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Celebrity yacht makes waves in Clearwater

CLEARWATER

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It's by far the biggest boat docked at the Clearwater Harbor Marina, and it has been drawing a lot of curious looks.

People have wondered: Is it some Hollywood star's yacht, since they've been filming a movie at the nearby aquarium? Or is it some kind of Scientology ship?

"We get a lot of calls from people who are curious about it," said city harbormaster Bill Morris. "They want to know what it is, who owns it, what it's doing here and can you get a tour."

Actually, the 116-foot yacht is called the Highlander, and it has a unique history.

It was built in 1967 for magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes — the third of five yachts called Highlander that he owned over his life.

"This was always his favorite boat. It hosted kings and queens and heads of state," said the yacht's captain, Craig Cannon. "Everybody in the yachting community knows the name Highlander."

In 1980, a galley fire gutted the ship in Miami. Forbes, the publisher of Forbes magazine until his death in 1990, moved on to other yachts. Someone else bought the burned Highlander and partially restored it.

Then, three years ago, a Dutch businessman named Victor Muller bought the boat and decided to restore it to its original condition. Muller, owner of the Spyker and Saab car manufacturers, was pretty serious about this.

"It's taken three years and over $5 million to do, and it's not finished yet," Cannon said.

Now the Highlander is docked at the north basin of the Clearwater Harbor Marina, formerly called the downtown boat slips. It arrived from a Fort Lauderdale shipyard just before Christmas and will stay here through April. In the meantime, it'll host a corporate event in March at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Workers are painting the exterior. People are not allowed to come onboard and tour the yacht, although they ask.

Inside, it's gorgeous.

All of the interior walls are lined with mahogany varnished with a gleaming, mirror-gloss finish. The floors are done in two tones of wood — teak and holly. The four staterooms have flat-screen TVs and private bathrooms, and are decorated with framed black-and-white photos of the ship being constructed.

They're getting the yacht ready for high-end charters. Cannon, a veteran of the yachting industry, brought it here for the finishing touches because he calls Clearwater home.

"I'd like to promote this area and attract more big boats here," he said. "Between St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa, there's always something going on."

In the master cabin, Cannon pulls out a dramatic photo of the Highlander in the Hudson River with the World Trade Center burning in the background. On Sept. 11, 2001, the ship had been docked at the North Cove Marina near the base of the Twin Towers.

"It would have been destroyed," the captain said. "The crew cut the lines and got out just in time."

The Highlander will return to New York this summer, as well as Sag Harbor, N.Y., and Newport, R.I., and other yachting strongholds. It'll be available for corporate events. The cost: likely between $5,000 and $8,000 a night, depending on various circumstances.

Families won't be chartering it; they'd scrape up the gleaming wooden walls.

"We have all the original equipment. Our steering system is 40 years old," Cannon said. "We have the original diesel engines from 1967, and they purr right along.

"This boat is a museum."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Celebrity yacht makes waves in Clearwater 01/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 8:00pm]
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