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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

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Piece of marine history from February 16th...

1960 was very different than the world we know today.  We were involved with The Cold War, gas was thirty one cents a gallon and milk was forty nine cents a gallons (Yes, I said cents.).  

USS Triton was commissioned to circumnavigate the globe on Feb 16, 1960.  Initially the vision for the mission was to improve American technological and scientific prestige before the Paris Summit between the US and The Soviet Union.  The mission was called "Operation Sandblast" and departed on Feb 24th and ended April 25th.  

The Navy nuclear-powered radar picket submarine completed it's journey in under sixty two days and 26,723 nautical miles; accomplishing more than expected.  "Operation Sandblas"t used St. Peter and Paul Rocks in the Atlantic Ocean, near the equator, as the starting point and terminus (literally "the end of the road").  Interestingly enough, the overall navigational track for the voyage generally followed the same navigational course as Ferninand Magellan's cirmcumnavigation of the globe between 1519-1922.

The USS Triton still holds the record for the fastest motorized sea vessel.  The operation also completed many geophysics (physics of the Earth--meaning the science related to the Earth's shape, gravitational and magnetic fields and internal structure),  oceanography (marine science), hydrography (measurements of the depths, tides and currents of a body of water...mostly for the purpose of charting), gravimetric (dealing with gravity) studies.

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When the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived in the Mexican Yucatan in 1519, he was on a mission to spread Christianity and enrich the kingdom of Spain. His fleet of 11 ships impressed the Aztecs and their emperor, Montezuma, and within two years, the Aztecs were conquered. After establishing the town of Vera Cruz, Cortes burned his ships as a statement to a group of his men that wanted to return to Cuba. With no intention of returning to Cuba, or to Spain, until he found the fabled city of El Dorado and the richest cache of gold in the world, Cortes became one the most infamous and relentless treasure hunters of all time.

And so it began, year after year, conquest after conquest, the Spaniards’ insatiable search for gold. By 1566, a system of yearly treasure fleets was established, as the safety in numbers theory proved sound. Single Spanish ships had been attacked by French privateers, so the personal advisor to King Phillip of Spain suggested that a convoy of ships would have a superior military strength and the implementation of treasure fleets began.

The ships sailed from Spain, arrived in Cartagena and Vera Cruz and proceeded to load all the gold, silver and precious gems that had been harvested from the previous year. The first treasure fleet was only 17 ships, but by the end of the 16th century, it totaled 50 vessels, including large Spanish galleons. Even riches from Asia were transshipped from the Americas, as the galleons from the Philippines anchored in Acapulco, and then transported barrels of pearls and precious metals overland by pack mule until arriving at Vera Cruz.

Almost every year, in almost every fleet, treasure ships were lost. The vessels were wooden, subject to rot and ship worms, and had a life expectancy of as many years as luck or good fortune would carry them. Storms, fierce weather and misadventure has clearly claimed more lost sailing vessels then any war effort or pirate adventure, and on several occasions, entire treasure fleets were lost to Caribbean hurricanes.

On a Friday the 13th, in July 1733, four Spanish galleons and 22 merchant ships set sail for Spain. They were the departing treasure fleet as they sailed away from Havana, but after only two days of fair weather, the skies turned dark and the wind began to rise. With the dawn of the following day, the beautiful blue water had transformed into chaotic mountains of green and white foam. All of the ships were heavily loaded with a year’s conquest, filled with Mexican gold, South American silver and barrels of pearls from the Philippines. While facing the worst weather imaginable, the commodore of the fleet ordered the ships back to Havana, all except one were lost to a Caribbean hurricane.

Every year the Spanish ships sailed, there were tropical storms and hurricanes. In a typical pattern, the seasonal storms normally tracked past Cuba on a northwesterly course and into the Gulf of Mexico. Logically, any ship caught by a hurricane would be driven on a similar northwesterly heading, and perhaps be grounded upon the extensive, shallow sandbars of Cape Romano. The Cape Romano shoals extend miles out into the Gulf at a right angle along the Southwest Florida coastline, and are perfectly positioned to ensnare any unsuspecting ship caught in a storm.

