Palm Beach tycoon's mega-yacht still marooned off Key West

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Palm Beach tycoon Peter Halmos has spent $1 million to gently free his mega-yacht from a federal marine sanctuary off Key West.

But the effort has failed. With another hurricane season beginning June 1, he may have no choice but to drag the vessel out.

The 158-foot Legacy, once one of the five largest sailing ketches in the world, is mired in sand and mud, in ankle-deep turquoise water 3 miles away from the docks at Mallory Square, exactly where she was thrown by Hurricane Wilma a year and a half ago.

Halmos, 63, and seven crew members nearly lost their lives on Oct. 23, 2005, when Wilma tossed his ship "like a leaf in 25-foot waves" a mile deep into the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, 200,000 acres of some of the most pristine and protected property in the federal government's control.

Since then he has battled pirates, pesky sightseers and bureaucrats while trying to free the $30 million ship.

In February, he finally reached an agreement with the government to begin salvage operations. The plan was to use a new technique: build a 1,000-foot-long, 50-foot-wide canvas wall around the vessel, fill it with water, then float her out. But that effort - which cost $20,000 a day for two months - failed, Halmos says.

"Floating her out was really elegant. There's nothing elegant about dragging her out."

Halmos says he's been reluctant to use traditional salvage methods, which involve large barges and cranes, because that might tear up the fragile ecosystem. His new plan is to spin Legacy so she is facing in the same direction that she entered the preserve, then pull her out.

With another hurricane season beginning June 1, Halmos is battling the clock as well as the elements. The luxury vessel is now a majestic mess. Legacy bears scars on her hull from being hurled into the preserve. Her twin 160-foot masts are gone and the sun-bleached teak deck is littered with droppings from hundreds of birds who have made Legacy home.

Halmos says he hopes to begin the new process within two weeks.

In the meantime, the man who once worked in corporate boardrooms now lives as an Aquaman, residing in his own aquatic village, a flotilla of houseboats and other vessels lashed together and anchored in the ocean about a mile from Legacy. He, Captain Ed Collins and several crew members have been living there for 18 months.

He hopes to have Legacy floating by June.

"I've been looking forward to that so much for so long that I'm not sure I can even get my head that far in the future," he says. "I just want to see her moving."

When that day comes, Legacy will be loaded onto another ship and taken to a shipyard in Italy for an estimated $16 million worth of repairs that could take up to two years to complete. Halmos bought Legacy for $16 million in 1995. It would cost $30 million to build her today.

Asked whether he would remain in his aquatic village after Legacy is free, Halmos says, "I'm kind of leaning that way. I sure do like it here."

In an earlier interview, he said he had little desire to return to his Palm Beach mansion.

"I know it sounds like a guy who's been on an island too long talking to coconut heads, but there's a connectivity here. I just find it peaceful."

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