/ Robert Kurson / 6 am Thu, Jun 18 2015
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  • Pirate treasure is real. Here's how we found it.

    Pirate treasure is real. Here's how we found it.

    A Golden Age shipwreck, the rarest of finds, lay waiting in the deep to be found. But even after hundreds of years, time can run out…

    John Chatterton and John Mattera were days away from launching a quest they’d been planning for more than two years, a search for the treasure ship San Bartolomé, sunk in the seventeenth century and worth a hundred million dollars or more. To find it, they’d moved to the Dominican Republic and risked everything they owned and held dear. The discovery would make them rich beyond their dreams and engrave their names in the history books. The New York Times would profile them. Museums would hold black-tie affairs in their honor. Best of all, they knew just where to look.

    And then their phone rang.

    On the line was Tracy Bowden, a seventy-year-old treasure hunter and a legend in the business. He said he had something big to discuss with them and asked if they might fly to Miami to hear him out.

    There has been one confirmed pirate ship wreck in the past 400 years. In my most recent book “Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, I follow along as two divers risk everything -- their wealth, their families, their safety, trying to find the Golden Fleece, the ship of the infamous pirate Joseph Bannister. This is an excerpt from that book.

    The men didn’t have two minutes to spare in advance of their quest for the San Bartolomé. They’d vowed never to let anything put them off track. But there was an urgency in Bowden’s voice they hadn’t heard in the year since they’d met him, and Miami was just a two-hour flight from Santo Domingo; they could be there and back the same day. If nothing else, Bowden told great stories, and in treasure hunting, stories were the next best thing to gold. So, one morning in early 2008, they packed day bags and booked tickets, and went on their way. The treasure on board the San Bartolomé had been lost for four hundred years. It could wait another few hours for them to come find it.

    In Miami, they rented a car and set out for Bowden’s house. He wasn’t like any other treasure hunter they’d met. He seemed to work in the shadows, shunning publicity and almost never teaming up with others. He didn’t boast or issue bullshit claims. And he used little of the modern technology that had revolutionized underwater salvage, relying instead on old drawings, aging equipment, and his own decades-old notes to find wrecked ships loaded with silver and gold.

    musketA musket ready to be recovered from the deep.

    During his career, Bowden had discovered not one but two Spanish treasure galleons, and he’d done groundbreaking work on a third, yet neither Chatterton nor Mattera could judge how wealthy he’d become. His home in the Dominican Republic was hardly larger than a garage, and his salvage boat, the Dolphin, was good but not grand. As a successful treasure hunter, Bowden should have been able to live in a palace, a place with solid gold doorknobs and a moat. But as Chatterton and Mattera pulled into the driveway, they had to double-check the address. The house, while lovely, looked no different than any other in the ordinary suburban subdivision.

    Inside, Bowden offered them coffee, but they hardly heard him. Everywhere they looked they saw treasure. In one room were silver coins embedded in coral; in another, centuries-old brass navigational instruments that museums would have paid a fortune to own. The china in Bowden’s dining room was seventeenth-century Delftware, still as blue and white as the day it was made, and a match for a priceless set Mattera had seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

    Pirate-knife-covered-in-coralA pirate knife covered in coral

    Bowden showed them other coins and artifacts, each with a story, each from a shipwreck he’d worked. He let them handle everything; touch was important, he said, otherwise a person could never really know this stuff. Finally, Mattera excused himself to use the bathroom. He stopped when he walked in the door.

    Broken-wine-jug-found-on-Golden-Fleece-hullA broken wine jug found on the Golden Fleece's hull

    Piled high in the bathtub were plastic bags filled with silver pieces of eight, all from the seventeenth century. He lifted one of the bags from the tub and inspected the contents through the flimsy plastic. For years, he’d seen silver coins like these sell for a thousand dollars apiece at auction. By his count, there were at least one hundred bags in the tub, and fifty coins to a bag. Mattera had never been quick at math, but he made this calculation right away. In a single bathtub, he was looking at five million dollars in treasure, all bundled in the cheapest baggies he’d ever seen, not even with Ziploc tops.

    Expensive-glass-fit-for-captainBowden asked the men to join him at the dining room table, then got down to business. He’d done it all in his thirty-plus-year career— worked three galleons, a slave ship, and a legendary warship from the American Revolution. He’d recovered world-class treasures and priceless artifacts. But there was something he wanted different from any of that—something rare beyond measure, a prize he’d been seeking for decades.

    Pirate-pipesPirate pipes

    “Have you heard of Joseph Bannister?” he asked.

    The men shook their heads.

    Bannister, Bowden explained, was a well-respected seventeenth century English sea captain in charge of transporting cargos between London and Jamaica. One day, for no reason anyone could explain, he stole the great ship he commanded, the Golden Fleece, and embarked on a pirating rampage, a genuine good guy gone bad in the 1680s, the Golden Age of Piracy. In just a few years, he became one of the most wanted men in the Caribbean. The harder the English tried to stop him, the more ingeniously he defied them. Soon, he’d become an international terror. The Brits swore they’d stop at nothing to hunt him down and hang him.

