A Cruise to Find Spanish Treasure Ship, Atocha

Small-boat sailors strike it rich in the Marquesas
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Cotton clouds, blue skies and glittering seas stretched around us in all directions. Key West had long ago dissolved into a shimmering mirage. Our two Com-Pac 16 sloops seemed small in that watery wilderness.

Four of us had trailered the boats from northern Florida to Key West so we could to sail out to the Marquesas Keys, a cluster of deserted islands 26 miles west of Key West. With me aboard Nomad was Mike Wisenbaker, who had shared many cave diving adventures with me in the past. In the other boat, Drifter, were newlyweds Jim and Kathy Pullen. Jim, too, was a diver, and this trip was their honeymoon.

This was back in the early ‘80s when famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher had yet to discover the Spanish treasure ship Atocha in a large area near the Marquesas called The Quicksands. As a writer, I often interviewed him to find out what progress he’d made. “Today’s the day,” he’d always tell me, grinning broadly with a glint in his eye. Just before we set sail on this trip, Mel had said, “When you guys dive out there, keep your eyes open. Spanish salvors found the prow of the Atocha washed up on those islands.”

THIN-WATER SAILING

Instead of laying a course through the deep water in Hawks Channel, I’d chosen to take us straight through The Lakes, a series of deserted mangrove islands to the west. The average depth there is 6 feet, which we could easily handle with our Com-Pacs’ 18-inch drafts.

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We had only walkie-talkies and no marine radios to communicate with, so we knew we had to take care of ourselves. Thanks to my doctor and a friendly pharmacist, we carried lots of medical supplies. Besides the usual ointments for stings and burns, we had syringes for injecting painkillers and sutures for sewing up torn flesh in the event of a shark bite. We also carried plenty of spare parts, including cables and clamps for repairing broken stays. Each boat carried eight gallons of drinking water in plastic jugs, plus a gallon of white wine. Stashed far forward in Nomad’s bow was also a U.S. Navy emergency desalinator. The food we brought was simple and basic, mostly canned, and we cooked in our cockpit footwells on a single-burner Coleman stove. Each boat had a simple bimini for shade, plus we had fitted panels that could be clothespinned in place when needed. At night we converted the cockpit into a comfortable queen-size berth and slept under the bimini, which was much cooler than sleeping in the berths below.

Once we found channel marker 17 we set off on a brisk morning breeze following the course I’d laid through the islands. It took a day to reach Boca Grande Island, our jumping-off place to cross the Boca Grande Channel. Somewhere just over the horizon lay our destination.

Shortly after sunrise the following day, we beat our way across the choppy channel toward the Marquesas. The 11 main islands in the mangrove archipelago are sprawled across four miles of emerald-green water. The water temperature that August averaged 90 degrees, about the same as the air temperature. We wore fast-drying nylon bathing suits around the clock.

Romping along in a brisk breeze, Mike and I hated to break our gait as the islands loomed ahead of us, so we aimed for a narrow dogleg channel that led into shallow Mooney Harbor. Somehow we squeaked in without grounding, despite the fact that depths between the islands average only three feet.

The color of the water in the inner lagoon shifted from green to brown in the shallow spots. The worst shoals were amber-grey. The trick was to stay in the deeper channel, snaking through the flats. An occasional grounding sent us over the side into knee-deep water with a crusty marl bottom. A hearty push on the boat and we sank into hip-deep marl about as fragrant as a cesspool. Needless to say, we tried hard to avoid grounding. Behind us, Jim and Kathy picked their way through the same odoriferous shoals.

Three miles later, we emerged on the other side of the archipelago where we continued northward. Noon found us beaching the boats in the shallows of a tidal swash between islands for a sandwich. After lunch, we went ashore to explore. Surprisingly, there was no sandy beach, only coarsely ground coral. My guess is that it came from the droppings of many generations of coral-crunching parrot fish. Heavy bushes dotted with spider lilies flanked the thick mangroves. A tall coconut palm leaned far out over the water, and there were birds everywhere, mostly gulls, terns and anhingas. Although the islands are a wildlife refuge, that wasn’t enough for the occasional pelican we saw dangling lifelessly from a tree limb, its feet hopelessly entangled in discarded monofilament fishing line.


