A year ago, the sailing ship `Fantome' tried to outrun one of the most powerful hurricanes this century. None of the 30-man crew on board that day has ever been found. Simon Worrall tells their tragic tale
Mike Black has flown into many hurricanes in his years as a meteorologist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Coral Gables, Florida, gathering data which might one day enable him and his fellow scientists to understand nature's most violent and unpredictable force; and, thereby, save human lives. But on the morning of 26 October 1998, as the P3 Orion plane in which he was travelling entered the "eye-wall" of a hurricane that had been steadily gaining in strength as it moved across the Caribbean, it was his own life he feared for. Downdraughts of air, gusting at more than 45mph, hit the plane like hammer blows, slamming it up and down, and throwing Mike and the other crew members about in their seats. Rain streamed down the windows. Hailstones clattered against the fuselage and wings, like automatic weapon fire. A bungy cord securing the top of the coffee machine at the back of the plane snapped like a rubber band, sending coffee and hot water all over the floor.

The data streaming into the plane's computers was even more alarming. The hurricane, which had only days before been given the name of Mitch, was spewing out rain at a rate of more than 10cm per hour, and generating wind blasts of up to 200mph. The heaviest rain, and most violent winds, were on the eastern side of the eye-wall. And though Mike Black and the other scientists on board did not know it, it was right there, 10,000ft below them, that the 30-man crew of a schooner called the SV Fantome were fighting for their lives.

The SV Fantome had a storied past. Built in 1927, in Livorno, Italy, originally as a destroyer for the Italian navy, she was one of the world's last great tall ships, a 282ft, 676-ton schooner with four masts and 64 cabins. Later, she was refitted as a floating palace for the Duke of Westminster, who renamed her Flying Cloud. In 1956, she was bought by Aristotle Onassis, as a wedding gift for Princess Grace of Monaco, but never delivered: Onassis took umbrage at not being invited to the wedding. When, in 1969, a Florida businessman called Captain Michael Burke, founder and president of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, of Miami, Florida, found her in the German port of Lubeck, she had been rusting for more than a decade.

Burke, now the grizzled, 75-year-old patriarch of a multi-million-dollar, family-run business empire (his six children, all of whom work for Windjammer, refer to him as "Big Daddy"), made his fortune transforming what had been, up until then, the preserve of the rich or titled into an affordable vacation for middle-class Americans. For $1,500 to $2,000, the Fantome's mostly young passengers got six laid-back days of snorkelling and diving, all the rum swizzles they could drink and, if they were lucky, romance and adventure.

Guyan March, the 32-year-old British captain of the Fantome, was the perfect fit. With his good looks and charm, he seemed to have stepped straight out of a Patrick O'Brian novel. Women adored him. Men admired - and envied - him. He had the sea in his blood. He had grown up in a sailing family in Cornwall, learning his trade racing dinghies round the Cornish coast with his younger brother, Paul. His mother Jenny is the commodore of a sailing club near St Austell. While still in his teens, March was skippering charter yachts in the Med. At the age of 22 he joined Windjammer and worked his way up through the ranks to become one of their star captains.

But as Captain March stood on the deck of the Fantome as it prepared to set sail from its home port of Omoa, Honduras, on the afternoon of Saturday, 24 October, he must have been in a pensive mood. This was only his second season in the Bay of Honduras, and, it is believed, he had repeatedly expressed misgivings to Windjammer about taking the Fantome to this part of the Caribbean at the height of the hurricane season. In the event of a hurricane, the Bay of Honduras, which is boxed in to the west by the Yucatan Peninsula and to the east by the Caribbean coast of Honduras, is a potential death-trap.

Not that Hurricane Mitch appeared to pose any immediate threat. It was 1,000 miles away to the north, tracking west-northwest towards Jamaica. But hurricanes are notoriously unpredictable, and this one looked set to be a monster. In the previous 24 hours, there had been a precipitate drop in its barometric pressure - a sure sign that it was strengthening - and winds of 98mph had already been recorded. And as the passengers were shuttled in small boats out to the Fantome from Omoa, the Bay of Honduras was already being lashed with rain. "It was like having a fire hydrant in your face," recalls Anthony Moffa, who had travelled down from Pennsylvania with his girlfriend. "I started singing the theme from Gilligan's Island; it kind of broke the tension."

