Sunday, 28 August 2011

Seeking a Sunken Galleon

The images for this story do include a treasure map. So there is the chance that the reference to 'Fishing for Gold", as having a map was incorrect on that author's part.

* AHV has one movie credit, as the writer of Williamson Beneath the Sea, for the time being only a portion is on the internet... from 1932.

Seeking a Sunken Galleon's Gold

Divers recover relics, but coral still clasps its treasure


The Sun; Jul 30, 1933; The Baltimore Sun, collected by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, August 2011.

I have been fishing for gold at the bottom of the sea. Through the crystalline water of the tropics I have looked down upon the remains of a stately Spanish galleon that (perhaps), laden with treasures of Incas and Aztecs, was driven by a hurricane upon the fangs of coral reefs three centuries and more ago.

I have seen her long-shanked, massive anchors, her ponderous, ancient cannon, her twisted rigging and iron work resting upon the coral-incrusted floor of the ocean, where dazzling blue parrot fish, gaudy angel fish, cruel-jawed barracudas and giant gray sharks swam lazily amid the twisted wreckage and flashed like living jewels in the shafts of sunlight. And from the bed of the West Indian seas I have seen the fittings and the contents of the 300-year-old ship come dripping over the rail of my boat as my divers wrenched them from their resting places and we hauled them upward from the ocean's depths.

Probably no human eyes had looked upon this sunken galleon since the day she went to the bottom of the sea. No man had ever before gazed downward upon that centuries-old hulk amid the reefs. No human being had seen her since that far-distant day when, in the fury of a West Indian hurricane, the ship was hurled to destruction upon the coral and never a man of the hundreds on board lived to tell the tale of the catastrophe.


when I wrote an article on "Fishing for Gold" (in this Magazine January 1, 1933), little did I dream that my story was destined to lead me on a treasure hunt, that I was fated to go fishing for gold myself, to search for and find one of the wrecks I described. Still less did I dream that within six months of the time I would be looking upon one of the wrecks and watching my divers salvage objects and metals that had been hidden from all but the fishes for three centuries.

Scores of letters came to me following the publication of my story. Some wished detailed information of the treasures I had mentioned; others wanted to know why the treasures had not been salvaged if they were actually as described. Many were from young men who, lured by the glamour of millions beneath the sea, contemplated setting out on a shoestring to wrest fortunes from Davy Jones' locker.

Among the lot was one from a man who requested a personal interview and said he believed he could arrange to finance an expedition to salvage some of the treasure ships. Matters moved rapidly thereafter. Within a week I had met a group of wealthy New York business men, had told and retold all I knew of certain sunken treasures, had seen the necessary capital pledged and had found myself engaged to take entire charge of the expedition.


Weeks of feverish activity followed, for a treasure hunt on the ocean floor calls for far more than a ship and a diver. There were a thousand and one pieces of equipment to be purchased or made; diving gear and seemingly endless coils of rope, buoys and water glasses for viewing the bottom of the sea, boats and motors, air compressors and tools, anchors and grapnels, fishing tackle and drag lines. Even food alone—enough to feed eleven husky men for three months—is no small item; and the ship had to be completely altered and refitted for our purpose.

But at last all was ready. The vessel sailed for Southern seas, and in due time we dropped anchor in West Indian waters at the spot I had selected as the most promising. Our little ship appeared very small in that vast waste of waters as in the tiny launches we headed for the reefs in the distance. But it was a calm day; the sapphire sea lay with scarcely a ripple under a cloudless sky and only the upflung breakers of the ground swell on the "boilers" broke the line of the horizon.

Never will I forget the sensation we all felt as we approached the first of these coral heads. Just awash, with the long ocean swell sweeping over them and then receding, leaving the sharp, talonlike corals exposed, they seemed endowed with some malignant purpose, terrible, sinister monsters reaching out hungry hands to grasp our craft and drag them to destruction. Even the most sea-hardened of our men, old sailors that they were, confessed to such a feeling of terror, and all of us actually shuddered with dread each time a surge sucked our boats toward the jagged masses.


