February 27, 1983 marked the inaugural start of Grand Prix Miami, yet what should have been an exciting and memorable day was nearly a disaster, both competitively and financially. A severe rainstorm turned the circuit into a quagmire and the race was red-flagged after twenty-seven laps due to the heavy rain.
It was also a disaster for my great uncle, Tom Mitchell, when his twenty-foot fishing boat, the El Dora, was destroyed in the high seas and thirty to forty knot winds that swept the Bayside docks in downtown Miami, tossing his small boat up onto the concrete pier and back into the water again, over and over through the night. Not only was the boat a total loss, but Tom also had to pay fifteen hundred dollars to have her hauled off. Tom was not one to easily part with his hard-earned cash, so this was quite a painful experience for him financially and emotionally, as he loved his boat.
Although the storm destroyed the El Dora and prevented the first Miami Grand Prix from experiencing a successful start, Allen and his crew of partying friends ignored the maelstrom as best they could and carried on having fun onboard the Aldebaran Bay through the rest of the weekend, tied right to the dock. Allen and his mother served stone crabs, lobster, fish, shrimp, and every sort of seafood delicacy one could imagine. Walter and my cousin Keith had a blast dining on the extravagant fare and jamming with the other partiers to the music of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
In April of the same year, Allen called Walter to invite him on another boating excursion.
“Captain Walt! I’m putting together a little weeklong fishing trip onboard the Aldebaran Bay over Spring Break. You interested?”
Walter could hear Allen’s smile on the other end. This was right up his alley, “Yeah, man! How much?”
“Even you will go for this one, Capt. It’s just $200 for the week, including everything. People waiting on us, serving us drinks and food, nothing to do but fish and dive. What do ya say?”
Walter immediately put in for a week’s vacation from his Allstate job, which he hated. He wanted to be outdoors, working on the water, but he didn’t have a skill, other than fishing maybe, that would translate into such a job. That’s what he really wanted. A job on the water. He hated being stuck indoors behind a desk, pushing paper and making phone calls. It was like being in prison. He needed to get out of there as he didn’t know how much longer he could take it. But here on offer was a reprieve. And he took it. He needed this trip to clear his head and figure out how he was going to move forward. This sailing trip with his friends was just the ticket.
My cousin Keith later called Walter and gleefully told him that in addition to a full staff serving them and running the boat, Allen set it up so they were mostly cruising at night, while they slept, so they could maximize their daylight hours for fishing and diving, not wasting time running from place to place. Keith was giddy and his excitement was contagious.
All those invited eagerly accepted the invitation. Keith, Deb, and Tom already knew the boat and the waters of the Bahamas, as did Walter. Other Miamians invited included a young woman named Birdie, along with Mike and Steve Tally who regularly spearfished with Keith and played poker with my family. For the others invited who lived up north, the idea of heading south and living onboard a boat for a week while cruising through the Bahamas was like a dream come true. These included Allen’s college friend Wendy and her friend Maritsa, Allen’s friend Phil Purdue, Deb’s brother and sister Dick and Denise, along with two of Denise’s college girlfriends. All together there were seven men and seven women, not including the crew.
The 175 ft Aldebaran Bay was built in Holland around 1940 and was initially used as a training vessel for the German navy. It was not originally a sailboat but had been converted to a schooner with three big steel masts at some point in her life. She was powered by the original giant four cylinder Blackstone diesel engine. The five to six foot high cylinders were impressive and capable of turning the prop at 950 rpm for a cruising speed of about seven knots. The vessel was owned by a British man in his early sixties named Bill Sutton, who would captain the boat for this Spring Break charter.
On the big day of departure, all fourteen guests boarded the boat and figured out the cabin arrangements. The boat was not lavish or extravagant, but it was neat and clean and extremely comfortable. There were many cabins below decks, each with its own bath. The accommodations were more than adequate.
The cruising plans involved heading to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, and then to Royal Island, located just off Spanish Wells, down to Great Harbour Cay, and then back to Miami, with what they hoped would be a huge seafood haul.
Having somewhat of an old mariner’s soul at the young age of twenty-five, Walter spent considerable time in the wheelhouse talking with the owner/operator Bill Sutton over the course of the week.
