Spain was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1713 after a decade of war when King Philip V ordered two fleets to sail to the Americas to bring back as much gold as possible.
The “Nueva España” fleet of four galleons sailed to Veracruz, Mexico where the ships loaded six million pesos of gold and a cargo of indigo, vanilla, chocolate, and copper. A second “Tierra Firme” fleet of six ships sailed for Cartagena, Colombia where they loaded gold, silver, jewels, tobacco, and brazilwood.
The Crown was in desperate need of money, and merchants were impatient to sell their New World goods on the European market, so when the two fleets rendezvoused in Havana in the summer of 1715 they were under pressure to quickly set sail, even though it was early in hurricane season.
The combined convoy left Havana on July 24 carrying 14 million pesos worth of treasure. The trip should have been routine: up the coast of Florida on the Gulf Stream, which gradually turns outward into and then across the Atlantic and back to Spain. The convoy enjoyed calm weather as it made its way up the Bahama Channel, but on the 30th of July, the clouds started to thicken and the winds and waves kicked up.
Miguel de Lima, owner of the Urca de Lima, described what happened next:
“The sun disappeared and the wind increased in velocity coming from the east and east northeast. The seas became very giant in size, the wind continued blowing us toward shore, pushing us into shallow water. It soon happened that we were unable to use any sail at all…and we were at the mercy of the wind and water, always driven closer to shore. Having then lost all of our masts, all of the ships were wrecked on the shore, and with the exception of mine, broke to pieces.”
A tremendous hurricane had driven the fleets shoreward. The peak of the storm struck about 2 A.M. with a violent wind from the east north east while the fleet lay off the St. Lucie River and Cape Canaveral. The La Francesa and the San Miguel disappeared in the high waves, while the remaining eight ships were crushed in the shallow reefs and hard rock bottom. The Capitana was lost with 225 persons on board, and the flagship Almiranta ran aground a stone’s throw from the coast.
More than 1,000 people died in the storm. Wreckage was scattered almost 30 miles along the coast. About 1500 people swam ashore, but after reaching land many died from exposure. The survivors managed to send a launch to Havana, and a month later relief boats arrived with supplies and salvage equipment.
The Spaniards undertook salvage operations to recover the sunken chests of treasure for four years and they recovered nearly half of the treasure from the holds of the wrecks that they could reach. The rest remained on the ocean floor.
After that, a gold doubloon occasionally washed up on the shore, but increasingly time and tide covered the lost fleet and erased it from memory. It was only after a hurricane in 1955 carried away 15 feet of sand bank that a trove of coins came back to light.
Kip Wagner, a housebuilder who lived in the vicinity, became curious and researched the story of the lost fleets. He obtained a metal detector and started to search. Within a half-acre he turned up of cannon balls, bits of melted gold, a pair of cutlasses, and a gold ring set with a large, crudely cut diamond.
His curiosity aroused, he started to search first by plane and then by boat. He located two of the lost ships and obtained leases from the state of Florida to commence salvage operations. Wagner recovered over a million dollars in gold and silver coins and bullion, jewelry, religious medals, and a wide variety of ships’ parts and equipment.
Still, the other ships have never been found, and doubloons continue to wash up on the shores around Vero Beach to this day…