So transparent was the water that the bottom at eight or ten fathoms appeared within reach of one's outstretched hand, with every detail standing out clearly and sharply. Yet the objects upon the floor of that reef-filled ocean were amazingly deceptive. There were great fingers of coral which looked like the massive timbers of sunken ships. There were strange sea growths that were the exact counterparts of chests and kegs, and again and again we thought we had located a wreck, only to find, when the divers went down in their "hats," as they call their helmets, that our "wrecks" were but natural growths. That first day was the only calm day we had. For two months thereafter our little hundred-foot ship rolled and pitched continuously. But Dame Fortune smiled upon us, and presently, as we searched the bottom of the sea between the reefs, one of the party discovered an anchor. Almost coincidentally another spied two more anchors, and the next moment a great cannon was found.

Excitement ran high. Here was indisputable evidence that we were above a wrecked ship, and the type of the anchors and gun left no doubt as to the vessel's age. With straining eyes, we searched the sea floor for further wreckage, but nothing of the sunken vessel's structure was visible.

Quickly the air pump was manned, and, wearing only their "hats," the divers dropped down. Intently we watched. And then came a great surprise. From our boat the two smaller anchors had appeared no larger than ordinary kedge anchors, but when a diver grasped one and raised it upright the shank extended for more than two feet above his head! It took all our tackle and herculean labor to salvage the smallest of the three; the largest was more than twelve feet in length.


Though they had rested under the sea for more than three centuries, these massive hand-forged anchors that once had served to moor a galleon of Spain were in a remarkable state of preservation. Beneath the two-inch incrustation of lime the iron was still sound, and a little chipping and cleaning would have rendered them fit for service again.

Next, efforts were made to raise the cannon, in hopes that it might bear the name of the ship on whose bows it had once been mounted. But the great gun with its ornate breech and strangely placed trunnions proved too much for our tackle, and when within a few feet of the surface it broke away and plunged back to its resting place. So we left the ancient gun to the fishes and devoted all our efforts to tracing the outlines of the wreck and locating its strong room. This was a most difficult task. Nowhere was a timber of the ship visible. All of its structure that remained was completely incased in coral sand cemented together by the carbonate of lime to form a concrete like armor two feet or more in thickness.

Such objects as had been upon the galleon's decks also were incrusted and appeared like mere irregularities on the ocean's bed or like lumps of coral. Only by striking every object with a heavy crowbar was it possible to determine which were natural growths and which were portions of the ship. Inch by inch the divers sought about and presently up came a bundle of bent and twisted iron work—hatch bands and chain plates, toggles and rings, and finally the massive iron sling which had held the "Jimmy Green" yard beneath the galleon's immense bowsprit.


Obviously we had reached the bow of the wreck, and now the divers worked in the opposite direction. From amid a mass of broken coral they salvaged a swivel-gun crutch of steel almost as perfect as on the day it was forged in some smithy in old Spain. In another spot they came upon some irregular black lumps which we at first mistook for iron, but which proved to be cannon powder still capable of burning with strong sulphurous fumes when dried.

However, the forepeak of a galleon is no place to search for treasure, and little by little our divers worked aft—or in the direction I assumed was aft. For a space they found nothing. Then, thirty feet back of the anchors and gun, they came to more wreckage—chain plates and standing rigging, iron plates, iron mast bands and other objects which convinced me that we were working where once had been the galley and the carpenter's shack abaft the galleon's mainmast. Here was a veritable mine of antiquities. At each descent the divers salvaged new and surprising objects. They found several massive lumps which looked like meteorites, but which, when broken apart, proved to be the remains of kegs of nails. Not a nail remained, but each had left a perfect mold in the mass of iron oxide which had formed about them. At another time we salvaged material which had every appearance of graphite. It could be whittled with a knife, it could be used like a pencil lead, and I puzzled over it for hours—until I discovered that it once was cast iron! Imagine whittling cast iron with a pocketknife!


Hidden under a limestone crust was an iron kettle. To one side the divers found a crudely made, hand-forged, five-pronged grapnel which no doubt had once been in the ship's longboat. Every moment was filled with intense interest and excitement; no one could know what the divers might unearth next. No one could say when the remains of a perforated canvas bag might be drawn on board, and we would find it filled with gold or silver bars or masses of pieces of eight.

