“It's almost as famous as the Titanic,” said Paul MacDermott, a snowbird from Canada.
MIRAMAR BEACH — After a long journey that started in South Florida and included a pit stop in Miramar Beach, the much-talked-about Phantom of the Aqua was headed back into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night.
Crews from Walton County Public Works, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Southern Marine Services were on hand starting at 7 a.m. to begin trying to extract the sailboat from the beach. Melinda Gates, the coastal resources liaison for the county, said removing the boat before spring break was a priority for officials.
“We’re about to hit season. We want this off the beach so it’s not a hazard for anybody who’s enjoying our beautiful beaches here,” Gates said. “Also, we’re getting close to hurricane season, so that could be a threat as well.”
The boat first beached behind the Royal Palm Grille and Beach Bar on Oct. 21 after it was spotted in Sandestin a few days earlier. It had been abandoned several weeks before it beached when its captain, John Hale, had to be rescued by the Coast Guard while he was sailing to the U.S. Virgin Islands during Hurricane Nate.
Hale abandoned the ship, thinking it would sink to the bottom of the sea in rough water. But it survived and made a lonesome journey northward until it found its temporary home in Miramar Beach.
The boat has changed hands at least twice since then, and is now in custody of Gerald Nelson, who owns Southern Marine Services, a marine salvaging company in Bay county.
“We’re moving the boat that washed up here in October,” Nelson said mid-day Wednesday as crews worked to excavate sand from around the boat. “The original owner kind of dropped the ball on it, couldn’t do it ... and I’ve come to get it out of here. What took them four-and-a-half months, we’re doing in four days.”
Nelson said it would cost him about $15,000 to move the 45-foot, 20,000-pound vessel from the beach.
Walton County Code Enforcement crews were at the beach Wednesday morning with an excavator, and spent about six hours painstakingly removing sand from around the hull. The main priority was to expose the boat’s keel, which had been buried deep in the sand, so it could be tilted on its side and pivoted toward the Gulf.
An FWC vessel arrived about 1 p.m. Nelson said the plan was to tie ropes to the boat and connect it to the FWC boat about 100 yards offshore. The boat was pulled from the beach with the help of a few hard nudges from the excavator, but then became stuck in the sand bar in shallow water.
Crews worked into the night trying to wedge the boat free from the sand bar. As of 8:30 p.m., the boat was still stuck but was being moved "inch by inch" with an anchor pulley system.
“Every boat is different,” Nelson said. “Some come off easy, some put up a fight. She’s a fighter.”
Hundreds of onlookers took in the scene throughout the day. Crews had a large swath of beach on both sides of the boat cardoned off with caution tape, but people camped out in chairs behind the tape and stood along the boardwalk overlooking the beach to catch their last glimpse of the fabled sailboat.
Many were snowbirds and visitors who said they had grown fond of the boat and would be sad to see it leave.
“It’s almost as famous as the Titanic,” said Paul MacDermott, a snowbird from Canada who watched the boat’s removal with his friends from a pavilion.
“I think they should just keep it here,” said Karen Burns, another Canadian snowbird. “It’s a great tourist attraction. I think they should put a Tim Horton’s there and charge people for it. People would love it.”
Other snowbirds such as Donna Devault and Barbara Best said the boat had become a nice place for people to gather and meet one another.
“We’ve seen weddings happen out here,” Devault said. “It’s kind of sad to see it go. It’s been something different, but we’ll have to find something else, I guess.”
“It’s like a nice meeting place,” Best added. “You come here and you meet people there from all over the place, from different states and everything, and you just talk to people.”
Nelson said he planned to bring the Phantom to his shipyard in Panama City and hoped to restore it to its former glory. He said a woman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who has a condo in Destin had taken over ownership of the boat and would oversee its restoration.
“It made it all the way across the Gulf of Mexico and survived a hurricane,” Nelson said. “It’ll be back. The Phantom has a new owner. That owner doesn’t want to be named yet, but it’s going to be refurbished over at my shop, and in about a year’s time it’ll be complete and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it at the Destin Harbor.”