OF THE PROFESSIONAL TREASURE HUNTER
LOSS AND SALVAGE OF THE 1733 TREASURE FLEET
article appeared in the Argosy Treasure Hunting Annual over 20 years ago
and is not only good enough for reprint, but is appropriate for the
attention the Florida Keys shipwrecks are recently receiving. -- Frogfoot.
Editing protocol used by Argosy was apparently
different than that used by Treasure Quest today, and we leave it as it
was. -- Seascribe.
century Havana was the center of commerce for the Spanish in the West
Merchants came here from all over the Caribbean provinces to trade
and load good aboard ships bound for Spain.
It was also a sort of sin city or sailors town, even considering
the fact that Spanish seamen were much more religiously motivated than
their English or French counterparts.
The day prior to departure, the harbor was a hubbub of activity,
and the great ships were packed to capacity with last minute registry and
Great quantities of salted meat and biscuits were lowered into the
holds and the water casks were all filled to overflowing.
the morning of the 13th of July, there was great excitement throughout the
city; the Flota was leaving for Spain!
A rosy sunrise greeted the ships as they worked their way into the
open sea, where a fair southeast breeze met them.
Don Rodrigo de Torres flagship El Ruby, swathed in new red
paint, and with cross emblazoned sails, led the fleet up the Bahama
Channel. This swift waterway,
known today as the Gulfstream, would give the ships an extra four knots
speed up to the 32nd parallel, where they planned to turn eastward for
Spain. However, a fast
circulating weather system a few hundred miles to the southeast had other
plans for them.
One ship of the Flota escaped from the storm with little or no damage; the
60 gun warship Senor San Joseph, alias El Africa.
This newly built whip which joined the Flota in Havana, managed to
weather the storm with only the loss of a top mast, a few spars, and some
rigging. After the storm
eased up a bit, the Africa slid in close to the reefs off of Key Largo,
where she anchored to effect repairs to her storm-battered rigging.
The salvage of the wrecked ships began within a few days after the storm.
Three of the ships were re-floated with little difficulty: the ship
of Murguia (Nuestra Senora del Rosario y Santo Domingo), the ship of
Sanches Madrid (El Gran Poder de Dios), and a small Balandra bound for St.
Augustine under the protection of the convoy (La Balandra el Santander).
There is a good possibility that the ship of Chavez (Nuestra Senora
del Carmen) was also refloated, but the documents are contradictory over
this point. Two of the ships
of the Flota met absolute disaster: the ship of Don Christoval de Urquijo
(San Ignacio) and the Fragata which was bound for St. Augustine witht he
payroll for the Prsidio. The
San Ignacio came apart out in front of present-day Marathon, (cayo Vaca
del Oeste), and oly 12 or 14 of those aboard survived.
The Frigata (El Floridano) crashed across the reef known today as
Coffins Patch and only one man lived to tell the tale.
After spending four months at the Archives of the Indies in
Sevilla, Spain, and a few other institutions in Madrid during the Spring
of 1972, I was ready to tackle the 1733 Flota.
For the past four years I had been searching for the 1622 galleon
Nuestra Senora De Atocha, but my research finally convinced me that Mel
Fisher down in Key West had, in fact, found it about 8 or 9 miles west of
the Marquesas Keys. So I
decided to concentrate on the 1733 Flota.
for us, this day the seas were running less that one foot.
As Jimmy eased the boat into gear, I played the cable astern until
the fish trailed us by about 100 feet.
Next the drop buoy was run out.
This float/weight combination is designed to ride on top of the
water just aft of the towing head. When an anomaly of any significance is detected, the likne is
released and the weight falls into position very close to the hit
and the buoy remains atop the water to guide the boat crew back.
|The bridge was getting fairly close and the recorder needle began an erratic wander. At first I attributed it tot the turn, but when I saw it was persistent, I immediately become suspicious of junk iron thrown off the bridge by its builders years ago. I put it out of my mind as we lined up for the next pass. The next two runs were without incident, other than the persistent tickles I would get when closing with the bridge. On the turn for the fourth run, however, I noticed the recorder out of the corner of my eye. We were on our bridgeward turn again and this time, instead of tickles, the needle swung rapidly to the right and stayed there. I released the buoy instinctively. I had to take a look at this junk, no matter what it was. Jimmy pulled the boat up to the bobbing orange drop buoy float, and I slipped over the side and into the water. At first all I could see was an array of purple sea fans and big black basket sponges, then I noticed and object that nature had not put there.||
was a clump of Spanish firebricks of the type I had often noticed on some
of the 1733 wrecks. Then I spotted some scattered ballast rocks and an occasional
iron fitting. I scrambled
back toward the boat and climbed aboard.
