As seen in the April 2005 edition of W&ET Magazine
Of Ordeals Met- And Mastered!
By: Ed Fedory
Photos By: Matt Zulz
Now, there's treasure stories... and then there's TREASURE stories! I had to read through Matt Zulz's notes a half dozen times before I could fully grasp the determination and sheer intestinal fortitude- guts, if you will, in light of the unparalleled hardships and dangers- required for Matt to realize his dream of finding Spanish treasure on the hurricane-wracked shores of Florida! It's a tale of a consuming passion that some might consider foolhardy. It's a tale of ordeals met... and mastered!
The story begins almost 300 years ago, a period of great political instability in Europe. Two wars, the War of the Grand Alliance, and the War of the Spanish Succession, had devastating consequences on Spain's economy. Additionally, the sinking of a fleet and loss of great treasure in the Battle of Vigo Bay (1702), the sinking of a Spanish treasure fleet off Cartagena in 1708, and the loss of the 1711 treasure fleet off the coast of Cuba, had placed Spain in dire straits.
The devastation caused by hurricanes can easily be seen in the background. During his first outing Matt met with something less than success in his quest to find Spanish shipwreck silver... but that was soon to change!
With the end of hostilities in 1715, it seemed the time was ripe, and certainly safe enough, to unfurl the sails, hoist the anchors, and ship the vast and accumulating treasures home to Spain. To this end, both the Esquadron de Terre Firma and the Flota de Nova Espana, a fleet of eleven Spanish ships, were loaded down with gold, silver, jewelry, raw uncut and unset emeralds, precious pearls, and valuable K'ang His Chinese porcelain, and made ready to set sail on the long journey back to Spain.
"I found all kinds of targets... lures, lead sinker, children's toys," recalls Matt, "but the Spanish silver eluded me for a while. You had to dig a lot of junk!"
Around four o'clock in the morning of the 31st, nature unleashed one of her most powerful forces- the hurricane. As the strength of the wind increased and the seas became mountainous, the fleet was forced onto the jagged reefs of the Florida coast. With the heavy winds and seas, the ships were soon reduced to shattered fragments. Nearly half the crews and passengers were killed in those terrible early morning hours.
The form and style of the Spanish galleon had only changed in minor details from the Atocha that had sunk in a hurricane during the previous century. In this highly detailed model of the sinking Atocha, master modeler Dan O'Neill shows the force and fury, destruction and devastation that nature could have on even the largest of wooden ships. (Photo courtesy of Dan O'Neill, www.thehistoryman.com)
Less than a week later, a small launch was piloted back to Cuba with the news of the treasure fleet's loss. Salvage and rescue vessels set sail immediately to aid the survivors and reclaim as much of the treasure as possible.
During Matt's trip to Florida during Hurricane Frances, he had his first success at finding Spanish silver coins and relics from the lost treasure fleet.
It wasn't until after World War II, with the use of mine detectors and scuba gear, that Spanish treasure fever really hit the Florida coast. There are very few owners of metal detectors who haven't heard the names of Mel Fisher and Kip Wagner, or read the tales of fabulous treasures recovered in the sands and off the reefs of Florida, but few of us have been lured so intensely as was Matt Zulz!
"I had two of the recovered coins mounted and placed on silver chains for my two sons, Jeremy and Ben," says Matt. "They enjoy metal detecting as much a their dad does!"
"When I finally arrived in Florida, I decided to beach hunt the Wabasso area," relates Matt. "I found some four-foot cuts, but the only targets I was recovering were new stuff and an awful lot of fishing sinkers. The treasure coins were eluding me."
Musketballs, lead sheathing from the ship's hull, and bronze spikes were among the many relics Matt recovered.
A little more than two weeks later, with Florida still reeling from the effects and damage from Charley, Hurricane Frances was destined to hit the Florida coast. Matt decided to book a flight to Orlando, but later found out that his flight was cancelled due to the ordering of one of the largest mass evacuations in Florida's history. Now, most people would put an end to their treasure hunting plans, and I guess this is where that word perseverance begins to come into play. Matt packed up his Ford pickup, loaded up with extra gas cans, water, and provisions, and headed out once again, bound for the ravaged beaches of Florida, his dream of Spanish silver still intact, untarnished.
On the left is a 1618 coin from the Honduran Fleet, while next to it is a 1690 2 reales from the 1715 fleet.
On Monday, the island that Matt wanted to hunt was blocked off, but on Tuesday he was able to grab a ride with a buddy who was going over the bridge to check on his house. Finding only minimal damage to the dwelling, they decided to go beach hunting.
A piece of colorful K'ang Hsi Chinese porcelain was found on the surface of the sand while beach hunting. This type of ceramic ware formed part of the cargo of the sunken fleet and was carried on the Capitana, the galleon on which Captain-General Ubilla lost his life.
"The next morning started out pretty unsuccessfully, but in the early afternoon I his this one big cut that was about 60 feet long. It produced seven half reals! I couldn't have been happier!"
Bearing the image of Saint Peter, this medal was one of the more interesting recoveries made in the wake of the hurricanes.
"At dawn we witnessed the incredible devastation the storm had wrought. That day I was pretty much "room bound" as only emergency vehicles were allowed on the road. I met Brian that day, and he told me of his desire to find his first Spanish silver coin. I knew exactly how he felt, and we decided to hook up for some beach hunting the following day, when we would be once again allowed on the beaches."
Matt had to do a lot of digging, but there's nothing like looking down in the sand and finding a Spanish coin or shipwreck relic looking back at you! In the center is a religious medal carried by one of the crew, or perhaps a passenger, of the doomed fleet.
"It was a great adventure, and I had some very good luck- and despite the hurricanes and all the devastation and privations, I've never been around a nicer group of people in my life. It was a tragedy, but somehow they were able to face adversity with a smile."
Author's Note: In this story I have only touched upon a few of the hardships Matt had to endure on his way toward fulfilling his dream. Among those missing accounts were the lack of gas, running water, electrical power, and hot meals. Missing were the accounts of the creativity and ingenuity needed and employed when sanitary facilities are nonexistent. Think for a second about the loneliness and hours upon hours of driving under extreme conditions, with only your passion and your dream occupying the cabin of your truck to spur you on. I have to tip my hat to Matt for having accomplished what few could have done. I have a feeling that it'll be a very long time before I dare to complain about a sore back, blistered hands, or bug bites, on the return from a relic hunt. Matt, you deserve all the treasures you found- you earned them the hard way!