Windjammer Barefoot Cruises The End of an Empire

Part 1 of a 4-Part Series


Note: as more information seems to be coming in daily I am publishing all of these articles now. Some areas of parts one and two have been updated. If you would like to comment, please go to our message boards here: Windjammer Message Boards

The Burkes of Windjammer This is a very long and complicated article about a prominent Miami family, the Burkes of Windjammer Cruises, who could have built a cruise empire, but instead allowed their personal interests, and their inability to trust one another and outsiders, to ruin everything they ever had.

The Windjammer saga has hurt many people, including hundreds of extremely loyal customers who have handed over millions of hard-earned dollars for cruises which they will likely never see.

And the apparent fault lies with a close-knit family, who while spawned by a wily, ingenious and doting father, still cannot get past their sibling rivalries long enough to keep the company afloat.

Today, Windjammer, the cruise line, is on life-support, but none of the family members appear to be willing to spend a red cent of their own to save it, despite the fact their fortunes were mostly derived from the cruise line itself. Nor have they been willing to part with a single share of it in order to bring in fresh capital.

Yet, while every week the prognosis appears to get worse and worse, there are still fans that refuse to see or believe the truth. Rather than getting upset with the family that has torn their dreams asunder, they continue to cheer the Burkes on, seemingly no matter what kind of blundering moves they make.

My Disclaimer I have reasonable certainty about almost everything I write here, based on verbal confirmation from people I have interviewed who have first hand information about the company and the family. But it is very hard to find solid legal information about Windjammer Cruises because so much of the company is in the hands of overseas agents in countries that do not require legal disclosure. The Burkes have done a great job of hiding their real business.

I don't claim to have the complete story, and I fear it would take far too long to write it anyway. I am sure there are people who know far more than I do whom I will hear from as soon as they read this. A small amount of what I say may be sketchy or even possibly incorrect, though I certainly hope that is not the case. My goal is to put enough of the puzzle pieces together, even when they don't exactly fit, that you readers can glimpse the truth.

Though everything I write is derived from other journalistic pieces or eyewitnesses, sometimes eyewitnesses can be mistaken and such information is hard to verify by outside sources. If something I have written is inaccurate then I apologize in advance.

How I Discovered this Story Two weeks ago I wrote an article for CruiseMates where I personally recommended strongly against booking a cruise with Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. My rationale was that I have seen the pattern for failing cruise lines before, and Windjammer fits that profile to a "T".

As a result of printing that first article, Joey Burke, the acting head of the company two weeks ago, contacted me to request a personal interview with me. I agreed to this and waited for his phone call. At the time, I honestly knew next to nothing about the cruise line, the Burkes or their patriarch, Captain Burke. I had a lot to learn.

Instead of Joey Burke calling me, I received a call from his sister, Susan Burke, who said she had just spoken to Joey and was calling me at his request as his representative. She identified herself as a part of the Burke family in the Isle of Man trust which owns the cruise line.

I asked Susan very pointed questions about Windjammer's operations, financial assets and liabilities. Susan sounded very convincing; contrite, emotionally involved and dedicated to fixing the problem. I believed at the time that she was being fully honest in her responses to me.

I was wrong. So, why would a reporter believe anything anyone says? Because I believe in the power of the Internet to draw out the truth. When a spokesperson for a major company is untruthful it is usually just a matter of hours before alternative points of view come forth. It is a serious error in judgement to misrepresent the truth to a reporter online. This is but the second time it has ever happened to me, and that is why I had my guard down.

Based on Susan's answers to my pointed questions, I wrote an article revising my first opinion. I said I now believed Windjammer's financial situation was not as dire as their recent actions indicated. However, I did make sure to say I continue to recommend caution.

My new opinion was based upon Susan saying she wanted to find a new financial backer for the company. She even asked me if I knew anyone who might fill the bill, and at the same time implied that there was a "possible" backer on the line whose name I would recognize immediately.

Inconsistencies I asked Susan Burke if any of the ships the company owned had any encumbrances. "Absolutely not" she told me. I asked what kind of financial liabilities the company had, and she failed to mention at least two pending lawsuits. She also neglected to tell me about millions of dollars in pre-paid cruise obligations that Windjammer still owes to passengers.