In the meantime, Jimmy had been doing a little looking around from the top of the cabin. Lets hurry up and pull the anchor, he said with a funny look in his eyes, Im going to put you right on something.
Once the ship was underway again, and the mag streaming astern, I looked ahead to where he was headed. A long brown streak marred the blue-green water just a few hundred feet ahead. I glued my eyes on the recorder, with the drop buoy line held tensely in my hand. The needle was drawing a fairly smooth line, popping occasionally to one side or the other as it had done in this area the past three runs. Then it started a slow drift to the right, increasing speed until it was pegged against the side. I waited until it made a rapid transit to the other side and released the drop buoy. Back aft, the buoy slid astern, bobbin in the ships wake and beneath it was the same brownish streak that I had seen before.
This time we both jumped in after setting the anchor. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. We both exploded to the surface with a whoop, thumping each other on the back and hollering like madmen. We hurried back to the boat to put on some scuba gear, so that we could stay down and look around. Below, mossy c9olored brown and green egg-shaped river rock lay in a mound three of four feet high and about 100 feet long. At one end, four anchors lay crisscrossed on a hard coral bottom. Several cannon lay nearby, and we didnt have a chance to swim around the wreck more than once to realize this wreck had not been touched by salvors in modern days. A 400 pound jewfish lay next to the largest anchor. He seemed completely oblivious to the intrusion of these two odd beings who dashed madly about, blowing air periodical in a trail of bubbles. The whole wreck was covered with fish of all sizes and descriptions, and it was a tropical fishermans paradise.
Over the moths to come, we were to get familiar with each of these
fish and to call them by name. As
I swam around, I noticed the largest barracuda that I had ever seen,
lurking menacingly next to a colorful coral head; we later dubbed him
Herman. The water that
day we found the wreck was clearer than at any other time I can remember.
I peered to seaward through the deep blue underwater gloom--I had
seen a shape, long and dark, but it was gone now.
I knew this particular channel well and I also knew that it hosted
some of the biggest and nastiest hammerhead sharks ever seen.
I put the bad thought out of my mind and continued my revelment
over the new-found joy.
We needed a big boat to work off in order to
salvage this wreck. We got
together with Jeff Burke and Donald George of Rio Hond, Texas, and hired
their 60 foot shrimper for the R/V Geosearch for the occasion. During the next few months we were all busy working the wreck
whenever the weather permitted. We
were fast accumulating a whole museumful of artifacts in Dick
MacAllasters backyard, but so far we had not found much in the way of
coins. We had several silver
cobs and a gold two escudos piece, however, the wreck just did not have
the profusion of coins that I had hoped for.
We did find some nice things though; a silver bell, dozens of
crosses, hundreds of gemstone rosary beads, an emerald, a small jade
Buddah, a large enigmatic box-shaped thing which weighed 236 pounds, some
cord grinding tables (metates) with their rollers, and just literally
dozens of assorted odds and ends of antiquities.
One weekend when Dick was with us and free from his duties with the State of Florida Department of Transportation, he and Jimmy were working on opposite sides of the ballast. Jimmy was carefully digging cannonballs out of the rocks and was engaged in trying to loosen a particularly stubborn one. In fact, he was so busy at this task that he scarcely noticed MacAllaster beside him. Dick motioned Jimmy to follow him around to the other side of the pile, and when he did so he came face to face with the muzzle of an eight foot cannon. The cannonball on the other side which had proven so stubborn was actually the cascabel at the breech of the cannon, and very much attached to it.
this wreck was unique since being on bedrock with little, or no sand
around it, required some unusual excavation techniques.
We had to dig out the potholes in the bedrock systematically and a
small airlift was employed while the digger hand-fanned the hole.
In this fashion, the digger could keep the sand and silt sucked
away, and observe his work as he carefully worked his way to the bottom of
the hole. One day I was
working on a small, fairly deep pothole, when I noticed a small fluttering
object way down on the bottom. By
stretching my hand and fingers to the limit I was just barely able to
secure the object in my fingertips. I
slowly retracted it and stared in disbelief at the thing in my hand.
It was about the size of a fifty cent piece and had an engraved
portrait of Phillip the Fifth on one side.
I wasnt sure what I had at first, but when I saw the date 1732,
I knew what it was. It turned
out to be a four escudos 1732 gold Portrait coin, one on the first struck
on the screw-type press in the new world.
Similar coins in silver, which are much more common, bring $3,000
on the world market today. I
hastened to the boat, protectively clutching my new-found prize.
Reprints of "The Best Of Treasure
Quest Magazine" are used with permission from a series of stories in
Treasure Quest Magazine
by Bob "Frogfoot" Weller, Ernie "Seascribe" Richards and other great modern day treasure hunters.
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