Capt. Michael Burke sailed through life with his unending spirit and romantic outlook, touching the lives of many with his cruise empire, Windjammer Barefoot Cruises.
His own journey came to and end early Sunday, when the 89-year-old succumbed to pneumonia at his Miami Beach home.
With his colorful character and grandiose disposition, Burke was an unforgettable personality for the legions of passengers who travelled on his ships.
Born May 13, 1924 in Bradley Beach, N.J., Burke was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He spent a childhood by the sea, cultivating a love that would follow him until his final days.
Straight out of high school, Burke enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II and spent three years serving on a submarine.
After the war, Burke came to Miami Beach.
“He just loved it,” daughter Susan Burke said.
Burke started a business painting houses. That’s where he met June Tuttle, his wife of 57 years.
For years, the legend was Burke got his start in the cruising business after winning a 19-foot sailboat, named “The Hangover,” in a poker game.
Not true, said Susan.
Her father, who always enjoyed fixing things, bought a skiff and restored it. He often took friends to the Bahamas. After awhile, he began asking them to pay for fuel and other expenses.
That’s what gave him the idea to sell his painting company and buy a bigger boat.
“It was a tremendous sacrifice,” Susan said. “For awhile, they had trouble paying the bills.”
But Windjammer grew into the largest fleet of authentic tall ships — traditionally-rigged vessels — in the world. They had about seven ships altogether at any one time.
It was a life of partying and sea salt with passengers dressed as pirates and prostitutes for the Windjammers’ costume parties.
“The most fun I ever had in my life was on a Windjammer cruise,” said Beth Hurewitz, who worked as Burke’s secretary in the late 1970s. It was a life of games, turtle races, exploring islands and diving, she said.
Susan Burke said many passengers were transformed by their experience on a ship. “I can’t tell you how many people met their significant other, got married and had children as a result.”
The cruises took passengers on one- to two-week journeys in the Caribbean. Among the destinations: the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, Belize.
As the business flourished, so did the family. The Burkes had six children, beginning with Michael Jr. in 1957, followed closely by Janeen, Susan, Danny, Polly and Joey.
Considered the last authentic Caribbean pirate by some, Burke remained true to character walking around his Miami Beach home with a large macaw on his shoulder, one of the many animals he took in over the years.
“We took in stray animals and stray people,” said Polly Burke. Anyone looking for refuge was welcome, some even becoming like part of the family.
With a growing family, Burke built a gargantuan gothic mansion in 1995 right on Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach. No blueprints were used — the whole thing came straight out of Burke’s imagination. For the grandchildren who grew up in a world of knights, sharks and pirates, “The Castle” was a magical place.
Complete with a shark-infested moat, a dinner table styled after the knights of the roundtable and iron gates, the home was a manifestation of Burke’s dreams. Parties were held for every occasion with some guests arriving by boat.
“Everybody would come,” Polly Burke said. “The doors were always open.”
Granddaughter Katie Burke, 23, recalls how Burke would encourage the children to be creative at “The Castle.” An art wall showcased their work and prizes were given out to the best artists of the week. Grandpa’s candy drawer in his room and office were another favorite.
“All of his grandchildren would wear matching outfits,” Katie Burke said, laughing. “We’d get to ‘The Castle’ and he’d have boxes wrapped and there’d be these ornate dresses with bows and we’d take photos and we’d all look alike.”
By late 2005, the empire Burke had built began to crumble and within a few years the business became defunct. A stroke that year left Burke incapacitated.
In 2007, the company’s president, Burke’s son Daniel Burke, died of a drug overdose.
Also that year, the family put “the Castle” up for sale. It sold for nearly $8 million, but two years later, the abandoned home burned down.
A week later, son Joey Burke died in his sleep.
“It took a lot of wind out of his sails,” Polly Burke said of the series of events.
The Burkes moved into a new home on Pine Tree Drive, where Burke lived out his final years quietly.
A memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, at Temple Beth David, 2625 SW Third Avenue, Miami. He will be cremated and his ashes scattered in the sea, where he spent a lifetime bringing others happiness.
“The most important thing for him,” Susan Burke said, “was to be passionate about anything he did.” ___