March confided his anxieties about taking on passengers over the phone to his girlfriend in England, Annie Bleasdale, herself a seasoned mariner who, in the past, had worked with him on the Fantome. He also discussed the situation with Michael Burke, the eldest son of Windjammer's owner, at headquarters in Miami. Burke claims that he suggested dropping the passengers in Omoa, and sailing out to the open seas immediately, but that March rejected the idea.

Between 25 and 26 October, as the Fantome sailed towards Honduras's Bay Islands, Mitch unexpectedly changed course. Instead of tracking due north, as all the experts had been predicting, it began to steer west towards Central America. It also strengthened, and was now a Category Three hurricane, with wind speeds of 128mph. So, in the small hours of the morning of Monday, 26 October, while the passengers still slept, March changed course, and began to sail the Fantome towards Belize City, where the voyage was to be terminated, and the passengers flown back home to Miami.

It was the first move in a deadly game of chess that would be played up and down the Mosquito Coast for the next 48 hours, as the Fantome tried to outmanoeuvre one of the most powerful hurricanes of the century. But each time the Fantome shifted course, Mitch shifted too.

The Fantome reached Belize City at 11.30am on 26 October, and the 97 American passengers were disembarked. The port commissioner of Belize City, Alfred Coye, advised the Fantome not to head back out to sea. And many of the crew began packing their things. So when March announced over the Tannoy that the Fantome would be putting out to sea again, and that only 10 non-essential crew members, including all the women, would be allowed to disembark, emotional scenes broke out. "Men were crying," recalls the wife of the assistant chief steward, Crispin Saunders, who believed he would have been dismissed if he left the ship. "They were scared. There were already very strong waves."

March took time to bid each passenger goodbye personally, but though he tried to be polite and courteous, it was clear that he was already deeply worried. "His mind was elsewhere," Anthony Moffa recalls. "He was talking and greeting passengers, but he was making a mental checklist of what he needed." Meanwhile, the crew were preparing for the worst eventuality. "They were tying down the sails, going through rigging, securing stuff that wasn't needed below deck," recalls Moffa. "People were going round with electric drills, screwing down the bench lids on deck. They were preparing to do battle. They were literally battening down the hatches."

The plan was to make a run north, past Cancun and Cozamel, into the Gulf of Mexico. So, on the afternoon of 26 October, having called his mother in Cornwall, March threaded his way through the jagged coral of Belize's famed barrier reef, and headed for the open sea. He had in his charge a United Nations of sailors, drawn from some of the poorest places in the Caribbean. Men like Emmanuel "Brasso" Frederick, the first mate, from Antigua, who had just celebrated his 26th birthday; or Cyrus Phillips, the bosun, one of four crew members from St Vincent. Onassis Reyes, the second officer, was from Panama. The youngest of three children, he was a tall, powerfully built 26-year-old who had recently graduated from the National Maritime Academy in New York, and one day hoped to become a pilot on the Panama Canal. March and the chief engineer, Constantin Bucur, a 47-year-old Romanian, were the only two white men on board the vessel.

Eleven of the crew came from New Amsterdam, a dirt-poor shanty town in the shadow of a giant chemical plant some 60 miles from Georgetown, Guyana. Windjammer had been recruiting for years in New Amsterdam, where unemployment runs as high as 75 per cent, and the average monthly wage is $50. Many of the men who signed on were former fishermen. Like their colleagues from the Caribbean, they were polite, English-speaking, comparatively well educated and willing to work for Big Daddy 12-16 hours a day, seven days a week, 10 months a year, for 60 cents an hour. As the hull of the Fantome began to roll under them, they may have worried about the fact that they were not insured and that, to keep crew costs low, reduce corporate taxes and avoid stringent US health and safety obligations, one of the most beautiful tall ships in the world was registered under one of the shabbiest flags of convenience on earth: Equatorial Guinea.

It is standard maritime procedure to try to outrun a storm by heading for open water. But though that makes sense for a destroyer, which can travel at 30 knots per hour, for an antique schooner with a top speed of only 8 knots per hour, flight is not a viable option. Particularly in the Fantome's position. It was a two-day, 300-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. What if Mitch got there first? What if it changed direction again?

