PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Hurricane Michael took Lee Ingram’s boat, but he refused to let his vessel remain another victim of the storm’s wrath.
For 10 years the Panama City native has owned the El Dorado, a 157 foot-long, 300-ton former luxury cruise liner. Ingram had been trying to restore the boat and eventually return it to service.
Then came the hurricane, which flushed the boat from its dock in Crooked Creek, across West Bay and left the vessel on its side, just off shore behind Florida State University Panama City.
There the El Dorado has remained as a visual, half-floating reminder to travelers on Hathaway Bridge of the storm's destructive power.
But within a few months, thanks to Ingram's donation, the vessel will become something else — an artificial reef for divers and fisherman and a symbol of Bay County's defiance in the face of devastation.
“I wanted to do something for Bay County,” Ingram said. “Life is what you make of it.”
Crews of men were busy on a Tuesday morning, using a crane and air bags to slowly turn the El Dorado upright.
The green Christmas tree with the words ‘Happy Holidays’ painted on the ship’s top deck by at least one festive, anonymous resident more than a month ago, were still clearly visible.
The work has been underway since after Jan. 14, when the Bay County Board of County Commissioners acquired the El Dorado through negotiations with Ingram, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"The county did not have to pay for it ... the owner didn't have the means to move it and didn't want to gut it and sell if for salvage," said Scott Jackson, a sea grant extension agent for the county, who helps with shoreline restoration issues. "So it was given to us for the opportunity to turn it into a reef."
Jackson said the plan is, once the Coast Guard's contractor finishes turning the El Dorado, to prepare the vessel for towing and staging at St. Andrews Marina. Next the volunteers will clean the vessel and deploy it approximately 12 nautical miles south of St. Andrew Bay Pass in Large Area Artificial Reef site A, near DuPont Bridge Spans.
Once moved, the El Dorado will be filled with water and sunk to a depth of about 100 feet.
"We're probably looking at about a couple of months at the longest until we can sink it," Jackson said. "It'll take about three to five years for things to start to grow on it after that, but almost immediately bait fish will start to show up."
The entire project will cost the county almost $30,000 from its derelict vessel fund.
"This is good for our fishing industry and our diving industry," said Bill Dozier, county commissioner. "Anytime we can get a ship of this size and add to it to our inventory of reefs, it's good for the local community."
According to a 2014 study by Bill Huth, a professor of supply chain logistics and economics at the University of West Florida, the artificial reef-related fishing and diving industries supported 1,936 jobs and had a $131.98 million economic impact in Bay County.
Dozier added that, besides being an eyesore, it was important to remove the vessel to protect the environment.
"We want to clean it up and put it to its best use," Dozier said.
Barrier islands protect about 10 percent of coastlines worldwide. When hurricanes and storms make landfall, these strands absorb much of their force, reducing wave energy and protecting inland areas.
Patrick Green, owner of Panama City Diving, said the county needs as many new artificial reefs as it can get.
"Bay County has a large number of artificial reefs, but many of the commonly used ones were destroyed by the storm," Green said. "This new one still puts us on the wrong side of the ledger, but it makes it not so bad."
Green, who recently relocated his diving business to 106 Thomas Drive after the hurricane destroyed his former building, said the boat will be an attractive spot since it's three stories.
“It’ll be an interesting dive site ... the three stories will attract more divers and more fish,” Green said. “And the top will be in shallow enough water for moderate and experienced divers.”