Monday 10 October 2011

The Mexican Billionaires Yacht, The Golden Cell

In the 90's I got into scuba diving to solve some problems at work. I had been  building docks,boathouses and the like for a few years (loved every minute of it)...when it came time to do various underwater chores...the divers that got hired were just not up to the task....they were good divers,but not great at working underwater. Keep in mind these are pre-regulation days in light commercial diving.

The joys of work dives   frozen fresh water on top of sea water
Diver Mike
 So I decided ...I'll just do it myself. I signed up for a scuba course in Sechelt and met a man who would go on to be a huge factor in some great future times....Bill Brooks. I'll leave those tales for another time. Flash forward a few years...Bill and I have salvaged sunken boom boats, a slew of pleasure boats at the bottom of a damaged marina and had experimented with dives past 200ft.
 By the time of this story rolls around I'm an establish local work diver. In the course of my life there have been many times when a phone call changed my life radically...this was one of those times.
The Call
 I was fast asleep at my girlfriends house ( wife in a few years) around 230 am , my pager went off. I know you're laughing....a pager??. Let me explain a bit before you hurt yourself. In those days on the coast, cell service was spotty...only special places had good reception. To make a cell call you had to travel to the magic spot on the highway or hill to get a signal. Pagers on the other hand would receive  signals all over the place...including underwater as I found out one day.
 Anyways...where was I...OK the pager goes off...and it displays a phone number to call back to. It's a number that I'm not familiar with and it's 230 in the morning. Being as curious as any cat ...I call the number. I mean really what are the chances that there is someone with an unknown number that needs to talk to me at 230 am?....turns out the chances were very good.
The Reponse
 Don MacKenzie answers the phone. WTF?...again for emphasis WTF?..Don is a local tugboat captain and owner of Mackenzie Sea Services, super nice guy and straight shooter.  Having him on the phone in the wee hours of the morning overwhelms my sleepy brain. Don is talking fast and excitedly ...something about me getting on a plane at the crack of dawn...What?..What for? What the hell are you talking about. Because it's Don ...we can pretty much rule out drugs and alcohol.
 The deal is...Don got a distress call that a large pleasure boat has gone aground at Malibu Rapids and needs help. Don is on his way in the tugboat, but wants me to fly up in Sandy Gibbs float plane to try and get there ASAP . The reason for the quick response was sketched out as this...Don wanted to claim the salvage rights to the boat and needed him or a representative to get there before anyone else. Now for a country boy like me...this is some pretty exciting of course I'm in balls deep ...all the way.
the view from the lodge   all yacht photos by Mike Pearson
 I talk gibberish to my sleepy girlfriend about yachts, tugs and airplanes and how I have to leave right away...and bail out into the night. I drive up to Secret Cove Marina, to gather my dive gear and work clothes...I gotta admit there's a bit of an adrenaline buzz happening...I  don't think I'm a true adrenaline junky in the strictest sense, but I do love the odd jolt now and again.It doesn't take long and it's time to head into town towards the float plane dock. On the way, I make a decision that was one of the better ones in my life. I stopped in at BigMacs corner store to get a disposable camera ( pre-digital days)..this move would be a valuable one.

The Yacht
 I get to the dock in Porpoise Bay, and Sandy's pilot is waiting for me...I'm feeling pretty good about all this ....pretty pumped. I lug all my bags of gear and air tanks into the plane and jump in beside the pilot. Mailbu Rapids is a relatively short ride through some magnificent scenery. It's a gorgeous summer morning, just past first light. A couple of turns and twists along the shore and there it is...
 My thoughts were "Holy shit...that's one big fucking boat!"...
 The pilot said he heard it was 165 ft long...and circling over it a few times it looked every inch of it.
 I've learned to love the approach and landing in a seaplane at Malibu...very dramatic ...very exciting..fairly high pucker factor for the uninitiated. ( that's ass pucker...aka...scared stupid)...
 Don was already on the beach when we touched down. He must have really poured the coals to the old tug boat to make it there that fast...I'm thinking he was at least ten times as excited as I was...he just claimed the salvage rights to what had turned to be a mega yacht operated by a Mexican billionaire. I would discover later just how good that would turn out to be. ( hint...legendary )
How it got there
Don on the beach, his son arriving in the big tug
 By the time we got there, the tide had gone out...way out. The yacht named the Golden Cell had gone aground at around midnight at high tide. Apparently a dispute in the wheelhouse over go or no go through the rapids in the dark between the owner and skipper had resulted in the accident. Not realizing that they were already at the edge of the rapids in the dark...the boat drifted backwards during the wheelhouse debate. The skipper looked out the windows and saw the Malibu lodge lights going the wrong way and realized that he was in trouble. Wisely he threw the drives into neutral to stop the props from turning. He knew from the charts that he was now only seconds away from an underwater boulder field. The skipper had the luckiest grounding possible in that area and settled up against a huge very smooth rock...surrounded, but not touching all of the hull tearing boulders that encircled them. It turns out that the owner, rumored to be a Mexican billionaire, had loaded his family and assistants onto chartered float planes and left the yacht in the able hands of the skipper.

