Ship wrecked His dream was to hunt treasure in the Caribbean. But then Ben Benson tested the murky waters off Assateague, and what he found there is pulling him in deeper than he ever imagined.

November 02, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff

CHINCOTEAGUE, VA — CHINCOTEAGUE, Va.-- On Oct. 28, 1802, after a losing fight against a seemingly perpetual storm, a Spanish ship went down in the dark of night off the coast of Assateague Island. More than 400 people drowned when the Juno sank. The ship, it is believed, carried treasure.

Now and then, the sea throws up a hint of that treasure, signs that the Juno is still out there.

People who wander the empty beaches up and down Assateague have gathered these pieces of evidence over the years. Fishermen have snared them in nets offshore. They include cannonballs, hewn timbers, the stock of a rifle commonly issued to Spanish soldiers in the 18th century, a cracked bell from a Caribbean island, and coins -- many coins.

Some of these coins are bent, some bear inscriptions in archaic languages too eroded by the rub of sand to read. Occasionally, a few turn up in near-mint condition.

Ben Benson found just such a piece last month. (It's pictured at left.)

It is a Spanish coin with a high silver content, dated 1799. Benson says he took it from a mound of sand and mud 20 feet below the surface on Sept. 16, about a mile north of Chincoteague Inlet. The dive was Benson's first at this particular spot. Before surfacing he grabbed a clump of mud and put it in his dive bag. The mud yielded the coin, and some small pieces of timber.

Benson's find wasn't entirely an accident, though. The founder and head of a New Hampshire-based salvaging company named Sea Hunt, he came to Chincoteague last fall with a permit from the state of Virginia to search two defined areas of ocean bed, each 6 square miles, in shallow waters off Assateague.

When he first approached the Virginia Marine Resources Commission for a permit to do this work, Benson wasn't at all sure what he might find.

"I was just going to look for old wrecks," he said.

It was more an experiment than an actual quest: He wanted to test his equipment, his sonars, the magnetometer that reveals the presence of metal objects on the seabed, and all the other computerized paraphernalia of the modern treasure hunter. His dream was to dive for gold-bearing galleons in the transparent waters of the Caribbean, not to battle the shallows off Assateague, waters perpetually turbid from the silt sifting out from behind the barrier island.

But there he is, and he may not soon get away.

To get started, Benson sent a legal secretary to plumb the historical records in the Accomack County Courthouse. She returned with information on the Juno and on another Spanish ship, one that sank during a storm in 1750.

This second ship was the Galga, also thought to have carried treasure. The Galga also might have had horses aboard, possibly the forebears of Assateague's hardy wild ponies, referred to in documents dated as far back as 1826.

The day Benson found the coin, he had gone straight to a spot he had marked earlier with a buoy: the place where he believes the Juno lies beneath a layer of sand and mud. He's seen an image of a ship there made by sonar capable of penetrating the seafloor. It's a mere 1,500 feet out from the beach; its hull is seemingly intact.

Benson is also confident that he has located the Galga, at a spot farther north. This ship, though, is scattered in about a hundred pieces over a large area of the sea bed, he says. He has found timbers he believes are from the ship. Coins also have been discovered on the beach nearby over the years.

Then there's another ship, with another story.

It is the Despatch, the official presidential yacht during the presidencies of Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. A steam-driven schooner, it went aground Oct. 10, 1891, after missing a beacon off Assateague. Benson says he found it on Sept. 9, whole and only 1,200 feet from shore.

From the Despatch, he expects to retrieve interesting artifacts: gifts from heads of state who were entertained aboard it, items from the schooner itself, and perhaps other bits of American history.

The story of the Juno, with its hundreds of lost lives, is a tragedy; those of the Galga and the Despatch, where there were no casualties, more misadventures. Ben Benson's story is something of a detective story, and maybe a little more.

Benson works out of a spacious white office on Marsh Island, at the foot of the swing bridge that provides access to the town of Chincoteague. It is a well-lighted place, with maps and all the apparatus of the modern office: phones, a fax, copiers, computers -- the den of a modern man comfortable with modern tools.

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