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  1. #31

    May 2005
    517

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Further info on the Benson case Capela posted earlier.

    SEA HUNT
    Ben Benson lost his fight to salvage the treasure-laden Juno, but he won support from Virginia officials to continue his quests off the Eastern Shore.

    By Maura Singleton
    Virginia?s lone shipwreck hunter operates out of an anonymous warehouse tucked behind Chincoteague?s Main Street. There?s no hint here of the international controversy that swirls around Ben Benson?s company, Sea Hunt Inc. Next door is a ramshackle restaurant called the Round Up, its hand-painted sign advertising pit beef and soft-serve ice cream. Near the water?s edge, a rusted-out Sealtest delivery truck cooks in the sun.
    Inside the warehouse, two 13-foot anchors soak in chemical baths that strip away layers of time. They likely will remain submerged for several years, Benson says, slowly giving up their secrets in black chunks called concretions. X-rays of these encrustations reveal embedded coins, bracelets and other unidentifiable objects. Later, the items will be delicately freed from the imprisoning mud and coral using a combination of chemicals and electricity. Spread across a table are artifacts that Benson believes came from the Juno, a Spanish frigate that disappeared in a fierce storm off Assateague Island on Oct. 28, 1802. It sank with 425 men, women and children on board.

    The trail of clues is intriguing: the stem of a smoking pipe, a tunic button, the shard of a belt buckle. There are small, smoothly round musket balls and pistol shot, even a bar of silver that resembles an oversized and misshapen Tootsie Roll. Benson and his team also have recovered pewter plates and utensils and a small cannon known as a rail gun, used by treasure ship crews to repel pirates.

    "It?s interesting to puzzle through the stuff," the 40-year-old treasure hunter says, surveying the modest collection on a recent muggy afternoon. "I like the variety. I?d rather have this than one gold bar."

    An untouched fortune probably languishes on the sea bottom where the Juno went down. Benson fingers the worn face of a 1799 silver coin called a piece of eight; one side bears the portrait of that year?s reining monarch, King Charles IV. The Juno was carrying a registered cargo of 22 tons of silver and 700,000 pesos, or 8-reales silver coins, when it sank, according to Benson?s research. Its value has been estimated to be as much as $500 million.

    If that?s true, the Juno treasure could be a richer lode than what America?s most famous treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, found in the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha off Florida in 1985.

    * * *

    In the 17th century, slave divers were sent by the Spanish to recover precious cargo from their sunken ships. The risks haven?t changed much. To be successful, though, modern-day salvage divers rely on advanced electronic equipment and very deep pockets. Benson, an ex-developer with an estimated net worth of $105 million, made this magazine?s June roster of the 100 richest Virginians.

    Benson initially set his sights on gold-bearing galleons in the Caribbean. But in 1996, en route to Florida, he decided to field-test his expensive equipment off the Virginia coast. Unlike the crystalline waters of the Caribbean, visibility around Assateague is near zero. The waters are made perpetually turbid by the barrier island?s marsh mud. If his equipment worked here, he reasoned, it would work anywhere.

    He hired a legal secretary to search Accomack County Courthouse records for a sunken ship for him to try to find. She came across the Galga, one of a fleet of seven treasure ships headed for Spain when it ran aground during a hurricane in 1750. The sailors and soldiers on board managed to swim ashore, as did a group of English prisoners. The vessel also may have had horses aboard, possibly the forebears of Assateague?s wild ponies.

    Benson methodically crisscrossed the Atlantic waters in a 35-foot former Coast Guard cutter that he had converted into a recovery boat. A side-scan sonar, which uses sound waves to survey the ocean floor, recorded every anomaly, sending the data back to shipboard computers for Benson and his crew to analyze. The boat dragged behind it a specially rigged magnetometer towfish, a highly sensitive instrument that can detect tiny bits of metal ? such as nails ? in the seabed.

    A few weeks later, Benson was confident that he had found the Galga, scattered in about a hundred pieces over a large area of the ocean bottom. As he chatted with people on Chincoteague Island, however, another shipwreck stirred his imagination. A local fisherman showed Benson a huge anchor he had snagged in his nets. Fused to it was a pewter plate etched with a word that looked like "Juno" or "Jane" or "Jolle." Others showed him old Spanish coins, ship timbers and gold trinkets that had washed up on Assateague Island?s wild beaches ? all at the same spot. And almost all of them predated the Juno?s 1802 demise.

