Nestled in a marina near Key West, not far from where she laid for several years beaten and tattered from Hurricane Wilma in 2005, S/Y Legacy remains under the care of her owner, Peter Halmos, and her recovery remains a work in progress.
It’s been eight years since that fateful day when the 158-foot Legacy, Halmos, then Capt. Ed Collins and crew were sucked out of Key West Harbor and ravaged by Wilma, only to be deposited a mile into the Great White Heron National Sanctuary in three feet of water. Wounds were deep: both masts snapped, windows broken, hull and superstructure gashed. Pockets had to be deeper.
Halmos spent several years and unimaginable resources to get Legacy out of the sand while entrenched in legal, federal and natural constraints. Why?
“Because I made a pact with the boat,” he said recently, relaxing in the shade of the aft deck. “I told Legacy that if she saved us [during Wilma], that I would save her.”
And for a man who has battled federal and local agencies as well as insurance companies and just about anyone else who got in the way, he holds true to the promise he made during a storm that could have well been his last stand.
The root cause of the shipwreck points to the ground tackle. The anchors required 50 percent more weight to be added to them as per the manufacturer, Perini Navi, which was done prior to 2001. But there was no instruction to upgrade the connecting swivels to handle the new loads. In 2001, while anchored off the Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Beach, Legacy’s starboard anchor was fouled by an unmanned vessel adrift, likely compromising the starboard anchor gear.
Halmos contends that due to Wilma’s speed and resurgence as it came off the Yucatan Peninsula, making a beeline for the continental U.S. with Key West its first stop, Legacy couldn’t outrun it.
When Wilma hit in late 2005, Halmos and crew were on Legacy, anchored in Key West Harbor during an expedition for Spanish treasure. As the storm bore down, the starboard anchor failed when the winds were about 60-70 knots. Thinking they were just dragging, Capt. Collins powered up to try and reset the anchor, to no avail. In addition, the strain to the port anchor gear was too much and that swivel failed also.
By then it was too late to abandon ship. A call to the local Coast Guard station for assistance came with the reply to “have everyone on board write their social security number on their arm to help us notify next of kin,” Halmos said.
Legacy’s anchors have not been recovered, despite efforts, and remain somewhere near Key West.
Legacy sat on the flats two and a half years until, in February 2008, the idea to dig a trench deep enough for the 11-foot-draft yacht to float out on. But since the area is under federal protection, Halmos couldn’t damage more of the sanctuary and instead had to “go out the way you came in,” a mile-long path through the seagrass. Even as the trench finished, Legacy remained in place while legal issues were debated. In June 2010, she motored out and headed to the Bahamas.
Time has changed Halmos’ attitudes, perspectives and goals. Now 70, and with most of the court proceedings behind him, he waxed philosophical regarding what the entire event has done to him. He doesn’t consider Legacy an inanimate object. Basically, Halmos offers the understanding that Legacy is essentially an extension of him. And to restore her is “the right thing to do,” he said.
His days of high adventure and sailing the Seven Seas are behind him, as he’s more akin to sailing locally, “maybe a run to the Tortugas or Caribbean, or just anchor out off of Key West,” he said.
Looking trim after dealing with a few health crises over the past few years, Halmos has a renewed outlook on life, albeit at a slower pace.
“I’m more a part of the environment,” he said, and rightly so, as he lived aboard Legacy and then the Aqua Village he constructed to oversee Legacy’s recovery. Aqua Village was a series of as many as eight houseboats and barges rafted together and anchored a few miles from where Legacy grounded. Halmos spent the majority of the recovery time living there.
During those years, he learned to identify specific birds and fish, not only by species, but individually. He would go on afternoon junkets to quiet shallows, jump in the water and be engaging with the fish so much that at times they would follow him. Sometimes, he’d feed the barracuda that befriended him.
Per doctor’s orders, Halmos stays out of the sun, hence the fabric tarps that cover the fore and aft decks as well as his signature floppy hat.
“I could just sit here, listen to the waves and enjoy the breeze,” he said as several hammocks swung with the yacht’s motion on the upper deck.
Sitting around the aft deck table, Halmos shared an update on Legacy’s restoration. He’s added battery systems, extra bilges, a solar system and water generators, not to mention the restoration of the engines and interior.
“We’ll put her back to what she should be, but she is an 18-year-old yacht, and systems need to be replaced, like AC units and generators,” he said.
Built of fine mahogany, the interior woodwork was awash in saltwater from the storm. Bringing it back to its original luster has been an effort but is paying off.
“We still have spots to fix,” Halmos said as he showed a window frame and evidence of corrosion in the corner. One area that still needs attention is the inside helm station. Several of the windshields are shattered and finding the exact, properly curved glass panes has been, well, a pain.
And it may be some time before Legacy is once again sporting her 146-foot main and 120-foot mizzen masts, or her 10,650 square feet of sails. But with a capacity of 11,000 gallons of fuel and her twin 12V MTUs, Legacy has gotten out a bit, motoring up to Palm Beach during the boat show a couple years ago.
Capt. Collins has since retired and returned to his family in the U.K., so Halmos had to find another captain, the one who worked on Legacy from 1995 to 2003. In 2010, Capt. James Cooper returned to help Halmos with his efforts, which included a transit to Bradford Grand Bahama to have the hull repaired, new rudder installed and stabilize the keel. Halmos beamed speaking about Capt. Cooper.
“We had a wonderful time [on Legacy] and he loves her,” Halmos said.
Capt. Cooper is currently the only full-time crew onboard, though Halmos pulls in dayworkers as needed as well as local trade professionals to handle big work.
Halmos’ family has mixed feelings about the yacht. His son Nick was recently onboard with his fiancé and seems to be the one likely to carry on the legacy. At home fishing or skipping across the surface to his next waterborne adventure, Nick may be displaying traits a younger Halmos once had.
Legacy has become the platform in a way for father and son to spend time together. His other son and wife aren’t interested in the “Robinson Crusoe” lifestyle, he said.
Legacy’s resting spot after Wilma has been cleaned of all debris and the trench that was dug to release Legacy from the shallows has refilled. The houseboats of Aqua Village are gone, and any outward signs of the shipwreck are now in the stories that may be told around town.
The legal program, as Halmos explained, wasn’t about money in the end; he was paid from the insurance policies. It was about what he had to go through to get to the end.
“We could have decreased the amount of damage and impact if the policy was settled on time,” he said.
Halmos said he hopes to get her out exploring a bit again soon.
“We’ll get out and do some treasure hunting again,” he said, pointing to a few large boxes filled with sonar gear. He may not be another Mel Fisher, but then again, Peter Halmos doesn’t pretend to be anyone other than himself.
Would he ever sell Legacy?
“I’m content here and can’t sell her,” he said. “She’ll need a home someday, but I can’t see it yet.”
Capt. Tom Serio is a freelance captain, writer and photographer in South Florida. He is a frequent contributor to The Triton and has written extensively about Legacy and her recovery. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.