After Mel Fisher’s treasure hunting team discovered the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha fewer than 100 miles from Marco Island in 1985, and after other treasure finds have been the subject of controversy and legal battles over ownership, rumors have surfaced about secret treasure hunting groups that know where shipwreck sites exist, but have chosen to remain silent.

The Atocha was what treasure hunters call the mother lode, containing more than 40 tons of gold coins and 100,000 silver pieces of eight. Precise excavation and advanced salvage techniques were required to bring the Atocha’s priceless cargo to the surface, but rumors insist secret treasure clubs use only extreme weather events and shifting sea floor conditions to uncover treasure and privately collect gold and silver coins from the old treasure fleets.

According to rumor, a group of Southwest Florida professionals belongs to a secret treasure club. Florida state officials have not been notified of a wreck site, and no advance technology is used to bring up treasure. After every major storm, however, or every strong cold front stirs up the seafloor, the secret group arrives with scuba gear and on every occasion, after every storm, there are always gold and silver coins on the sandy seafloor somewhere between the Cape Romano Shoals and Everglades City.

Mel Fisher and his team began to search the Cape Romano Shoals after the discovery of the Atocha, but abandoned the effort, as the shoals were always shifting after every major weather event.

Tom Williams has been a local sailboat captain and Marriott associate for 29 years. His debut adventure novel “Lost and Found” has been released by Archebooks and is available at Sunshine Book Sellers and Amazon.com. Tom is available at lostandfoundadventure.com.

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According to nautical lore and legend, Captain Calico Jack Rackham became a pirate when he took control of a sailing ship in 1718. Charles Vane was the original captain, but a mutiny occurred when the cautious commander refused to attack a French ship; Calico Jack ignored the order, took command and fired the ship’s cannons. The new pirate captain won the day and Vane’s rank was reduced to that of a common seaman.

In the following months, Calico Jack became infamously known for his flamboyant style, partly because he allowed women onboard to act as pirates. He also created his own pirate flag, with two crossed swords instead of crossed bones. But Calico Jack became most well known for his fashions, by dressing in calico cotton instead of the traditional wool and velvet, materials that were too hot and uncomfortable for the tropics.

Calico Jack sailed his pirate ship from the Caribbean and the West Indies to the Atlantic shores of New Providence Island, in the Bahamas. He was feared during his career, as no smaller ship was safe from his spyglass, and with a hardy and ambitious crew, Calico Jack soon acquired a dastardly reputation and a good deal of wealth. His exploits and adventures led his ship into the Gulf of Mexico, where he soon found a safe haven along the Southwest Florida coast and the Ten Thousand Islands. A Spanish chart from that time warned seafarers that Caxambas and Cape Romano had dangerous shoals and terrible Indians, but also promised deep-water channels and abundant fresh water.

During the particularly stormy month of September 1719, tropical storms and hurricanes ruled the seas. With every week, it seemed, a new tempest arrived out of the southeast and drove westward into the Gulf of Mexico. Any ship afloat during those September squalls was busy trying to stay above the waves, and many valuable vessels that would have normally sailed with a defensive escort were often found alone and unprotected.

After a week of weathering storms between some old Indian mounds and a vast archipelago of mangrove islands, Calico Jack and his pirate crew became restless. Locked among the mangroves they soon became irritable, quarrelsome and tired of the endless mosquitoes that plagued the deepwater channel protecting the ship. With the wind brisk and offshore, Jack’s pirate ship weighed anchor, set all sails and soon rounded a large headland and saw a strange vessel sailing in the distance. The ship appeared larger than what was safe for the shallow coastal waters, but clearly the misplaced vessel had been storm-damaged and was moving forward under jury-rigged sails.

After Jack’s crew hoisted the Jolly Roger to begin a downwind attack, a dangerous squall darkened the horizon and the winds blew the water white with battering waves. Well before Jack and his crew could reach the unknown ship, both sailing vessels were battling the storm and were too busy trying to save themselves to fight.

As the curving white edge of a large crescent beach appeared, coming closer with every breaking wave, and as the rising wind howled with a vengeance, Jack and his crew watched the heavy ship run aground and the largest mast fall from the staggering impact.

