Of Pirates, Doubloons, And A Golden Gratuity
Ship’s log: May 12, 1989 Ketch High Barbaree At anchor in West End, Tortola Weather: clear, light wind Sent the launch to pick up our charter party
The buccaneers and pirates of long ago stashed their loot in the oddest places. Every year, there’s a new story from some faraway shore of treasure found. The history of the British Virgin Islands is steeped in legends of buried treasure. Names here hark back to the days of pieces of eight on the Spanish Main. Deadman’s Bay, Deadchest, Jost van Dyke and Bluebeard’s Castle are all reminiscent of an era when a cutlass in a strong man’s hand was the law.
The long stretch of water known as Sir Francis Drake Channel is like an inland sea, offering anchorages where a schooner or brig could find safe haven. Large, natural harbors such as the Bight at Norman Island (the real “Treasure Island”), Road Harbor and West End at Tortola, and Great Harbour at Peter Island must have been just as attractive to the old-time sailors as they are to yachtsmen today. A 200-ton schooner with a good skipper and crew could easily sail to and from the anchor in these harbors.
With all of the loot that these dubious characters were hauling in, they were always on the lookout for a safe place to hide it. The sands of time have run, and scores of years have passed, but many of the secrets of that bygone era remain. From time to time, tourists visiting the Virgin Islands turn up the odd gold doubloon or chain. Lawmakers long ago recognized this source of lucre and declared any treasure found to be the property of the government.
In May 1989, the Sanderson family arrived in West End, Tortola, for a weeklong charter on the High Barbaree, our 78-foot Philip Rhodes ketch. There were five in the family, three of them young daughters. The family were a few hours early, so as we carried their luggage aboard, I suggested that they have a walk around the bay.
There had been great plans over the years to deepen the head of West End harbor, and at that time, finally, it was being done. A huge dredge sucked up tons of sand and ground-up coral from the bottom of the bay and spit it out onto the shore. There were huge piles of sand, full of seashells of many different types.
Mrs. Sanderson expressed an interest in shell collecting.
“Just walk along the beach to the sand piles over there, and you’ll probably find plenty,” I suggested. And so, they did. The week turned out well, and the Sandersons seemed to enjoy themselves even more than guests usually did. We took them snorkeling by Seal Dog Rocks and explored the white sand beaches of Anegada. I took them fishing in the launch, and we caught yellowtail snapper for the table. The
weather held and we had a number of glorious sailing days. Our big, steel ketch reveled in the trade- wind breezes. All too soon for the Sandersons, the cruise came to an end and we sailed into Beef Island on their final night.
The following morning, they left to catch a flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they would connect to a flight bound for the United States. My crew was happy with the gratuity they left, a full 15 percent. As the captain, I didn’t usually accept gratuities, and I didn’t expect anything on this occasion. However, after my guests had gone ashore and I went into my cabin, I found a brown envelope waiting for me. It was sticking out from under my pillow, and as I picked it up, I almost dropped it because it was so heavy. Inside was a small package wrapped in tin foil, with this note:
“Dear Capt. Lou,
Our thanks once again to you and your crew for a wonderful cruise. Just how wonderful you could never have imagined. Remember the first day in West End, when you told us to go and look for shells in the sand pile? Well, we picked up some rather pretty shells, but that wasn’t all we found. Robin spotted what looked like a huge flat abalone shell, but it had a shiny part to it. When I lifted it out of the sand it weighed a ton and I could hardly hold it. When we took a closer look, we couldn’t believe our eyes, because there was a clump of gold coins, Lou, all fused together by time and coral. They must have been in a bag and fallen into the bay many years ago — I wonder how many? Anyway, they must have been dredged up for us to find. We didn’t say anything to you before, as we weren’t sure how you would react.
So, thank you for showing us where to find that small piece of treasure. Maybe you should go back and take a look for yourself. In the meantime, we want you to have these two coins in our appreciation.”
The note was signed by the Sandersons, and as I slowly opened the tin foil, I found myself looking at two large gold coins, my share of the West End treasure.
High Barbaree, Capt. Lou Boudreau’s 78-foot Philip Rhodes ketch, makes her way upwind in the BVI.