Torres Hurricane

Foul seafaring conditions

Unfavorable weather in the Caribbean tests the ability and skill level of any ship captains, especially as conditions sometimes develop into super storm cells producing violent winds, damaging ocean swells, tropical storms, typhoons, and hurricanes. Combination of rising tides and strong winds present unforeseen dangers to even the largest of ships and most savvy captains. Storms in the open seas are capable of flooding holds with excess water from abnormally high waves cresting above the deck at a moment's notice. Rogue waves coupled with dangerous winds can easily capsize a ship or set it off-course unknowingly into rocky outcrops or shoals lurking beneath shallow waters. Limited visibility from dense rain and fog along with low-light or night conditions only increase the risk of disaster.

Sailing the open oceans relies heavily on weather conditions, from wind affecting momentum to undulating currents adjusting course. Aside from human error or intervention, the weather is a major factor in determining a successful voyage. While reading through shipwreck stories it becomes apparent just how dangerous weather can be for ship captains. If weather isn't directly attributed as the cause of shipping disaster, it becomes the most likely culprit until otherwise proven through underwater wreck explorations; to the point shipwrecks and bad weather become nearly synonymous. Foul seafaring conditions echoing those from eighteen years prior, to the misfortune of General Torres and Spain, demonstrates how devastating weather affects shipping operations within a moment's notice. A strong hurricane managed to wipe out an entire Spanish fleet in 1733 as they attempted to quickly traverse dangerous waters transporting large amounts of treasure. The armada consisted of four heavily armed galleons, and at least seventeen merchant vessels laden with gold, silver, gems, and other precious cargo.

Hurricane Storm
Hurricane Storm

Words of Don Alonso de Herrera, one of the surviving captains, recounts the unfortunate tragedy in a detailed message to Spanish authorities. Researchers gain valuable insight into a monstrosity the fleet faced, this being the second time in close succession that a large Spanish treasure fleet met with the gruesome ferocity of a hurricane, leaving only survivors to tell the story. Alonso describes sailing into the knife's edge of a hurricane near the Florida Keys that presented very little warning. In a desperate attempt for survival, the armada grounded intentionally in the shallows to wait out the storm. High winds gusted toward the fleet upon meeting the leading edge. Untrimmed sails were clipped and masts twisted as seas churned.

Swelling tides, reckless white caps, and ocean sprays flying in every direction. The fleet's fate quickly sucked into the danger with high winds and waves prohibiting escape toward Havana. Everything happened so fast that by the time captains attempted counter measures, many ships we're already too saturated to stay afloat. Grounding the ships proved to be the next logical decision for survival. A grounded vessel keeps it mostly upright and helps deter capsizing while providing shelter for the crew, and in such, hunkering down saved lives.

When the hurricane finally hit, only a few of the ships were actually destroyed by direct impact, while the remainder were stabilized enough to prevent imminent disaster. It is uncertain exactly who commanded the first orders for intentional grounding, though some research indicates Alonso most likely made the call. The decision became a blessing in disguise for Spain, not only considering an alternative outcome, but also because the shallows were close enough to land for survivors to establish temporary camps and recover supplies from the wrecks. Proximity to the shoreline allowed salvage crews to work quickly off-loading while keeping an eye on the goods. In fear of pirates happening upon an eighty mile stretch of grounded Spanish treasure, crew members burned any ship debris above the waterline to hide evidence in lapping waves.

Divers worked diligently pulling up any valuables they could find. In as little as three months of hard work, to the pleasure of Spain, every piece of registered treasure recovered. Beyond this news, salvages also managed to recover a large amount of unregistered valuables from the site. Effectively, the Spanish recovered the entire fleet's wealth, and also a significant amount of treasure being smuggled away from the crown. In modern times, both private and commercial salvage operations have attempted to recover additional treasure from the grounded fleet without much luck. Spanish salvage operations were so successful that little remains to be found on the sunken ships, a true testament to Spain's claim of recovering the entire wealth. Even the best known preserved wreck yielded very little bounty worth the time and effort for salvage. Today, one wreck from the 1733 fleet, the San Pedro, remains as an underwater archaeological preserve and diving attraction. The dive site also serves as a thoughtful reminder that hundreds of years ago, an astute Spanish captain found a way to save the crews and treasure of twenty two ships from a powerful hurricane.