The Old Pirate’s Treasure

Many experiences stand out as favourites, but few do so while invoking the same fondness as the one I am about to recount. Yes, it involves famous (on the western side of the North Atlantic anyway) T.V. personalities, but they are irrelevant to the attachment I have for it. It was the other characters involved: the treasure hunting family, my crew, the film crew, the magazine crew. It was also the quest itself and the way it was undertaken. The whole five days were fascinating and fun from dawn to dusk and then some. It was work, that is to say it was what I was being paid to do, but there was no drudgery involved whatsoever. Because of that I determined I would endeavour to set my life’s course in the direction this experience pointed, and for a while it looked as if that was going to happen. But then, as any one reading this series of books has no doubt gathered, my life has always had a habit of changing course without me having the chance to consult the chart. Too bad I wasn’t like the Old Pirate in this tale, for he never needed charts, as I was to find out to my amazement.

The Old Pirate’s Treasure

 Apparently you can still see them lying on the sea bed up in Statia Sound just north of Saba Rock. Many is the tourist that reckoned they’d stumbled upon an ancient wreck as they snorkelled the crystal waters above, and truth be told they had, in a way. But Statia Sound was not where the wreck was. It was several miles to the north and a tad to the east of where the old Spanish cannon and anchor now lie at rest. The wreck from which they came was up on the treacherous Anegada Reef, the fourth largest barrier reef in the world that has claimed at least one ship for every year the island that sits atop it has been known to people of European and African descent.

 How those two artefacts from the days of the treasure ships of the Spanish Main got to be resting where they are centuries after the vessel went down, and how a disparate group of individuals became the team that found them, is a story that, if told from its roots upwards, would be too long in the telling. So let’s just start it at the point where a prominent American television program hosted by two men, very famous in the United States, heard that hundreds of years ago a ship carrying cargo containing a large amount of platinum sunk in a storm on the reef. They also heard there was an expert, an old treasure hunter and island legend, living on a tiny cay close by who knew the reef better than any man alive and who had apparently figured out where that wreck was located. And so that television program and those two famous men decided to produce a documentary section for their show all about that expert and that wreck and the cargo it carried which, it was thought, was worth a couple of billion dollars at today’s prices.

The expert was one of the more colourful contemporary characters of the Caribbean. The flamboyant patriarch of a clan comprising three generations of divers and skippers basing themselves around his headquarters on Saba Rock where he maintained a small museum of artefacts recovered from the numerous wrecks he had explored around the Virgin Islands. A conservationist and friend of the Cousteaus he was often referred to (affectionately) as “The Last Pirate of the Caribbean”; a persona he made no attempt to discourage. About his neck hung a gold coin from the days when doubloons and pieces of eight were the currency of his buccaneering forebears which he had found on one of the many wrecks about which only he knew. 

To provide a suitable filming platform for the shoot, and to travel to and from the reef, a hundred and eighteen foot research vessel based in the British Virgin Islands was contracted.  She was skippered by an Englishman who had known the old pirate and his clan for a while. The project was organized by the publisher of a Florida based magazine focusing on the ocean realm, and an underwater film maker also based in the British Virgin Islands who had worked in the past with the Cousteau foundation.

The skipper was cautioned by others in the trade not to take such a large craft into such a menacing and shallow reef, but he’d confidence in his friend, the last pirate’s, ability to pilot the ship safely through, as well as in his own ability to recognize when it may be getting too risky to continue.

On the day the project was to begin an observer from the BVI government boarded the vessel to ensure no regulations were broken, that the reef would be dully respected and that should any treasure be recovered it would be dealt with appropriately. The film crew and their equipment were loaded aboard and the two famous T.V. hosts were made welcome. The old pirate and his sons and one grandson joined the team with their diving and salvage equipment and they set sail for the Anegada Reef.

