OF THE PROFESSIONAL TREASURE HUNTER
FIRST FIND: A 1732 SPANISH PILLAR DOLLAR!
By Joe Shepherd
| It had been a long bouncy ride to
the wreck site some five miles off shore, long enough to do a bit of
daydreaming on the way. We were going to spend the next six hours
doing salvage work on the capitana of the 1733 Spanish treasure fleet, El
Rubi Segundo. There was a lot of history wrapped up in this wreck site;
fortunes had been made and lost, books had been written, and television
coverage of salvage work on this particular ballast pile had been
world-wide. I felt very fortunate to be taking part in what must be
considered everyone's dream of sunken treasure
Before leaving dockside, the rules had been carefully explained by Joe Kimbell, our boat captain, rules that I paid close attention to. The water wasn't very deep - about sixteen feet- where we would be moving the sand off the top of the ballast. The rules of safety were fairly simple: "Don't panic; you could be your own worst enemy on the bottom if you do." Line signals were explained: "One pull means 'Are you O.K.?; two pulls, "Do you want to move?; three pulls 'Stop blowing'; and four pulls, 'Come on up NOW!" There were other rules, most of which are second nature to the salvage divers.
Once statement that kept coming back as our boat neared the outer reefs where the capitana was located, "You get to keep the first SILVER coin you find." At the time, it was explained that once a statement like that had been made, and a diver found a GOLD coin on his first dive. The boat captain kept his word that time, but ever since it was made clear that he meant SILVER. Maybe I was mesmerized by the thought that I could actually find a coin on my first trip tot the salvage site, but that thought somehow kept rattling around inside my mind. It was still there as we prepared to drop anchor.
The other divers in the boat were probably just as eager as I was to get in the water. We were all keyed up, and looking through the gin-clear water at the ballast pile below we must have looked like kids out of school. As we fumbled through the process of getting our gear on, I looked over at Kimbell and he smiled back. I think he must have sensed what we were feeling. Here we were on an "honest-to-goodness treasure wreck", about to take our first look, and the anticipation must have been like a beacon on our faces. Somehow I couldn't shake that one thought that was rattling around..."You get to keep your first silver coin. "Before this day was over it would change a good part of my life.
I have always been intrigued with lost treasure since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Jesse James, the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine, the Money Pit, all have fascinated me. I had my first taste of treasure in 1995 when I met Bob "Frogfoot" Weller, a salvage diver who had been working the 1715 Spanish Treasure fleet near Sebastian Florida. It changed my interest from dry land treasure hunting to sunken ships and Spanish gold and silver. That's what dreams are made of. I had been pushed along by something I found while rummaging through some second hand furniture and household goods I had purchased. In a box full of odds and ends was a video called "Hurricane Treasure". It was about treasure found along the beaches between Sebastian Inlet and Fort Pierce Inlet on Florida's east coast after a hurricane, or just a good northeaster.
Included were maps of various locations where treasure could be found when the storms moved the sand off the beaches, and coins as well as artifacts lay exposed on the hard marl bottom. According to Florida law, anything recovered on the beach after a hurricane belonged to the finder. Out in the water it was a different story, a salvage lease was required. But on dry land the treasure belonged to anyone fortunate enough to swing a detector over it. I was hooked! That video seemed to turn on a light at the end of the tunnel. My dream was to hunt the beaches between Fort Pierce and Sebastian Inlet. Here is where the treasure galleons of the 1715 treasure fleet had disintegrated as a savage hurricane drove them onto the ragged reefs a few hundred yards off the beach. Knowing there were scatter patterns of eleven treasure galleons here was like waving a red lantern in front of a raging bull. It certainly helm my attention, and the opportunity came more quickly than I had imagined.
I needed a metal detector and a reason for heading south to Florida's east coast. Almost as I began to lay plans for a trip south, Mother Nature stepped in and gave me a push. I had just purchased a White's Electronics metal detector, and within two weeks I felt confident that if I came even close to a buried coin I would find it. Hurricane Erin announced itself along the Florida east coast, coming up fast out of the Leeward Islands. As I watched its progress, I saw it aiming 100-mile-per-hour winds at Vero Beach dead center of the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet! One of the easiest decisions I ever made was calling the airline ticket office and taking the first flight south.
The nearest airport to Sebastian was in Melbourne, about halfway down the east coast of Florida. It was noontime, and within minutes I was driving south along Interstate 95. I had planned on stopping at the McLarty Museum about two miles south of Sebastian Inlet, and then check out the beach in front of what was known as the "Cabin Wreck". Here is where the 1715 almiranta, the San Roman, came ashore, a wreck site that became famous when Kip Wagner formed his Real Eight Corp. team of salvage divers and worked the site in 1961. It was the start of a treasure stampede that hasn't stopped, or slowed down, since.
Somewhere along I-95, I changed my mind, don't ask me why because even today I still don't know probably some kind of intuition but in any case I kept heading south past Sebastian and didn't stop until I reached Fort Pierce. Here, about 2-1.2 miles south of the Fort Pierce Inlet lies the ballast pile of the Nieves, the supply boat of the 1715 Spanish fleet. It was here that Mel Fisher became a legend in his time when his team of salvage divers recovered over 3,500 gold coins during the month of May in 1964. In fact, they changed the name of the east coast of Florida to the "Gold Coast" because of this recovery. Somehow I felt that if there were gold coins to be found on the beach, it would have to be here.
