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Whale of a Tale Series – A Treasure Trove of Adventure on the Spanish Steamer Vizcaya

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The Vizcaya
The Vizcaya

As diving history progresses, legend begets fact. Some stories are too good to dissolve in the brine of the sea and continue to endure. This is one such tale.

The dive boat “Barnacle Bob” cruised out of Brigantine through Absecon inlet into a northeast wind. It was a September night in the early 1990s. The little Silverton bounce over the dreaded Brigantine shoal, suspected graveyard for over 100 lost ships. There, numerous broken derelicts were strewn against the sanded shoal, battered into thousands of pieces by the ferocious Atlantic sea. Our destination was North North-East 25 miles to the wreck of the Spanish Steamer Vizcaya.

By Gene Peterson

In my early days of diving, the legendary White Star II, captained by Ray Ettel made frequent jaunts to the wreck. It lay within 12 miles of Barnegat Light in 80 feet of shallow water. Here novice and experienced divers can be satisfied in the partitions of this once magnificent ship. Lobsters beckon in the numerous crevices and flounder frolic in the vast sandy spaces between the conflicting structures.  Swimming in the shadows of the massive two-cylinder steam engine rising nearly 20 feet off the bottom, one is awed by the mammoth size of this wreckage. Moving toward the bow past the massive boilers one can view the framework of the once spacious decking. Here remains the steel outline where the wooden deck has been eaten away by toredos. Finally, the beams taper off to the pointed semblance of the bow. The port side remains more contiguous. One may cruise the out-side edge following it all the way to the stern. Cables and deadeyes are strewn outside of the hull, as the steamer sails were set on a southern course. As you circle around to the starboard side, you can see how disconcerting the wreck becomes.

Treasure Dive!

The damage from the collision and blast from the wrecking company is apparent. Less than a football field away, a trail of rigging and cables lie in the direction to the Cornelius Hargraves. One can hop from scattered pieces until reaching more connected parts returning to the engine. In this area, a large lavish bath was evident with ornately decorated sinks and water-closets. Portholes once marked the cabin areas where untold discoveries await persistent explorers.

The Vizcaya was built in the United Kingdom by J and W Dudgeon shipyard in 1872 for the Sociedad Antonio López y Cía with the name of Santander. It was renamed in 1875 as Vizcaya, when passing to Compania Transatlantic Espanola. It was destined sail mainly between North American ports and the Spanish Caribbean ones of the company. In 1881, the company A. López became public limited and was renamed the Compania Transatlantic Espanola. In 1883 Antonio López died and his son Claudio López Bru took the reins. His partner, a major shareholder of Transatlantic Espanola Juan Pedro was lost on the Vizcaya.

Off the New Jersey coast at 8:30 p.m. October 30, 1890 this Spanish steamer was carrying a group of 69 officers and crew, and 17 rich Cuban businessmen and their families. After departing from New York, Vizcaya headed south at 11 knots on a cruise to Cuba. Suddenly appearing out of the night according to the Vizcaya’s crew, are the sails of the large unlighted, four-masted coal schooner Cornelius Hargraves.

The Vizcaya interior

Ramming the starboard coal bunkers and plunging into the engine compartment. The giant spar of the Cornelius Hargraves then struck the wheelhouse crushing Captain Francisco Cunill and third officer Francisco Morillas. With its sails full, the Hargraves re-rams the steamer racking lifeboats and tearing entangled rigging as it batters its way down the hull. The doomed steamer rolls over within minutes as passengers and crew try to claw their way up masts or jump to hull of the Hargraves seeking escape.

First Officer Filipe Hazas of the Vizcaya miraculously held on to a plank, then switched over to some flotsam in the cold water until being rescued the next morning. A few survived by perching themselves in rigging in the October night. Over twenty-five men tried to hang on the mast and rigging yet by morning only a few had endured the cold night. In the early dawn light only 19 survivors were left to be rescued. None of the 4 women or children had a chance, as the ship swiftly plunged leaving all to fend for themselves in the disaster. Back on the coal schooner, the crew of ten barely survived by quickly dispatching themselves from the schooner by swimming to or leaping to her lifeboats.

Vizcaya was ornately refitted less than a year before after serving in the Cuban “Ten Year War” as a troop ship. She was gutted and refitted with lavish décor, marble, tiles and carved woodwork. These adornments and the wealth of the passengers on the voyage make the Vizcaya a potential treasure trove for discovery. Several recoveries including silver bowls, platters and inlaid items have been found. This relatively shallow site allows for the potential unearthing of gems, and heirlooms left in haste during the disaster.

Vizcaya

Captain Bob Miembresse soon anchored in the darkness. We waited for first light, so that we could start diving before next predicted storm. Anyone whom has slept on a rocky boat knows that the state of sleep is induced only by extreme fatigue. The constant squeaking of a cabinet or thumping of a swinging flag halyard amplify until you fall numb. So, describes our night.

As the sun broke through the overcast sky, the wind soon picked-up. George Dreher, a feisty and wiry, red-haired diver quickly suited up on the lively deck as we rebounded over the wreck. Captain Bob was alarmed by the rise in wind speed. I calmed his anxiety, stating that this was no longer a sport dive. We were hunting for treasure. When you find gold coins all the rules change, I bantered. The day before George had found gold francs lying over the surface of the wreck. It was imperative we get back to the site as soon as possible for the word “gold” spread like wildfire. The only saving grace preventing any interlopers from claim jumping the spot was an impending storm. Making a fair division of booty keeps the crew in check, reducing the risk of insurgence. Knowing that we may be fortuitous, we agreed on a divvy prior to entering the water.

George was unprovoked by the howling wind and splashing sea. Without an expression of concern, he dashed over the side. His mission was to relocate the pocket of sand where the coins had emerged. A few minutes past and he soon shot a lift bag signaling his found target. Bob stood watch as I entered to assist George in the hunt. On the bottom the visibility was pure. As I descended, I could see George in the distance blowing sand away from a beam of wreckage with his scooter reversed. I jumped in the deep trench with him. I maneuvered irrelevant pieces out of the way and held a light over the torrent of moving debris. Suddenly, there was a flicker contrasting in the dark rubble. I could sense George’s euphoria as we mined the hole.

Vizcaya Silver Bowl and Dishes

A handful of gold francs appeared as we dusted off the exterior of the ruins. The deteriorating conditions on the surface began to hinder our work on the site. Soon the surging seas started to roll us beyond our control. We had to abort our trenching after nearly maximizing our downtime. Back on the surface the Barnicole Bob heaved as white water lashed the deck. To Captain Bob’s relief, we declined the second dive. By this time the seas were nearly vertical as they slammed into bow.  We unlashed the grapnel and sped south surfing downwind. Beyond the dreaded Brigantine shoals awaited our safe port. In the darkness our day began and ended. Exhausted and bruised from the long day, we were content with the endeavor and our new designation: “Treasure Divers”.

Today the Vizcaya awaits the fixated explorer willing to work the site and sift the sands. Nothing is easy, but the little treasure ship may be ready to cough up more discoveries if one is willing to search.