By Jean-Marc Claes
Deep, deeper, deepest wreck? It is all about John Chatteron!
Meeting old friends and making new ones! It has been a steady part of writing in our ScubaBiz.Help magazine, telling the stories of SY Blowing Bubbles on our scuba trip around the world.
Captain’s log: April 15th, 2023
Location: Dominican Republic, Samana bay, Puerto Bahia,
As we finish our trip across the feared Mona Passage, entering the bay of Samana, we get a warm welcome from the many whales gathering in this bay. It is whale season, meaning thousands of whales come to meet and greet, reproduce and even give birth in the Bay of Samana.
This is also the purpose of our being here; meeting and greeting the whales.
After our two-day sail over from Puerto Rico, time to get some rest in Marina Puerto Bahia before heading out again to spot the whales. While entering the marina, I spotted a strange-looking vessel moored in the marina. The vessel carries a lot of dive gear, commercial gear, not the average recreational dive gear. After some local inquiries, the name John Charterton pops up.
You can find his impressive biography online, but for those who have not heard of him, John’s life is all about wrecks; he is a real wreck hunter! And he has the Bio to prove it… To keep it short, he is one of the few who has made several dives on the Titanic, Brittanic (sister ship of…) and the Olympic (the other one). Some background: John was an army guy, serving in Vietnam as a medic and became a professional (hard hat) diver at the age of 29, remembering very well his first dive, thinking that he would never survive it. He grew into it and liked it, as he loves the principle that a mission is there to accomplish it.
Commercial diving was also a lot about wrecks, and as far it concerns him, the ocean is just there to keep other people away from the wrecks. Meaning he is just not the biggest fan of recreational diving, looking at fish, reefs, etc. Wrecks are what he likes!
The Titanic project was a three-partner deal (amongst Richie Kohler was one other partner, writer of Shadow Hunters and is also a dedicated wreck diver). Together they came up with the money to pay for the Russian support vessel carrying the deep submarines they would use. The story ended with filming completely unknown parts of the Titanic and resulted in two episodes on the History Channel, still there for you to watch even today.
John’s career has so many sides and stories that it would be impossible to cover just 5% of it. We decided to get on the personal side of things and step away from the stories. Guess what John’s dreams are? He just wants to outlive everyone he knows! He loves life and wants to live it to the fullest.
When talking about bucket lists, what is his bucket list regarding diving?
The answer is quite easy: the next wreck dive!
Where does John get his inspiration (we are not talking about a rebreather here!)? He is all in on the history and historical data. Wreck diving does NOT start by jumping in the ocean and seeing what is down there. It starts in books, libraries, stories from people and more.
Another wreck that made John’s list of achievements is the Lusitania. He has made many dives on it and has gotten the most out of it because he became a specialist in decompression diving and the use of proper gas mixes. It gave him the LIFO option (Last In, First Out), having maximum bottom time by being more efficient. Experience is gained in every dive, so get it and use it!
What about nightmares?
Well, overregulation has become a big nightmare. More and more (international) wreck laws are being established, resulting in less wreck diving and less discovery because of less research.
The future of wreck hunting and research diving is not there anymore, although the development and use of CCR (Closed Circuit Rebreathers) have made it much more accessible.
John has dedicated his life to wrecks, finding them, identifying them and ‘explaining’ them and is still very active today.
So we share the story of the discovery of one specific wreck, the ship of pirate/buccaneer Bannister.
Everyone knows the scenes from pirate movies, the big galleons being attacked by the pirate ship. The golden treasures were hidden in caves, like in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean.
We have been sailing for some time in that area of the “new Spanish world” discovered by Columbus. Usually, we don’t really think about it, but occasionally we hear old stories.
On Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands, also known as “treasure island,” we dived into caves where a pirate treasure was actually found. There are even rumours among local residents that a treasure still lies on Norman Island. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anything, although we used the underwater metal detectors that we carry onboard SY Blowing Bubbles. We just could not resist the temptation.
Also, here in the Dominican Republic, pirate stories are popping up again. John tells the story of Cayo Vigia, the pirate island.
Coincidentally, that is also the island in front of which our Blowing Bubbles has been anchored for a few weeks.
It is a beautiful crescent-shaped island with rocks and a beach with many palm trees, and what is very special is that it remains very deep until close to the beach. Very interesting for pirates to pull their ships to one side in order to clean the bottom of the ship. Luckily, we have diving equipment on board to do that job.
Joseph Bannister was captain of the English merchant sailing ship “Golden Fleece” in 1680. He had to deliver all kinds of goods on the route from London – Jamaica. But after a few years, he sailed away with the ship, including the 40 or so guns. He looked for another crew and started his career as a pirate by robbing a Spanish ship. Finally, he was captured by the captain of the ship Ruby and had to appear before the English court in Port Royal (Jamaica).
He managed to get himself acquitted, and a while later, he even managed to steal “his” ship, the Golden Fleece, again. He then sailed to Ile-à-Vache, an island off the coast of Haiti, where he joined a flotilla of buccaneers and happily proceeded to rob other ships.
Two English ships, Falcon and Drake, found him a year later in Samana Bay, where he had skewed his ship on Cayo Vigia for cleaning and maintenance. But he didn’t let himself be overpowered easily. He placed some of the ship’s guns on land. After 48 hours of fighting, the British were forced to retreat, running out of ammunition.
After resupplying, the English ships returned but found only the burnt and sunken wreck of the Golden Fleece (all of which happened about 50m from where we are anchored). Joseph Bannister had been able to flee on another captured ship.
A year later, Bannister was captured by the crew of the English ship Drake. Bannister was brought back to Jamaica to face trial, but for fear of another escape, he was hanged from a yardarm of the Drake before they even disembarked him.
The story survived, but the exact location was lost. With his team, John Chatterton went looking for the wreck in Samana Bay in 2008. Local stories of a wreck at Cayo Levantado (at the entrance to the bay) circulated, so the search was started there, but nothing was found. They began to think further and came to the conclusion that this island was not strategically interesting at all for pirates, but the islet of Cayo Vigia in the bay of the city was. Metal detectors were brought in, and the island was combed. Since there was a battery of guns on the land, there must have been impacts here as well. Cannonballs with British insignia were soon found, so they were good. Finding the wreck was much more difficult. There is not much metal to be found on such a wooden ship, except for cannons and the anchor. The visibility here in the bay is very poor; there is always a lot of sand, and the bottom is muddy. But in 2009, the wreck was found right next to the place where we threw our anchor.
A nice story, and so we named this place “Pirate Bay.”
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