Having lived the cruising life aboard my small sailboat for several years, I now enjoy my life on land in Austin, TX.
The Eye of The Storm
As I sat in my small sailboat in Marsh Harbour, located on Abaco Island in the Bahamas I was blissfully unaware that within days one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the islands would be arriving, bringing death and destruction on an apocalyptic scale to what was otherwise an idyllic tropical paradise. As a live aboard sailor I normally checked the weather forecasts regularly, but had gotten a bit complacent as I was deeply involved in a new project of sanding and applying new varnish to the old boat's teak wood.
A few months earlier, burned out on my job and recently divorced, I decided to quit my job, sell my home and go on a sailing adventure to the Caribbean in a used sailboat that I'd purchased in Corpus Christi, Texas. So far my journey had been going well, having sailed across the Gulf of Mexico, spending a few days in the Florida Keys, and then making my way on over across the perilous Gulf Stream to the Bahamas.
A local fisherman named Chris came by my boat early that morning to warn me of the approaching storm. "It's gonna be a bad one, I suggest that you find a safer anchorage", the weathered old fisherman said. "I can show you where to put your boat where it'll survive the storm".
True to his word, the old man showed me a spot just up a river in the jungle where a thicket of mangroves would offer some protection from the wind and waves. I tied my small sailboat up against the mangroves, stowed away anything that might get tossed about, and hitched a ride with the fisherman back to the town of Marsh Harbour, where I helped him and his family board up their house in preparation of the storm's arrival.
The Storm Arrives
The morning of September 14th, 1999 was not that different than any other morning in the islands, except for the presence of a low wall of ominous looking black clouds which were approaching rapidly from the east. By noon the full force of Hurricane Floyd was upon the island of Abaco, unleashing winds with gusts of up to 200 mph. Chris, the fisherman who'd helped my find a spot in a protected anchorage for my little sailboat, also offered to let me stay with his family in their sturdily built concrete-framed home on the waterfront in Marsh Harbour. According to Chris, the old home had already withstood several hurricanes over the years and he seemed confident that it would make it through this one as well.
By one o'clock in the afternoon the hurricane was already creating a flood tide in the harbor, which was soon lapping at the door of the home. By around three in the afternoon, there was about three feet of water in the downstairs portion of the home and it was rising quickly. We worked furiously to move furniture and personal items up to the second floor as the water level rose even higher. At one point in the storm a large propane tank, which had broken away from a home, washed up against a living room window. I worked alongside my friends to push the tank, which was still spewing propane gas from a broken valve, away from the house to prevent it from causing an explosion.
Outside the entire waterfront was in a state of complete chaos as the wind howled and debris sailed through the air. We peeked through cracks in the boarded up windows to see several sailboats and power boats washing up onto the shore. One of the sailboats that I saw belonged to a couple from Georgia whom I'd visited with earlier that week. I'd had dinner aboard their small boat and now it was just a wreck, broken apart on the rocks.
The wind howled and we could see roofs of homes begin to flutter, as if levitated by a magician's wand, before they began to rise and fly away like frisbees across the wide harbor, where they joined others to form a giant floating raft of broken lumber.
The eye of the storm came later that afternoon and for about half an hour it was dead calm. People filled the streets to survey the damage and to see what they could salvage of their homes and boats. For some of them there was little of value left to save. All along the harbor were dozens of large boats, sitting like some kind of beached whales in the middle of the street. I wondered at that point what had happened to my own small sailboat, now my only home, yet I knew that it would be several days before I'd be able to get back up to the spot where I'd left it.
The second half of hurricane Floyd was not quite as bad as the first, however when the wind changed direction it began blowing the water into the harbor, which created a high tide that began to float some of the boats which had been tossed up onto the shore. Many of the boats were washed back out into the middle of the anchorage, where they eventually sank. Looking out from our vantage point up on the second floor balcony there were countless sailboat masts littering the harbor and no doubt there were many other power boats now sunken below the waves as well. After the second half of the storm had passed and as night fell, I helped Chris and his family clean up the mess inside and outside of their home. They'd been one of the lucky ones, losing only a few shingles, as many other homes in the town were totally leveled. The next morning I was finally able to catch a ride with Chris in his dinghy up to where I'd left my little sailboat in the mangroves.
