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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (04/2005) Relic Hunter (03/2005) Relic Hunter (05/2005)   Vol. 39 April 2005 
The Relic Hunter
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!

I guess if you ever expect your dreams to come true, you sometimes have to put it all on the line... and I think if I only learned one thing from the re-reading of Matt's treasure journal, it was the true definition of a word too often bandied about by lesser men. That word is perseverance!

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.

Meanwhile, the gold, silver, and emeralds of the New World, so desperately need in the Old, were stockpiling. A treasure fleet needed to get through to pull Spain out of its economic tailspin.

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.

The treasure fleet endured many setbacks and delays, and it was not until well into the Caribbean hurricane season, that the leader of the fleet, Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla, made the fateful and fatal decision to set sail. The fleet sailed from Havana Harbor on July 24th, 1715. By the 29th, seasoned sailors could easily tell that bad weather was on the approach, carried by the long swells and moisture-laden breezes.

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 next day, under clearing skies, the survivors witnessed miles of sandy beach strewn with the washed-up bodies of those who had drowned, and the shattered remnants of their once proud fleet.

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.

The Spanish salvors went to work, and by the time October rolled around, and the weather brought an end to the salvage operation, they had managed to recover a large amount of the sunken treasure.

But that's just the beginning of the story. They could never get it all, and since that time, each passing hurricane has revealed, on those timeless sands, more of the treasure they missed.

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!

On August 12, 2004, hearing of Tropical Storm Bonnie and Hurricane Charley, Matt decided to head for Florida to search for Spanish silver that might be revealed in the shifting and eroded sands. Now this is no small task when you're driving a Ford Ranger and leaving from Wenona, Illinois, heading for Sebastian, Florida. It's an arduous 1,200-mile journey under the best of conditions, and certainly a lot more difficult and dangerous when you're following a fleet of tree-trimming trucks into the eye of an approaching hurricane!

"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."

Matt checked some other shipwreck sites with his detector, but it seemed that this trip would prove less than successful. "By the time Monday morning rolled around, it was time to drive back to Wenona. I hadn't found a single coin or relic from the lost treasure fleet. I was a little disappointed."

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.

Driving to the middle of Georgia, Matt then headed east toward Sebastian, but on the approach to Tampa the weather became too rough, and he was forced to hole up in a motel.

"I saw that the hurricane was heading directly for us, and if I stayed too long, I'd be stuck there. I talked to some locals and they said my best bet might be to take Rt. 100 south. It's a two-lane, tree-lined road... or at least it was. The winds were hitting about 80 miles an hour, and trees were all over the road. Fortunately, I was able to maneuver around them. Traffic lights were shattered in the middle of the road, and I passed two tractor-trailers that had been blown over by the force of those hurricane winds. Finally, after what seemed like years of driving, I arrived safely, if not a little rattled, at Sebastian, Florida."

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.

"We were able to recover some musketballs and spikes from the wrecks, but not a single piece of Spanish silver. We met up with some other treasure hunters who'd had a little better luck than we did, and they showed us a couple of Spanish coins that they had found on the beaches just to the north of us. So, we headed in that direction."

"Within an hour, sweeping the coil of my Shadow X-5 across the sand, I was able to recover a half real and two smaller Spanish silver coins. In addition, I was able to find part of a navigator's compass and ten small shipwreck spikes. We were only able to hunt for a short while due to the fact that I had to be back at the motel before the 6 p.m. curfew."

"There was more talk about another hurricane, Ivan, brewing in the Atlantic. I was looking at my last day of hunting the beaches, and I was getting a little tired of eating only canned tuna and crackers," Matt added.

"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!"

"The following day, heading back to Illinois, I couldn't get the smile off my face. I had recovered nearly a dozen pieces of Spanish shipwreck silver and a bunch of interesting relics from the doomed 1715 treasure fleet."

It sure seems that Matt had to do a lot of traveling to find his Spanish silver, but with the reported approach of Hurricane Jeanne, he was once again packing his bags and detector!

"I used my credit from the previously cancelled flight and flew down to Florida on September 24th. There was a mandatory evacuation of Sebastian, and by evening the winds were blowing well in excess of a hundred miles an hour. The electrical power was out and the phone lines were down. It was in the early morning hours when I heard the ominous creaking and crashing as parts of the motel started flying off. I took a look outside and saw part of the motel's roof lying across the top of a truck.

"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."

"When we were finally able to hit the beach, we found that it had been cut down about seven feet and was mostly black sand. I used the beach mode on my Shadow X-5, and that eliminated most of the detecting problems black sand can cause. In about five minutes I had my first half real in my grasp. The beach was really producing that day, and I was able to recover an additional seven half reales during the course of the search!"

"The next day we were on the beach early, and Brian was able to find his first piece of shipwreck silver, a nice real, and I found a beautiful 1618 Honduran fleet coin. As we proceeded in our search down the beach, I recovered three more half reales, and a nice fragment of the K'ang Hsi porcelain which formed part of the cargo."

"A few times I saw the glint of gold in the sandy holes," related Matt, "but rather than a gold & emerald ring from a shipwreck, it turned out to be a 14K man's ring. The five diamonds set into the face of the ring were nice, but there was no shipwreck history behind it. I kept searching and was rewarded with a 1690 2 reales in beautiful condition, and a religious medal from a wreck. I was later able to identify it as a medal of Saint Peter."

When it came time for Matt to say goodbye to Florida on this last trip, he carried with him 28 pieces of Spanish shipwreck silver, a copper coin from the fleet, a number of musketballs, the religious medal, and spikes and lead sheathing from the hulls of the wrecked ships.

"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."

In his notes, Matt mentioned a stone that he has at his home. Engraved are the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." After hearing and writing about Matt's adventures, I know he's a true believer in such wise words!


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!

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