Yacht stuck for 2 ˝ years finally free

Wed, 27 Feb 2008


KEY WEST -- When the winds of Hurricane Wilma blew across Key West in 2005, they dragged a $16 million, 158-foot luxury yacht called the Legacy
into shallow tidal flats.

Owner Peter Halmos of Palm Beach was on board. After the storm, Halmos and his relieved crew of six shed their life jackets and found the sleek boat buried in several feet of sand and sea grass.

Wilma had needed only a couple of hours to drag the boat the mile over the flats, but it would take a Miami salvage company six months to do the same, sometimes at a pace of only 10 feet per day. The reason: The boat was stuck in the middle of the environmentally sensitive Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, which meant salvage crews couldn't use invasive measures to move it.

The ever-evolving project -- which likely will end up costing Halmos more than the $16 million he paid for the yacht -- required him to navigate a sea of regulatory restrictions, marine sanctuary concerns, legal wrangling and several failed salvage attempts. And it required thwarting pirates -- with a rifle.

But 2 ˝ years after that night when Halmos and crew thought they were going to die, the Legacy is now safely anchored in Key West Harbor, in view of the Coast Guard station.

''We busted loose [Monday],'' Halmos wrote in an e-mail published on the nautical website The Triton.

''I know we're thrilled it's finally out,'' said Dave Score, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "It went according to plan. Now we can start to evaluate restoration strategies.''

During much of the 2 ˝ years, the Hungarian émigré lived on the yacht, which looked like it had battled a warship on the outside but was still quite a palace inside, with teak floors, mahogany walls, satellite TV, a hot tub and a private chef.

But Halmos, who made his fortune as co-founder of a company that sold credit card insurance, eventually moved into a houseboat at Aqua compound, a community of houseboats he created to keep an eye on the Legacy, plastered with ''Keep Out'' signs.

After failed salvage attempts, he finally found the right firm for the job: family-owned Miami River-based Byrd Commercial Diving.

Here's how they did it, according to Christian Byrd, a third-generation partner in the family business:

The five-person crew began by cutting two holes in the midnight blue hull. Through those holes was placed a 2 ˝-inch bar that became part of a special submersion pump to excavate the sand in front of the Legacy.

The pump was pulled by pulleys called beach gears. ''Every time we would pull it, we would deposit the sand right behind the Legacy,'' he said. ``Basically, we were doing a leap frog.''

The sand went through a hose under the water so particles didn't plume into the air and cause even more environmental problems. It was impossible to avoid destroying some sea grass, the nursery for marine life and fish, because of the ship's location.

The entire project was surrounded by 3 ˝ miles of yellow turbidity curtain, which floats on the surface and has a meshing that goes to the bottom. Byrd said the crew operated their dredger for 900 hours during the project.

When there was enough sand dredged from in front of the Legacy, another boat hundreds of yards away used a large winch and two heavy cables to pull the yacht. This continued until noon Monday, when Legacy finally got out of the flats and into open water.

After an initial scare when the Legacy got briefly stuck again, the boat was towed two miles to Key West Harbor, arriving at 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday, the crew used a 4,000-pound anchor to keep the Legacy in place without the help of the Helen B barge. Now the crew has 9,000 feet of cable and 15,000 pounds of anchors to retrieve.

''Maybe when we get home to Miami we'll celebrate,'' Byrd said.
As for Halmos, he has two restoration projects on his hands: the yacht and the sea grass of Great White Heron.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts who oversee the sanctuary waters will assess the dredging path and work with Halmos on a plan to repair the environmental damage, said NOAA special counsel Craig O'Connor.

''We anticipate Mr. Halmos building the grade back up to where the vessel had been resting and replanting sea grass in those areas,'' O'Connor said.

Halmos was not fined for the damage, Score said, because it was viewed as an act of God. But O'Connor said Halmos has paid for the entire salvage project and will be responsible for the restoration as well.

Halmos has estimated the ordeal will cost him more than the $16 million he originally paid for the Legacy in 1985, when it was one of the 10 largest sailing yachts in the world.

While it was marooned, a group of about eight men in fast inflatable rafts approached, claiming they were from FEMA and had authorization to confiscate the boat's luxurious features. They returned a few times, but Halmos and his rifle-bearing crew kept them from boarding.

Now, O'Connor said he expects Halmos will load the yacht onto a cargo ship and send it back to its original shipyard in Viareggio, Italy, to be rebuilt into ''the gorgeous boat'' that it once was.

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