SALVAGING SUNKEN TREASURE ON A BUDGET
by Bob Frogfoot Weller
In May 1996 the third annual Follow Your Dream seminar was held in Tavernier Key, Florida. Bob Frogfoot Weller has been guiding potential treasure salvagers through the basics of finding sunken treasure for the past three years, and this year he added a new dimension to the five-day diving/lecture seminar. Its topic, How to salvage treasure for under $5,500.
Each of Bobs seminars is normally filled months ahead, and so when two newcomers from Lake Worth, Florida, decided they wanted to dive old Spanish galleons, they were enrolled by February. Ken Nehiley
and Joe Peters had never met before the seminar, even though they both
lived in Lake Worth. In Ken’s case he wanted to get the “treasure bug out
of his system”, a hopeless task. In Joe’s case salvaging sunken treasure
had always been something he wanted to do.
Over dinner one night during the seminar they both expressed a desire to go after it! It forged a friendship that enabled them to put their effort together. Whether they found a gold or silver coin really didnt matter. The idea of exploring a shipwreck that had been on the bottom for almost 300 years was the intriguing motivation.
In May the weather was excellent for diving Spanish galleons of the 1733 fleet down in the Keys, and holding the seminar on a balcony with an ocean view was temptation enough. But from the Kimbell crows nest the students could actually see the distant reefs where the Capitana and the El Infante had become historical ballast piles.
As the history of the various Spanish galleon treasure fleets unfolded, Ken and Joe felt the itch to get started themselves. The week following the seminar they had put together a budget that included used equipment they could afford, but still get them on the bottom.
In the classified section of the Palm Beach Post was an ad for a ten-foot rubber boat with a 15-HP engine, price3 $900. They grabbed it. The boat and the engine were better than they expected. The motor almost new, and the boat had hardly been in the water. It had been an auxiliary boat for a sailboat.
Through Joe Kimbell in Tavernier they were able to purchase a Torpedo-brand underwater propulsion unit, one that would not only move them around the site, but when turned backwards could be used to blow the sand off hits they got on their metal detector. Cost $837, including battery.
They both had SCUBA tanks, but needed nose to convert the tanks into hookah rigs. That way they could leave the tanks in the boat, slip over the side with the regulator on the end of a 100-foot hose, and cover the bottom while sill in contact with their rubber boat. They had to buy a sextant, one that would five them angles on the beach markers set up by the state of Florida. In that way they could plot the areas they searched and locate the artifacts precisely where they were recovered. Cost, $35.51.
There were little things...like carpet for the bottom of the rubber boat to hold the tanks from rolling around in sloppy sea. An anchor for $10 to hold them in place while they searched. The air hoses came to $95, giving them the freedom of working without the heavy tanks on their backs and trying to put them on and off in a small ten-foot rubber boat. It worked great. The final major bill of their budget came when they sub-contracted with Taffi Fisher to work the Cabin Wreck site south of the Sebastian River. The sub-lease
cost $1,000. If they had been willing to purchase a differential GPS, the bill would have been only $500, but that instrument was expensive, so they opted for the large cost of the contract. Total cost to that point was $3,089.91, which included $58 advance purchase of air-tank refills. They were ready to go by February first.
Ken owned a Garrett Sea Hunter XL500 metal detector, and Joe had a Fisher 1280X underwater metal detector. Both were good units, and if there were treasure on the bottom, they would find it! They were in contact with Frogfoot Weller who already had started his 1996 salvage operation from a rented house on the water in Sebastian. He was also working the Cabin Wreck just south of Sebastian Inlet. Bob offered to tow their rubber boat out to the site and back at the end of the day, but in between, Youre on your own!
That first trip to the wreck site of the San Roman, Almiranta of the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet, was an eye opener. Anticipation is 95% of any salvage operation, and in the case of Ken Nehiley and Joe Peters that first day would become a Chinese fire drill. They soon found out you just cant jump in the water and go looking for treasure. They had left their homes in Lake Worth at 4:30 that morning for the 100-mile trip up I95 to Sebastian. Somewhere along the way there was a coffee stop, but by 7:00 a.m. they were putting their rubber boat and their other gear aboard Wellers salvage boat, Pandion, for the ride out to the site.
