Pirate Hunters, The Search for the Lost Treasure Ship of a Great Buccaneer. By Robert Kurson.

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 9.40.26 AM“If you like pirates, meet me in New Jersey”.

With that, Kurson is off to meet John Chatterton and John Mattera, world class divers and treasure hunters, who are chasing the ghost of Joseph Bannister, one of the legendary (but real) pirates of the Caribbean, and his ship the Golden Fleece. Only one documented pirate ship has ever been found – the Whydah, off the coast of Cape Cod.

Kurson does a great job not just of telling the tale of the search for the Golden Fleece, but of taking you inside the world of treasure hunters and paying homage to the grand old men of the industry. Tracy Bowden owns the lease rights for treasure hunting in the Dominican Republic (or Hispaniola as the pirates knew it). He’s got a lead on the shipwreck site, but is too old to chase it, and Chatterton & Mattera are masters of the new technology-driven world of ship finding. He brings in Chatterton and Mattera to go after it. On their first visit to his house, Chatterton takes a break to go to the bathroom. Upon walking into the bathroom he finds a bathtub full of “pieces of eight”, spanish silver coins. The bathtub has about 5 million dollars worth of treasure in it. Throughout the hunt for the Golden Fleece, the partners visit other legendary treasure hunters to seek advice or information, some humble men worth millions and others flashy.

Chatterton and Mattera are just about to launch on a search for the San Bartolomé, after years of prep. But the lure of finding a true pirate ship is too strong. They abandon their quest for the San Bartolomé and they’re off to the Dominican in search of the Golden Fleece.

Kurson does an admirable of job of weaving the history of pirates into the book, including interesting diversions such as how limbs were amputated after battle (turns out in that era, being in the Navy was probably the best place to have an amputation done as they were the best at it). And he visits many historical sites such as the museum in Key West were one of only two remaining original Jolly Roger flags is kept.

He also explores the details and dangers of deep sea diving and treasure hunting. Chatterton and Mattera are both larger-than-life figures. Chatterton is a long time diver, TV host, Vietnam war medic, and treasure hunter, while Mattera grew up rough-and-tumble, dancing on the edge of organized crime in New Jersey (he knew many top figures in the Gambino crime family, but escaped the life to become first a policeman, then a celebrity bodyguard, and then a commercial diver). Kurston brings them and their story to life in a way that would make a great movie. There’s the exciting bits, the ambush in the Dominican where gunfire is exchanged, and the quiet parts, talking to old fishermen and doing research reading ship’s logs and newspaper articles in an off-the-beaten path library in Seville, Spain – a real life Da Vinci code scene. Pirate Hunters has so many twists, turns, false starts and crazy discoveries, it would make an amazing work of fiction or movie, yet it’s all true.

At the heart of their attempt to find the shipwreck is the mystery of Joseph Bannister – a career captain and pilot, highly successful and trusted. But one day, he “went pirate”. History is silent on why such a highly respected, successful captain would do such a thing. If you think it sounds like an episode of Black Sails, you’re not far wrong. Mattera ultimately develops a theory for what happened to Bannister, and, without giving anything away, this theory ultimately becomes a major turning point in their quest.

Pirate Hunters is a fantastic book. I read it in one sitting and I’m not sure I took a break. It’s about pirates and history and the thrill of the chase, but ultimately it’s about chasing your dreams and not settling for the easy way in life. Chatterton and Mattera almost give up more than once, and could easily be doing other things for less effort and more money, but they nearly sacrifice everything in their quest.

(ps: I love a book that points you to other great books. Pirate Hunters is a winner here too: Kurson points me to The Buccaneers of America, an amazing first-person contemporary account of Pirates. You can get the book for free online. The Library of Congress has also made an extremely interesting online version of the original book in Dutch with wonderful illustrations. It’s too cool, check it out: http://www.loc.gov/flash/pagebypage/buccaneers/)

(I received a copy of Pirate Hunters through LibraryThing’s wonderful Early Reviewers program, in exchange for a review. )

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