More questions than answers continue to surround mysterious yacht

REDINGTON BEACH — The 48-foot yacht that ran aground onto this stretch of white sand Wednesday afternoon is named Makin Waves.

It might be time to change its name to the Mystery.

Who stole it from a Mexican port over the weekend and why? Who took it into the Gulf of Mexico and set it on autopilot? Was it used to smuggle drugs or people?

Why was it abandoned at sea? Was it part of some scheme or did something go wrong? And why did Mexican blogs and newspapers — one paper called the affair a velo de misterio, or "veil of mystery" run amok with speculation about the boat?

The blue-and-white Sea Ray Sundancer — left adrift, engines running, speed set at 3 knots — came ashore behind some homes along Gulf Boulevard. No one was aboard.

Dozens of onlookers watched Thursday as a salvage crew tried but failed to tow it from the beach. A small bulldozer's treads spun in the soggy sand as workers tried to push it into the gulf. The tow line snapped. High tide came and went.

As the sun set, the cruiser was still beached in sand and secrets.

• • •

Residents reported the boat came ashore around noon Wednesday. Pinellas marine deputies searched the area, fearing someone might have fallen overboard. The Coast Guard joined in, but officials called off the search that evening because there wasn't enough evidence to suggest there was anyone to find.

The Sea Ray Sundancer appears to have been built in 2004. That year's model can cost up to $500,000 now. The yacht is from Jupiter and has an expired Florida registration, Pinellas deputies said, but has a current registration in Delaware.

A Mexican flag flew at the bow, a U.S. flag at the stern.

There were no signs of a struggle onboard, deputies said, or signs of contraband. The boat wasn't ransacked of its entertainment or navigational equipment, though four speakers were missing. Deputies hope the boat's GPS will reveal where it has been and where it was going.

Deputies learned the boat was stolen when local residents directed them to coverage of the missing boat in Mexican media.

Blogs and newspapers like Por Esto! ("That's Why!") published unattributed reports that the stolen boat is owned by a Yucatan politician who belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI: Partido Revolucionario Institucional).

Deputies said Thursday that they had no answers, nor help from the Mexican authorities.

With a 400-gallon fuel tank and the engine on, the boat could have traveled on its own from the Yucatan to Tampa Bay, the Coast Guard said.

• • •

But Pinellas detectives did find a local connection: A Tampa man said that in 2008 he sold it to Arturo Millet Reyes of Mexico.

The 43-year-old owns the Mérida Fútbol Club, a professional soccer team that belongs to Liga de Ascenso, the second level of Mexico's soccer league.

He told the Associated Press on Thursday that the boat was stolen from a private Cancun marina over the weekend. The Mexican coast guard has been on the lookout for the yacht.

"I am was very worried about what had happened," he said. "My first concern was what they were going to do with the boat, if they were going to traffic drugs or something."

If so, said Jacksonville private eye Charlie Meacham, then that leaves a bigger mystery: Why would anyone steal a boat from Mexico and bring it to Florida?

Meacham, an expert in hunting stolen boats, said thieves usually do it the other way around.

Human smugglers and drug cartels are known to steal powerful "go-fast" vessels and larger cruisers from Florida to ply their trade. Sometimes they use the faster boats to travel ashore, then rendezvous with larger boats out at sea and transfer their cargo.

"They usually don't steal them in Mexico," he said. "I haven't heard of that. But that doesn't mean it's not possible."

• • •

High tide was at 1:21 p.m. Thursday. The Makin Waves sat parallel to the water. The salvage crew was ready.

A thick cable was tied around the boat and led out to a tugboat, the Resolute. Workers drove a Bobcat onto the wet sand. They used it to nudge the bow diagonally toward the water, then started digging up the stern.

More than 100 people watched. At 1:50 p.m. they heard a sound like a whip. The cable had snapped.

"Ooohh!" the crowd gasped.

It took 40 minutes to reconnect the cable. By that time the waters had receded.

Just before midnight, as the tide rose again and thunderstorms moved in, workers finally pushed the boat off the beach.

The crew connected it to the tug, which pulled it out to dark waters.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

A salvage crew frees the boat Makin Waves just before midnight Thursday on Redington Beach.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

A salvage crew frees the boat Makin Waves just before midnight Thursday on Redington Beach.

More questions than answers continue to surround mysterious yacht 08/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 27, 2010 1:30pm]

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