And here let me pause in my narrative to remark that pieces of eight and doubloons and golden onzas buried under the sea for 300 years are not the bright and shining disks described in fanciful tales of treasure trove and pictured by imaginative artists. Instead, they are shapeless lumps that no one would recognize as coins, that might easily be mistaken for masses of dead coral. Through the centuries the coins have become firmly cemented together by oxides and lime which, covering the metal, has retained more or less perfectly the form of bags or kegs or chests in which they were once contained.

Working about the spot where the ship's galley had once, stood, the divers salvaged many a strange and totally unexpected object. There were pewter plates on which the coarse fare of the galleon's company had been served. Three grindstones were found—worn and out of true from the sharpening of many a knife and sword and pike and halberd.

There were articles and utensils of iron and copper whose original purposes remain a mystery. There were broken porcelain plates and wine jars with blue designs still clear upon the crackled glaze. There were countless fragments of the galleon's rails, covered with lime crust, with some of the tough hardwood still intact. We found a pikehead as bright as silver, still bearing the gold damascening upon its surface. We even found the ship's sounding, lead—a rudely hammered lump of metal weighing about ten pounds, its smaller end perforated by two holes instead of by one, as modern sounding leads are.


From the vanished galley we also salvaged scouring brick, and when one of the divers' prying bars struck metal, and there was the dull gleam of yellow amid the broken crust, every one was on the qui vive. But the find proved to be an amazing, immense copper kettle with huge bronze legs and a long copper spout. Obviously it was an extemporized cooking utensil, for it was built-up of sheets of copper of varying thickness riveted together, and with the crudely cast bronze legs riveted in place. But it was not the workmanship of the thing which drew our interest; it was the fact that there was scarcely any verdigris upon the metal, that it showed a dull, purplish-black patina and that it was enormously heavy. Had the legs been of solid gold they could scarcely, have weighed more. But the puzzle was solved at last—the thing was made from copper—probably from Peru—smelted from ores rich in gold. Probably the long dead cook who had sweated over the galleon's galley fires had never dreamed that he was boiling the crew's soup in a kettle containing more gold than he could earn by years of toil.

The battered old pot was a real find in another way also. The portion which had been hidden beneath the crust of lime was filled with loose sand. Obviously the hard, concrete-like coating was merely a floor above sand which had filtered in and covered the wreck; buried in this we would find her timbers and her treasure intact.


There were amusing incidents, too. Once a diver brought up some strips of bright metal and remarked that he guessed they were remains of old sardine tins. But if the Dons had used that metal for sardine containers—well, the empty cans would be worth more than their weight in gold today! For the strips our diver had found were platinum!

Slowly the divers worked beyond the site of galley and carpenter's shack. Another great gun was discovered lodged among the coral growths. Twisted portions of ironwork of the mizzen rigging were found and at last they came upon the massive wrought-iron hangers that had supported the ship's huge rudder. They had reached the stern of the wreck! Beneath their feet, under the corals and the limestone crust, was the lazarette, the floor of the high stern castle and the galleons strong room.

Feverishly the divers labored: Our time was getting short. Each day the wind was increasing; each night it blew a gale. Our ship rolled in the ever-increasing seas and snapped viciously at her anchor chain. We were working against time, and the treasure hunt had become a submarine-mining-proposition. Our diving launch, moored between the hungry coral reefs with only a few feet to spare, might part a line and be smashed at any moment,


But dangers were forgotten for the time. Only a few feet of crust and sand separated us from the treasures in her hold. We felt that luck had been with us from the start, that it would stand by us to the end. And when at, last we hoisted our diving gear aboard and battened down the hatches above the lime-incrusted mound of metal in the forehold, hoisted the anchor and sailed for home, we felt that our faith in Old Lady Luck had been borne out.

The clutching reefs had stretched out hungry talons in vain; the sea had taken no toll of men or craft; no wraiths of dead hidalgos or Spanish mariners had materialized above their ocean graves. We had discovered a centuries-old galleon, a treasure ship lost 300 years ago.

But we had no intention of abandoning the ancient wreck forever. Some day not far distant we will again gaze downward through the glass-clear water upon all that remains of that stately, old galleon. Some day, perhaps, our divers will again invade the haunts of strange fish and hungry sharks to dig and delve on the ocean's floor. The concussion of dynamite will send coral trees tumbling to destruction, and from the rent and broken limestone crust and shattered timbers we hope to salvage the remainder of the galleon's sunken treasure.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.