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The Treasure Trove of the Trinidad : New Attempt to Hunt for Fabled Galleon Off Oceanside

January 08, 1987|GORDON SMITH

In 1968, a group called Aztec Six, headed by Charles Tinch of Mission Viejo, hunted for the remains of the Trinidad without success.

Finding the Deck

The following year, Bill Takasato, a diver from San Pedro, began the first of several attempts to locate the Trinidad. Using a metal detector, he located what he said was a wreck lying in 31 feet of water about 3,500 feet offshore. Takasato even claimed to have partly uncovered the ship's deck.

But his efforts were plagued by high seas and a failed compressor, among other things, and finally ran aground when he was unable to obtain a powerful suction dredge from San Diego. Three months after the search began, it was abandoned, and although Takasato continued to search for the Trinidad's treasure off and on for the next three years, he never found it.

In 1973 a new salvage team headed by Wilmington yacht broker Lawrence Johnston and commercial diver Patrick Carson of Los Angeles obtained a permit from the City of Oceanside to look for the Trinidad. Using low-frequency sonar, the two men said, they located a ship 25 feet wide and 88 feet long under 18 feet of sand. But during their subsequent effort to remove the sand and expose the ship, Johnston and Carson lost a valuable underwater propulsion unit, a "sub," and they eventually called off the search.

Bill Warren first learned of the Trinidad in 1972, when he was working as a singer on a religious television program in Anchorage, Alaska. In his spare time, he read books about old shipwrecks, and in one of them he came across the story of the Trinidad.

Four years later, with an Escondido building contractor as a partner and financial backer, Warren obtained a permit from the City of Oceanside to look for the Trinidad. The two towed a $7,000 underwater metal detector behind a small boat until they had located the remains of the ship, which produced a prolonged "ping" on the metal detector's sensors, Warren said.

"There are a couple of cannons down there and I think that's what we were detecting," he said.

Hoses Too Short

Only 25 feet of sand separated him from the Trinidad and its mythical treasure. Warren planned to use suction dredges with six-inch hoses to expose the ship, but the hoses were too short to reach the bottom and he abandoned the effort.

"Most salvage operations are underfinanced, and that applied to us. We just didn't have enough money to continue," he said.

However, using a backhoe to dig a trench on nearby Buccaneer Beach, he did obtain a chunk of wood that he claims may have been part of the Trinidad's bulkhead. Warren said he paid $500 to have the wood carbon-dated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, "and it came out about 550 years old, which substantiates that it came from the Trinidad," he said.

"I renewed the permit twice, but basically I let the project die because I was busy singing and promoting myself as a singer," said Warren, who now lives in Oceanside and performs under the stage name Michael Valentino.

He said he is convinced that the wood he found, along with the coins found in the San Luis Rey River Valley by Markey, are ample proof that the Trinidad did sink here.

Some of the coins are far older than the ship, but, Warren said, "It wasn't uncommon for Spanish sailors to carry old coins. They used them for barter."

However, David Weber, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and an expert on the early exploration of California, said that "to my knowledge, Spanish explorers didn't need to use (old) coins or any other coins for barter, because they were quite successful using inexpensive trade beads and cloth to win the favor of the Indians. The Spaniards were in the habit of taking gold from the Indians, not trading it to them."

Analyzing the Coins

Markey claimed the coins he found were made of gold; Warren said they were silver. But Heiser, curator of the museum at Mission San Luis Rey, where some of the coins found by Markey are stored, said the coins are made of copper and tin.

"Experts have looked at them from time to time, and say they could be bought at any coin shop," Heiser said. "There's not even circumstantial evidence that they were part of Ulloa's hoard."

Heiser said Markey was interested in promoting the mission and the San Luis Rey Historical Society, and may have fabricated the story about the sinking of the Trinidad to attract attention to the area.

"One thing led to another, and Markey picked up on this Ulloa story, and then got caught up in the fighting" about it, Heiser said.

"It was a beautiful piece of fiction. There may be ships out there, but they're not the Trinidad, and they don't have $11 million in gold on board."

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