Thursday, January 04, 2007


Ship is treasure hunt condo


Florida Today
By Linda Jump
January 04, 2007

PALM BAY - At first glance, you might think the Polly L is a four-story oil rig when it's perched in the Atlantic, just a few miles off Melbourne Beach.

Like those operations, this ship is involved in digging for treasure. Yet the booty it seeks is not black gold but the shiny, metal variety.

Doug Pope, the 58-year-old who helped design the $2.3 million ship five years ago, has yet another description: "I call it my movable condo on stilts."

There are only 300 like it, and Pope's is believed to be the only one used for "underwater archaeology" -- a fancy term for hunting treasure on submerged wrecks. Pope and his crew are trying to determine what's on a site that Pope thinks contains the remnants of two of the ships from the 1715 Plate Fleet that sank in a storm. The ships were returning to Spain with treasure that included gold bars, gold and silver coins, jewelry, china and other treasures.

Three legs with pads for stabilization stretch down to the ocean floor and lift his boat up as high as 68 feet. That allows him to utilize equipment on the ship that might be affected by the choppy water. And because his boat can stay out in most weather, that theoretically means more diving days per season.

"It's unusual for someone in exploration and salvage to use this type of boat," said Ryan Wheeler, state archAeologist. He
said the Melbourne Beach site where Pope has his ship has been contracted for exploration for years but hasn't actually been explored much until now.

"It can be hard to get there," Wheeler said.

Pope had the ship built in January 2001 by Keith Marine in Palatka, and it's primarily used on an Amelia Island site 27 miles west of the Keys for his company, Amelia Research. But Pope decided to bring the Polly L to Brevard County to work the site he subcontracts with Mel Fisher Treasures.

"We can work in water as shallow as three or four feet deep and stay on a site for three months," he said.

Taffi Fisher-Abt, who runs Mel Fisher Treasures after the death of her famous father, calls the Polly L "really neat." "My father would have loved it," she said.

"I'm hoping he'll find tons of treasure," Fisher-Abt said.

Ship's mechanics
The boat's main hull is 2,100 square feet. It boasts a reverse osmosis system that creates 1,200 gallons of potable water a day. It also has satellite television, a flush toilet, a washer and dryer and a shower. There are eight bedrooms that can sleep 14. A circular staircase leads to each level. On the work floor, the staircase is painted as a map showing the world circa 1720.

An excavator with two 36-inch propellers blows sand under the ocean's floor to, Pope hopes, expose treasures. A former Army helicopter pilot, he came up with that design to move sand "efficiently and carefully."

The boat uses a vegetable-based oil that can't damage wildlife but is costly. A global positioning system on the top story pinpoints the boat's location. Computers show the ocean's floor and where magnetometer "hits" highlight unknown items containing iron. Computer software makes state-required reports of the exploration simple to generate.

An electrical system generates 260 kilowatts of power. Sword Marine of Ormond Beach is building Pope what Bill Lawson calls the first large outboard diesel propulsion unit. Lawson, who designed the units, said a customized auto engine is placed on a boat transom above a 10-inch water jet. "It uses the jet instead of a propeller, so it's safe for wildlife and divers," he said.

Pope's unit will be a 200 diesel adapted with a nozzle so it can be used to move sand from the ocean floor. "It should double my fuel economy, eliminate the potential of explosion from gasoline and provide a power source for an 8-inch mobile dredge. No one else in the industry has one of these," Pope said.

With divers, it costs $32,000 per month to maintain the boat. Docked, the price drops to $22,000 a month.

Searching awaits
From November through mid-December, the 200-ton boat, powered by six diesel engines, has been home to a team of divers. Up to six divers with hoses can search beneath the ship at a time, and more can do so if they use air tanks. And while the ship generally allows for nearly year-round searching, turbulent waters are making it hard for divers to do their thing.

"Even with the boat, we've only had a day and a half of diving in five weeks," Pope said. He added, "We stayed stable, but divers couldn't dive because of the swells."

So for the Christmas holiday, the ship was moved to safe harbor in Titusville, where it will get a once-over. Moving the ship from the site four miles south of 192 off Melbourne Beach to a temporary stop at McFarland Park took nine hours. Speeds were under 5 miles an hour, followed by a trip through the locks at Cape Canaveral.

Pope hopes to be back to search off Melbourne Beach within the next two weeks.

So far, the site off Melbourne Beach hasn't turned up anything. But over the years, Pope has found coins, bombs, emeralds, even a sewing machine.

He and his 180 investors hope a calmer ocean will allow better searching through March.

"It's a lot of fun and a good life. It's where the land ends and the adventure begins," he said.


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