    Another salvage company, Quicksilver, has been searching for the Juno for 10 years and maintains it has recovered pieces of it 40 miles out to sea. The wreck site that Benson pinpointed, however, is just 1,500 feet from shore, in 20 feet of water.

    * * *

    Benson takes the same approach with Sea Hunt that he has taken with his other, more traditional ventures. He has been his own boss for most of his life, and his business acumen revealed itself early on. At the age of 5 he was selling empty cornflakes boxes to other 5-year-olds as handy storage receptacles. When he turned 6, he peddled erasers. By the age of 10, he boasts, he had more money than his parents.

    A childhood brush with cancer forced a kind of reckoning that most people don?t experience until they are well into adulthood. Benson says he was anxious to "go out in the world and do things." Dyslexic and an indifferent student, Benson dropped out of school in the ninth grade.

    He ran away from home, making his break from Cape Cod by stealing the family Oldsmobile. He ran out of gas in Machias, Maine, where the 15-year-old entrepreneur embarked on his first real estate venture. With plenty of gumption and a newly acquired credit card to finance his scheme, he bought 100 acres of rocky wilderness for $10,000. He then turned around and sold the property as 5-acre vacation parcels for $1,000 to $2,000 each.

    When he turned 17, he joined the Navy submarine corps. His experience working with sonar on the USS Gurnard, a nuclear fast-attack submarine, would prove useful later. Plans for a Navy career evaporated four years later, however, when he developed allergies and received a hardship discharge.

    A disappointed Benson rechanneled his ambitions, and a string of lucrative businesses followed. To each enterprise he has brought an intense focus and single-mindedness, which is probably rooted in his boyhood dyslexia, he says. His aptitude for making money is matched by a chronic restlessness.

    "I seem to be good at things that are really difficult," Benson muses. "When things go easy, I get bored. ... I?ve never done anything longer than four years."

    In the early 1980s, Benson ran an oil company and a real estate development company in New Hampshire. He came to Virginia in 1984, when he married Elizabeth Hall, whose grandfather was a developer on the Eastern Shore. They settled in Accomac, where Benson resumed work in real estate, developing oceanfront and other exclusive properties in Virginia and along the East Coast.

    In 1991, he and a partner started a timber company on Michigan?s Upper Peninsula. Benson hit on the idea of using satellite-imaging technology to inventory and identify tree types, a breakthrough that saved the company thousands of hours in manpower. With title to half-a-million acres, Benson was aiming to acquire 1 million ? "I like picking hard targets, and it sounded like a good round number," he says. Then he suffered a heart attack. Stress led to a second heart attack just eight months later. He was 35.

    So Benson retired from business ? sort of. He sold his share in the timber company for a cool $13 million and bought a 65-foot Hatteras yacht. Always at home on the water, the peripatetic Benson cruised the world for the next two years. But when he tied up next to a shipwreck museum in Provincetown, Mass., his fate was set. "I was intrigued with the idea that these lost sunken ships could be basically just anywhere."

    Benson named his new company after the television adventure series that starred Lloyd Bridges, a show he grew up watching.

    But Sea Hunt Inc. hasn?t enjoyed a sunny Hollywood story line. Benson, an open and affable man with thinning brown hair, has managed to step on the toes of the U.S. Park Service, the Navy, the State Department, the Justice Department and, now, the kingdom of Spain, which has made an unprecedented claim of ownership to the long-lost Spanish frigates.

    Now Benson is embroiled in a high-stakes legal battle with Spain. "This isn?t what I had in mind for a low-stress life," he says wryly. The work has taken a toll on his health and his marriage, which ended in divorce last year, he says.

    Last September, a federal district judge struck down an attempt by the Justice Department to intervene on Spain?s behalf, saying federal officials had no business representing a foreign country. Spain?s unexpected involvement in the case was apparently encouraged by federal agents and U.S. Park Service archeologists, who disagree ? on ideological grounds ? with the private salvaging of historic wrecks.