Arriving at my boat I found it was left mostly unscathed and I was very relieved. It had a few marks on it from being tossed up against the mangrove bushes, yet the mast was still intact and it had suffered no serious hull damage. All in all, I was incredibly lucky, yet many other sailors were not as fortunate. I spent the next few weeks helping other sailors, as well as my fisherman friend Chris to salvage what belongings, they could and to clean up debris left from the storm.
One afternoon, after helping haul countless twisted boards from a broken up home to a burn pile, Chris asked me what I thought was an odd question. "How would you like to make some money son?". The sole source of funds for my sailing adventure consisted of a few thousand dollars that I had left in a savings account, and I was quickly burning through it at a much faster rate than I'd planned to when I started my voyage. In order to keep sailing for a while longer, I'd need to find some work.
I found out that my friend owned one of the only salvage diving companies on the island of Abaco. He owned dive compressors, lift bags which are used to raise sunken boats, as well as one of the few work boats that had not been sunk by the storm. Insurance companies were already knocking at his door and requesting his services to remove sunken boats from the harbor and then to salvage or dispose of them. From our conversations Chris had learned that I was an experienced scuba diver and also that I had some previous experience with construction and demolition. I happily accepted his job offer and set about getting a permit to work in the islands. Through the grapevine I learned that the Bahamian government was offering expedited work visas for anyone helping with hurricane related work, so I caught a crowded ferry over to Nassau and after waiting in line for around six hours, was finally issued a work permit valid for 90 days.
A Change In Plans
In order for my friend to begin raising sunken boats in the harbor he needed to get the required permits from the local government, as well as the right paperwork and authorization from the boat owner's insurance companies. Chris told me this would take a couple of weeks and I was disappointed since I was eager to get started making some money. As we sat on what was left of his fishing dock, drinking a couple of local Kalik beers and looking out into the tangle of sunken boats in the harbor, Chris said "I've got something else that we can do in the meantime, and I'll pay you for it too."
Looking over his shoulder to make sure that no one was listening, he told me that for years he had been hunting for the wreck of a Spanish treasure ship which was reported to have sunk on a reef just up the coast from Marsh Harbour. The unnamed wreck had yielded bits of treasure over the years, mostly small silver coins which sometimes washed up on the beach and were found by beachcombers.
Earlier that morning Chris had gone out to see if any of his crab traps had survived the storm, but found that none of them were still intact. Instead, he said that he'd found what he thought might be the legendary Spanish shipwreck lying on the seafloor. The storm surge from the hurricane had revealed the bones of an ancient ship and he was anxious to go and have a closer look. If he could actually find any amount of treasure lying near the wreck, it would be enough for him to file a claim of ownership with the government and possibly become incredibly wealthy if there was more treasure hidden under the sand.
We Find Treasure!
Early the next morning we began loading dive equipment into Chris's 24' aluminum work boat. The locals all knew that my friend was a salvage diver and since there was a lot of that kind of activity starting to happen around the harbor, the current situation would be the perfect cover for our treasure hunting mission.
Skipping across the choppy waves of the harbor and out into the Caribbean in his work boat, we traveled for about half an hour to where a long reef jutted out into the water from Abaco Island. Chris tossed out an anchor and we donned our scuba gear and eased into the warm water. After clearing my scuba mask and turning my head to look down toward the seafloor, I finally saw what Chris had become so excited about. There in the water below, looking sort of like the skeleton of a large whale, was what appeared to be the hull of an ancient ship, about a hundred feet in length. As we submerged and swam on down towards the bottom, Chris suddenly began to kick his fins hard and made a beeline towards something on the seafloor that had obviously caught his eye. He stretched out his hand and picked up a shiny object that was lying on the bottom. It was a small silver coin. Chris shook it furiously and pointed a finger at it as if to say "I knew it was here!"
For the Rest of This Story See Part 2 of Bahamas Treasure
© 2021 Nolen Hart