean. So I’ve become more cautious.

Scut: So you brought into focus that taking the passengers to Belize prevented Marsh from being able to make crucial last minute adjustments or preparations for the storm. It was the best possible option for the passengers, you said, but it reduced his options tremendously. What do you think would have been his best move after dropping off the passengers?

JC: Mind you, he still had 30 people aboard, and they were not sailors, they were hotel crew. In 20/20 hindsight, he probably could’ve gone down to one of the rivers in Belize and anchored the boat and hoped for the best. I think, given the time and the size of the storm, he’d already seen how difficult it was to push up against the storm coming up. A lot of people debate that going out to sea is the best way to handle this, but the problem is, you have to be way at sea, you have to have a boat that can handle a storm if it hits you, and he didn’t have either. So going back to the Bay Islands… it just was not going to be a pleasant trip. I would even pose the question whether or not he should even have gone to Belize, and I don’t think it was the best option. So the decision really wasn’t what was the safest, but what was the best option for public relations or customer comfort. Unfortunately, when you’re on an operation like that with customers, and not just a crew, it complicates things terribly.

The Bay Islands are essentially the top of a mountain range, and there are cuts in the rocks that are very narrow, that he would’ve been able to get into in calmer weather. And once he got in there, he would’ve been perfectly safe from anything. The other locals were making a beehive into those places well in advance.

Scut: Do you think that in our current social climate, an offshore bacchanal like the Fantome could exist again?

JC: Sure, yeah. I think, increasingly, the solace is gradually taking effect in even third world countries, so when you have a ferry disaster or whatever, the public is interested to know. But people want to go out and have a good time and forget about whatever, and they can do that, especially at a time when there are no hurricanes.

Scut: Your description of the social atmosphere aboard the Fantome had me chuckling in kind of a nauseous way. I didn’t realize how full of debauchery it was, and my father was on that boat …

JC: I think it was always dependent upon who was there. They had day cruises, and nude cruises in the early days, which I think were far more Bacchanal-like. Mike Burke was a fascinating guy in the sense that he created a world that people could inhabit. And he came to believe it himself, the whole idea of him being a sailor. He was very creative taking these old boats, but he always operated on the shady edge, and often outside of both the law and of common sense, and he got away with it for 50 years.

Scut: Do you think that was partially a mark of the times?

JC: Well, I don’t know that there’s any time when bacchanalia is greater than it is now. I just hope that cruise businesses will be more conscious of it and have regulation of it. The fact is that the cruise business has a slimy undertone, even in its best way. The best evidence of that is the fact that they register every one of their boats offshore in a way that no lawsuit can touch them. They exploit workers, provide low cost stuff, and it’s a very popular thing. A lot of people do it and enjoy it, but it’s in many ways unregulated.

You asked the question before about all this electronic gear. There are no boats better equipped (probably) than these cruise ships that have radar, television, communication, and advance warnings and all that. I’m sure they have everything possible on them. And yet, things happen. When I picked up my boat in Tunisia, I took a ferry from Genoa, Italy. And when I see these pictures from the Korean disaster, or try to imagine what it was like inside the Concordia, having been down inside this ferry, you get a sense of how disorienting it would be if: a) the lights are out, and b) the thing is tipping at 45 degrees, and you’re trying to find your way up stairways and you don’t know which is up and which is down, and where the doorways are. It has got to be a horrible way.

The idea of solace was that after the Titanic, no matter what happened, boats would sink level, so people would be able to get off, and get into life boats. But here are two, three disasters recently where that didn’t happen at all. It struck something, and suddenly the thing is tipping, you can’t even get into your life rafts. And you question whether or not these boats are even meeting the standards.

But anyways, I don’t know of any companies like Burke’s that operate now, or even try to. The thing is, he was very visible, but then also operated invisibly. So he never went into ports in later years that required any kind of inspection. They were just happy to have the business.

Scut: What did you learn personally as a sailor through your research of the Fantome?