    A 1987 act of Congress made any abandoned vessels within three miles off coastal states part of their property. But Spain and its allies have challenged Virginia?s claims to the Juno and the Galga on the grounds that they were warships, and thus had never been abandoned. It was argued that Sea Hunt?s activities could jeopardize diplomatic relations with Spain and the United States? rights to retrieve its warships near foreign shores.

    In April, Judge C. Calvitt Clark Jr. declared the Juno to be the property of Spain and the Galga the property of Virginia. Ultimately, it was the wording of a 1763 treaty ending the French and Indian War that determined the split. In it, Spain ceded all that it possessed in North America east of the Mississippi. In short, Spain had surrendered all that it owned prior to 1763 ? including the Galga, which sank 13 years earlier. The Juno, however, did not fall under the treaty?s terms because it did not sink until 1802.

    The same judge recently ruled that Benson can?t be compensated for the $1.5 million he spent on recovery efforts for the Juno. The handful of artifacts he has retrieved must be returned to Spain. The Juno, which was carrying an elite African battalion of Spanish soldiers and their dependents, is a maritime grave that should not be desecrated, according to Spain and its allies. Respect dictates that the vessel be left alone. "Is there any justification for tampering with or for going into or recovering such a ship?" asks Rafael Conde de Saro, deputy chief of the Spanish Embassy. "How would you feel if people decided that Arlington Cemetery would be a good place to go in with a metal detector?"

    Benson is involved in the enterprise for a number of reasons, says Anthony F. Troy, his Richmond attorney and a former attorney general of Virginia. He?s trying to document maritime history, establish a shipwreck museum on the Eastern Shore, and ? just maybe ? make a nice return on his investment. "He?s a businessman, which he?s never tried to hide," Troy says. "It?s not a dirty word."

    * * *

    Benson is the first person to obtain a permit from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to salvage historic wrecks in state waters. He has exclusive rights to search two six-square-mile sections of ocean bed off Assateague. The year-long legal process took $100,000 and the help of a high-powered law firm, Richmond-based Mays and Valentine.

    It?s a pretty good deal for Virginia, which is getting something for nothing. Under the terms of the permit, Sea Hunt must give 25 percent of whatever it finds to the state. Virginia also has the option of taking the entire cache as part of the public domain and compensating Sea Hunt monetarily.

    Anyone who thinks shipwreck hunting is a free-for-all need only peruse some 1,000 pages of regulations Benson and his four-man crew must follow, which dictate every aspect of his operation. His marine archeologist must meet federal standards and is answerable to the state. "Everything has to be specifically located, sketched, mapped, catalogued and photographed if we want to bring it up," Benson notes. The work is dangerous and demands precision. Because water visibility is almost nil, divers use Braille-like tape measures to record the size and position of artifacts.

    Benson?s team was able to dive a total of six days in 1998. The legal battle has forced him to desist for the time being, but he hopes to return to the Galga in the fall. So far, he says, his obsession has cost him about $3 million. But the state is encouraging the company. "If they continue their efforts, they will make a real contribution to our knowledge of historic shipwrecks in Virginia," says Ethel Eaton, acting director of project review for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Benson says he has found 12 potentially historic sites off the coast. One may be the wreck of the Despatch, the official yacht of five American presidents. It struck the shoals around Assateague on Oct. 10, 1891, while en route from New York to Washington to pick up President Benjamin Harrison.

    Virginia has scant knowledge of what lies within state waters. Even when there?s documentation that a vessel went down, there?s nothing pinpointing the location. "We?ve had very little surveying done because it?s extremely expensive. That?s one of the reasons we?re so supportive of this project," Eaton explains. "A private person willing to do research ? and do it right ? is a real boon to the commonwealth."

    Benson has hired more than a dozen different researchers to scour archives here and in Spain, France and Puerto Rico. Finding and following paper trails is treasure hunting of another stripe, he quickly learned. Archives are written in archaic Spanish. Often, they are worm-eaten, faded, and poorly indexed, if at all. It is said that you need a saint?s patience to piece together the scattered accounts and a cryptographer?s skill to decipher the modern meaning of the ancient texts. "It?s almost like the concretion process," Benson says, referring to the glacier-slow method of cleaning artifacts. "There are no quick answers to any of this stuff."

