Chelsea docked in Sebastian
Chelsea on the "Cabin" site with the swells rolling in.
Chelsea's "blower" being lowered on another wreck site.
One of my old White's detectors still working with help from Warren's Detectors & Mark Snyder
Steve with an encrusted 1715 musket from the "Cabin" site.
"The Musket Ball" beside a typical 1715 pottery shard.
THE MUSKET BALL, A Humorous Tale of Salvage on the 1715 Fleet
By Steven Danforth Singer
Treasure diving can be extraordinarily fun and exciting, as I’ve had some of the best times in my life while doing so, but many days can be thoroughly frustrating. I’d been diving on the 1715 Treasure Fleet wrecks, which lie off the east coast of Florida in an area known as the “Treasure Coast,” for a number of years, first as a diver for the well-known treasure hunter and author Robert “Frogfoot” Weller, and later with my own salvage vessel as a sub-contractor for the famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Locals had known of at least one of these shipwrecks going back over one-hundred years ago. In 1906 it was reported local fishermen found an old wreck a year or two previously in 9' of water 1/2 mile off the south point of the Inlet (the old Ft. Pierce Inlet) which would become known as the "Wedge Wreck." The keel was visible along with a row of cannon and cannon balls. Local dredge boat Capt. O.N. Bie, and Capt. E.C. Summerlin went to investigate. Bob Weller mentioned that they eventually salvaged some of the cannon. It’s since been identified as the Urca De Lima, and is now a protected underwater preserve which is open for the public to dive on. Other cannon, coins, and artifacts have been salvaged through the years or found on the beaches here, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s, when treasure hunter Kip Wagner realized that the coins and other items were all part of a Spanish treasure fleet which wrecked here in 1715 and lay just off this coast that serious salvage efforts began. Wrecks from another treasure fleet lost in 1733 had also been discovered in the Florida Keys even earlier, and “treasure fever” in Florida was on! Many groups have worked on the known 1715 wrecks, and they are still being actively salvaged today. On the 300th anniversary of the disaster in 2015, millions in gold coins were found by two different groups! Four ships from this fleet have yet to be found! Two supposedly sank in deep water, and it’s believed one lies off Cape Canaveral as coins from this period are found there. Others have claimed to have found coins, silver disks, and other items from this period from as far north as Fernandina, Florida to as far south as Pompano Beach. One of the ships, an ex-Dutch sloop, wrecked high up on the beach and was used as a shelter and headquarters for a period during the Spanish salvage operations. The pirate Henry Jennings also became part of the story after the fleet wrecked. Hearing of the disaster, and that the Spaniards had set up a salvage camp soon after, he and his men attacked the camp, and made off with much of the salvaged treasure.
One year we were working the “Cabin Wreck,” which is just south of the Sebastian Inlet near the McLarty Museum. This was one of those years where the weather was not very accommodating, so we worked whenever we could, even if the conditions were not ideal. This particular day the ocean swells were rolling in, but not bad enough to cancel diving. It was only myself and one of my partners, Don Kree, on our salvage boat this day. I brought the Chelsea in between the first and second reefs using a channel we marked between the second reef. Visibility was usually bad so the reefs were not visible from the surface, and the marked channel prevented us from bottoming out on the reef, especially at low tide. We then three way anchored so we were just over the inner ledge of the second reef where we had found coins previously.
Don took a sextant reading using beach markers placed on-shore by the State as this was before GPS was readily available. He checked our site map and confirmed we were where we wanted to be. We then lowered the prop wash deflector, also called a “blower,” or “mailbox,” and locked it in place on the transom. The engine was then revved up in order to direct the force of the prop to the bottom and dust away any sand covering the area. After a few minutes, the engine was brought back to low revs and kept there. This was in order to direct the clearer surface water down below as visibility would be near zero on a day like today without doing so. A “cage” was installed on the “blower” so as to prevent any injury in case anyone came close to the prop while running. Even with a cage, I’ve had a couple scares on another salvage boat where the hookah hose would get sucked into the prop and get wrapped around the shaft, and as we had the air hose attached to our weight belts, it would yank you right off the bottom up towards the propeller. Fortunately, the engine always stalled before anyone reached it, and the cage was there to protect you if you did. This was soon fixed by tying weights to the hookah hose so it wouldn’t float. Our cage had a finer mesh screen which prevented the air hose from getting fouled.