    Chatterton-with-coinsHe and his crew manned cannons and rifles, and they waged an all-out battle against the two Royal Navy warships. The fighting lasted for two days. Bannister’s ship, the Golden Fleece, was sunk in the combat. But Bannister won the war. Battered, and with many men dead and wounded, the navy ships limped back to Jamaica, and Bannister made his escape. It was a stunning defeat for the English and made Bannister a legend. Through the ages, however, his name had been lost to time.

    “This is the greatest pirate story ever,” Bowden said. “And no one knows about it. I want the Golden Fleece. And I think you guys can help find her.”

    Bowden did not have to explain the rarity of finding a pirate ship. Both Chatterton and Mattera knew that only one had ever been discovered and positively identified—the Whydah—lost in 1717 off Cape Cod and recovered by explorer Barry Clifford in 1984. The discovery had inspired books, documentaries, and an exhibit that continued to tour major museums more than twenty years after the find. It was clear, after the Whydah came up, that the world couldn’t get enough of real pirates. Now Bowden was talking about going after a pirate ship captained by a man who sounded even more daring than the swashbucklers in Hollywood movies .

    But that wasn’t the only big news. Bowden also believed he knew the wreck’s location. History was clear that she’d sunk off Cayo Levantado, a small island on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Chatterton and Mattera knew the place; it was small and shimmering with white sandy beaches, and home to a five-star resort. For years, it had been known as Bacardi Island, used by the rum maker in ads to depict a paradise on earth. It was a manageable area to work.

    Bannister’s story had been legend in its day, but few people seem to have searched for the wreck of the Golden Fleece. Rumor had it that former Dominican president Rafael Trujillo sent divers to Cayo Levantado as recently as the 1960s, but that they came up empty. Bowden picked up the search in 1984 and yet, every time Bowden had searched at Cayo Levantado, he’d found little more than modern debris. In recent months, he’d come to believe that without the use of state-of-the- art equipment such as side-scan sonar and magnetometers, the Golden Fleece might never be found. He’d never gone in for technology like that; he’d stayed loyal to the time-tested ways that had made him. But he couldn’t deny that guys like Chatterton and Mattera were the future. He knew they’d spent two years of their lives and a fortune to master the modern equipment, and he’d seen them make it work as they trained to hunt for their galleon, the San Bartolomé.

    So, he offered them a deal.

    Musket-ballsMusket balls

    He would give them 20 percent of the Golden Fleece if they found the pirate wreck for him. There might be gold, silver, and jewels aboard. There might be cutlasses, muskets, pirate beads, peg legs, and daggers. Or there might be nothing at all. In any case, Bowden wanted something even bigger than treasure. He wanted Bannister, the greatest pirate of them all.

    Bowden didn’t require an answer on the spot. He knew Chatterton and Mattera were about to embark on their own journey. He admired their guts and vision—it reminded him of when he’d thrown over his own safe American life to seek his Caribbean fortune. But Bannister’s Golden Fleece was once in a lifetime. Think it over, he told them, and give me your answer soon.

    Pulling out of Bowden’s driveway, the two partners could only shake their heads. Between them, they’d dived famous and fascinating shipwrecks—Titanic, Andrea Doria, Lusitania, a mystery German U- boat, Britannic, Arizona—but neither could imagine anything cooler or rarer than a Golden Age pirate ship, especially one captained by a gentleman sailor turned rogue who had defeated the Royal Navy in battle. Every diver, at some deep level in his soul, dreamed of discovering a pirate ship. Yet, it never seemed to happen to anyone. Ever. Now, Chatterton and Mattera were being given a chance to find one that sounded as thrilling as any history had known. Epic.

    Pirate-beadsPirate beads

    Yet, both men knew they could never accept Bowden’s offer.

    They had trained for two years to find treasure, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on boats and equipment, pledged their lives’ savings to the cause. They’d put together a crew, researched at archives in Spain, consulted legends and gurus, nearly got into gunfights in wild but beautiful places, survived an attack by shadowy rivals. It all had led them to a target few others knew about, a galleon called the San Bartolomé, sunk in a hurricane in 1556 on the Dominican south coast, and still believed to be filled with mountains of treasure. They knew she was there. They’d come too far to turn their backs on her now.

    Time was running out on the divers, too. Chatterton was fifty- seven, Mattera forty-six. Both were much older than most participants in deepwater-wreck diving, a sport that pushed the body to its limits and could paralyze or kill a person for the slightest mistake. Most got out of the game by forty; those who stayed longer often just dipped their toes in on the weekends. But galleon hunting was no part-time job. To do it, Chatterton and Mattera had to be ready to spend full days in the water, perhaps for weeks or even months on end. They couldn’t afford to grow older by searching for a mystery pirate ship that very well might not be there.

    And there was no guarantee they could afford a pirate ship search, in any case. Both men had begun life as blue-collar workers; neither was independently wealthy. Together, they’d invested nearly a million dollars to go hunt a galleon. If they detoured now for a pirate ship, they risked expending what remained of their funds on a wreck that would have no more than a tiny fraction of the treasure a galleon did, if it had any treasure at all.

    So, it was clear they needed to call Bowden to thank him for the pirate opportunity, and then to politely decline. Yet, even as they arrived at the Miami airport, neither man could reach for his phone. Site-of-Golden-Fleece-wreck---invisible-to-all-the-world

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