Taken by the Sea: 11 Real-life Shipwrecks


The Atocha

About 70 years later, another ship, this one Spanish and carrying treasure, went down in a surprise storm. The Atocha was part of Spain's "treasure fleet" and ran regular missions from Spain to the South American colonies. She carried supplies for the colonists and returned to Spain with payment in the form of gold and silver. Of the fleet, Atocha carried the most cargo and so carried soldiers onboard to defend her treasure from pirates. And because she carried soldiers for defense, the wealthiest of the civilians traveling with the fleet choose the Atocha as their transporter. On a run in 1622, she was supposed to leave the colonies for Spain before the hurricane season began in July, but there was more cargo to carry than expected, and it took so long to load the treasure in Columbia that she ended up beginning her voyage home in late July. At the beginning of September, after a stop in Havana, Atocha set sail for Spain.

Starting out in perfect weather, Atocha made her slow, weighted journey toward the Florida Keys. By nightfall, the sea was choppy with increased wind, and by daybreak Atocha was caught in a vicious storm that destroyed her masts, sails and rigging. Now uncontrollable, Atocha sat helpless off the Florida Keys until a massive wave picked her up and sent her crashing down onto a coral reef. She sank like a rock, tons of silver and gold pulling her to the bottom of the sea. Only five of the 265 crew and passengers survived. There were immediate attempts to recover the treasure, but since SCUBA wasn't invented until 1942, the attempts were pretty useless. In 1985, though, after a 16-year search, salvager Mel Fisher found the Atocha and her treasure in 55 feet (18 yards) of water off the Florida Keys.

Though nature can hold her own when it comes to wrecking a ship, humans often lend a hand anyway. The Titanic's designers overestimated her invincibility; the fishers on the Andrea Gail chose product over caution; the owners of the Brother Jonathan threatened to find a new captain if the current one didn't allow the ship to be overloaded with cargo.