Late that afternoon we sailed onto the northernmost beach of the main island, where we were surprised to find a rickety wooden dock backed by a pair of lonely palm trees. Again we explored and tried to reach what the chart showed as a hidden lagoon buried in the mangroves. Defeated, we returned to the beach, where I picked up a broken piece of unglazed pottery. I guessed what it was, and later a marine archaeologist verified that it was indeed a piece of a large olive jar, the kind the Spanish used for storing food aboard their ships. Had it come from the Atocha?

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Instead of continuing on around the main island, which on the chart had an unbroken mangrove shoreline, we decided to sail back the way we had come. This time, we stayed outside the islands and hoped by sundown to reach a particular point we had passed.

As the sun turned the color of old gold, we sailed on a light breeze back toward deeper water. At one point, Mike and I ran aground so hard Jim had to wade over from his boat to help push Nomad free. Shortly afterward, we were ghosting along less than a mile offshore when I happened to glance down through the clear 10-foot depths and spotted rocks and ridges below.

“Bugs!” I shouted, at the same time spinning the boat into the wind and yelling for Mike to drop anchor. Although I’m sure he thought I was crazy, Jim aboard Drifter didn’t have to be told twice. Kathy said later he dropped the anchor with one hand, grabbed his fins, mask and gloves with the other, and leaped over the side with all canvas flying. Twenty minutes later we’d bagged a nice catch of large spiny lobsters.

We spent the night right there, first toasting our success with mugs of rum punch, then firing up our lanterns and cooking our prey in their comforting amber glow. With our boats rafted up, we dropped the lobster tails into pans of seawater simmering on our cockpit stoves. We then melted some butter seasoned with lime in the inverted pot lids. Minutes later the cracked tails were served on our most practical dishware—Frisbees—with tossed salad and crusty Cuban bread. It was a memorable feast.

After supper, the Pullens moved Drifter a short distance away and turned in, while I slipped over the side with the dive light to see what kind of denizens might be prowling the depths beneath us. Finning down to the bottom, I swept my yellow cone of light back and forth through the inky dark water. No night-walking lobsters were in sight, but what I did see, I couldn’t believe. Drifter’s anchor rode lay across a foot-wide trench, about 5 feet long and 2 feet deep. Inside was a huge mottled-gray grouper the length of my arm.

As I eased closer to see how long he would hold his ground, he suddenly disappeared before my eyes. All it took was a swish of his fins to disappear into a cave at one end of the trench. Sitting on his front porch like that, no wonder he felt safe.

We spent another day sailing and diving on the Marquesas’ western edge, searching for signs of the Atocha but saw nothing. (Mel later found the wreck under 53 feet of water in nearby Hawks Channel.) That night, our adventure drawing to a close, we turned in early knowing it would be a long sail back to Key West.

HOMEWARD BOUND

The next day we had our boats rigged and ready well before dawn. There was a full moon, but not even a hint of a breeze. Shortly after daylight, when the wind did come, it blew from the wrong direction. We knew we couldn’t beat through Mooney Harbor and all those mangrove islands, so I charted a course to the northeast, which would bisect Boca Grande Channel and take us 16 miles to bell buoy 1 leading into the Northwest Channel. From there we would change course southward to Key West eight miles away.

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Unfortunately, the breeze went light, so we again had to anchor out for the night. Toward the end of the following day, when we were on our last leg, that 8-mile shot into Key West, the real fun began. We were beating against a strong tide in extremely light air. Repeatedly, Key West seemed within our grasp. But each time it slipped away from us as we were pushed back up the channel.

Finally, I fired up my tiny outboard and started chugging on into port. Jim and Kathy followed. We spent the night at a Stock Island campground aboard our boats on their trailers and early the next morning headed home in one long shot, this time cruising up-country at 55 mph with a helpful tailwind.

Our 1,300-mile land/sea safari had been a grand success. It was also an unforgettable learning experience. Purchasing fresh bread and salad greens was our main expense. We kept a 48-quart cooler with a 50-pound block of ice in the cockpit for preserving our perishables. Since so few things required ice, we found we could have dispensed with the coolers.

Even today, despite inflated fuel costs, such adventures are easily within the reach of any sailor with a small trailerable boat. If you keep everything simple, you can comfortably trail, sail and camp your way practically anywhere on a modest budget. Any highway to water is your magic carpet. That’s all you need.

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