The skipper was comfortable being piloted by the man who was arguably the most knowledgeable in the world about that particular reef, yet was intrigued and amazed to note that during the approach he hardly, if ever, looked at a chart and did not reference a compass at all when telling him the courses to be steered. Instead, even though they were heading straight towards a treacherous and invisible navigational hazard that had claimed the lives of countless sailors, he initially spent much of the time looking backwards, studying the islands behind them. It dawned on the skipper that as there was no prominent land ahead to see, his pilot was referencing back-bearings established from transits using land marks on the islands they were leaving.  

It wasn’t long before they saw the first rusted hulk laying half out of the water, but this was a more contemporary casualty having been driven hard aground while attempting to smuggle a cargo of illegal South American drugs to the islands to the west belonging to the United States. The reef expert now spent more of his time looking ahead as they began seeing the white foam and spray of broken water as the sea, driven by the fresh breeze, crashed upon numerous coral heads. The skipper positioned some of his crew at strategic locations in the bow and on the flying bridge to help identify dangers while the film and audio crews began moving around taking close up shots and sound bites of what was happening. The skipper found it difficult to concentrate with the distraction they caused yet knew they needed such footage as part of the documentary, so instead of asking them to stop and let him concentrate, he plugged in the remote helm and moved to a quieter part of the flying bridge to steer the ship, still within hearing of the old pirate who had not seen him move.  At one time, during a critical part of the approach to the reef, the cameras caught the old pirate who thought the skipper was still beside him, pointing to where the ship needed to alter course to avoid disaster, while urgently saying, “There it is skipper, over to port. That’s where we need to be skipper.” Then looking frantically round asking, “Where’s the skipper?” They were later surprised and amused to see that shot was not edited out of the finished documentary.

The first sunken ship by which they anchored was not that of the Spanish treasure galleon, but a more recent, yet still very old wreck of a merchant vessel that had been carrying a cargo of animal bones presumably to be ground down for some manufacturing process. The skipper was careful to find a sandy break in the reef where he could anchor with neither the ground tackle nor the chain doing any damage to the fragile corals and the ecosystems they supported. It was here the underwater film maker shot some background footage including a weed enshrouded hangman’s noose, eerily swinging with the motion of the sea, suspended from the aft section of the wreck. There, according to legend, the unfortunate Captain, upon realizing he was about to lose his ship, hung himself before the ocean could take him. It is quite feasible that mixed with the piles of decaying animal bones strewn upon the reef lay the bones of that captain and the gallant crew who must have fought valiantly but vainly to save the ship before its, and their, watery demise.

The sea was lumpy that day with the fresh breeze behind it so the decision was made not to progress further into the reef. Armed with their footage of the bone wreck and the lore of its suicidal Master, the team carefully up-anchored and picked their way back out of the reef, piloted once more by the expert and steered by the skipper, and headed back to Gorda Sound for the night.

The next dawn spoke of a calmer day so they set sail again early and headed to a different part of the reef where the treasure ship supposedly was buried under centuries of coral and shifting sand. Once again the skipper was more than impressed by his friend’s skill with back-bearings, obviously using different sets this time to approach a different area of the reef. After negotiating some narrow channels, which the skipper would not have considered taking had the old pirate not been beside him, and upon arrival at the spot where they believed they needed to be, the skipper set two anchors to ensure the ship would not swing over the reef, but remain in the clear sandy area where they were to work. He was concerned both for the protection of the coral and for the damage this could do to his propellers, for although the winds were light, there was still a bit of a swell running across the reef.

The old pirate’s sons and grandson explored the area with magnetometers to establish the presence of any metal. While doing so, and staking any findings, they were followed and then hounded by a good sized grouper who seemed to be a sentinel protecting the wreck site from intruders. He would try to butt and bite the magnetometer in an effort to thwart its readings. Despite the efforts of Iggy, as they affectionately named the grouper, the presence of sufficient metal was established for them to believe they were over a wreck. It was decided to rig the salvage equipment to blow the sand away directly above where the readings were strongest.

Although the water was shallow it was not known how long the dives would take before anything would be found, so the bosun kept a log of everyone’s bottom time in case any approached the threshold that would mean they required decompression. The two television personalities also went underwater and were duly filmed “helping” with the salvage process.

