On a blustery January day, a group of out-of-town visitors gathered near the Phantom of the Aqua, the massive beached sailboat that has become something of a semi-permanent landmark on Miramar Beach.
The visitors talked amongst each other, sharing lore and stories they’d heard about the boat, and wondered what would happen to it. How long has it been there? Would they get it off the beach before Spring Break? What happened to the captain?
A young man approached the visitors and asked them to take a picture of him in front of the boat, “for his girlfriend in jail.”
“I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen a sailboat washed up on the beach,” he said.
Ken Pierson, from Virginia, said it was not something he expected to see when he got into town earlier this weekend.
“I just didn’t expect to see it. I woke up on Saturday morning and it was funny just seeing it sit there,” Pierson said. “It was like, holy smokes, how did that get there?”
The 45-foot Phantom of the Aqua washed ashore Oct. 21 behind the Royal Palm Grille in Miramar Beach, where it has remained ever since as people try to figure out what on earth to do with it. The boat’s original owner and captain, John Hale, a former South Florida resident now living in Ohio, had to be rescued from the boat by the U.S. Coast Guard while he was sailing during Hurricane Nate in early October, and abandoned the boat thinking it would sink to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
But the boat didn’t sink, and instead made its way to the Emerald Coast, where it’s remained ever since.
Hale came to Destin in November to try and work out a way to move the boat off the beach, and even started an online fundraiser and solicited the help of an army of local volunteers to help with his mission. But Hale told The Log in December his efforts had ultimately failed.
“We worked hard for several days getting Lilly (Hale’s nickname for the boat) ready to move, but then several things didn’t work out as expected,” the captain said in a Facebook message Dec. 5. “Even though several people worked hard and did what they could do, we still fell short when it came time to actually try and move her…as of a week ago, I have signed Lilly over to a local friend there who has the resources to rescue her. She is now his.”
Hale said he is “moving on” and has refunded the money from the online fundraiser back to the donors.
The boat’s new owners did not want to be publicly identified, saying they are “bombarded” by people with questions every time they try to go down to the beach to work on the boat. But they did say they were trying to get the boat off the beach before Spring Break.
“He just wants to keep it hush hush for now,” the new owner’s wife said over the phone. “He’s planning to get it off the beach before Spring Break so people won’t be climbing over it. People have just been robbing it blind, stealing everything they can get off of it.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Rob Klepper said Tuesday that officials were aware of the Phantom and were working with the new owner to "expedite lawful removal of the boat" as soon as possible.
"We absolutely want to get it out of there as soon as possible," Klepper said.
An FWC derelict vessels specialist told the Log in November that removing a derelict vessel can be a costly endeavor, exceeding $350 per foot. For a boat like the Phantom, that could mean removal will be a nearly $16,000 job. But still, according to Florida law, leaving a boat to become derelict is illegal and punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail — in addition to paying the costs to have it removed.
But if the workers at Royal Palm Grille, the bar and restaurant just up the beach from where the Phantom is beached, have anything to say about it, the boat will remain on the beach for a long time.
“It’s a great tourist attraction. We get asked a hundred times a day about it,” bar manager Steve Tisa said. “I know it has to go eventually, but I’m hoping it stays because it’s good for business.”