JC: As I said earlier, watching the detailed reports, but I spent a lot of money on communication and safety equipment, on keeping people inside of the boat, on keeping water out of the boat — those kinds of fundamentals.

Scut: Hours of boredom, moments of terror, right?

JC: Right, right, right.

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Scut: You mention you were driven away from the Denver Post by changes in the newspaper industry. What pushed you to move down to Key West and live on a boat?

JC: The idea that I could own a boat. Fundamentally, I had a job at the Denver Post for 13 years that allowed me tremendous freedom. I was able to be pretty well self-directed. It didn’t seem to be too much of a leap to do freelancing. The idea of roaming around on a boat instead of in a car was a small step from what I had done, and it was romantic and adventurous. The editors at the New York Times said they had this picture of me, and another guy I worked for said he saw me down there with a drink and an umbrella — and in the meantime I was starving and digging into savings and sweating to death, and working with a cell phone that was costing a dollar a minute for roaming charges, and the reality of it was much different than the picture. But I did all I could to fan that image if it helped with the writing. I had pretty much beaten the West to death with my job, and I wanted to see and do some other things, and I was physically able.

Scut: So, what’s the most horrifying thing that’s ever happened to you at sea?

JC: Well, you know, you spend your time at sea trying to avoid horrifying moments. There are lots of moments of terror that may end up not really being a problem. There was a slew of smaller things: roller furling freezing up, I would wake up later being chilled at what could’ve happened. I would say the more miserable thing, if you will, was the week I spent between the Azores and Portugal. 25 knots on the nose, 12-15 foot seas, the boat I had had very low gunnels, so water was coming in everywhere. The boat was working, and it would wake me up and tell me when something was wrong. I’m glad I did it, but I have no interest in doing it again.

Scut: How about the most wonderful thing that’s happened to you, or your favorite ocean story that you’d like to share?

JC: I suppose arriving in Portugal was a great thing. It was late at night, we’d gone through some stiff winds. We were called ahead, and our fellows at Arc Europe had arranged to have the customs people help us through there. So we’re coming into this narrow canal, and I hear this voice off to my left, my girlfriend Trish, yelling at me, and I couldn’t see her because it was pitch black. She ran all the way down to meet me, and she had this beautiful dress on, and a set of roses in her hands and I finally was there and it was a great end of a journey.

Ranger anchored under Ischia

I will say the most fun that I’ve had was the following year, (we did 3,000 miles in two months) and she and I did the Algarve, and we did 30 miles in a month, so we’d just go into ports and anchor and go ashore and eat fresh sardines and drink wine. That was a great reward. I loved the Algarve, Costa do Sol, where there were still little fishing villages where you didn’t have English pubs.

Scut: Yeah, it’s great to get free of that in Portugal — they’re everywhere there.

Do you have a favorite book about the ocean you’d like to recommend?

JC: Herman Wouk’s book about Captain Queeg, The Caine Mutiny. I can remember to this day feeling sick to my stomach from the stories of the boats being abandoned. And of course, Conrad told some great stories about people rushing back and forth. I got help from him, but I certainly think The Perfect Storm was great by the fact that he was able to take a very little detail, and recreate as best he could what happens. And there’s no description of drowning that is more visceral than what he did. On the other hand, there’s an old book, a story about a guy who was able to go around in Europe in the canals and all for next to nothing. It wasn’t so much ‘How to’ books, as books that said “you can do it!” because I really didn’t have any money. It told me that you can have great adventures without spending a fortune.

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 And you can. 

HWA-1 Jim Carrier with Ranger behind him in Valencia, Spain

Go to Jim Carrier’s website to read about his transAtlantic cruising adventures. If Mr. Carrier can’t pull the sailor out of you, their may be a piece of your soul, your brain, or both missing. 

Mr. Carrier currently lives in Wisconsin with his wife, and seafaring is on hold for the pair at the moment. His new book, Charity, chronicles the heroism of the doctors, nurses and patients of New Orleans’ oldest hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

All photos courtesy of Jim Carrier except photograph of the Fantome.

Jim Carrier’s Website

@Jim_Carrier

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