Fearing that they too would be cast upon the leeward shore, Jack ordered his ship to come about and once again, the calico pirates headed for the deepwater channel toward the old Indian mounds and the protection of the mangrove archipelago.

After it stormed for two full days, the sea became calm and Jack and his crew again ventured out beyond the headland to investigate the unknown, stranded ship. When Jack’s pirates anchored and went ashore, they found the wrecked vessel pushed high and dry upon the beach, with not a soul aboard. All three masts had fallen, the deck was crushed and the Spanish hull was almost covered in sand. No smaller boats remained onboard, so Jack and the pirates surmised that the Spaniards had taken to the water in their longboat and were bound for Havana. What did catch Jack’s eye, however, was a single golden peso resting near the steps leading down into the old ship’s hold. The crew lit a lantern and went below only to discover little stout kegs filled with golden Mexican pesos.

Jack and his pirates were overjoyed, but as he explained, they could only take a small amount of the newly found treasure; the gold was too heavy to store onboard the ship, and because storm season was far from over, the extra weight put the ship in too great of a risk. The Spanish ship, however, was a perfect vault because the hull was almost completely covered by sand and could easily be found again, as it was clearly in the center of the large crescent beach. Once a few kegs of gold had been sent aboard to appease the female pirates, Jack ordered the jubilant crew to cover what remained of the stricken vessel with sand, so that no one would stumble upon their treasure.

During the next year, with the treasure of the Ten Thousand Islands safely hidden away, Jack and the pirates sailed happily south into the Caribbean. The good times, however, did not last long. In October 1720, a British navy ship, led by Captain James Barnett, was sent specifically to find Calico Jack and his band of buccaneers and to end the pirates’ campaign that had dared to offend the church with a female crew.

Caught one evening under a full moon and a sea of stars anchored off Jamaica’s coast, Captain Barnett’s bullyboys boarded the calico pirate ship and found everyone fast asleep with a belly full of rum.

When Jack and his pirates were arrested and hauled ashore, the women begged for leniency, as they were heavy with child. Awaiting his fate, Jack was placed in a cell where he could stand on a bench and still see the sea. As he contemplated the gallows against the open water, he concocted a plan.

The British officials were sticklers for record-keeping, and when Jack was taken out of this cell and brought before the magistrate, he began to confess all the names of the ships his pirates had captured and supply the details of the cargo’s they carried. When it came to the mysterious wrecked ship that was still filled with gold, Jack launched his plan. He asked to speak to the magistrate in private and bargained that if the women on his ship could be spared a hanging and if Jack himself could be freed, he would reveal the exact location of the wrecked, sand-buried ship that lay on the crescent shore in the Ten Thousand Islands.

Because the women pirates were soon to be mothers, they were spared the death sentence for piracy, but the British magistrate did not believe Jack’s story of the lost treasure of Caxambas and Cape Romano. After only one week of captivity, Captain Calico Jack Rackham’s pirate career was over, as he was hung in Jamaica for piracy on the high seas.

To this day, Captain Calico Jack’s treasure remains undiscovered, but has been estimated to hold 300,000 golden Mexican pesos.

Tom Williams has been a local sailboat captain and Marriott associate for 29 years. His debut adventure novel, “Lost and Found,” has been released by Archebooks and is available at Sunshine Book Sellers and Amazon.com. Tom is available at lostandfoundadventure.com.

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Category: Marine History

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When the Mackle brothers’ Deltona Corporation decided to develop Marco Island as an island paradise off a then-remote region, the Southwest Florida coast, they knew an outstanding beachside resort was needed to showcase the largest and most spectacular of the Ten Thousand Islands.

The Mackles also decided, after beginning to develop the 24 square miles of island, that the best location to build the new Tahitian-style resort was nearly the epicenter of Marco Island’s big crescent beach.