My second article got an immediate reaction, mostly from a Windjammer message board which I had not yet visited but would soon (the Flotilla at They pointed out to me that most of what Susan had told me could not be accurate based on facts they already knew were true.

Then Susan's own brother, Joey Burke (the one who had requested the interview with me in the first place and sent his sister in his stead), went to the same message board and disputed almost everything Susan told me. He actually apologized to that message board for allowing his sister to conduct an interview with me. To this day, he has not apologized to me for what I went through. Am I expecting too much?

Naturally, these events spurred me to dig deeper. I had written two short editorials based on quick research but mostly personal experience. Little did I know how much detail and intrigue this story would reveal when I started really digging for factual background. Parts of the story are just outright shocking, and there is no other word for it.

But ferreting out the truth was a bigger challenge than I anticipated. Like an Egyptian tomb, the deeper I went the more I found. And like hidden treasures, what I saw on the face of things was not always what turned out to be true. And so I present my story such as it is, and invite outsiders to add to it or clarify as needed.

Windjammer Cruises as Created by Captain Burke If ever there was a true story good enough for a TV serial soap opera like Dynasty or Dallas, this is it. It stars the Burke family, owners of Windjammer cruises.

Windjammer Cruises was started by Captain Michael Burke Sr. back in 1947 when (or so the story goes) he awoke one day aboard a vessel he didn't recognize and was subsequently informed he had won it in a card game the night before. Captain Burke, known affectionately as "CB," named it "The Hangover." And so we have legend number one. It appears, in fact, that he purchased the vessel, probably for about $600.

CB has always had a reputation as a rogue, a description in which he seemingly takes pride. Even at 80 he often refers to himself as "a pirate," and recently endorsed a biography written by one of his best friends entitled, "Barefoot Pirate, The Tall Ships and Tales of Windjammer."

Tall ships, tall tales and pirates -- obvious imagery

If being in the right place at the right time means anything, by chartering "The Hangover" to tourists long before the modern cruise business was even a glimmer in Miami, Burke could have been a billionaire. But he wanted to run the company "his way." Forgoing the usual time consuming obligations of proper companies he ran his business out of his back pocket, like any self-respecting pirate would do.

Most people who meet Michael Burke Sr. like him a great deal. Yes, he is still alive, and he exudes confidence and a sense of adventure, and is said to possess a genius IQ in the neighborhood of 160. Word is he is still aware, although not a nimble as he once was, and was just met with a recent declaration of incompetence. Some eyewitnesses tell me he has senior dementia which normally affects short term memory. It is said he frequently ask how the ships are doing, and doesn't recall that all are non-operational even though he has been told several times.

Many people Burke consorted with in the early days of Windjammer became fellow "pirates" and often willing participants in his dreams and schemes. To be a Captain Burke insider meant you were part of the "family." With six children, plus regular housekeepers and crewmen around full time it was easy to add another "pirate" to the gang.

CB is said to have fostered his pirate reputation with stories of high seas hijinks that fall outside the law. Keep in mind, he has been sailing in the Caribbean since before the Bay of Pigs and throughout the turbulent and drug-fogged sixties, seventies and eighties. Stories involving drug running, gunrunning, free love, free drugs, sex and guns are all part of the repertoire. Whether or not these things happened on Windjammer cruises is unverifiable except through eyewitness stories, but there are even rumors of a boatload of guns that sank not far from the shores of Cuba.

The life of a "pirate" means chicanery, and CB's lifestyle was sometimes supported by his ever-changing flock of followers. More than one story appears where the man received favors from trusting "friends" - making deals with them purely on his word, only to have these friends discover that as soon as their financial contribution was consumed so apparently was the friendship.

It's a beautifully simple ploy that I found to be a recurring theme and a talent he passed on to his offspring. The Captain might promise something on his word as a friend, but suddenly find a reason why the friendship was no longer justified. Rescinding his friendship, the captain would also take back any promises he made to people in exchange for their support.

