Image: Peter Halmos
Lynne Sladky  /  AP
Peter Halmos maneuvers a boat around his 158-foot luxury yacht Legacy in the waters off Key West, Fla., in September.
updated 10/5/2007 6:08:19 PM ET 2007-10-05T22:08:19

Looking like Noah’s Ark after the flood, a sleek, 158-foot yacht driven aground by a hurricane lies just offshore, mired for most of the past two years in a dispute with the government over how to free it without doing too much damage to seagrass.

Through it all, the boat’s owner, Peter Halmos, has stubbornly insisted on staying aboard or living close by on a cluster of houseboats so he can guard his beloved Legacy against pirates and thieves plying the calm green-and-azure waters off Key West.

A Hungarian emigre who made a fortune selling theft protection to credit-card holders, Halmos estimates he is spending more than $1 million a month maintaining the houseboats and moving the Legacy, which is finally — though very slowly — being pulled free.

“After two years, you kind of get numb to it. It used to make me physically sick,” said Halmos, who bought the boat in 1995 for $16 million.

Plastered with “No Trespassing” signs, the sailing yacht with a gleaming white bridge sits upright in less than a foot of water about two miles offshore, a tattered American flag flying above. Its mast and boom are gone, its dark-blue hull is scuffed and its wooden deck is weather-beaten.

But the hull is intact and Halmos says it will float.

Boat's anchors didn't hold
Halmos, who is in his early 60s, was aboard the Legacy with six others when Hurricane Wilma struck in October 2005. Instead of heading out for the open sea, he decided to drop anchor and ride out the storm near shore.

But the anchors did not hold, and Wilma repeatedly lifted the boat and slammed it down.

“I don’t know how the boat held together,” Halmos said. “I thought, ‘Just end it.”’

When the storm had passed, the Legacy was aground miles away from where it had anchored, stuck in the sand in a federally protected area where sensitive varieties of seagrass provide a habitat for fish.

If Halmos were simply to drag the Legacy out, it would damage the grass and he could be hit with millions of dollars in fines.

But for months, Halmos and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were unable to come to terms on a plan to remove the Legacy.

NOAA special counsel Craig O’Connor said that there were “misunderstandings and miscommunication,” and that some of the early removal suggestions appeared too damaging to the environment.

“Our people wanted to be sure they understood what Peter was doing,” O’Connor said. He added: “Aside from the fact that Peter is a colorful person, I find him to be a person of high integrity. We could be dealing with somebody who could care less about the environment.”

Owner will have to replant seagrass
The two sides finally came to an understanding in January — Halmos will have to replant the damaged seagrass at his own expense. But then they had to work out the details of the plan to extricate the boat. And then a diving company had to specially make a pump.

Finally, in mid-September, workers from a salvage company began operating a machine that uses powerful streams of water to cut into the sea bottom in front of the Legacy. A boat hundreds of yards away is using a large winch and two heavy cables to pull the Legacy into deeper water.

The work is said to be going well, though the Legacy is moving only about 10 feet per day. With a total of about 1,300 feet to be covered, the job will take several weeks.

“There’s been some red ink that last couple of years. Luckily, I have enough zeros after my name that I can absorb it,” Halmos said.

After the wreck, Halmos, his captain and two crew members stayed aboard the Legacy for six months. Later, they began staying on eight lashed-together houseboats nearby, while Halmos’ wife continues to live at the couple’s house in Palm Beach County.

“There’s lunatics who come out here and try to go aboard, and I have to come out here and tell them that I’m going to blow their heads off,” Halmos said.

But given the beauty on and around his houseboat — fish swimming near the surface, a gaggle of cormorants, seagulls and pelicans, the salty smell of the ocean mixing with the scent of sweet jasmine — it is not at all certain Halmos will leave once the Legacy has been freed.

“People who spend some time out here genuinely feel there’s a healing aspect to it,” he said. “I’m sensing there’s something meaningful here. I can’t see myself resuming the life I had onshore. I can’t even envision it.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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