I found a motel that looked decent and checked in. I'm an elementary school teacher with the entire summer off, and my plans were to spend at least five days checking the beaches out. Simple enough unless I found a chest full of gold doubloons. Fat chance!
Early the next morning I was on the beach swinging my Whites metal
detector, listening for the beep that would mean my first treasure coin.
The beach was wide, with a berm that rose three or four feet and
tangled mangroves shielding highway A1A
some several hundred yards away.
No one else was on the beach that morning, and waves whipped by the
passing of Erin still rolled white water right up to the berm.
I did get hits on the metal detector, not right away, but
soon enough to know that my detector was working.
And, you guessed it...nails, nails, and more nails.
Thats the way it went for about five hours.
dedicated (it says here in fine print), and about the time my frustration
was beginning to show I did get a beep that sounded different than
the nail hits I was becoming familiar with.
It also sounded a bit deeper than the other signals, and at about
eighteen inches down, I came up with a square piece of lead with small
nail holes around the edge. I
wasnt quite sure of what I had, but it looked old and I put it in my
more than a few steps further I spotted a what at first appeared to be the
bottom of a coral shell. I picked it up, turned it over, and was
surprised to see a cobalt blue design of flowers on the other side.
I did a double-take on what had to be a piece of Kang Hsi
porcelain, part of the cargo of the Nieves and an import from China.
In the research I had been doing, I had seen photos of intact cups and
bowls of this rare chinaware. An intact piece was worth several thousands
of dollars, and even a small shard, like the one about three inches square
that I held in my hand, had to be worth several hundred dollars.
This was heady stuff and the adrenaline was really pumping!
The next morning found me swinging the detector even before the sun had a
chance to stir the sand fleas out of their holes in the beach. It would be a long day for this beginners luck to set in.
Once you break the ice, and the treasure fever has a grip on you,
the rest never comes easy. I was to find this out as I searched for several miles in
both directions along the beach. The
day become hotter than I remembered it the day before, probably because I
wasnt finding anything. I
didnt come up empty though, if you can call eleven cents a fulfilling
day of treasure hunting.
I decided to drive north about thirty miles to the McLarty Museum on A1A.
I had to show my treasure to someone who could appreciate
what I had found. The kindly
lady behind the counter got my full attention. I laid them out for her to Oooohhh and Aaaahhhh about,
making me prouder than I had been in some time.
She advised me that I was certainly fortunate indeed to have found
the Kang Hsi. people
have walked the beaches for years, and many never find a single piece.
We have several shards inside, and some whole cups as well.
was a famous salvage diver, as well as an author, and I held up the pieces
porcelain for him to inspect. In his time Bob had found a quantity of the Kang Hsi like I was showing him, some intact pieces as well as shards, and I was pleasantly surprised as he looked them over very carefully and then complimented me on the finds. I told him where I had recovered the, and he nodded, daring he had worked the Nieves site for fifteen years before moving north to the Cabin Wreck site in front of the museum. The square lead piece turned out to be either a toredo worm patch or the lining of a small box, possibly a jewelry or coin box. This pumped me up even more. Here was another piece of treasure that I had recovered, not really knowing that it had come from a 1715 galleon.
We talked a bit, and Bob suggested following him over to the place
where he was staying for the salvage season, and he would show me what he
had recovered so far that summer. It
was a bad diving day, the ninth in a row due to the hurricane and some
windy weather, and Bob and his crew were feeling a little landlocked.
After looking over the coins and artifacts Bob and his crew had
found, he invited me to take a ride on his salvage boat Pandion.
He had been doing some work on the engine and had to make sure it
would be ready to head for open water as soon as the weather settled down.
It was a heady day for me, one that I wouldnt soon forget.
It was a day that somehow let me feel that I was headed in the
right direction, a direction that someday would lead me to Spanish
The sand covering the ballast pile was several feet deep, and it meant
using the blower, or duster on the stern of J&Js Lady to move
the overburden away. It meant
hanging on the stern and watching the sand billowing away like a small
twister over a dusty plain. After
several minutes, when the hole seemed to materialize out of nowhere, the
ballast stones and wooden rives or planking appeared at the bottom of the
hole, and Joe cut back on the engine.
We had moved the boat several times during the day,
We were now working an area possibly fifty feet from our first
hole. The bottom had been
full of ballast stones, wooden ribs,
and more ballast stones. We
had recovered several olive jar pottery shards, some other odds and ends,
but no coins. Near one of the
rives I had gotten a decent hit on the detector, but it was pretty deep.
I couldn't fan the sand away without more sand filling up the void.
I needed Joe to move the boat a bit to help uncover the hit,
whatever it was. I surfaces
and asked Joe if he would move the boat, and Joe indicated it was time
to go home. I asked for
just a few minutes more on the bottom, and he nodded go ahead.
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
great modern day treasure hunters.
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