(This story about Hurricane Mitch was initially published in Fathom.)
If you live somewhere, you don’t want me to visit. No, really. I’m approximately as safe to have around as the Grim Reaper. In fact, I seem to be his official advance scout. I can’t count the places that have experienced genuine disaster soon after welcoming me with warm, soon-to-be-severed arms.
It’s not that I’m ungenerous: I tend to return hospitality. With a chainsaw.
At the beginning I would herald the merely gruesome, but over the years I have evolved so that my presence signals the imminent arrival of history-making violence. For example: revolution.
First, the gruesome. Back in the heady nineties, when magazines were printed on paper, I had a marvelous gig with New York Magazine, which involved a yearly jaunt to the Caribbean, where I’d do swank things, take notes and pictures, then cook up a Rich Person’s Guide to the Perfect Shallow Vacation. I’m not complaining — it really was fun. Generally, I live like a novelist. It was nice to live, for a couple of weeks, like a screenwriter.
One of these missions required me to experience a variety of cruise ships. I did the Small Tasteful Yacht with Computerized Sails; I did the Big-Ass City with Portholes; and — for a bit of variation — I decided to include the Plebeian Schooner. This last was a cheap-and-cheerful voyage on a vintage tall ship. Meals were camp food (Sloppy Joes!) served buffet-style on deck. Quarters were damp spider holes sunk deep into the hull, but still: two hundred and eighty-two feet of four-masted fun.
I hated it.
For days I’d been grazing on caviar and snoring on satin sheets. I’d had my very own butler. (Yes.) And now you expect me to enjoy some listing retro barge? What do you think I am: a novelist? So I jumped ship.
Seems I was unconscionably rude when I filed my report. I was happier having forgotten this, but bits of New York Magazine float like so much jetsam around the web: “If you want to get away from everything — including luxury — for about $150 a day, you can dance on a teak deck to Barry White with pony-tailed academics.”
This schooner, it turns out, was accustomed to insult. It was not built for the serving of Sloppy Joes to the likes of me: It was intended, when delivered in 1927, to serve hors d’oeuvres to the Duke of Westminster. On the French Riviera. The ship’s fall from grace (if you’ll pardon me) happened long before it became a proletarian cruise ship. It came into the possession of Aristotle Onassis (as all ships did, sooner or later), who purchased it as a wedding gift for Prince Rainier of Monaco. Grace left Ari off the guest list, however, and the boat — fit for a duke, rejected by a social-climbing actress — gradually descended the cruel ladder of class to be snubbed, finally, by a novelist.
I discovered only years later what became of this sorry windjammer in the wake of my truncated vacation.
The ship enjoyed another season after I safely re-berthed in Manhattan. It did not enjoy the next one. The Caribbean has a yearly hurricane blitz, of course, and one way to respond to a predicted hurricane, if you’re the captain of a large vessel, is to head out to sea. This may seem counterintuitive, but consider the possible alternative: Choose the wrong port, and watch your battered ship get flattened like tinfoil against whatever hard piece of land it’s moored at.
The schooner I’d treated with (to be honest, disgraceful) disdain, had to make this decision, quickly. It was cruising pleasantly off the Yucatan Peninsula when a nearing tropical storm was upgraded to a hurricane. None of the closest ports seemed suitable to shield one of the largest schooners afloat, so the improbably young captain, 32-year-old Guyan March, dropped his passengers in Belize, and set out with thirty crucial men for open water.
Here’s where my influence comes in. The storm became not just any old serial-killing wind: It blossomed into Hurricane Mitch, the most lethal cyclone since 1780. And by far the most devious.
Nobody on board could have known that the storm had a vendetta. Hurricane Mitch veered out to sea, and its path was not random. It followed the schooner. With uncanny precision — naval historians are still dumbfounded — the hurricane tracked the ship’s every evasive move.
It stalked them.
They tried to hide behind the island of Roatan, but the storm found them with ease, so they made a last-ditch sprint for the Caribbean. As did Mitch. The hurricane was now fully Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale: Before the satellite phone lost contact, Captain March pleaded that they were fighting 100-mph winds and forty-foot waves. We don’t hear his account of what followed. Creeping up on the ship was the eyewall of the hurricane, a complex ring of unimaginably tall thunderstorms best understood as a circular saw screaming at 180 miles per hour.
When it finally caught up with its terrified prey, Hurricane Mitch relaxed. (Not really, but the storm is associated with one of the lowest recorded pressures in Atlantic history.) Mitch yawned, stretched, sat with lazy precision upon the once-royal but now cheap-and-cheerful ship, and snapped it like a carrot stick.
This we assume. When steel ships cease to float, they sink persuasively. The way you would expect steel to sink. Nothing was found but two underambitious “life” rafts and a clutch of stenciled flotation vests. To quote another travel writer: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
That scorned schooner — named “Fantome” (as if I had christened it personally) — remains the sole commercial cruise vessel ever sunk by a hurricane. A coincidence, surely.
Stay tuned for Episode Two, in which my visit to the world’s oldest surviving nation-state incites a bloody regime change.