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In the Florida Keys, divers scavenge the reefs for lost galleon gold. You can join the hunt during a charter aboard the 100-foot motoryacht Melimar
By Kim Kavin
On Memorial Day weekend in 1985, Mel Fisher and his crew of treasure hunters dove off the Florida Keys and found 13 gold bars, four pieces of gold-and-emerald jewelry, a gold chain, and a slew of silver coins. A few months later, the trail led them to the mother lode from which the loot had drifted: the sunken Atocha, a 17th-century Spanish ship. Fisher and his team recovered a treasure worth as much as $400 million today.
I learned about this, one of the most exciting salvage efforts in history, at the Mel Fisher Museum in Key West, Florida. For ten bucks, I was admitted into a world of galleons, wrecks and riches that the people of Key West know all too well. What today are the well-marked reefs that line the island’s archipelago were, hundreds of years ago, a graveyard for unsuspecting sailors. Legend has it more treasure is still down there, and plenty of divers arrive hoping to claim their share while cruising aboard day boats or old tugs.
A certified diver myself, I was happily among them, but I had a much better ride: the 100-foot Azimut Jumbo Melimar. She’s one of the relatively few luxury charter yachts that offer scuba diving, and she happens to call Key West home.
“There’s so many boats that don’t offer this, we’re unique,” says Capt. Jon Christiansen of the boat’s scuba program in the Keys. “The visibility is so clear, whether it’s a modern-day or old wreck, they just jump out at you. You can do different dives every day.”
That’s not to say a charter aboard Melimar will appeal just to scuba lovers. In fact, the boat only allows experienced divers to use its compressor and equipment (or, of course, their own gear). Melimar has no dive master or instructor aboard, so all scuba is done as buddy dives by guests with certification cards. The rest of the yacht is outfitted for pretty much anybody who loves sun, water sports, and gourmet food.
The yacht was built in 1999 by an owner who used a wheelchair and wanted a main-deck master stateroom with wide enough corridors that he could access them without difficulty. He sold Melimar to her current owner less than a year after taking delivery of the yacht, but his wishes created a boat with a unique stateroom configuration. In addition to that on-deck master, there are two nearly identical large staterooms below.
Though the boat could sleep ten guests, she only charters for six or eight people at a time, making her ideal for a few couples who want to split the week’s bill.
“It’s hard to find a yacht this size with three equally big staterooms,” Tim Nelson, a broker with Seven Seas Yacht Charters, said during our cruise. “And they’re only taking the number of guests they can actually deal with, so that’s good.”
Melimar uses Key West’s Conch Harbor Marina as her base, within easy walking distance of Mallory Square and Duval Street. The square is the center of the sunset universe, a virtual carnival of fire-twirling unicycle riders, sword swallowers and palm readers. As the twilight slips into darkness, the crowd meanders to Duval, which is block after block of T-shirt shops, watering holes and restaurants. At night, long after the cruise ships pull away, the street awakens like a tired woman who went home, showered and caked on her makeup and rhinestones. There’s live music in open-air bars, hot rods cruising the drag, and a handful of people cruising in drag.
Of course, there’s much more to Key West than booze and babes, including The Little White House that President Truman frequented and the home where Ernest Hemingway finished A Farewell to Arms. The streets in this part of town are manicured, so much so that it’s easy to see today’s diplomats and dignitaries strolling the same paths. Secretary of State Colin Powell has held talks here, and the Bushes and Gores apparently visit, as well (presumably on separate itineraries).
Our itinerary included two days of touring Key West—which I found a good amount of time—then a cruise to the Dry Tortugas, which lie 70 miles west. The seas were extremely calm as we snaked through the channel and between the many reefs that bedeviled sailors for so many centuries.
About halfway along our course, Capt. Christiansen popped his head out of the pilothouse and came up to the flying bridge, where I was reading in the warm breeze about Mel Fisher’s found treasure. Christiansen pointed off Melimar’s starboard bow and said, “That’s where they found the Atocha.” It looked like a whole lot of nothing, just azure water against a clear blue sky. I looked along the horizon at the countless square miles of water with reef underneath. It was hard to imagine all of the history buried there.
Less difficult to envision was the history that took place at Fort Jefferson, which we toured after dropping Melimar’s anchor in the Dry Tortugas. The day-trippers on fast ferries were heading back to Key West as we dinghied ashore to walk through America’s largest 19th-century coastal fort, built with more than 16 million bricks. For a time, it served as a prison whose inmates included Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted as being complicit in the assassination of President Lincoln. Mudd’s cell was a virtual dungeon, save for the fresh sea breeze that still blows in from a few small, brick-rimmed windows.
If he had tried to escape, Dr. Mudd would have faced endless blue water and no sight of land. An uncomfortable predicament for him, to say the least, but a delightful visage for us. We spent the better part of the next day diving, snorkeling, swimming and sailing in Melimar’s Laser. First mate Richard Hasselhurst—the most charming engineer-type I have ever met—and deckhand Antonio Coma served as our water-sports guides while Hollie Fuller—one of the hardest-working stewardesses I know—organized our staterooms and set the aft-deck table for our well-earned lunch.
That afternoon, chef Felipe Cuellar had prepared wasabi-seared tuna in a honey-soy reduction served atop sprouts, endive and braised radicchio with herbed goat cheese on the side. It was followed by a dessert of espresso-coffee mousse with vanilla ice cream layers. The lunch was representative of all the meals Cuellar prepared. A Fort Lauderdale native of Colombian descent, he excels in gourmet preparations and presentations. There was no key lime pie, conch or other local fare during our trip; instead, we were treated to fineries.
Cuellar says cooking is like dancing. He would much rather do it with a partner.
“I prefer to sit down and talk with people,” he says. “I can see the expression on their face, see what kind of a person they are, see how far I can push or if I have to stay within boundaries.”
Indeed, he had such a conversation with one of our fellow guests onboard, who is a vegetarian. She had worried that he would serve her fish at every meal, but after their talk, he managed to create everything from tofu salads to pasta specialties that left her more than content. The rest of us were just as pleased with Cuellar’s perfectly cooked chateaubriand in a morel-white truffle infusion sauce, oven-roasted quail with black bean, mango and ginger salsa, and rack of lamb with sweet potato and asparagus in a red wine reduction.
As we cruised back to Key West on full stomachs, I hungered for additional insight into the treasures that lay in the waters all around us, and I asked Capt. Christiansen for more details about the silver piece of eight he wears on a gold chain around his neck. He told me he found it while diving on the wreck of the Pinta—yes, the one that sailed with the Nina and the Santa Maria.
I could let you in on the details of that tale, too, but then I’d spoil your fun. You’ll just have to charter Melimar and quiz Christiansen yourself.