When the strong Florida hurricane hit, this merchant ship was traveling in the middle of the Nueva España Flota. She was forced westward, past the Florida reefs and into the shallow depth of Hawk Channel. Taking on heavy seas, this three-deck ship severely grounded, and went down fully submerged in 18 feet of water. There are no markers or buoys at this site and she’s not relatively easy to find as she lies about 2.5 miles offshore of Whale Harbor, Islamorada, south of the Snake Creek Bridge where I lived nearby.
I first saw the vague sea-growth covered greenish dark, ballast pile of the Tres Puentes when I was aboard Jim King’s treasure hunting boat Snoopy. It was another beautiful, clear, flat calm, cotton cloud, warm, Florida Keys early morning when we decided rather than dig on his Admiralty claim, the Capitana that day, he decided to go and explore another one of his favorite Spanish galleon spots he simply called the Tres.
Jim had already recovered some neat Spanish artifacts and a gold medallion from the Tres. As the Tres Puentes was only in 18 feet of water and mostly intact when the Spanish Salvors found her, it was burned to the water level and salvaged as thoroughly as the Spaniards could back in that era. Since it is also an easy dive, most treasure hunters had been visiting it for pickings for quite some time.
Since I had just landed in the Florida Keys a few months ago, I was glad to see the locations of the various galleons of the 1733 fleet, which Jim knew so well. Jim and I had made instant friends a few days after I moved to the keys and I was hanging out at his home which turned out to be city hall for all the treasure hunters living down there. I soon got to meet them all and we all had great tales to tell when the group got thick and the stories and spirits started to fly.
According to Spanish manifests this merchant vessel carried silver coins, sugar, spices, tobacco, tanned hides, wood, indigo and fruit. Most of this type of cargo would have been severely damaged by the water when the ship sank. However, the crew would have been able to salvage some of her less perishable cargo. At Vera Cruz, registered silver, brazilwood, cochineal, indigo, sugar, tobacco, hides, and some citrus were loaded on Tres Puentes.
Sailing from Havana in the main body of the fleet when the hurricane struck, the vessel was carried through the offshore reefs and struck bottom in 19 feet of water on the seaward edge of Hawk Channel with decks awash and hull flooding. Spanish archival documents relate that both Tres Puentes and Herrera were grounded close together at Matecumbe El Grande (Upper Matecumbe Key) and totally flooded. All the people aboard were saved, and most of the valuable cargo was recovered.
The area has become picked over so there's not as much Spanish treasure left. Any remaining artifacts have continued to sink deeper into the sand making salvage attempts more challenging. Sea grasses have grown up over some of the area, again camouflaging the hiding spots of any artifacts that once belonged to the Tres Puentes.
Just inshore of a shallow rocky shoal where the ship struck bottom in 1733, one can see a small mound of fire coral-encrusted ballast stones that marks the top of Tres Puentes’ partially buried gravesite. Trending northwest and southeast, the ballast is the typical egg-shaped rock carried by most of the 1733 fleet ships.
We found the Tres by the careful use of land ranges and loran numbers but whose ballast pile and wooden timbers were barely showing at that time. By making circular turns with the Snoopy and creating an almost clear as glass surface on the water on the inside of the turns, your eyes could scour the bottom and see any tell-tale signs of wreckage. It was always a start when suddenly among the grass beds and sand of another turning motion, a ballast pile and timbers would suddenly appear as though a Spanish galleon just jumped out of history at you! That was always a thrill when the Tres would finally appear!
While on the Snoopy we dug, metal detected, and hand fanned quite a bit before the day dragged on. We decided to head back to the Capitana and finish a search there. Though we did not find much that day, I did return there to metal detect and hand fan with my dive boat Seafarer, on days that allowed me some freedom.
I also took my friend and treasure hunter Bobby "Bubba" Allison to the Tres on occasion who was also excited about going there for his first time the same as I was on Jim’s boat! Bobby was a big Alabama born and bred jovial guy, with light reddish hair who was a pure pleasure to be with. He had almost as many harrowing tales as I had. I always enjoyed diving with him and many times we went out diving on his boat as it was much faster than mine. Bobby had an underwater propulsion device we used in reverse to help move some of the sand away should we get good hits with the metal detector! We had used propulsion vehicles like this back in the northeast on the deep wrecks there and it was an efficient battery-operated digging tool in deep or shallow water. It was excellent for pushing away sand, rather than digging deeply like an airlift. You could clear off an area quickly and move on or stay on a metal detector hit till you reached it!
On that day I found several silver spoons badly oxidized just under a small cliff of sand with grass above. But however out in the grass, just lying there with one side partially exposed, was a beautiful metal detector hit that turned out to be a perfect specimen of a cannon bar-shot! I just plucked it out of its hole with two hands. I stared at this artifact from 1733 for a while, my mind going back to what being on that ship must have been like. Crossing the ocean, leaving Panama after it was filled with cargo and treasures, joining the 1733 Flota, then heading up from Panama riding on the Gulf Stream before encountering a dreaded hurricane off the Florida Keys and being driven ashore, anchors dragging, and the ship foundering and breaking up. I had a piece of her!
The identity of the Tres Puentes has never been clarified, so she goes by this moniker which means “Three Decks.” Even though her identity is a mystery, it's known with certainty that she was part of the 1733 Spanish Treasure Fleet.
Photographs: from top : Encrusted bar shot recovered by Pat Yanatan; Pat showing off his prize, Tres Puentes ballast pile; gold religious medallion from Tres Puentes recovered by Jim King.
Visiting the old Spanish galleon wreck sites brings you back in time to an era of treasure, conquistadores, wooden ships and iron men. An age which although long gone, still remains vividly alive whenever some treasure hunter finds an artifact, a jewel, or a stash of gold coins from that era. After all, while the treasure may become scarce, all of it can never be found and it is still out there, somewhere!