 It was a sight to see, the biggest yacht that I'd ever laid eyes on....high and dry with a bit of  lean to the port side....stranded like beached whale ( a very beautiful beached whale ). The tide had receded so far that it was possible to walk around the whole perimeter of the you didn't mind splashing around in a few feet of water. There was obvious damage to the props and rudders. As the tide went out after the grounding, the boat settled on to the rudders, which gave way and snapped off under the tremendous weight and then on to the insanely expensive props and promptly bent those all to rat shit. There was a smooth dent in the hull by one of the stabilizers, but the hull was apparently not punctured.
 It was decided that the only thing to do was to wait for the high tide in the coming night ( last  big tide for a while )...and then try to pull the mega-yacht free of it's perch and into deeper, safer waters. By now, Don's son Kevin had arrived with the biggest tug they owned at the time. I had worked with Kevin and his right-hand man Pat Thompson many times in marine construction  and always enjoyed every moment of it.
The Lodge
the tide is starting to come back in
 Now if you've never been to Mailbu Rapids or the lodge there's worth a look. The lodge is a retreat for young church going people from all parts . That might sound vanilla and very Howdy Doody , but let me assure you...this is a place you want to be. If I was a kid again...I would swim all the way there, and scrub floors to be a part of that scene...for oh so many reasons. There are activities of every description..water skiing, wake boarding, wind surfing, high diving boards into the ocean, canoeing, kayaking, tennis, golf.....well you get the picture. Everything that a young person could wish for on a summer break is there. But let's face also has the highest concentration of beautiful, wholesome and fun oriented young women that I have ever seen in one place. The float plane pilot and I were invited in to huge mess hall for breakfast with a group of  several hundred happy and enthusiastic young people. We sat down for our meal and it was quickly apparent that we were the new novelty in town...lots of questions and curiosity about what we were going to be doing. During the meal, one of the camp counselors asked if I would mind doing a dive to pick up a lost windsurfer mast off one of the docks. I had the time and the answer was yes.
A Dive Turns Weird
 We lugged my gear around the corner to a secluded dock. I got suited up , got directions on where to look and jumped in. The water was very clear and bitterly cold. The bottom wasn't too far away and I  had great visibility . The mast which should have been right there waiting for me was nowhere to be seen. What I did see all over the bottom ....was booze bottles strewn all over. Lots of booze bottles. Obviously this was a little midnight rendezvous spot away from prying eyes. What came into view next was totally unexpected. Shiny glimmers all over the rocky bottom just below the dock...upon closer inspection it was a collection of necklaces. Oh , but not just your garden variety these had crucifixes attached. I was totally and completely could so many people lose necklaces all in this one spot? As my brain finally clunked into gear, I connected the dots....booze bottles, torn off religious symbols, warm summer nights...Ok I get it now. I pondered my next move, do they want to see this stuff or not? I decided to gather it all up and bring it to the surface. The look on the faces as they collected the treasure was not one of delight. It looked more like, "I'm gonna pretend this didn't happen and carry on with my day, thank-you very much... asshole " I could be wrong on that one, but that's what it looked like from my angle.
Making plans for the rescue
The Recovery

As the day grew into evening it was time to get ready for the risky job of removing the boat from it's perch. The danger factors were:

This is the last high tide where this this going to work ...all the tides after that are lower, resulting in less water to float the yacht free.

By claiming salvage on the yacht , Don has also assumed all the responsibility for for any damages that might occur on the rescue attempt.