As he pondered his diminishing options, March was being squeezed by contradictory forces. He was concerned about his safety, and the safety of his crew. But he was also concerned about his reputation. To abandon the Fantome would not only have run counter to his training, it could have ended his career. Certainly with Windjammer. Having worked his way up through the company, he was now in charge of its most valuable asset. An irreplaceable asset. The Fantome was estimated to be worth $15m.

Eventually, Guyan March and Hurricane Mitch would become inverse images of each other. As Mitch's barometric pressure fell, and the hurricane strengthened, the pressures being exerted on March would rise. And as they rose, his ability to take a decision and stick to it, grew steadily weaker. After more consultations with Windjammer, March changed his mind for a second time. Instead of trying to head north to the Gulf of Mexico, it was now decided to turn about and sail south, back in the direction he had come from. The Fantome's new destination was to be Puerto Barrios, a sheltered harbour just over the border in Honduras. But this plan was soon jettisoned as well. The Fantome, it was finally decided, would head south-east to Roatan, the largest of Honduras's Bay Islands. By positioning himself between the 40-mile-long island and the mainland, March hoped to put a buffer between himself and the full fury of the storm.

And by now Mitch had mutated into the fourth most powerful Atlantic hurricane this century, joining Gilbert, Camille and a very few others as a Category Five hurricane, those with wind speeds greater than 155mph. At its height, such a hurricane can orchestrate as much as one million cubic miles of atmosphere, causing the tallest waves known on earth, and the heaviest rainfall. Without shelter, anything alive in the middle of a storm of this magnitude doesn't stay alive long. In the Florida Keys in 1935, several people were simply sand-blasted to death, so that all that remained was their shoes and belt buckles. Hurricane Mitch was, by now, a parabola of vaporous rage, packing winds, inside the eye-wall, of 208mph, the highest ever recorded. And it was only 350 miles north of the Fantome. In the next 24 hours, as March and his 30 men battled their way south, it would release energy equivalent to 400 20-megaton nuclear bombs.

The Fantome arrived in the lee of the island of Roatan on the morning of Tuesday, 27 October and began to tack back and forth. Over the satellite phone to Michael Burke in Miami, March still sounded upbeat. The Fantome's jib sails had been blown out, he told Burke, but the mainsails were intact, and the engine was still running. But then Mitch did something no one expected it to do, suddenly it began to plunge south-west, straight for Roatan.

In his poem about the Titanic, "The Convergence of the Twain", Thomas Hardy describes the iceberg as an inexorable force of nature bent on destruction. Mitch seemed to be pursuing the Fantome in the same way. The Fantome and the storm were now lined up on the same longitude, like two chess pieces. The end-game was beginning.

Back in his air-conditioned office in Miami, Big Daddy debated with his son Michael Burke about how to save his most precious possession. The founder of Windjammer lives in a mock castle, surrounded by high walls studded with gargoyles. From the outside it looks like one of those fantasy hotels in Las Vegas, or a ride you pass through at Disneyworld. A "sword in the stone" stands in the hallway. Live sharks circle a moat fed by salt water gushing from stone skulls. The door to Burke's office is opened by a ship's wheel. His desk is a giant, upturned fish tank.

One of the factors at play during the storm was the simple fact that the Fantome was not insured. It was "self-insured". If the schooner went down, Big Daddy would be, personally, out of pocket for $15m and March would be back in Cornwall, racing dinghies. Windjammer would also be liable for any damage caused by the vessel during the storm. The Fantome passed up the opportunity of sheltering in one of the Caribbean's safest hurricane holes, a protected bay on Roatan called Port Royal. If the Fantome were to break free of its anchor, its 700-ton steel hull could turn into a giant wrecking ball, causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

Mitch was now only 45 miles away, heading straight for Roatan. It was checkmate. All that was left to do was beach the ship, and get the crew off. Instead, after consultation with Burke, March decided to make one last, desperate attempt to outrun the storm. Using the Bay Islands as a shield, he would make a run eastwards, around what mariners call "the navigable semi-circle" of the storm. What he was effectively going to attempt was to hitch a ride on the hurricane itself, using the clockwise rotation of the winds on Mitch's southern quadrant to propel him east along the coast of Honduras and, he hoped, to safety.