Eventually a large metal object became visible as more sand was removed. This proved to be the barrel of a ships cannon. Once enough had been exposed to fasten ropes around it one of the ships cranes was rigged and swung outboard. The skipper, driving the crane, lowered the hook and the slings now secured about the cannon were attached. Slowly the crane took the strain and the artifact of a bygone era was lifted from the sea bed where it had lain for hundreds of years. It was heavy enough to cause the vessel to list, and the ship’s counter-buoyancy coupled with the gentle action of the light swell helped break the cannon free from the clutches of the sea bed.

Once clear of the water the motion of the ship caused the heavy cannon to swing dangerously while being positioned over the aft deck. The crew clung tight to the guys but still it swung wildly until they could wrestle it down as the crane’s boom was lowered. The wreck expert chose a specific spot and used his diving knife to gently scrape away some of the encrusted matter to reveal the metal beneath. From what he saw he was able to state the cannon was indeed Spanish, which gave rise to the hope that they had located the wreck of the fabled galleon with all that platinum on board.

Further work by the team on the sea bed uncovered a large anchor which was again painstakingly cleared and released from the grasp of the ocean floor. This was even heavier and more unwieldy than the cannon but the crew managed to land it safely on deck without damage to vessel or personnel. The salvage equipment was recovered from the sea while interviews were recorded with the two T.V. personalities and the old treasure seeker. More background footage was shot but before the sun reached an angle where its glare would hinder their ability to pick their way westward out through the treacherous channels, the skipper manoeuvred the big vessel so the anchors could be recovered without dragging them or their chains over the bottom. He was more than a little grateful the ship was twin screwed for the operation called for some tight turns to avoid the coral heads before they were pointing in the direction they needed to steer. Guided by the old pirate he eased the ship at slow speed back out through the reef and into clearer water.

The excitement was high among the film crew and the T.V. hosts that they had found the long lost treasure ship but as they were motoring back toward Gorda Sound and the skipper and the old pirate had a few minutes to themselves on the flying bridge, the skipper looked sideways at his friend, grinned, and told him that he knew that had not been the treasure ship. The old pirate asked him why he thought that.

“Several reasons…… if it was that easy to find, and it was very easy, then it would have been found a loooong time ago, especially knowing how much is at stake …….. then there’s the fact that those two from the T.V. program earn their money by reporting things of interest to millions of people, and the last thing anybody wants, especially you, is for people who earn their money that way to know where that specific wreck might be ……. then there’s the fact that I know you well enough to realize that if you do know where that ship is, you wouldn’t pilot someone like me, a navigator who was assessing and analyzing and remembering your back bearings on the way out, straight to it ……… No; that was a wreck that you and the boys already knew was there. A real wreck, yes, and if you say that cannon is over three hundred year old Spanish, I’ll take your word for it. But there’s no way that was the treasure ship you told them we were looking for.”

The Last Pirate of the Caribbean didn’t say anything but studied the sea ahead and the landmarks on Virgin Gorda and Great Camanoe for a while until he was happy they were clear of the reef.  

Eventually he said, “You need to bring her a little to the west, and then just follow your way to Colquhoun Reef and into the sound. You know the way well enough. I’m going below to get changed.” And with that he left the flying bridge and joined the others. 

It was decided to put the anchor and cannon back into the sea as soon as possible and the chosen site was right in front of the old pirate’s home on Saba Rock. As the skipper carefully wound his way through the anchored sailboats off the Bitter End Yacht Club, the big research vessel dwarfing them as he passed, he raised much anxiety from many of the bareboaters who had no experience of such close quarters manoeuvring. But the couple of professional charter captains there that knew the skipper merely waved a respectful greeting as he eased by their boats just a few feet away. Ultimately he found space enough to anchor in the shallow water in front of the old pirate’s home and set to work returning the artifacts back into the sea where the lack of oxygen would retard the corrosive process and effectively preserve them. Once done he weighed anchor again and, weaving his way back once more through the anxious bareboats, moved out to deeper water to anchor for the night. This was done mainly because he was aware that the throbbing of his generators would have a disturbing effect on the other boats anchored close by as well as the hotel at the Bitter End Yacht Club if he’d stayed anchored where he had been.

