01 July 2011

Adventure abounds: finding the wreck of the Atocha

On September 4th, 1622 a flotilla of 28 Spanish ships left Havana, bound for Spain. The flotilla transported the spoils of empire and in their holds were stacked an untold fortune in gold, silver, emeralds, tobacco and indigo. The day after they left, the flotilla was overtaken by a hurricane as it entered the Florida Straights. By September 6th, eight of the 28 original ships had gone down. Of these eight ships, the largest was the Nuestra SeƱora de Atocha. The Atocha was the heavily armed, rear ship in the flotilla and it sunk in 55 feet of water. Those 55 feet kept it out of the reach of Spanish salvage efforts that continued for the 60 years that followed her sinking.

In 1976, National Geographic aired a special on PBS about a dreamer in Key West named Mel Fisher and it detailed his quest to find the wreck of the Atocha in the waters between Key West and the Dry Tortugas.

I remember watching that special as a fifth grader and I remember how it caught my imagination on fire. In Wisconsin, an amateur wreck diver named Syd Jones watched the same show on PBS and had an idea. At the time, Jones was an unsatisfied office worker and a month after the special aired he quit his job and drove to Key West to ask for a job on the crew searching for the Atocha.

Syd Jones just published a book that tells the story of his life as a treasure hunter from when he started in 1976 until his team found the wreck in 1985. Those nine years are filled with long periods of low to no pay, love, loss, history, failure and finally, victorious redemption.

Jones' Sweat of the Sun, Tears of the Moon tells the story of Atocha I've been looking for since I watched that PBS special all those years ago. It's the story of what it was like to be a diver and a captain. It's the story of what it's like to find a half a billion dollars worth of silver, gold and emeralds that had lain hidden for nearly 400 years.

As thrilling as the adventure is, what really hooked me was Jones' ability to give me a front row seat to what was going on behind the scenes. He details the conflicts between the dreamer Fisher and his more pragmatic crews. He describes the clash between the need to do archaeology and salvage at the same time. But more than anything, he tells the story of the people behind the triumph and the long, thankless road they followed to get to the ending they knew was there but couldn't see.

My dad gave me a copy of Sweat of the Sun, Tears of the Moon last Friday and I finished its final, 332nd page 48 hours later. I couldn't put it down and I mean that literally. I can't remember a book that's grabbed me so tightly in a very long time. If you're looking for a great vacation read, I can't think of one I'd recommend more highly.

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