The Wreck in
the Bay of Playa Damas
The village of Nombre de Dios has few inhabitants, slightly over three thousand; nobody seems to have made an accurate count. It has a whitewashed church, symbol and relic of the former colonial powers, and eight bars, most of them devoid of clientele. Signs reading “Se Vende” hang outside shacks and half-finished buildings; the signs look as if they have been hanging there for some time. Plastic chairs are scattered here and there under trees. The owners of the bars can be frequently found propped up along the counters of their establishments, drinking the beer themselves. There are no jobs to be had in Nombre de Dios, nor are there any tourists. The women wash clothes in the muddy waters of the local river. In sum, Nombre de Dios, which is situated on Panama’s Caribbean coast, about fifteen miles east of the larger town of Portobelo, seems to be on the wrong side of what some might call “civilization.”
Nombre de Dios’s remoteness was doubtless one reason almost no one reacted when in late 2001 an American treasure hunter named Warren White posted an announcement on the Internet that he had found the Vizcaína, one of the ships that had gone on Christopher Columbus’s fourth, and final, expedition to the New World in 1502. White’s discovery made a few headlines—CNN offered a brief spot on it—but then, fairly quickly, things went quiet. One reason might have been that every year, it seems, someone somewhere announces a sensational discovery involving Columbus—a document, a ship’s bell, an original logbook, and even, occasionally, a shipwreck. Over time archaeologists and Columbus scholars have grown thick-skinned about these claims; most of the time they simply ignore them. For good reason: most turn out to be hoaxes. Treasure hunters routinely inflate the importance of their finds. After all, a cannon from one of Columbus’s ships would fetch significantly more on the open market than one from practically any other wreck. Moreover, Warren White did not help his cause. He had earned a reputation among archaeologists for being one of those treasure hunters who favored using explosives on wrecks, believing that this method more effectively and efficiently freed up the coins and gold hidden beneath the heavy timbers and sediment.
White was not the first or only one to claim to have found the wreck, which, many say, local fishermen had known about for years—it was lying a couple of dozen feet below the surface. Another American expatriate living in Panama named James Norris, who was in the process of buying a dive center near Nombre de Dios called Diver’s Haven, felt he had earned that privilege. In the summer of 1996, Norris went scuba diving in various locations in the bay of Playa Damas, places where locals had assured him he would find the most fish—a draw for potential diving clients. He swam directly over the wreck, which, he said, he knew immediately was old. He told his son, who in turn—according to Norris—told Nilda Vázquez, a local real-estate agent and the original owner of Diver’s Haven. Nilda Vázquez, for her part, denied Norris’s claim of discovery. She maintained that she had heard about it from Warren White, while also insisting that she had been the one to tell White that it might be the Vizcaína. (At the time, Norris and Vazquez were involved in a bitter legal dispute over the purchase of Diver’s Haven.) Of the three claimants, Vázquez remains most intimately involved in the issue of discovery and ownership, as we shall see. In anycase, it is little wonder that historians and Columbus experts discounted the rumors surrounding the discovery of the wreck. Who would have had any reason to believe James Norris, embattled owner of Diver’s Haven, or Warren White, the treasure seeker from Miami, or a local real-estate agent named Nilda Vázquez, particularly when so many professionals have tried and failed to find vessels such as the Vizcaína?
Almost everyone involved in underwater archaeological research has, at some point, gone in search of one of Columbus’s ships. They represent the Holy Grail of the Western Hemisphere. Columbus lost nine ships in the four voyages he made to the New World. There are clues as to where they might lie. For example, archaeologists know that the Santa María, Columbus’s flagship for the first voyage to America, sank on a calm night, while the crew and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea—the title Columbus had been given by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella—were asleep. One of the ship’s boys was at the helm as the Santa María drifted along the coast of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic, and then ran aground on a sandbank. Columbus used wood from the ship to build the first fortress in the New World, La Navidad, traces of which have been unearthed. However, no part of the Santa María’s hull has ever been found. Columbus lost the Gallega—another ship that went on his final voyage—in a battle against natives near the Río Belén, on the north side of what is now Panama, and approximately 125 miles due west of Nombre de Dios. For months researchers from Texas A&M University searched for the Gallega. They dredged the river and the estuary and at one point very nearly half the bay of Belén but came up empty-handed.
Lacking physical evidence, experts know fairly little about what these ships looked like. Most depictions date from decades later and tended to be shaped by the artists’ imaginations. Most resemble the kind of ships that contemporary sailors would like to imagine went to sea in the fifteenth century. No constructional drawings survive—no detailed descriptions and no sketches.
Nonetheless, some facts about these ships do exist. We know, for example, that the Santa María was a cumbersome but stable old tub known as a nao. Hard to maneuver, it was ill-suited for a voyage into unknown waters under variable winds. Columbus scholars have concluded that he generally liked to sail on caravels, ships measuring between sixty and seventy-two feet in length and featuring a mainsail, two or three smaller masts, and a small castle at the stern. He preferred them because they were comparatively fast and reliably stable. Unlike the Santa María, which could only sail straight before the wind—meaning with a tailwind—caravels could sail in crosswinds. On the other hand, caravels had disadvantages in terms of space; a crew as large as fifty had to live on a sixty-five-foot ship for an entire year; there was no head and no galley. Not even the Admiral of the Ocean Sea had his own cabin and was forced to sleep under the quarterdeck with the crew. But those facts represent nearly the totality of knowledge. Seafaring in the Age of Discovery, as it is called, remains a deep mystery. “We know more about Greek or Roman ships than about the ships of the discoverers,” said Filipe Castro, a nautical archaeologist at Texas A&M University.
Wrecks from the period are so precious because, like all wrecks, they are time capsules; an entire era freezes the moment disaster befalls a ship. Therefore it would be wrong to say that no one took notice when Warren White announced he had discovered the Vizcaína. Some were waiting for exactly a discovery such as this. They may have doubted whether this actually was the Vizcaína,