"I'm sorry, but I can't do business with anyone who isn't a friend, after all, and if you hadn't ruined our friendship you would now have the benefits I promised you." It is the classic blame-shifting ploy to avoid responsibility and disenfranchise the people who are "used up." To the Captain, loyalty was something he defined and practiced as his version of the "Golden Rule" according to one witness I interviewed. The rule was, "loyalty to the Captain first for as long as I say we are together, and by loyalty I mean you do what I say."

The link above is a news article about the some of the recent Burke family drama, but what is most telling is the comment left online after the article by an unnamed outsider. The comment about Michael Burke Senior reads like this.

In 1961 my father retired from a government job of 32 years to live his dream, bringing my mom and me to South Florida from Philadelphia. He read an ad for a 52 foot boat "The Barefoot Contessa" in the Miami Herald and "bought it" from the owner for $4,000, our family's life savings. Dad was going to be a "captain" of a fishing party boat. The seller was a more real "captain" Mike Burke. Of course there were no lawyers involved and Burke let my dad play captain for a couple of months. He used the four grand to buy two new Chrysler engines for the Contessa. And then he told my father to take a hike. Dad spent the next 20 years writing letters about this crook. Maybe it's taken all this time for some payback to this evil bastard. We all hope he and his offspring all rot in hell."

While we don't know if this story is true or not, it certainly sounds plausible in light of what we now know about the Burke Family.

What is interesting is that to this day Mr. Burke's son, Joey, has stated that he wants to get back to running the cruise line the same way his father did. And so it happens that there is a similar story in 2007 about a man who lent the company, now in Joey's control, over $350,000, solely on a verbal promise, and this man was also subsequently told to "take a hike." (More on that later).

Windjammer Barefoot Cruises Grows Up When Michael Burke Senior, a.k.a. Captain Burke or CB, started Windjammer Cruises he was ahead of his time. The Miami-based cruise business caught a tail wind in the 1970s and exploded by the '90s. Windjammer grew with it, but on its own peculiar trajectory. By the 1980s Windjammer had a reputation for being the "anti-cruise line" -- an exercise in everything other cruise lines were not -- and the passengers loved them for it.

In its heyday, the Windjammer fleet consisted of six ships; mostly sail ships also rigged with engines, carrying anywhere from 64 to 122 passengers. By this time, CB had married his wife June and they eventually had six children, three boys and three girls. All of the children grew up in the Windjammer atmosphere. Although dad was mostly absentee, the kids all spent plenty of time "in the life" and visited the ships often.

Windjammer passengers were encouraged to let their hair down - creating a cruise experience where everything a regular cruise line did was done in a Bizarro World* opposite manner. Formal nights meant you put on a clean T-shirt, unless you didn't have one in which case you could just turn the one you had on inside out. If you didn't have a T-shirt you could buy one on board that bore the legend, "This ain't no foo-foo cruise line."

Windjammer ships would sail into Caribbean island ports already full of behemoth cruise ships, raise the pirate flag and shoot blanks out of their cannons at the regular cruise ships. Once the blanks ran out, knowing they had the other ship passengers' full attention, the Jammers would present "arms" or more accurately other body parts, pulling down their shorts for an en masse "mooning" of the vessels they were passing.

Burke's line was among the first to include alcohol as part of the cruise fare, offering rum concoctions called "swizzles" at initial boarding and cocktail hour, along with cheap wine at dinner and Bloody Marys in the morning.

Passengers ate, slept and drank whenever, wherever and as much as they wanted; keeping up appearances didn't mean anything compared to keeping secrets. To borrow from a famous phrase long before it was popular -- "What happens on a Windjammer Cruise stays on a Windjammer Cruise."

The number of faithful Jammers grew in the 90s as the Internet made it easy to get to know each other and stay in contact on land as well as at sea. The Windjammer Barefoot Cruises Web site had an active message board called the "coconut telegraph" (it was later taken down by corporate decision). It was led by then company head of public relations Mike Vegas.

The heyday for Windjammer was the second half of the 1990s. Cruising was now a very popular vacation. Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean were already courting families, moving beyond the turbulent younger market which Windjammer still relies upon.