    Benson journeyed twice to Spain to visit the villages where some of the people aboard the Juno were born. He learned that the ship was carrying treasure to help fund Napoleon?s wars. Napoleon had ordered Spain, France?s subservient ally, to empty all of its overseas treasuries. Just six months after the tragedy, in April 1803, France sold its Louisiana territory to the United States. Had the money on the Juno gotten through, Benson speculates, it might not have been necessary for Napoleon to sign away this vast tract of land.

    The Juno?s story is better than the Titanic?s, Benson likes to say. It?s so good he?s floated it in Hollywood as a movie deal.

    * * *

    Closer to home, Benson?s efforts have generated interest in two old legends that have never been properly proved.

    In Chincoteague, an isolated one-stoplight community on Virginia?s Eastern Shore, many people hope that Benson will establish whether its famed wild ponies are indeed the descendants of those that escaped a sinking Spanish galleon in the 18th century. And his research into the Juno may solve the mystery of a dark-skinned boy named James Alone who, according to legend, washed ashore on a ship?s hatch cover in the early 1800s. Could he have been the Juno?s sole survivor? The stranger became the forbear of many of the older families that populate the area today.

    Benson says he hopes to open a museum-cum-conservation lab on the island or nearby to share his finds. "I think it would be interesting, if nothing else, to trace history back that far and have something tangible to look at and touch," says Donna Mason, a native islander who owns the Waterside Motor Inn. "Nobody here has ever attempted it or thought to do it."

  2. #32

    Oct 2005
    OBX
    10

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    I think its all ridiculous. Bare with me here.

    If someone drives by my house and throws or drops something on my front porch and I find it a couple years later and decide to keep it and go about my business, I have committed no crime. Then to find out a couple years later that the person who dropped it wants it back, thats my decision to make, not theirs. Then you might say, well our government is the one making the decisions (regarding the military ship recovery laws, which is also ridiculous. Seriously, is there some sort of super technology on these old wooden ships that would compromise national security if they fell into the wrong hands?). Our government is ruling in favor of another country, its like the immature and adolescent youth, throwing a temper tantrum because he/she cannot get whatever. Its stupid, "oh its our national history" what a crock of sh*t. And, that whole thing about, you wouldn't go medal detecting in Arlington Cemetery? Like that has and similarity at all. The only similarity there is that there are deceased people involved. These historians do not help anything either, I am all for the preservation of historical artifacts, But how many Spanish galleon museums do we need? Treasure hunting is as American as it gets people. No surprise that thats being taken away too.

    Welcome to the new fascist regime we call democracy.

  3. #33

    Jun 2005
    Tallahassee Florida
    51

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Er, so what happened with this adventure? Everyone lose interest or legal barrier?
    I'm just a startled bunny in the headlights of life

  4. #34
    us
    Aug 2003
    East Coast
    1,035
    101 times

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Mike, the weather has to be in our favor to start working on the project. My best guess is late April or May. The legal concerns have been addressed and taken care of.
    old Man

  5. #35
    gb
    Jun 2005
    Northampton, UK
    Tesoro Silver Sabre II / Garrett Ace 250
    1,257
    6 times
    Metal Detecting
    Banner Finds (1)

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    This sounds like a great adventure..... Trust all works out for you all.

    God bless
    Peter
    God Bless, Peter Gill

    Website: http://petergill.webs.com "Peter Gill's Virtual Home".
    All items found using Garrett Ace 250 and the Tesoro Silver Sabre II metal detector

  6. #36
    us
    "Is that a Geiger Counter?"

    Feb 2006
    South Central Upstate NY in the foothills of the headlands
    '72 RS Kit/Musketeer Advantage with 8" & 10" DD coils/Fisher F75se with 11" DD & 6.5" concentric coils/Sunray FX-1 Probe/Black Widows/Rattler/F-Point/Merlin SXL Pinpointers
    4,165
    741 times
    Metal Detecting

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Keep us posted. This is what we dream about.


