Time was when the compleat treasure hunter needed only a tattered map, a seaworthy ship and a fair wind to the end of the rainbow. But when the Samala set sail last November in search of the sunken Spanish treasure ship Concepción, the quest had all the complications and calculations of a corporate enterprise. Most of the six years of preparation had been dry scholarship. Backed by a U.S. consortium that invested $500,000 in the hunt, expedition leader Burt Webber went to sea with a $15,000 photomosaic map of the ocean floor where the Concepción went down in 1641 and an impressive complement of equipment and specialists.
Indeed, even more vital to the success of the search than Webber was his partner in adventure, Jack Haskins. A self-taught expert in historical manuscripts, Haskins, 44, had traced the approximate location of the wreck through yellowed Spanish documents, and it was his detective work that attracted the investors. “Looking at this professionally,” says Webber, “you wouldn’t invest based on book research alone any more than you would dig a hole for an oil well on a student geologist’s recommendation. It takes firsthand research, a feeling for nautical terminology and the idioms of the language, and expertise in Spanish colonial history. Very few people have all these things, and Jack Haskins is one of them.” Webber’s and the consortium’s faith has been decisively vindicated. Three days after arriving at Silver Shoals, 80 miles north of the Dominican Republic, the expedition located the Concepción in 50 feet of water, just 150 yards from the spot Haskins and Webber had predicted. Estimates of the treasure run as high as $40 million, and Haskins will receive 5 percent of what remains after the Dominican government has taken its half.
Born in Vermont, Goin Everett Haskins Jr. grew up in Lexington, Mass. and quit school to join the Navy when he was only 16. “I lied about my age,” he explains. “I hated being taught. I’m a great believer that if somebody wrote it somewhere, I can learn it myself.” After PT-boat service in the waning days of World War II, he specialized in radar and electronics as a destroyer crewman. Later he studied flying under the GI bill and eventually became an independent corporate pilot. One day he went along with a client to salvage the engines of a sunken pleasure boat in the Susquehanna River. “We worked about an hour in the murk, unbolting the engines by Braille,” recalls Haskins. “That’s how I got into treasure hunting.”
By 1968 he had set his sights on the sunken Spanish galleon Atocha, eventually discovered by rival treasure hunter Mel Fisher(PEOPLE, May 15, 1978), and was baching it on his own 38-foot boat in the Florida Keys. He spent two weeks in Spain photographing documents, then came home to learn what was in them. “I studied them with a dictionary in one hand, starting to learn Spanish,” he recalls. “It was like working a code. After three years I was actually reading those documents, but still not locating the Atocha.” By 1972 Haskins was a regular visitor to Spanish archives in Seville and supporting himself trafficking in antique coins after a few years of playing the stock market. “I was working on a 1622 wreck and another one from 1656,” he says. “Naturally, I was running across material on the Concepción, so I picked up all the information I could.”
Though the Concepción had been found once before, in 1687 by William Phips, the 21st son of a poor Maine farmer, much of its treasure had not been recovered. Haskins and Webber, an old rival who had become his friend and associate, decided to have a go at it themselves in 1977, but a four-month expedition proved fruitless. For years Haskins had been searching vainly for the missing log of Phips’ vessel Henry of London. Returning to Spain in 1978, he began corresponding with a professor of economics in London, who had been studying the Concepción for purely academic reasons. “He started giving me what he had,” recalls Haskins, “and then he called with word that the missing log had been found in a county library in Kent.” Haskins and Webber flew to England at once. “The Phips log was everything we thought it was,” says Haskins. “The concept of research is like a puzzle. You get a piece here and a piece there, and pretty soon you have them all. We found our treasure that day in the library.”
Already Operation Phips II, as they call it, has salvaged enough treasure to repay its backers, and the end is nowhere in sight. But Jack Haskins, with a fortune in prospect, is once again scouring the archives. “I never look back,” he says, “because if you do you turn into a pillar of salt or something. Treasure hunting is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. Anybody can learn to do it, and it’s a last vestige of free enterprise. It’s the great American dream.”