The pastels of the tiny coquina tickle your toes as you walk along at low tide, maybe emptying your mind of anything other than a Jimmy Buffet tune and a reminder-to-self of when Happy Hour begins at your favorite A1A bar. But if you’re a local or tourist who is Florida beach-savvy, your eyes will be continually scanning the ground as you walk for a glimmer of gold, something flat and black or barnacle-encrusted and leaking rust.
“They don’t call the East Coast of Florida the Treasure Coast for nothing,” says nautical expert Lance Lenart of St. Augustine’s S.O.S. Antiques. “People come in here all the time with some object they’ve found on the beach that turns out to be something really special.”
Also see: Florida Shoreline Treasures at visitflorida.com
Store Manager Mimi Ickes adds, “That’s the fun about coming to work. We never know what someone might bring in from day to day.”
Located on San Marco Avenue just a few blocks north of the Old City gates, entering the S.O.S. Antiques shop is a little like visiting a museum of nautical treasures. Displays range from antique ship’s wheels and diving suits, to the 1700s swivel guns, small arms and cannons. There’s even a collection of binnacles from the late 1880s to the WWII era, which are fascinating if you’re like me and get excited about anything that looks remotely “nautical” but may need to have it explained to you by Lance what the waist-high instrument with its intriguing balance-gimbal-thingies and porthole-like window actually does.
What I learned: The purpose of the ‘binnacle’ was to hold the ship’s magnetic compass. The appendage “gimbals” were designed to keep the compass level while the ship pitched and rolled – as was explained by Lance with all the patience and expertise of an ‘old salt’ who not only is a retired commercial fisherman but also ran his own nautical antiques store for over 30 years in his native Ormond Beach.
Obviously, an antique binnacle is not something one would just find washed up on the beach, but Mimi said it’s not unusual to have a novice beachcomber or local diver bring in some small treasure that’s been hidden even several hundred years in the sand.
Lance shows some nails and other small iron objects from shipwrecks that have been found – often barnacle-encrusted and with an elongated shape that shows tell-tale rust leakage and eventually starts to split apart after drying out.
He also brings out a display of coins that are typical of those found along area beaches. Meanwhile, Mimi tells of a couple who came to S.O.S. with an object that turned out to be several gold coins all melded together in one gleaming lump.
“They were just walking along when they saw a depression in the sand and something inside that was shiny,” she said. The coins – often carried by soldiers and sailors – weighed in at a full ounce-and-a-half.
What the couple may have left behind was every bit as intriguing, Lance interjects as he lifts another “silver splash” coin to show the darkened color on the back.
These look a lot like a flat black rock when you see them on the beach, but when cleaned up, what we’ve got here is silver coins – possibly from Florida’s east coast’s most famous treasure fleet from 1715 known as the ‘Plate’ Fleet”, he said, because bits of pottery and china often found.
“Sometimes if you see something that just seems to be unusual or mishap in shape, it pays to pick it up. Even an bit of shipwreck iron or wood can be fun and interesting to find,” Mimi said, describing more local finds that range from iron ship parts to antique weaponry, jewelry, silver coins – and even the occasional gold splash or ingot have spilled from wrecks of Spanish treasure fleets that once hitched a ride on the Gulf Stream for the return trip to Spain.
Another fun link: National Park Service Guide to 300 years of Florida Shipwrecks
The famous “Plate Fleet” is a common source of treasure along East Coast beaches (thus the nickname ‘Treasure Coast’), says Lance.
While he points to and describes each coin and its markings – placing them in historic context, Mimi continues her nautical yarn that may sound a bit fanciful but is actually the true story of a Spanish fleet of 11 ships carrying the dowry of the future King Phillip V of Spain’s bride that got caught in a storm and wrecked off Florida’s east coast in 1715.
“Each object in the store has a story behind it. Telling the stories from shipwrecks and the sea is really what we do here,” Mimi explained.
Among the more unusual items they’ve seen at S.O.S., a ship’s wheel made entirely from human hair was purchased by Ripley’s Museum. Another favorite – and a testimony to the old adage, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ – is a homemade diving helmet made from a five-gallon bucket that was in used for years by a diver from the Great Lakes with his salvage business.