    Cavblava,

    There's thousands of lost ships off the Outer Banks. But I don't think they can tank enough air to dive on the Admiral Graf Spee from the Virginia/Carolina coast. She was scuttled in the mouth of the Rio yde la Plata off Uraguay.
    America was founded by tough hell-raisers. Rugged citizens who evaded taxes, spoke strongly against tyranny, grew tobacco, brewed beer, distilled spirits, and smuggled weapons. And it will be saved by those same types of citizens.

  7. #37

    Feb 2006
    New England
    25
    1 times

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Hey Guys. I cannot dive because of physical restrictions. However I will put up $10,000 to get the project going if it is determined that it is legal to pursue. I only ask that I can be there on deck for recovery along with a % of the recovery . I will of course also help on the ship. And I'm a hell of a cook.
    RonS

  8. #38
    Charter Member
    us
    Apr 2004
    Tesoro Sand Shark, Homebuilt pulse loop
    2,224
    77 times
    Shipwrecks

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Hey Ron,

    Wow - thanks for a very generous offer - especially not knowing the outcome. Please look over at the thread "VA Gold" where this thread continues for more updates on the project. You'll notice that in this thread, it says we'll be setting up as a non-proft. In lieu of that, investors will have to consider tax receipts vs. ROI - return on investment. Of course, even the non-profit will have expenses to contractors who offer their services, so it's still possible for everyone to benefit well I hope you'll be able to join us. I'd like to try out your cooking!

    All the best,
    Darren

  9. #39

    Feb 2006
    New England
    25
    1 times

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Hi Darren,
    I make a baked ziti that will make ya cry . I'm a good Italian cook and some American dishes as well. LOL
    Ron

  10. #40
    us
    TEA...taxed enough already

    Oct 2005
    San Diego California
    Bounty Hunter
    241
    17 times
    All Types Of Treasure Hunting

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Assuming that something is "found" and a material distribution is made, how do you determine the "ROI" for tax purposes unless the distribution is sold. Seems very subjective.
    Have we decided which wkecr this is? What do we know about the coins?

  11. #41
    us
    Aug 2003
    East Coast
    1,035
    101 times

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    bobinsd, I offered this wreck to the forum as an adventure and that's how I believe it should be look at. Not as a get rich scheme, if you're interested in an adventure and leaning how to do salvage work, welcome aboard, if you're looking to get rich, I would advise against the working the project. This wreck is for everyone that ever dreamed of an underwater adventure and wants to work hard and have fun.

  12. #42

    May 2005
    Huntley, IL
    31

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Old Man, I would like to thank you for sharing this imformation with all . I think this is an excelent opportunity that you are providing to learn to do salvage work, this is a major intrest to me, and likley many others. Good Luck !

    Jeff

  13. #43
    us
    Aug 2003
    East Coast
    1,035
    101 times

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Jeff, Welcome to the forum, I hope that you will join us in our quest. I am not the one that you should be thanking though, each and everyone one of you that participate will be the ones that will make or break this project and making this an adventure not only for the people that work the project, but also for the many that won't be able to actively work the project because of other commitments, but will none the less live the adventure vicariously though the people on site. It will equally be up to us to provide a frequent update to the forum, so that the others can live the adventure through our progress.

  14. #44
    us
    TEA...taxed enough already

    Oct 2005
    San Diego California
    Bounty Hunter
    241
    17 times
    All Types Of Treasure Hunting

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    Easy, Old Man...I was just responding to a previous post by Darren mentioning ROI and I asked a legit question that any investor should ask. I've already mentioned investing in the project and will consider it further once the modes of participation are better defined.
    I've received a "distribution" from another venture in 2005 and was hoping to get some free tax advice.

  15. #45
    us
    Aug 2003
    East Coast
    1,035
    101 times

    Re: Wreck with Gold Coins washing up on the beach.

    bobinsd, Sorry if I misconstrued your post. I don't want to offend anyone, but I also wanted to get the point across that this should be looked at as an adventure for all, not as a get rich quick expedition.( If you want one of those, contact me off line and I will point you in that direction with a company or two that I know what wrecks they are going after this year.) If someone is interested in investing in this project, I'm not the one you want to speak to, contact Darren or RGecy. I am only interested in helping the forum live an adventure, whether it's by participating or vicariously though the people on site. Happy hunting to all.

 

 
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