Crew of 31 feared drowned as schooner battles storm

A LUXURY schooner skippered by a British seaman may have sunk while trying to outrun Hurricane Mitch, according to rescuers who discovered empty life rafts and the ship's staircase among wreckage in the Caribbean.

Captain Guyan March, from Cornwall, is among 31 crew missing on board the Fantome. It lost satellite telephone contact eight days ago as it headed from Belize to Roatan to try to outrun the storm, which has already killed more than 7,000 in Honduras and Nicaragua.

Search parties are keeping an open mind as to the fate of the crew, but the US Coast Guard fears the boat - a four-masted craft formerly owned by the shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis - has sunk. Sea searches around the islands of Guanaja and Roatan, off Honduras, discovered debris, seven life-jackets and two empty life rafts from the Fantome.

Rescuers are being helped in their search by a Royal Navy warship, HMS Sheffield. The Foreign Office confirmed last night that one Briton was among those missing.

The yacht is registered in Antigua and is operated by Miami-based Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. It was on a tourist cruise near Belize and the Bay Islands, which was abandoned as Mitch approached. The crew dropped off 100 passengers on shore on Monday last week before sailing towards Roatan to avoid the storm.

Coastguards said 11 crew members were from Guanaja, four each from Grenada and St Vincent, three from Jamaica, two from Honduras and one each from Nicaragua, St Lucia, Panama, Trinidad, Antigua, Romania and England.

Two US Coast Guard spotter aircraft and a helicopter from HMS Sheffield have been used in the search effort and have so far found debris at Guanaja and north of Roatan.

Among the wreckage was part of the Fantome's wooden staircase. The serial number on one of the life rafts was confirmed as that of the Fantome.

More than 120,000 square miles have been scoured since Thursday evening in the search for survivors. Several people who travelled as holidaymakers on board the Fantome have set up Internet sites to exchange news about the missing craft.

Laura Marshall, from Atlanta, Georgia, said: "Captain Guyan has been sailing since he was a kid. He is a fantastic sailor. He knew what he was doing. He did the right thing."

A spokeswoman for Windjammer Barefoot, which has refused to confirm Captain March was among those missing, said the discovery of the debris from the Fantome did not necessarily mean it had sunk.

She said: "There are things on the ship that can be dislodged with a wave that came across the bow. That would explain some items being in the ocean. Of course we are concerned, but we still feel the ship is out there and are continuing to search for it."

But Scott Carr, a spokesman for the US Coast Guard, said: "We have found all sorts of stuff. It is starting to look as if the ship went down."

The SV Fantome, at 282ft, the world's largest four-masted stay-sail schooner, was originally built as a destroyer for the Italian Navy, but the only service it ever saw was that of plaything for the rich and famous.

The Duke of Westminster bought it in 1927 and christened it the Flying Cloud, but it quickly passed into the hands of an American who repeatedly sailed round the Mediterranean with two sea-sick cows so he could enjoy fresh milk.

The Guinness dynasty next enjoyed its pleasures, renaming the vessel, before it was bought by Aristotle Onassis - second husband of Jackie Kennedy - who intended the ship as a wedding present for Prince Rainier of Monaco when he married the film star Grace Kelly in 1956. He kept it for himself when he failed to receive a wedding invitation.

It lay rusting in the north German harbour of Kiel until 1969, when Mike Burker, found- er of the Miami-based Windjammer fleet of holiday yachts, restored the dilapidated steel-hulled ship with a $6m (pounds 3.6m) refit. The yacht can take up to 128 passengers and 45 crew.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - 6 month FTC - Central London

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity f...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before