“So, what attracted you to this boat, Bill? It’s a pretty unusual vessel.”
“Well, Walter,” Bill replied in his British accent, “I’m interested in treasure salvage of old shipwrecks, you see. I’ve spent a good deal of time researching it, as well.”
“Really? Find anything interesting?”
“Years ago, Walter, I did some treasure diving off the Turks and Caicos near the Silver Bank. Hang on a minute whilst I locate some photographs I took and show you what I found.”
Walter waited as Bill went to his cabin. Soon, he returned with some photos. Bill was quite animated as he showed him pictures of old rigging and some bronze spikes and brass straps.
“And look at this one,” Bills eyes shone bright as he pointed to the next photo. Walter saw a mound of silver bars and some coins.
“I can’t stop thinking about it, Walter. It really gets my heart pumping. I’m going back, you know.”
“Where to? The Silver Bank?”
“Yes, that’s my main destination, Walter. But first I want to go to Hogsty Reef. I have a ship’s manifest that I researched in Europe. It’s from the 1700s. It wrecked and sank off Hogsty Reef with sixty tons of silver onboard, all bound in wooden casks.”
“How will you know where to look for this, exactly?”
“Ah!” Bill smiled with his forefinger in the air, “As luck would have it, two sailors survived the shipwreck and they described swimming from the wreck for a certain distance in a certain direction. They made it to a small sand bar that is part of Hogsty Reef.”
Walter watched as Bill pulled out a chart. “Based on the description of these sailors, Walter, I’ve got a good idea of where she went down. This,” he said, pointing to a vague area on the map, “is where I want to explore.”
Walter was fascinated with Bill’s story. As he started to ask another question Keith popped in the wheel house. “Walter, c’mon. It’s time to dive. Let’s get some fish!”
Walter looked back at Bill as Keith ducked back outside. “Go on, Walter. We have all week to talk about this.”
There were six spearfishers onboard and they split up into buddy pairs for scuba diving: Keith and Walter, Mike and Steve, Allen and Phil. The divers took the seventeen-foot Dory boat and anchored off Royal Island and a nearby wreck that was largely out of the water. The men suited up and jumped in on three different areas. Walter and Keith dived on a nice reef with the wreck visible in the distance.
The sun was shining brightly and the turquoise water was crystal clear. Perfect diving conditions. The reef was beautiful with its huge mounds of coral heads dropping down over the edge into the deeper water. The reefs were teeming with loads of fish. Soon Walter spotted a forty pound black grouper. He lined up the shot and let his Hawaiian sling fly. The grouper got away from Walter and Keith took off after it, nailing it soundly and swimming it up to the surface. The fish trailed a line of blood. Walter and Keith both noticed a six foot reef shark at full attention, heading right for the grouper. Keith kicked purposefully toward the boat while Walter swam backwards keeping his eye on the edgy shark as it darted around him. Whenever it got too close Walter jabbed it with his spear tip. He managed to keep the shark off of Keith and himself as Keith carried the fish up to the boat and jumped out of the water. Walter wasn’t far behind him and soon got out of the water, as well.
Steve was in the Dory when they got onboard.
“Where’s Mike?” Keith asked Steve.
“He’s still in the water. I saw the shark so I got out.”
“What do you mean ‘you got out?’ Mike’s your buddy. You don’t leave your buddy.”
“There was a shark!”
“I don’t care. Walt and I had that shark on us, but we didn’t leave each other. We’re buddies. Get back in the water. Mike may be in trouble down there and if he dies it’ll be your fault. You don’t leave your buddy.”
Keith went on and on until Steve was nearly in tears.
“Are you serious? I have to get back in that water with the shark?”
“Yes, you have to go find your buddy. It’s your job to stay with him. He’s not my buddy. He’s your buddy. That’s your job.”
About that time Mike surfaced and got in the boat, much to Steve’s relief.
“Ah, there you are, Steve! Glad you’re okay. Man! I was digging these lobster out of a hole. One was a real monster. I saw that shark that was after you two but I wasn’t worried because there’s no blood with the lobster. But that shark was really on top of me the whole way back.”