It seemed they had been up all night when Bob turned them loose within a few yards of the reef that parallels the beach some 75 yards away. The first problem they encountered was that they had too much hose to contend with. Their ten-foot boat seemed filled to the brim with gear, more than they could manage. They each had 100 feet of hose, about 75 feet more than each would ever need. It became entangled in the boat, in the water, and around the divers like a large pot of spaghetti. Then trying to get equipment out of the boat without tipping the boat over was a challenge.
They managed finally to get their metal detectors out, the hoses straightened, and salvage their lunch as it floated away. The water was clear, visibility good, and that seemed to save the day. Because of the seminar they knew what not to expect. There would be no Spanish galleon with masts intact and shredded sails to greet them on the bottom. Instead they found what they expected, a trail of ballast stones, and some pretty rugged reef.
They also found out that the coins would be harder to find than they thought. They wouldnt be just under the sand, to be located as the divers waved a metal detector over the spot. When they turned the Torpedo on to move the sand from the bottom they found cracks and fissures that coins would have an easy time squirreling away in. There were holes that you could stick your arm into, reefs that had to be looked under, and sand that had to be moved. And there was a myriad of fish to keep them company. Blowing away the sand exposed sea worms that brought fish from all directions. They followed the divers the entire day, waiting for the next handout.
When the day ended the team had a chance to get a second wind and make some improvements on their approach to salvaging. Joe and Ken agreed they could use another two feet of boat, but they were stuck with what they had. So they did the next best thing, they cut off 75 feet of hose on each of their hookah lines. Next they asked Bob if they could leave their lunch on Pandion. No problem! There were other items, such as the chart, that they decided to leave ashore and plot their holes at the end of the day.
They also worked a system in which they put gear on and slid over the side by number. First one diver would get his gear ready, then slip over the side while the other diver helped him, handing gear to him once he got in the water. Then the remaining diver did the same, entering the water on the other side of the boat. By that second dive things went much better, even though the underwater visibility had gone south somewhere. But they had their act together, and they were having fun. They were actually hunting for treasure with a good possibility of finding some.
By the third dive they were reading the bottom, checking areas that had good possibilities of artifacts. Ken suddenly had his Garrett detector go funny on him, it wouldnt stop beeping. The visibility was patchy, and Ken tried to settle his detector down before heading for the surface to figure it out. Suddenly he found the reason for his problem. Within a few feet of him was a nine-foot cannon, covered with coral...but a cannon nonetheless. It was the first cannon Ken had ever seen underwater, something that is a sort of shock when youre not expecting it. It solved his detector problem, though.
Not far from the cannon Ken picked up an eight-pound cannon ball, also covered in coral, but the weight and shape convinced Ken he had his first good artifact. When he surfaced alongside the rubber boat, Joe was already there with his own cannon ball; he had recovered it just a few feet away. Then Ken located what appeared to be a flintlock pistol, welded to the hard bottom by almost 300 years of coral. Without the proper tools to extricate the artifact without damaging it, he marked the spot by taking sextant reading.
That would haunt him when they returned to the area the next day and neither Ken nor Joe could re-locate their spot. It taught them another valuable lesson. Take good bearings, and then check them. They began locating pottery shards, enough to fill a bucket. The olive jars that the Spanish carried as containers for water, oil and vinegar shattered into many pieces as the ship disintegrated on the reefs. The shards are always a good indication that youre working on a Spanish shipwreck. As Ken and Joe followed the scatter pattern of the San Roman over the top of the reef they began picking up pieces of the lead sheathing that covered the hull. There seemed to be evidence of the shipwreck over a wide area.
Bad weather caused the salvage season to wind down a bit prematurely, leaving Ken and Joe with a sense of being close, but not quite there. Watching the waves breaking against the reef just a few yards offshore they felt sure there had to be a hole full of gold and silver coins just waiting for them. They are already planning the next salvage season, with a step up to the next level that combines experience and planning, along with a bigger financial budget.