Construction on the massive property that was to be the Marco Beach Hotel and Villas began in 1970. The plans called for a 10-story beachside tower of oversized hotel rooms, an elegant lobby and reception area to be the envy of anything in Hawaii, a beachside restaurant named after a notorious bar in Tahiti, and a swimming pool that was to be the largest in Southwest Florida. The complete endeavor was designed to rival any other resort in the sunshine state, and with a supporting airline, two championship golf courses and every water sport imaginable; this coastal engineering project spared no expense.

When the tower was just a concrete frame with supporting structures emerging from the sand, the bustling construction site was visited by two historians that turned out to be treasure hunters.

After visiting the jobsite superintendent, the treasure hunters explained they had a strong belief that a lost treasure ship lie just beneath the white sandy beach, directly in front of the waterside resort currently under construction. The men produced a photostatic copy of an antiquated mariner’s chart showing a crescent beach with an island background that resembled the curve of beach like the one in front of the new hotel.

With a little coaxing and a promise to share what was found, the chief engineer was convinced, and ordered several large pieces of heavy equipment to begin digging on the beach. The site chosen was approximately 90 feet from the entrance to what is now Quinn’s on the Beach, at the Marriott’s Marco Island Beach Resort.

After several hours of digging, a large crater appeared as machines worked fast to combat the rising water. Well points were placed around the excavation site and pumps were used to stem the flood of an incoming tide. Many of the construction crew crowded around the massive crater as the word had spread that the boss was looking for a lost treasure ship.

Even with the pumps working at full capacity, it was soon apparent that the rising water was going to win the day. In a last-ditch effort to achieve what was unattainable by conventional excavation, another plan was launched to unearth the sunken ship – a large, high-pressure drill was positioned over the excavation to probe even deeper into the sand.

Every supervisor, carpenter and laborer watched as the drill began pulling up dark sulfurous water and pieces of blackened wood. The excitement of discovery spread across every face around, until one of Deltona’s senior executives walked up to the crowded excavation. After a quick evaluation revealed that all work had stopped on the resort and that the crew was anxiously watching the activity in the center of a large hole, the man with the tie approached the chief engineer.

“What are you guys doing?” the executive demanded. “What’s going on here?”

“We are looking for a lost treasure ship. And we found it!” The chief engineer replied. “There’s wood coming out; wood from a Spanish ship! It’s right here under the sand!”

“Well, if it’s here, it’s sure not going anywhere, but right now, it looks like the tide is coming in, and we need to get back to work.”

According to island lore and legend, there were even bits of metal coming out of the drill that day, as well as wood exhibiting grain patterns, possibly from a wooden ship constructed in the 1700s.

Even after the rising tide has covered the clues and the men have long gone back to work, a spark of excitement about the treasure remains to this day. The story of the lost and buried shipwreck beneath the Marriott beach cannot be authenticated, but when compared to the legend and lore of Captain Calico Jack Rackham’s lost treasure of Cape Romano and Caxambas, many believe the large white crescent beach described in the pirate legends can only be the Marco Island beach.

Tom Williams has been a local sailboat captain and Marriott associate for 29 years. His debut adventure novel “Lost and Found” has been released by Archebooks and is available at Sunshine Book Sellers and Amazon.com. Tom is available at lostandfoundadventure.com

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Category: Marine History

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The next time you visit one of our Gulf beaches, look west toward the horizon. Now, imagine that your vision extends that far under the water, where would see centuries of history preserved in countless shipwreck ruins on, and sometimes embedded in, the floor of the Gulf. Many of those shipwrecks are now bountiful reefs, teeming with sea life. Others hold secrets in their hidden hulls and sunken sterns.

This is the story of one shipwreck, probably about 100 years old, about 30 miles off the coast of Marco Island. It probably will never yield any treasure, nor has it revealed many secrets about its history. In short, this shipwrecked steam paddle-wheeler offers mystery and curiosity, as well as fun, for experienced divers and others enamored of undersea history.

The stern-wheeler ship sits in 75-80 feet of water, with its highest protruding parts only about five feet above the sandy bottom. Around 1980, a fishermen’s nets snagged on the shipwreck and led to its discovery. After divers examined the scene, some thought the paddle-wheeler might have carried materials to build Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas, but that theory has since been discredited, because the fort was completed in the 1860s.