The Jammers saw something truly magical in Windjammer. Rarely have I seen passengers more singularly devoted to a cruise line. They found an experience similar to Woodstock in the 60s; accepting and free to be themselves, it was a good thing. But like all such good things, the wrong people learn to take advantage of the good nature of such people.

Windjammer Rides the Crest of Success In 1998, as Windjammer was on top of the world, the Captain sold a house he had on Miami's pricey Star Island to Robert vanWinkle (Vanilla Ice) and bought two homes on North Bay Road, also an exclusive area. He combined the two properties into one huge castle. The home literally has turrets, parapets and a 65,000-gallon seawater moat with a drawbridge. Swimming inside the moat were six live sharks. The castle was legendary, valued at $6 million when it was built. There were fierce-faced gargoyles, bas-relief sculptures of knights and dragons, suits of armor, a great hall, and grottos with ornate dark-wood cabinetry. Outside the bewitching medieval gloom was a heated, lagoon-style pool extending into the house with a twisting 30-foot slide.

In front of the lavish home was a statue of a gallant man, which upon first inspection seemed to be a Roman god. But the clearly rebellious or narcissistic character of Capt. Burke was evident; the naked man in the middle of the fountain sprouts a stream of urine from an outrageous example of the human anatomy.

I spoke to a former employee who worked in the Miami office at the time and was considered enough of a family member to go to the Star Island home regularly. She describes it as a "sexually charged atmosphere of free love, sex, drugs and guns." Even the captain, she says, was known to engage in what would today be considered sexual harassment, but back then CB had celebrity status, so any kind of attention was welcomed.

Around this time, there was already a sales and marketing arm of the cruise line, a US registered company called Windjammer Barefoot Cruises Ltd, WBCL - overseen by daughter Susan Burke. They curtailed marketing to travel agents to sell their cruises. The company primarily used the Internet to sell directly to their customers. Though this practice proved to be fatal for another mainstream cruise line back then, in the Bizarro Windjammer world it worked very well, at least at the time.

During these years, rarely would a Windjammer executive appear at a cruise trade show, nor would "Jammers" regularly visit the regular cruise web sites like CruiseMates to post messages and talk about cruising in general. The line rarely put out a press release or asked journalists aboard to write about their ships.

However, the cruise line now with six ships was a cash cow that the Burkes didn't feel the need to feed and groom. They apparently hated reinvesting money in their business, preferring to push the profit envelope as far as possible, even taking risks on such things as not insuring their ships, and deliberately postponing regular maintenance.

The one thing they never changed, however, was the practice of providing plenty of free alcohol onboard; though sales of alcohol had become a significant source of revenue for most cruise lines. When other cruise lines started driving basic cruise fares lower and lower, with the goal to get warm bodies onboard to buy as much booze and other add-ons as possible, Windjammer was stuck.

Free alcohol was a great hook to keep their young Jammer followers who did not fit regular cruise industry demographics for ten or more cruises before the age of 50. Many of these young people were cruising on Windjammer as often as they could, making statements in the line's message boards that they lived and worked solely for their next Windjammer cruise.

By now most of the Burkes had multi-million dollar homes, paid for with company money, though how the money was distributed to each child is murky. Some of it was "earned" via various companies, but it is also said that CB was simply too big hearted. The pattern was for a child to ask the office manager to write a check for any amount they wanted, and then it was just up to CB to sign it (he had to approve every check). In the early days the kids got everything they wanted, according to the insider source. After all, CB had six children, and keeping everything "even" was important and hard to track.

The process continued into the later years, but by then the company had become so convoluted that even CB couldn't keep track of what they could afford and which child was entitled to what. So, if the cash was there it was soon spent, even during times when the ships were falling apart. It is said that by the end the captain just lost faith in his kids, adopting an attitude of "go ahead and eat the company alive, and then we'll see how you feel when everything we built is gone."

Link to: Windjammer Barefoot Cruises - Part 2 Link to: Windjammer Barefoot Cruises - Part 3 Link to: Windjammer Barefoot Cruises - Part 4

  • Windjammer: The Deal That Got Away

    Link to: Windjammer Barefoot Cruises - Part 2

  • Recommended Articles