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The Quest for Atocha Gold

Circling back to Key West, “Quest for Atocha Gold” race weekend was a blast!  The final Formula H2O, Wreck Racing League (WRL) event for 2010 had a complete calendar of activities. This event was SPECIAL!

The kickoff began Friday night at the racers meeting which, is required for all participants to attend to process paperwork and releases before any water activities.

Usually a down to business type meeting, this one was a real treat.  We were greeted by sponsors Mel Fisher’s Treasures and The Hidden Treasure.  They allowed us to get up close and personal with precious bounty collected during years of salvage operations on the Atocha and Margarita wreck sights.  After seeing and getting a chance to hold the the bling (gold, silver and emeralds) in the treasure chest  organizer, Joe Weatherby, gave an overview of events and race day rules emphasizing safety first.

Over the course of this year’s shedule, each scooter race felt more and more like NASCAR.  Racers started getting sponsors, competitive spirits grew and diver’s began engineering equipment modifications that stretched standards guidelines to the limit.  Leave it to creative juices and racer rivalry to test the Rules Committee.

After logistics were covered, next up was world known treasure hunter, photographer and author Pat Clyne.  He gave an enthusiastic talk covering fascinating details of Atocha’s history and her sinking in September 1622, then went over the scope of the search for her bounty, noting the first find in July 1985.  Some of the ship timbers were brought up and donated to Florida Keys Community College (FKCC) for placement in their lagoon where student learn valuable research, diving technology and marine environment skills.  As the evening continued we were treated with presentations by guest speakers; historian and author Don Kincaid discussing local land base archeology efforts, Pat Rice from FKCC giving an overview of the marine studies at the college and Dave Valaika of Indian Valley Scuba who offered a $200 DPV Specialty Certification class for the cost of the card.

Saturday morning, participants were off to the college for DPV demo’s and our specialty course.  (The DPV certification will be a requirement for all future races, check with your local dive store for availability.)  After the lecture and pool work was done, it was time to dip into the lagoon to search for the Atocha timbers and play with scooters.  Luckily Joe Marino, a Wreck Racing League photographer, and I got suited up quickly and were able to navigate the area early.  As we came across the planks, a cool chill went through me realizing they are over 388 years old.  I imagined the people who built the ship, who walked the decks or were on it as the hurricane took her down.  Feeling guilty, yet unable to stop myself, I reached out to touch one to absorb the energy, embrace the moment and bring the memory home.  It was then that I noticed the gentle sea turtle meandering around the waters sharing the important moment and gracing us with it’s presence.  We worked our way back to the platform for the end of the dive.

After some down time, racers gathered as guests at the Mel Fisher Museum where we learned more of the treasure recovery process.  While Mel found the hull, they have not yet found the stern castle thought to hold the most valuable items.  With much anticipation they passed around more items for us to see, touch, and hold.  The attention to detail, workmanship and creativity of the pieces generates an infectious desire to want to go out and find more.  No wonder the staff and crews have stayed with it for so long.  Wrapping up the night, we strolled to a local restaurant for dinner and followed-up by supporting the economy on Duvall Street spreading good cheer and listening to some outstanding bands.  I knew tomorrow was going to be a special day.

Sunday we boarded the MV Spree to head out to the Vandenberg, the place where WRL first started.  Organizers dropped down to set the course.  Upon their return we were all told, “The current is absolutely substantial.  If you have any confidence issues about whether or not you can do this, this is the day to take off your gear and not make the dive.”  An instant reality check on ocean diving and reinforcement that the sea has a will of it’s own.  Time to reevaluate and reassess, check equipment configuration and determine Go or No-Go.  For me it was easy, I was using a back mounted Thruster DPV that was attached to my cylinder.  I didn’t have to deal with entering the water and waiting for someone to hand me a unit, my hands were free to work the current line and there was little to no external drag issues going up or down the mooring line.  Also, I’ve experienced currents like this before on numerous occasions.  For me these were all race advantages.  I got suited up and was ready to go.  The course looped around the upper decks of the Vandenberg.  This meant one side would be a breeze with the current pushing you along at a great clip enhancing the speed of the DPV, the other side would be a challenge.

Just as NASCAR drivers have to negotiate with environmental conditions, NASCOOTER rocketeer’s have to compensate for underwater conditions.  Being trim and streamline is key.  Jockeying into position at the start line, buzzers sounded and the race was off.  Excitement and adrenaline must be balanced with concentration and skill monitoring depth, air and navigating the course.  You have to remain focused on counting your laps, turning the corners, staying out of prop wash, within the course markers and additionally watching for competitors in all directions.  This worked to my benefit on this race.  Shawn, a first time participatant, was surprised to find out he came in second in the Expedition Class B.  “Where were you, I didn’t even see you?”  I just smiled, “I know, I was above you.”  I must say it was a thrill to get First Place in the division.

There are four divisions (Modified, Expedition Class A, Expedition Class B and Recreational Class) competing at the same time with some divisions doing more laps than others.  What a rush to see the finish line and checkered flag swaying in the water.  Congratulations to Marissa Wiganowske the first female Grand Champion with the fastest time using twin Pegasus Thrusters.  Special thanks to Frank and Melanie Wasson for being such gracious hosts on the Spree.

And thank you to Formula H2O.  The inaugural 2010 season was a huge success, each race was better than the one before.  The bar is set high, keep up the good work.  For those of you that are on the fence, all I can say is jump over.  If you have a DPV/scooter and want to do something extra fun with it, join us next year.  You won’t be sorry.

For details on future races add Wreck Racing League to your favorites list: or like them on Facebook!/FormulaH20

To watch exciting race video check out:

Lisa Mongy:  Lisa has been diving for more than 30 years.  An SSI Platinum and Master Instructor, Lisa operates out of Underwater Unlimited in Miami, Florida.  She is a Formula H2O, Wreck Racing League racer sponsored by and is a strong advocate for promoting recreational SCUBA diving.

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