With a full wet suit and weighted down, I grabbed my detector and jumped into the water immediately sinking to the bottom. The swells above made it difficult to stay in one place, so I grabbed onto an outcropping from the reef with one hand and proceeded to get my bearings. The “blower” had removed a foot or so of sand out of a nice area along the edge of the reef revealing about a six-foot wide hole. Visibility was not good. I was using my White’s PI-1000 underwater pulse detector at the time, and quickly turned it on and tuned it in near the bottom of the hole. I swept the coil over the area and immediately got a hit. Turning the coil on edge, I tried to pinpoint the area in the hole. Thinking I had found it, I held onto the reef with one hand as I would otherwise be swept off the reef, and hand fanned with the other removing a couple of inches of sand down to the bedrock, though with only a few inches of visibility, it was not an easy task to say the least. I got my dive mask as close as I could to the supposed area I uncovered, but saw nothing there. I ran the coil over the area again, but now detected nothing. I swept the coil in the hole again and got a hit in another area. Thinking I again pinpointed the area of the “hit,” I hand fanned again down to bedrock, but still found nothing. This went on a few more times with no results. I re-tuned my detector, and even ran the coil over my lead weight belt to make sure it was working, which it was. After about 30 minutes of this, I was becoming frustrated. I moved away from the area, re-tuned the detector, checked that it was working again by running the coil over my weight belt, and went back to the area I had been working.
The visibility was starting to improve and finding the area again, I grabbed an outcropping above me to my right, and ran the coil over the hole again and got another hit, but it seemed to move around the area. I remembered the time I recovered 22 small silver ½ reales from one “hole” in similar conditions on the southernmost 1715 known site a few years before. Being so small and light, they would move around every time I hand fanned and the recovery took forever, but that’s a story for another day. I was still getting thrown around due to the swells, but not as bad as before as the seas seemed to have calmed a bit, which fortunately improved the visibility some. My detector now seemed to not be working at all in the area. I looked around to get my bearings and noticed that an outcropping above looked out of place. Its shape lay in a straight line (not normal on a reef), and as I looked further back over the reef, I said to myself, “is that what I think it is?” I grabbed my detector, and swinging it towards the object above my head, the detector screamed. It appears that this whole time (well over an hour), I’d been detecting a few feet below a 9’ cannon, even holding on to it at times! Though I was tuning my detector a few feet away and below the cannon, it wasn’t far enough, and caused faulty readings this whole time. Well, not one to give up, and being in a good area, I re-tuned the detector again as far from the cannon and at the lowest point of the hole I had been working. This finally eliminated any interference from the cannon, and sweeping the coil again across the area, I got a faint hit in one corner of the hole that I hadn’t checked as yet. I began to hand fan a bit of sand still there, and soon I was staring at one solitary 1715 musket ball! I swept the area again with my detector, but no more hits. I was a little disappointed it wasn’t a coin or something more valuable, but at least it wasn’t something like a beer tab, fishing weight, or some other modern junk that on more days than I care to remember is all we managed to find! I returned to the boat and handed Don the musket ball. He just gave me the look that said “all that time for one musket ball!” It was then tagged and recorded in our logbook for that particular hole as were all artifacts or treasure found.
At the end of every season, and after the State takes their pick of anything found, a division between Salvor’s Inc. and the sub-contractors working for them was completed. Our group would then divide our share of the division between ourselves. One item I received in this division was that particular musket ball, and I still keep it and its identification tag separated from all the other musket balls I’ve found as that’s one I’ll always remember!
For anyone in the Sebastian, Florida area, I encourage them to visit the McLarty Museum, which is located along the beach just south of the Sebastian Inlet on the site of one of the original Spanish salvage camps. I also recommend a visit to the Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum in Sebastian. Both have treasure and artifacts on display as well as historical presentations on the 1715 fleet.
Coins and artifacts from the fleet have been found on the beaches from north of Sebastian Inlet to south of Ft. Pierce Inlet, so you may want to bring along your detector too, especially after a good storm! Be aware of the local laws regarding metal detecting. There are a number of excellent books and web-sites about the 1715 Fleet for those wishing more information. Many of these are listed in my new book More Shipwrecks of Florida.
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