PANAMA CITY — 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 it on its side just offshore 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.
"I wanted to do something for Bay County," Ingram said. "Life is what you make of it."
Crews of men were busy on a recent 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 person more than a month ago were still clearly visible.
The work has been under way since after Jan. 14, when the Bay County Commission 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."
After the Coast Guard's contractor finishes turning the El Dorado, Jackson said the plan is to prepare the vessel for towing and staging at St. Andrews Marina. Volunteers then will clean the vessel and deploy it about 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 project will cost the county almost $30,000 from its derelict vessel fund.
"This is good for our fishing industry and our diving industry," County Commissioner Bill Dozier said. "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.
Besides being an eyesore, it was important to remove the vessel to protect the environment, Dozier said.
"We want to clean it up and put it to its best use," her said.
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."
Patrick McCreless is a reporter for the News Herald in Panama City.