In winds so powerful, a vessel rides best with its stern starboard quarter - the right rear portion of the ship - to the wind, and its bow pointed at an angle away from the eye. And that is how March must have configured what is called the "point of sail", as he headed away from Roatan. Wind gusts in a hurricane the size of Mitch can ramp up from 45mph to 180mph in the blink of an eye. For the men on board the Fantome, this would have felt like a bulldozer being repeatedly driven into the side of the hull. Down in the engine room, Constantin Bucur, the chief engineer, and his four assistants struggled to keep the Fantome's engines running as it ploughed through waves that were now 40ft high and a city block wide. Churned by the vortex of winds, like liquid in a giant blender, they were battering the ship from all sides, throwing the men in the engine room about like peas in a mixing bowl. In the pilot house, March, his first mate, Emmanuel Brasso Frederick, and the young, Panamanian second officer, Onassis Reyes, took turns trying to hold the Fantome on course, as spray broke in sheets over the bows and the wind howled in the rigging.

Burke reached the Fantome by satellite phone for the very last time at 4pm. It had managed to sail almost 80 miles east, and was now 10 miles south-southeast of the island of Guanaja. March reported that the staysails were being ripped off, and that he was battling giant waves. He was gasping for breath. The last words Burke remembers him saying were: "Whoo, that was a big one!" Moments later, at 4.30pm, the line went dead. The Fantome's last position was 16.14 N 86.04 W.

Only later did it become clear that, as the Fantome tried to run from it, Mitch had made one last, deadly move, shifting its course to the south- east, passing directly over Guanaja, and dragging the Fantome into the eye of the hurricane. As though better to devour its prey, it then stalled, sitting off the coast of Honduras like a giant tarantula for the next 30 hours.

What happened after that we do not know. But it seems likely that, instead of being propelled east, the Fantome was dragged directly into the eye of the hurricane. By then, March and the other crew members were probably wearing masks and snorkels to help them breathe in the water-saturated air. These would have been no protection against the unbearable lightness caused by the plummeting air pressure. Their eardrums would have popped, and their capillaries swelled, bringing a taste of blood to their mouths. As the winds spiralled up into the chimney-like tower of the hurricane, anything not firmly battened down - ropes, tarpaulins, even hatches and portholes - would have been sucked right out of the ship as though by a vacuum cleaner.

Whatever happened finally must have happened very fast. The Fantome had an "epirb" (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) on board, which would have allowed the crew to send a signal if they were in distress. Evidently, they did not have time to activate it. The wave that smashed the radio antenna probably flooded the forward sections of the yacht. Or the Fantome could have pitch-poled, flipping end over end as it plunged into the wave's trough. The Fantome's steel hull, and nearly 700-ton weight, would have sent it to the bottom like a stone. The waters where it sank are as much as 1,400ft deep. And infested with sharks.

Within weeks of the Fantome's disappearance, a Miami lawyer named William Huggett, who specialises in maritime accidents, and whose clients are often from the Third World, filed an $11m law-suit on behalf of 11 of the crew, accusing Windjammer of negligence and the reckless endangerment of his clients' lives. Among other things, the lawsuit alleged that the Fantome had three chances to unload the crew - in Omoa, in Belize City and in Roatan - but took none of them. Phrases like "corporate greed" and "suicide mission" have flown thick and fast. Some saw a racial element. "The owners of the vessel couldn't care less about these Caribbean people," said Sanita Dindiali, the wife of Maxwell Bhikham, a deck hand from Guyana. "They should have put off everybody, not just the white passengers."

Michael R Burke, of Windjammer, categorically rejects such claims. He also remains convinced that the decisions he and March took during the hurricane were the right ones. "I considered all the options," he said recently. "I didn't fuck up!" Soon after the lawsuit was filed, Windjammer began a major public relations operation to salvage its battered reputation. It took a further battering when it became known what value the company had fixed on a man's life: for as little as $20,000, the victims' families were asked to waive all future claims against Windjammer. To date, 16 people have accepted the offer. The family of Onassis Reyes, the second officer, might have been one of them. But when Windjammer made, then withdrew, an offer of $275,000 compensation, Gilberto Reyes, the young second officer's father, became convinced that the company was not acting in good faith, and has now joined the law suit. "I will continue fighting until this company pays for what it did," he says.