 If the yacht springs a leak of fuel or oil...Don is on the hook for the clean up costs.
The motor launch from the Golden Cell and a Canadian Coast Guard boat     Malibu Lodge in the background

And by this time, the Coast Guard has shown up. They stay a distance away in a smallish motor launch and just observe to process of getting ready for the big pull . So far they have not talk to anyone involved. Plans for the recovery process are made and adjusted, back-up plans are sifted through. The skipper of the yacht , a seasoned ocean going pro is totally in the loop and contributing his knowledge of the boats abilities. For a such a high buck was a very subdued and gentle process of finessing a plan together.
 I Love This Part
 As the evening came upon us and everyone was bought into the plan, the Coast Guard decided that they should get involved now. They idled their motor launch over to the hydraulic gang plank. The skipper looked down from the deck at the entourage. Very stern , very official looking....reflector shades , the whole bit.They came to the bottom of the stairs, and asked for permission to come aboard. There was a brief pause, actually it was a bit more than brief, it kind of went on for a bit. The skipper called down to the waiting officials...."No"..
"What do you mean" they asked.
"I mean cannot come aboard"

 "But we are the Coast Guard"

Don standing beside some pricey carnage

"Yes thank-you , I am aware of that , permission denied"

"But we need to come aboard to do an inspection"

"I'm sorry, that's not possible"

Now I know nothing of maritime law, but the skipper definitely knew where he stood in this whole thing. For whatever reason on this particular day at this particular event....the Coast Guard was turned away, defeated. The officers visibly slunk down in the boat as they retreated back to their observation position .
The Pull
It was just around 1130 , on a beautiful summer night. A thick black tow cable was strung out to the bow of the yacht. Crew members on the tug and yacht were appointed their places to look for any signs of trouble. Kevin manned the controls of the bigger tug... the one that would make the pull. Kevin eased the tug into position to pull the large yacht free of the rocks and in to open water. Not an easy task with the nearby rapids pushing on the side of both boats. The line was now or never. It pulled tight, you could see the diameter of the tow rope  get smaller as it strained and stretched. More engine revs...more black diesel smoke. wasn't going to move...too heavy ....not enough water. I looked at Kevin's showed intense concentration and just a tinge of "oh fuck..... this might not work"
Lots of yelling to get back from the tow rope that was going to snap at any second....and start to take off heads and limbs.
At just the right moment...( you know the one....just before everything blows up ) the skipper hits the lever to operate the bow thrusters....(big electric powered propellers in the bow used for maneuvering) The added push starts to move the bow of the boat just a bit....enough to notice...enough to have hope. Kevin keeps pulling...he can't pull any harder. The big tug is heeled over and is at full revs. The yacht captain gives it all he's got and the bow starts to move, swinging away from the rocks. Kevin's tug starts to move. With the bow thrusters at max and the tugboat on full afterburner the the huge yacht pivots off the rocks and into open water. Kevin keeps the power on to get clear of the push of the rapids. Huge relief and happy faces...success!
Don going up the stairs

The End of My Part
 Out in quiet waters in the summer dark, a tow bridle was affixed from the tug to the bow of the yacht so that it would track fairly straight on the journey to a repair facility. After excited talk and great tugboat food I crawled into one of the berths a full 24 hrs after getting Don's call. Someone woke me up at around 6 am and said that we going by Secret Cove...did I want off here or go to Vancouver?...I had things to do so I voted to jump ship. The first plan was to radio one of the regular sports fishing guys who would be leaving for the morning catch from the mouth of Secret Cove. But no-one had their radios on and all we could do was watch them speed off into the distance. Now the other part of the equation is that Kevin can't easily stop the boat or he will risk losing control of his he has to keep speed up while my chances of getting off are getting smaller and smaller. I used the boats radio phone to call the marina...someone there should opening up at the gas dock about now. The cook for the restaurant answered, I explained my situation. He said he was the only one in and he didn't know how to drive the marina's boat. So desperate times call for desperate measures. I explained to him how to start the boat,,,make sure all the ropes are untied and inside the boat.....put it in gear....and aim it at the big tug that you are going to see outside the Cove Brave or stupid is a fine line sometimes...he agreed with the plan. In just a few minutes he came zipping over the waves toward us waiting on the tug. Now keep a few things in mind....this rescuer has, including today....about 5 minutes of boat operating experience. Kevin has to keep moving with his tow. So while running at around 5 knots , the newbie in the boat has to come up beside the moving 60 ft tug fighting against the wake of the much bigger boat. If something bad happens...then the marina boat and it's driver are going to get run over by the 165 ft yacht right behind him.That would be  bad.
 The cook/rescuer performs his job like a champ, bouncing around in the waves as I toss my gear across from one boat to the next. We peel away and head home...the cook just having one of the greatest days ever and it's not even 7 am yet.
A Legend is Made
 I'm not going to tell you the details of the salvage deal, because I don't know them all . Don had salvage claim papers in his briefcase since the 60's and never got a chance to use them. The story goes that in such a situation, the company that claims the salvage can receive something in the order of 10% of the value of the boat and it's contents.

