Thompson's Interest in Exploration
In the Summer of 1976, just having graduated from engineering school, Tommy Thompson went down to Key West to meet his childhood friend Barry Schatz, a reporter for the Miami Herald, who had just published a story on the infamous treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Tommy was intrigued with Fisher's search for the Atocha and joined his team for the summer.
That summer, after thousands of hours with their face masks down in the sand, the divers on the Arbutus had found nothing much more valuable than a barrel hoop. Yet they all wanted to be on the bottom, because as one put it, "If you're not down there, you're not going to find it." But more and more Tommy stayed topside trying to solve bigger problems and observing how others searched for treasure. He was more interested in why they couldn't find the Atocha than he was in seeing treasure, and as he watched, he got to thinking.
For two hundred years, fleets of treasure galleons stuffed with silver and gold and emeralds had plied the Caribbean Sea, crisscrossed it every which way, from Key West down to Cartagena, from the Yucatán over to the Windward Islands, and every so often, one of those unpredictable West Indian cyclones would come spinning across the Caribbean and slam half the fleet onto shallow reefs, which ripped open the hulls and spewed that treasure all over the ocean floor.
Where were these ships and why were they so hard to find? Already, shipwrecks had become one of the seven-to-fourteen, and Tommy was asking more questions. Just how "blue-sky" are these projects? With all of those shipwrecks out there and all of that research available and the technology on line, it shouldn't be a matter of searching until you stumbled across something. Tommy had liked Mel Fisher from the day he met the man, but Fisher would blast holes into the seafloor, and within days or even hours sand would again fill the holes, and Fisher would have no record of where he had just searched.
"Amazing the way that place worked," said Tommy. "Absolutely incredible. I got to see a lot of the problems."
They had dragged a magnetometer all over the quicksands where they had found the cannons, and every time they'd get a hit, remembered Tommy, someone would shout, "Yeah, that's it! That's just where I thought it was gonna be, right in this area of the map I was thinking about! That's gotta be it---send the divers down!'" Then they would mark the spot by throwing over a bleach bottle tied to a cinder block, except that often by the time they got that into the water, the boat would be a hundred yards beyond the hit. A diver then had to go down and see if what had set off the magnetometer was part of the Atocha. It was always something else, but they would say the same thing the next time, and they would keep thinking that way again and again and again. As soon as the weather turned rough, the bleach bottle buoys would drift.
"This had been going on for years," said Tommy, "and they had no method for knowing where they'd searched. They argued about, Well, we searched that last year,' you know, and somebody else would say, No, no, that was over there. We didn't search that.' It was incredible. After years of that they had no good records of what had happened. And Mel's operation was better than most."
Tommy figured that someone needed to study hurricanes and how they came across the Caribbean, and what they would do over the centuries to a ship already wrecked, how they would break it up and where the pieces might have moved. Everyone looking for the Atocha knew that two hurricanes had hit the ship, one only three weeks after the other; but there must be a way to narrow the dynamics of those two hurricanes, a way to quantify all of the possibilities.
Use of this excerpt from Ship and Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 1998 by Gary Kinder. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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