It will probably be a long fight. For, though Big Daddy enjoys all the advantages of life in the First World, he has, like many other businessmen, made sure that his corporate headquarters are registered off-shore, in the Third World. He has also erected a series of fire walls between himself and any liability for what happens on his ships. Each vessel is owned by a separate, fully independent corporation, based in Panama. The Fantome was, for instance, owned by Fantome, SA. All it has in Panama is a PO box, and a lawyer to represent it. Windjammer's property, assets and money are in America. "Ahoy!" said a jaunty recorded message when I called the company's offices in Miami, as a calypso tune played in the background. "Windjammer Barefoot Cruises is pleased to offer Limbo 101! A history of tall ships, including the mixology of the rum swizzle!"

Closure has not been so easy for the mothers and fathers of the men who died on the Fantome. Last weekend, candles were lit in New Amsterdam, and the family of Onassis Reyes held a Mass in his memory. In Antigua and St Vincent, Grenada and Nicaragua, sadness and anger tore at the hearts of men and women who had little in the first place, and are now convinced that their children died to save a rich man's ship. The hurt will also be felt in the Cornish village where March's mother, Jenny, lives. Understandably, March's family has steadfastly defended his conduct during the storm and, by implication, Windjammer's. "Allegations of a suicide mission and corporate greed are ludicrous and extremely painful to me, my family and all the loved ones of the Fantome crew," March's brother Paul, who also used to work for Windjammer, has said. "My brother was an experienced captain and, quite frankly, not a risk taker."

It is easy to be an armchair captain and, with the benefit of hindsight, judge actions taken in haste and desperation. But if you look at the course of action adopted by March, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the intense pressure on him undermined his ability to make clear-headed decisions and stick to them. If he had stuck to one of the options that were discussed or tried, he and the other crew members would probably be alive today. But the course taken by the Fantome shows it zig-zagging up and down the coast, turning this way, then that, as though uncertain how best to proceed. Tragically, the island of Roatan, where the Fantome had been sheltering before it headed back out to sea - and where it could have landed the crew - was hardly touched by the storm.

Like all tragedies, the story of the Fantome is, ultimately, about hubris. Captain Michael Burke, the founder of Windjammer, once said that, as he flew over his fleet of tall ships in his own seaplane, he felt like God. As the queen of that fleet floundered in the seas off Honduras, Burke and his family, cocooned in their air-conditioned suites in Miami, did not want to believe that they had been checkmated by a force more powerful than themselves. Guyan March's tragic mistake was that, wanting to save the ship, he allowed himself to believe that he was skillful enough to outmanoeuvre the most destructive force on earth.

Two days after the Fantome disappeared, HMS Sheffield, a frigate which had been on guard duty in the West Indies, arrived on the island of Guanaja, a few miles from the schooner's last reported position. "Guanaja used to be a lush, green island," recalls Lieutenant Commander Mark Falwell. "But when we got there, it was like a moonscape. There was no foliage, and what trees there were left were sticking out of the mud like matchsticks." On a flight round the island, the pilot of a Lynx helicopter spotted something floating in a cove. It was a pair of life jackets. They were orange, and stamped with the words "SV Fantome". Along with several other life jackets, some pieces of staircase and a life raft, they are the only traces of the ship that have ever been found. The remains of Colin August, Rhon Austin, Maxwell Bhikham, Vernon Brusch, Constantin Bucur, Steadbert Burke, Ramsudh Deonauth, Vanil Fender, Emmanuel Frederick, Alan George, O'Ryan Hardware, David Hernandez, Deodatt Jallim, Carl James, Jerry King, Kevin Logie, Canute Layne, Carlisle Mason, Guyan March, Eon Maxwell, Wilbert Morris, Francis Moran, Anibal Olivas, Bobby Pierre, Cyrus Phillips, Pedro Prince, Onassis Reyes, Mohamed Farouk Roberts, Crispin Saunders and Rohan Williams have not been recovered.