A few years later the skipper met his friend, the old pirate, by chance in the Virgin Queen, one of the pubs in Road Town. He was introduced to the man with whom his friend sat at the bar and the skipper immediately recognized the name as belonging to the person who had found the greatest treasure trove on record and who operated a treasure museum in Southern Florida. 

The old pirate then produced a document and asked the skipper to read it and tell him what he thought. The document turned out to be a contract signed that day by both men written in very simple and non-jargonized language using the first names of each to identify them. In less than one page it set out the conditions in very basic terms by which the two men would form a company to find the wreck of that very same galleon about which the television documentary had been made. 

 The skipper asked his friend if he knew where the wreck was located and was told that he had a pretty good idea, which served to confirm his suspicions of years before that that could not have been the treasure ship upon which they’d dived and filmed. The old pirate then asked the skipper if he would be interested in working with the project which may or may not be successful. The response was that he would keep it in mind, but that as he had come ashore and was now running the affairs of an international shipping line in that country, he didn’t know if he wanted to jeopardize his present career by getting involved with a speculative venture such as that, albeit one that could have huge rewards. Truth be known the landlocked skipper was by then champing at the bit to become incorporated into just such an adventure, for sailing a desk round an office was definitely not his idea of living. However, common sense prevailed.

And that was the last the skipper heard about the Spanish treasure ship until many years later, well after the Last Pirate of the Caribbean had gone to meet Davey Jones after more than ninety years of a fascinating and colourful life. It seems the project with the treasure hunter outlined in that simple contract was never launched. 

The subject of the cannon and anchor arose one day when the skipper had been chatting on Facebook with one of the members of the old pirate’s clan who had been involved with the television shoot a quarter of a century earlier. It was then he learned they’d been moved into deeper water in Statia Sound before the old pirate had sold his home and moved to Florida where he eventually passed away.

The skipper, by then himself no longer in the islands, pondered this story for a while. He reckoned the old pirate must have gone to his final resting place, his ashes interred in an underwater cemetery, without ever having told the whereabouts of that wreck to anyone. No secret chart written on a tattered oilcloth where “X” marks the spot. But then, he mused, did he truly even know the location himself? Anegada is, after all, a big reef. And then he wondered if indeed that treasure really ever existed at all. For surely if it had, more people than just the old pirate would have been looking for it, especially after its story had aired on such a widely viewed television program.

Whatever the facts really were or are, he thought, the filming was a great project with which to have been involved and, as he learned, the documentary that came from it was to live on for decades on the internet. 

There had been some talk of having a reunion in Gorda Sound for as many of those involved in that project as could make it, and if that were ever to happen, the skipper thought, the tale of such a gathering would certainly be worthy of inclusion in a subsequent book, but that is for the future to decide. For the present he would be happy just to have the opportunity of getting up to Statia Sound once again and seeing the cannon and anchor, knowing he was one of the very few people in the world to have been involved with how they came to be there, and to wonder just how close he had actually been to a couple of billion dollars’ worth of sunken treasure. 

The Old Pirate would have been 100 years old in 2014, the year of publication of this book. In that tiny Caribbean territory where Blackbeard, Black Sam Bellamy and their ilk used to be based, where Sir Frances Drake has the main channel named after him and where the inspiration for Treasure Island was born, I like to believe that when the moon is full and the trade winds gently strum the palm trees above the white sandy beaches, another more friendly ghost may be seen gliding across the waters of the British Virgin Islands. No eye patches, no wooden legs or parrots, flashing cutlasses or flint-lock muskets. This one quietly checks on the location of an ancient cannon and anchor before heading several miles to the north and a tad to the east, finally settling over a deserted spot on a very large reef where, if anyone had been there, they might hear it say ……. “There you are.  Nobody’s found you yet then.  Reincarnation takes a while but don’t worry; I’ll be back for you soon enough.”