Walter looked down and noticed a pool of blood forming on the deck. “Mike, look at your knee. It’s all torn up. You’re bleeding!”
“Well, no wonder that shark was after me!” he looked up smiling. “I couldn’t figure that one out!”
The divers had managed to bring in a nice haul of fish, so they motored back to the Aldebaran Bay and got onboard, where Mike had his leg wrapped up. Walter had caught a large twenty pound dolphin and they gave that to the crew to fry up for the supper that night. They all showered up and hung out on the deck as the sun began its slow descent. The girls in the crew brought out boat drinks for everyone and then they all went inside to enjoy a delicious fish dinner. Tom spent some time talking to the captain, Bill, as they were close in age. The rest of the twenty-somethings wandered back up on deck after supper.
Icy pina coladas started flowing with the fragrance of coconut and pineapple perfuming the breeze. Someone turned on the boom box and started cranking out Michael Jackson tunes as the group of friends danced on the deck. It was April and the breeze was cool and brisk. The weather was absolutely perfect under a clear night sky.
“This is gorgeous,” Deb breathed to Keith. “I wish we could just sleep out here.”
“We can,” Keith responded. “Who wants to sleep outside tonight?” Keith shouted to the others.
Everyone agreed it was a great idea. So down below they went and dragged up mattresses and pillows and slept through the night underneath a million watching stars. Two people slept in the hammocks, which rocked through the night with the motion of the boat. The quiet chatter amongst the ship mates sprawled across the deck centered on how perfect this trip was, how perfect the night was, how amazing it was to be served, to just relax and do nothing, and how they wish they could just stay there forever and never go home. Walter listened in the darkness to those words and fervently wished he didn’t have to go back home to the dungeon that was his desk job. But for now he wanted to drink in the moment of being here sleeping under the stars on the deck of a boat surrounded by his favorite people and doing his favorite things.
The next morning Walter found himself in the wheelhouse again talking to Bill.
“Walter, I’ve been watching you and I can see you are a very skilled diver.”
“Well, it’s what I love to do. I love being on the water,” Walter grinned good-naturedly.
“Right. Well, I’ve been thinking,” he continued in his posh English accent, “that I’m going to need some good divers for my treasure hunting expedition.”
Bill went on to reiterate he was setting up a salvage operation that would take about three to four months. They would head first to Hogsty Reef and do some salvage work using the ship manifest he had, and then head on to the Silver Bank.
It was the Spanish treasure ship Concepcion that most engaged Bill Sutton’s imagination. Built in 1620, she was a large merchant ship, about 116 feet long. When she was later modified to carry thirty-four bronze cannon, she was reclassified as a galleon.
Laden with treasure, the Concepcion set sail from Havana, Cuba in September 1641. Eight days later a hurricane thrashed the ship. Leaking, she began a month-long limp toward Puerto Rico for repairs. On October 31, just short of reaching her destination, the Concepcion struck a shallow reef and began to sink. Three hundred passengers and crew perished; fewer than two hundred survived, some of them by piling silver on the reefs so they could stand and keep their heads above water.
No one knew exactly how much treasure the Concepcion carried when she set sail for Spain, Bill told Walter. The ship carried between one million and four million silver pesos, which weighed as much as one hundred and forty tons, along with an assortment of jewelry, pearls, emeralds, and gold dust. It was the vast store of silver deposited onto the reef that gave it the name Silver Bank.
There is still treasure to be found, Bill said. And he intended to find it. Bill’s salvage expedition would depart in early June of that year. Just two months away.
“I was wondering if you would be interested in the job.” Bill studied Walter’s face quietly, waiting for his response.
Walter loved being outdoors, especially on the water. He had a college degree and, while trying to find the right job – a job he enjoyed – he had taken a position in an Allstate office as an insurance adjustor. Bill’s offer was like a lifeline. Get paid to do what he loves most? Dive in the Caribbean? And hunt for treasure? It was the promise of an adventure of a lifetime.
A slow smile spread across Walter’s face as he looked steadily at Bill Sutton. “Yes. I am definitely interested in the job.”