“We do see some unusual items. People bring them in for Lance to identify, and he’s pretty good after all these years – although we do occasionally clean up some object that stumps him. We all get excited when someone brings something in that can stump Lance.”
9/6/2012 new Treasure Coast shipwreck report – new finds
Following Lance around the store is a little like having a private guide as he explains the significance of an ax, which is a rare find from the wreck of the U.S. Richmond. The store also has its own cleaning tank and Lance explains the process of how the ax was restored more to it’s original state.
Lance also shows some of the interesting finds from local beaches. On Vilano Beach, shark’s teeth are a common find – but also horse teeth (see slideshow photo). He explains the difference in the lighter-colored tooth that may have belonged to a horse lost on one of the Spanish shipwrecks, and the nearly black fossilized tooth of a Zebra-like horse that roamed prehistoric Florida.
A hatch or cabinet handle featuring a maiden much like a ship’s figurehead is one rare find from Vilano.
Dredging of the inlet – with the sand pumped to St. Augustine Beach for beach renourishment has also resulted in some interesting finds of coins, brass buttons, and even human bones, so beachcombers should keep their eyes down and search wash-away layers along the surf’s edge.
Lost Ships of St. Augustine: more on the shipwrecks and marine archaeology in local waters from the St. Augustine Lighthouse’s marine archaeology program (LAMP) website
Not every item that comes through the store has great monetary value – but it can be pretty thrilling to the hobbyist or novice who also enjoys the thought of having discovered a bit of history.
A coral-encrusted hinge – possibly a hatch hinge – found down south at Jupiter Inlet did not stump Lance. Although its origins would be hard to pinpoint with so many wrecks in that area, raised as a possibility is the famous San Miguel Archangel, which is documented to have sailed in 1659 from Havana, Cuba, transporting special chests containing valuables destined for Phillip IV, King of Spain and went down just off the beach at Jupiter.
Silver coins recovered from the wreck site are dated between 1649 and 1659, which present a very interesting period of monetary transition to collectors of Spanish Colonial coins. Lost treasures from the San Miguel Archangel include the elusive “Star of Lima” coins, worth approximately $300,000. Lance says these two reale were on their way for the King’s approval before being minted, and are an incredibly rare find on Florida beaches.
Some finds are priceless – if only for sentimental reasons. Mimi describes one that still brings tears to her eyes.
A real life message in a bottle appears to be a plea for help from a Cuban child – with details about the hardships of her life. She said she still thinks about the child and wonders if her conditions improved or if she ever reunited with her father.
Another message in a bottle found last week at satellite Beach, Florida
“Many of the stories that come from the sea are of human tragedy and drama. Like the nails – which often are bent from the force and violence of the ship going down. But there’s also the ordinary shipboard objects that are just plain fun to look at and have around,” Mimi said, unable to resist the urge to sound on a foghorn as she passes by.
“I just can’t resist it,” she says with a grin, adding that for herself – her job has been more like a hobby that has grown over the years into a lifelong fascination.
Lance also attests, “I don’t know how to explain it, but it just gets in your blood. You can’t wait to see what may come in next and what story it has to tell.”
Lance gives these tips on how to preserve a “found” iron item like the coral-encrusted hinge to halt the splitting and rust damage:
First, pour a concrete/plaster bonding (inexpensive and available at hardware and building supply stores) in a container with the item – enough to completely cover. Then, add enough water to thin before you soak this long enough to penetrate the coral. Do this three or four times, letting dry in between soakings. The concrete bonding should dry clear – not glossy. You can then mount or display without further cracking or damage to the coral.
Lance says if you want to restore a black metal finish to the item, treat first with OSFLO, which is applied like a primer – just don’t get it on the coral.
S.O.S. Antiques, located at 76 San Marco, is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Mimi invites customers to drop by and try to “stump Lance” with found objects or for advise on nautical artifacts. For more information, call 904-823-0008.
More fun beach treasure and shipwreck links:
“Message in a Bottle” no myth – more from the blog of message-in-bottle collector Clint Buffington
St. Augustine: Cannons found near pier reveal important clues about centuries old wreck site
Shipwreck maps and dive sites – Florida
Florida’s Treasure Ship Lore
Happy hunting: TreasureNet.com