By Guy Gugliotta.
The Washington Post
Staff Writer. Monday, February 12, 2001; Page A09.
Twice a year, the ships of the Spanish flota set sail from Porto Bello, in
what is now Panama, and from Vera Cruz, on the Mexican coast. They were loaded
to the gunwales with Peruvian gold, Mexican silver and jewels from the emerald
mines of Colombia.
The ships headed north to the Yucatan Channel, which separates Mexico from
Cuba, before curling into the Gulf of Mexico for the run to the Havana harbor.
It was there, off Cuba's western tip, that the flota faced its moment of
"That's the corner," Ernesto Tapanes said. "There were a lot
of pirates hiding there waiting for them. And that spot probably has the largest
number of hurricanes in the region."
Tapanes and his mother, Paulina Zelitsky, are the leaders of Advanced
Digital Communications, a Canadian salvage company that has signed a five-year
joint-venture contract with the Cuban government to chart the deep waters off
the western coast and search for sunken treasure.
Last October, to test the expedition's side-scan sonar and its robot
submarine, the expedition found and filmed the wreck of the USS Maine, the
fabled battleship whose sinking after a massive explosion in Havana's harbor on
Feb. 15, 1898, triggered the Spanish-American war.
In 1912, U.S. government salvors finished building a cofferdam around the
hulk, patched it and towed it four miles out to sea, where they scuttled it with
full military honors in 3,700 feet of water. To this day, historians dispute
whether the Maine was sunk by a Spanish water mine, as U.S. authorities charged
at the time, or by an internal explosion, as suggested by a 1976 investigation.
The ADC expedition will not answer this question, for while finding the
Maine "proves that we can do what we want to do," Tapanes said, ADC
wants to use its search technology to find the wrecks of treasure-laden ships
that have not been seen for hundreds of years.
"We're interested in the flotas that were going to Havana,"
Tapanes said. Off Cabo San Antonio on Cuba's western tip and off the Isle of
Youth, about 80 miles east, "we know there is going to be an extreme
concentration of wrecks."
Cuba, isolated as the Western Hemisphere's lone communist outpost, has had
neither the expertise nor the inclination to examine its deep territorial waters
with technology that in the last quarter century has plumbed the oceans' depths
far beyond anything ever contemplated by divers.
Using side-scan sonar to locate foreign objects on the sea bottom and small
submarines and submersible robots to examine and recover artifacts, explorers
have achieved remarkable results: discovering hydrothermal vents near the
Galapagos Islands in 8,000 feet of water; filming the RMS Titanic, sunk 12,000
feet deep in the North Atlantic; and salvaging thousands of golden coins and
ingots from the Gold Rush-era steamer USS Central America, lying in 8,000 feet
of water off the South Carolina coast.
Under the deal negotiated by Zelitsky in 1999, ADC and a Cuban government
corporation will map the deep waters off western Cuba and split any salvage
50-50. ADC expects to find a lot, and experts say the company is probably right.
"The western end of Cuba would make sense for picking up a ship from
Vera Cruz, and someone coming out of Porto Bello would sail right by the Isle of
Youth," said historian Sherry Johnson, a colonial Caribbean specialist at
Florida International University. "The Gulf itself was called 'the Spanish
lake,' so if you were a pirate, you didn't want to go there."
According to Johnson, Spain sent two flotas to the Indies each year. Both
sailed from Sevilla and later Cadiz, bringing mail, wine, finished goods and
some foodstuffs to their overseas domains.
They arrived in Santo Domingo on the south coast of the island of
Hispaniola, then dispersed -- smaller ships to the islands of the Lesser
Antilles, larger vessels to Mexico and Panama on the mainland.
Johnson said the first pirates were French freelancers, who ambushed
returning merchantmen off the Spanish coast, a desultory exercise at first, but
one that soon had the world's undivided attention after Cortez's conquistadores
"hit the jackpot" in Moctezuma's Mexico.
In 1519, modern-day Havana was founded as a gathering place for ships on the
way home to Spain. Soon the Spaniards began putting convoys together to guard
against piracy, and by the 1560s, sailing in flota was mandated by law.
Outbound flotas, following the practice begun by Christopher Columbus,
headed south along the coast of Africa until they picked up prevailing easterly
winds that drove them across the Atlantic to Santo Domingo.
Johnson said that by 1500 it was well-known that the same easterlies,
especially around Sept. 21, the autumnal equinox, could also bring terrible
storms. Columbus rode out a hurricane in the lee of Hispaniola during his second
voyage in 1494. Eventually Spain began closing Caribbean ports around the
When the merchantmen were loaded in Porto Bello and Vera Cruz, they and
their escort warships sailed for Havana, driving north to the Yucatan Channel
and deep into the Gulf until they picked up a breeze off the North American
coast. Then they would "make a big loop" and come straight south to
Havana, where the flota formed.
Johnson said the existence of the Gulf Stream, heading northeast through the
Florida Straits, up the Atlantic coast of Florida, then across the ocean to
Europe, was known as early as 1511, and the flota followed this route home.
It was here, in treacherous waters flanked by the shallows of Salt Key, the
Grand Bahama Bank and the Florida Keys, where many treasure ships went down, and
where most of the Caribbean's shallow-water salvage takes place. In 1985 divers
found the treasure ship Atocha in 55 feet of water.
But the dangers could be just as grave in the Yucatan Channel or off the
Isle of Youth, where ocean depths reached 6,000 to 10,000 feet a few miles off
coast, far out of reach of divers but well within the capabilities of modern
By the mid-1500s, pirates had become a permanent feature of the Caribbean
seascape, and even as France and Spain made peace in 1559, Queen Elizabeth I
took the throne of England and inaugurated "subscription voyages," in
which private captains flew the English flag as they preyed on Spanish ships --
and gave Elizabeth a share of the profits.
Sir Francis Drake made his first fortune in the 1570s pillaging cities and
gold-laden mule trains on the Spanish Main. Nearly 100 years later, Henry Morgan
sacked Porto Bello, capturing so much booty that Spanish pieces of eight became
legal tender in Jamaica.
The ADC expedition is betting that the residue of these and other adventures
lies in the ocean depths off western Cuba.
"Just by virtue of Cuba's location and history and its position on this
trade route, our success rate should be very high," Tapanes said. "It
alleviates the need to look for one specific galleon. If we find bottles,
anchors and stuff, we can say, 'There's a wreck here,' and be reasonably sure
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