Diving Havana Harbor by Art Hartman as told by Bob "Frogfoot" Weller

This is a tale of diving and working shipwreck sites in Cuba and Havana Harbor. The coastline of Cuba and the bottom Havana Harbor are literally covered with valuable shipwrecks with vast cargos of Gold, Silver, Jewelry, Artifacts, Etc.

 
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Diving Havana Harbor - article from Treasure Quest Magazine

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I want you to know that it was as black as the ace of spades! I couldn't see the finger I held in front of my face mask. I could just barely see the end of my nose. I could feel the anchor line as I pulled myself downwards, the current doing everything possible to rip my hands from the line. And there seemed to be no end to this black hole I was diving into, a black hole they call Havana Harbor. When we left the surface an eternity ago there was a Cuban diver behind me named Juan Alvarez. He was possibly the best professional diver in Cuba, having worked on the construction of the tunnel that burrowed under Havana Harbor. Mentally I wondered if he was still behind me. I had a lot of thoughts running through my mind, not the least was the one asking myself, "What am I doing here in the first place?" I had 67 feet to go to get to the bottom.

It was 1980, and I had a search lease with the Cuban government to "mag" the coastline for wreck sites. I had been salvaging Spanish galleons off the coast of Florida since the 1950s, with a lot of success in terms of silver coins and artifacts...even recovered a box of sail needles along the way. But as everyone knows, the "treasure galleons" have the gold, and the coast of Cuba is loaded with treasure galleons. However, there is a legal barrier to salvaging treasure in Cuba's waters, something about "aiding and abetting the enemy" making it a federal offense to have the Cuban government make money from an American salvage effort.

But I was involved in "searching"--not salvaging--and Cuba couldn't make a cent from me just locating these old galleons. I have to admit I do get lathered up when I think about the 105 wreck sites I found during the two years I worked the coast. I actually had located over 300 wreck sites, many of them visually, but most of these were modern wrecks. Local coastal sailors, sailboats, tugs, charter boats, the reefs are a trap for anyone not familiar with the waters around Cuba.

The currents fool you, and the winds come up out of nowhere, so it isn't any wonder that there are wrecks every few hundred feet. But the thrill was the bronze cannon wreck. I personally counted 42 bronze cannons on the pile, and the biggest gun had to be fourteen feet long. I tried wrapping my arms around the breech--and I'm a big guy. I couldn't touch, which means that the back end of the cannon had to be at least six feet around! THAT has to be an important wreck site because only treasure galleons carried bronze cannon (so I'm told).

I tried magging around the Isle of Pines during the three months I spent there in 1979. That's a treacherous place to work. Ground swells that roll in off the Gulf of Mexico make dodging reefs just below the surface a ballerina art of ship handling. There are wrecks there you would have to work with the weather to do any salvaging. But there is a window of weather on the south west side of Cuba, and if I'm ever able officially to work Cuban waters, I know what that window is.

How did I talk myself into diving in the middle of the channel of Havana Harbor? The sound of a big tanker coming into port, somewhere over my head, triggered that thought. Somewhere right below me is the Sanchez Barcaestegui, and 8,000-ton steam-and-sail frigate that sank on September 18, 1898. There are several stories as to why she sank. She was a warship, she carried a couple of German Krupp cannon on board, and one story had her steaming out of Havana Harbor at night to intercept some Americans running guns ashore up the coast. A machinist got his arm stuck in the ship's generator...and everything stopped, right in mid-channel. She promptly rammed the merchant ship Mortera and sank in twenty minutes.

The people on Morro Castle, just a few hundred yards away, could hear the people in the water screaming. The bay was full of sharks, hungry sharks. Only seven people survived of the 150 on board. (I suddenly thought about sharks; it didn't help my imagination any.)

For the next six months ships entering the harbor had to dodge around the ship's masts that were sticking up above water. Two divers, an American and a Puerto Rican, finally cut the masts down. There was a safe on board--it was public knowledge--and it held some gold coins as payroll. But with the strong current and the huge sharks that came into the harbor to feed, the safe remained on the bottom, somewhere in the tangled wreckage.

In 1940 an American salvage boat came to Havana to try its luck. Two days after they sent divers to the bottom, they departed...quickly. Some rumors later suggested they found the safe. In the 1950s other divers using SCUBA gear dove the site and recovered some plates, as well as some odds and ends. They did encounter some BIG sharks and never dallied over the wreck site long.

I thought to myself, "I've been kicking my way towards the bottom for a LONG time, it's got to be close by now." And suddenly it was. But it shocked me. here, ten feet above the bottom, it was suddenly clear. I could see 25 feet in any direction. I couldn't believe my eyes.

And here was what was left of the wreck site. It was flattened out on the bottom, the metal plates had all but collapsed on themselves. A bit of the structure was still recognizable, and I let go to my hold on the anchor line and grabbed the first piece of metal that I could reach. I pulled myself into the wreckage and began looking around, not much left after almost 100 years on the bottom. The current had kept it pretty clean of barnacles and other coral growth, just clean, rusted metal.

I spotted some colorful tiles, part of the floor of the pilot house, The tide was changing and the current had slacked off a bit, so I was able to swim over for a closer look. The tiles covered a small area, and one of them was loose. I wanted a souvenir and reached down to pull it up. When I did, I was totally shocked to find a GOLD COIN under the tile! I tried raising a few more tiles, but no luck. This coin had somehow squirreled its way under the tile after it got loose. I checked every nook and cranny in the area looking for more, but that was all for Hartman's luck.

It was time to head back to the anchor line before the current sent me back the other way, this time out to sea. the sea bed in the harbor was a hardpan bottom, swept clean by the current, but there were cannon balls and bottles laying everywhere. I actually rolled a few cannon balls around, some as large as eighteen-pounders. But enough of the tourist attractions, I had to get back to the surface and daylight.

Come to think of it, I never did see Alvarez on the bottom.

by Art Hartman as told to Bob "Frogfoot" Weller

This article and more valuable information is available in Treasure Quest Magazine, Nov. - Dec. 1997: Click Here

 

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