This mystery ship sports electrical fixtures and pressure gauges not available until decades later. Artifacts found around the wreckage indicate that it probably sank sometime in the early 20th century. Firebricks used for the ship’s furnace were found, bearing labels from brick-making companies in Missouri, one of which stopped making them in 1906.

The ship is much like the stern-wheel steamers designed for river navigation. Old salts say these vessels were not well suited to Gulf or ocean travel, and were prone to taking water over the side in heavy weather. Yet, many were still used to deliver supplies to builders of the original railroad to Key West. Dozens of railroad workers died in the massive hurricane of 1906. Might this mystery ship also have been caught and sunk in that storm?

So many questions remain unanswered. What was this ship’s name? It may be inscribed on the ship’s bell, but that part of the vessel is under 15 feet of sand and reaching it would severely damage the wreckage site. Was this not only a cargo ship, but also home to a captain, a small crew and perhaps, the captain’s family? If so, who were they? Did they all perish? If anyone had survived, wouldn’t that have been reported in the local newspapers? From what port did it depart and where was it headed? What cargo, if any, was it carrying?

Marco Islander Geoff Fahringer and his wife Cathie have dived the wreckage about 10 times. Experienced divers, they have captured the scene on videotape and in digital still photos. Fahringer has brought up a few artifacts that he hopes to donate to the Marco Island Historical Society. “We have an electric winch from the wreckage, some steam fittings and, of all things, a toilet from the ship–a 100-year-old toilet,” he said.

Fahringer created a multimedia presentation about the shipwreck and has shown it to Islanders several times, most recently to the Marco Island Cruise Club. Fahringer is not the only resident who would like to know more about this ship and its demise. Another man with some answers and many questions is Michael C. Barnette, author of “Shipwrecks of the Sunshine State” and “Florida’s Shipwrecks.” Barnette, who has been exploring and researching shipwrecks for 20 years, writes: “Florida’s shipwrecks include Spanish galleons, British warships, schooners, Confederate blockade runners, steamships and German U-boats. While many of Florida’s shipwrecks have been found, the vast majority still await discovery. Potentially, over 5,000 shipwrecks reside off Florida’s 1,200 miles of coastline.”

The shipwrecks, including this mysterious paddle-wheeler, draw many amateur and professional diver , and Fahringer warns of the perils of such exploration. “Wrecks are, by their very nature, dangerous, including this one. It should be explored only by divers who have advanced recreational training or technical diving expertise. This is not a place for someone who has only basic open water training.” The Gulf waters there are relatively shallow, with fine sediment and silt on the bottom, and are murky and cloudy.

Getting answers about this shipwreck is difficult because the ship lies in several pieces and much of it is embedded in the sandy bottom. No records have been found of its point of origin, name, destination, passengers and/or cargo. However, Fahringer believes the information might be found in Washington, D.C. “I understand that the National Archives has a record of every call for service for every ship lost or overdue in the period we think covers this vessel, from 1900 to 1925. So, someone with the time and the money probably could go through the records of calls to federal agencies and see whether somebody reported a lost or overdue steamship.”

When and if the whole story is revealed, and if loss of life was involved, Fahringer would like to create a bronze plaque to place on the wreckage, with a dedication ceremony at the site. His goal is to keep people from going out there and tearing the wreckage apart for souvenirs.

For now, the ship’s place in history is as murky as the water in which it rests, and even if this paddle wheeler’s story comes alive, local underwater explorers will have other mysteries to solve. Another Marco Island couple, David and Pat Brink, created a Web site, contrails.com/paddlewheel, designed to solicit information about the shipwreck and to interest others in its untold story.

Fahringer tells of another story going around about a possible shipwreck not far from Marco Island; maybe a Spanish ship. “Rumors put the wreckage everywhere from Kice Island, in the Cape Romano Flats, to under the sand where now stands the Marco Marriott, says Fahringer, with a grin.

If true, that fine hotel could have an even longer name than it already has. It could be the “Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club, Spanish Galleon Shipwreck and Spa.” “Hello, room service? I’d like a double order of doubloons, on the double!”

By CHRIS CURLE, DON FARMER

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Category: Marine History

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