Malibu Lodge in background
Heading for repairs at Allied Shipyards in Vancouver by the branch of the Canadian Coast Guard that patrols for oil spills and environmental damages...likely a Twin Otter on wheels.

You just can't trust the newspapers to tell the right story

Don emerged from the dealings a very, very happy man....the photos from the eight dollar disposable camera helped to document the claim.
The story of the salvage is local maritime legend and I was lucky enough to be there.

Golden Cell in Europe approx 2003

Here is an ad for the yacht after being renamed the Don Pablo

Don Pablo Yacht (ex: Golden Cell)

Don Pablo Yacht

Motor Yacht Don Pablo 

Don Pablo (formerly Golden Cell) is a 49.80m (163'4"ft) motor yacht, custom built in 1996 by Benetti in Viareggio (Italy). This luxury vessel's sophisticated exterior design and engineering are the work of Benetti. The yacht's interior has been designed by Zuretti and has exterior styling by Benetti. Her exterior is styled by the Benetti team who are also responsible for the entire engineering package. The yacht's luxury interior styling is the work of Zuretti

Don Pablo has a steel hull and aluminium superstructure with a beam of 9m (29'6"ft) and a 2.85m (9'4"ft) draft.

Performance + Capabilities

Don Pablo is capable of 18.00 knots flat out, with a cruising speed of 16.00 knots from her 57,000-litre fuel tanks.

Don Pablo Accommodation

Don Pablo offers accommodation for up to 12 guests in 6 suites. She is also capable of carrying up to 10 crew onboard to ensure a relaxed luxury yacht experience.

Don Pablo for Sale

This Motor yacht Don Pablo is listed for sale on, contact the broker for more details.
  • Builder: Benetti
  • Exterior Designer: Benetti
  • Naval Architect: Benetti
  • Interior Designer: Zuretti
Disclamer: Information about Don Pablo yacht details, photos and specification of the custom built yacht from Benetti are displayed in good faith. If you charter or purchase a Motor yacht, all details will be confirmed during the yacht charter booking or yacht purchase process. Please contact us if there is any additional information you think we should include.


  1. I'm excited just from reading the saga. When's the next adventure?

  2. Awesome to finally see an article about this yachting mishap. I've seen that picture for years Mike of the golden cell aground and always wondered what happened...and now I know, thanks !!
    Great blog and awesome pictures

    Gord Reid, Fanny Bay

  3. Thanks Gord, I'm glad that the story cleared up the mystery for you...So tell me did you find the blog?....meaning how did you locate the story?

  4. I was telling a friend at work about the golden cell and the grounding, the next day I started looking again on the internet for pictures and any related articles and of course ran across your blog. Yours is the only story that I could find, very few pictures out there regarding the accident and even fewer storys !
    I could imagine what a sight that must have been to see that yacht high and dry sitting on the rocks like that, I don't think the pictures do justice to the size and magnitude of it

  5. Thanks Gord. Don M said that there were several articles written about the mishap. I guess I'll have to head up for a visit with him and Kevin and see what's been written, and maybe post the results

  6. Hello dear.You have written a great post. Going to share with my followers on twitter. Thanks for sharing.

    Marine Directory

  7. This was a great post. I was working at the camp the day the Golden Cell ran aground. Now, I didn't ever lose a necklace off the dock, but I may have been responsible for a bottle or two. Thanks for a great trip down memory lane from the another side of the water.

  8. the divers that got hired were just not up to the task....they were good divers,but not great at working underwater. Keep in mind these are pre-regulation days in light commercial diving.