If you think Dal is the type who sits at a computer all day long and types then you need to reboot your frontal lobes. Actually, he’s been all over the place.
Crayton Fenn, who is Skippy’s son, and a professional deep-sea diver, sent me a few photos. Since Dal’s face is plastered on most of them I asked him to give me some short descriptions. Instead, he wrote a book. But the stuff is kind of interesting so I begged him to post a couple of stories and illustrate them with the photos.f
This is a photo of neither me nor Crayton. This fellow is one of about 400 who’s bones rest, often unarticulated, in Maldonado Bay on the shipwreck of the Salvador off the coast Uruguay.
If you look closely you can see an old brass button from his shirt just right of center in the picture, just as it was found. His shirt has long since rotted away. Juan rests quietly now but the chaotic moments leading up to his death were anything but peaceful. He was terrified and fighting for his very existence against a terrible storm that unleashed itself on the armed troop ship Salvador in 1812, breaking the ship apart and drowning most aboard.
In Uruguay, the story of the Salvador is entrenched in colorful South American history and lore. This great wooden ship, a hundred and fifty feet in length, carried over 500 war hardened Spanish soldiers as it stealthily approached the coast of Uruguay. Their purpose was to attack and seize almighty control for the mother country and mercilessly put down a growing revolution by the disenfranchised and disgruntled patriots of Spanish South America. If the Salvador and it’s cargo of well trained and tested infantry had reached shore that late summer day over 200 years ago, the face of South America and the lives of those living there would most certainly be very different today. Many Uruguayans considered it nothing short of a miracle that this ship never made it to shore.
I am in the center in the back and Crayton Fenn is next to me on camera right in the blue/green checked shirt. The town of Punta del Este, Uruguay is behind us. Crayton was the leader and operations manager of this project in which we had a contract with the Uruguayan government allowing us to search and salvage in an area known to be riddled with ships from the 15th century to the present and loaded with everything from gold bars to French wines.
In the 19th century, Spanish canons did not have serial numbers. Instead they were each baptized with the name of a saint, typically the name of the saint whose day it was when the canon was “born”. The canon in front of us is named S. Rafael (Saint Rafael). It was created in 1801. S. Miguel and S. Graviel were the next canons brought up. In addition to its name each canon also carries the inscription, “Domingo Soriano Me Fecit”, which means, “Domingo Soriano made me”.
You can see from this photo how thousands of artifacts were laying on the bottom, as if they had simply “spilled” off the ship yesterday. Of course there were tens of thousands of artifacts hidden under the sand as well. The salvage of the items here was a precise archeological dig, except under water. Artifacts included everything from weapons to buttons to jewelry to coins to crystal wine glasses to medical supplies, there were also the skeletons of nearly four hundred soldiers and sailors who drowned while trying desperately and impossibly to keep their ship from sinking under their feet. Some of the skeletons were still wearing leather boots. Some linen shirts survived and many skeletons had items such as beads or a crucifix circling the neck, coins in their pockets and swords at their sides The Oxford Encyclopedia called the artifacts we found on the Salvador “the most significant collection of Napoleonic era artifacts surviving today”.
Crayton Fenn on the left and me behind the canon, taking careful aim I guess…
You will note that we are wearing our nice crew shirts and clean socks in this photo. We are coming into the harbor in Punta del Este to unload our first cargo of bronze canons. We heard that a crowd had formed on the dock to meet and greet us. Although we wanted to look sharp for the crowd, we had no idea we were about to be treated like heroes.
Hundreds of folks came down to the dock to see and hopefully touch the canons. When we placed these beautiful relics on the dock, hundreds and hundreds of Punta del Este residents reached out to touch the canons and then make the sign of the cross and bless both themselves and the muzzles. Many Uruguayans believe that it was divine intervention that prevented these deadly weapons from being used against the patriots. They wanted to treat the canons with respect because the artillery pieces “refused” to be used against their ancestors.
For the next two weeks we were not able to pay for dinner in that town. The President of Uruguay and the Chief Admiral of the Navy visited us on our boat and thanked us. It was a humbling experience.
This is our 50ft survey vessel, “Surveyor”. She was deigned by Crayton and built in Seattle especially for our work in Uruguay. That’s Crayton at the helm putting her through test paces and making as much wake as possible before freighting her down to Montevideo.
We didn’t open it until it was on the deck of Surveyor.
All told, the project here resulted in locating hundreds of historic shipwrecks containing everything from gold to beans, over a period of five years. In the end, the government did not honor their contract with the us. We were never allowed to fully recover the tens of thousands of artifacts that we discovered because policies were amended, governments changed and historical research and recovery became increasingly difficult in South America. As the word “nationalization” began to get louder, the crew loaded up Surveyor with as much research gear as possible and ran as fast as possible up the coast to Rio de Janeiro where Surveyor was placed on a container ship headed for Texas.
In shear volume of discovered shipwrecks and unrecovered historical artifacts this project was a stellar success. However, since the 50/50 agreement with the Uruguayan government was never honored by them, the project was never able to recoup its considerable expenses.
Marine archeological work in South America can be difficult and expensive.