Citation525 F. Supp. 186
Decision Date02 October 1981
Docket NumberNo. 79-8266-Civ-JLK.,79-8266-Civ-JLK.
PartiesCOBB COIN COMPANY, INC., a Florida Corporation, et al., Plaintiffs, v. The UNIDENTIFIED, WRECKED AND ABANDONED SAILING VESSEL (Believed to have sunk in 1715), her tackle, armament, apparel, and cargo located within 3,000 yards of a point: Beginning at coordinates 27° 43.8' N. latitude by 80° 22.8' W. longitude, Defendant.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Southern District of Florida



David Paul Horan, Key West, Fla., for plaintiffs.

Linwood Anderson, Smathers & Thompson, Harold Ward, Fowler, White, Burnett, Hurley, Banick & Knight, P.A., Miami, Fla., Susan Gamble, Asst. Atty. Gen., Tallahassee, Fla., Alan Weisberg, Miami, Fla., Jones, Foster & Moss, P.A., Vero Beach, Fla., for defendant.




In the early eighteenth century, Spain's dominions extended over one third of the known world. The King of Spain annually sent two fleets of ships to the New World to bring back the wealth of the Americas. One fleet picked up the gold, emeralds, and pearls unearthed from Peruvian mines, at the port of New Granada — present day Cartagena, Colombia; the other boarded delicate pottery and china shipped from the Orient, and Mexican silver, cochineal and indigo dyes, at Veracruz, Mexico. Each year the two fleets met in Havana, Cuba to voyage homeward together across the Atlantic. This afforded the treasure laden galleons some measure of protection from the pirates of the Caribbean who were well aware of the sailing dates of the fleet and the richness of the prize that was theirs if they could but capture one of these vessels.

Normally, the combined fleet sailed by May or June in order to clear the Straits of Florida before the treacherous hurricane season set in, but in the summer of 1715, the fleet of General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla and General Don Antonio de Echeverz was delayed due to trade problems and the late arrival of four ships from Veracruz.

The Governor General of Havana was painfully aware of the Spanish monarch's critical need for the immense treasure of gold, silver and precious jewels secured in the King's treasure chests awaiting shipment. The Royal Treasury was exhausted by the cost of fighting the war of the Spanish Succession and the failure of the fleet to sail the preceding year. So, notwithstanding that it was the heart of the danger season of the high winds, a treasure fleet of twelve ships departed from Havana Harbor on July 24, 1715.

According to historical accounts, it was an occasion for celebration with brightly colored flags whipping briskly in the breeze and the booming of ceremonial cannon fire ringing in the ears of the throngs of excited citizens crowding the docks. Few of those present, and certainly none of the over two thousand men aboard the ships, had any inkling of what lay ahead on their fateful voyage. Before the week was out, over half their number would be dead and all of their mighty ships, save one, would lie entombed in a watery grave forever.

The galleons sailed northward through the Straits of Florida and past the Florida Keys under a clear and cloudless sky. Their chartered course, and one that they traditionally followed, took them along the east coast of Florida to a point past Cape Canaveral, then following the Gulfstream until it veered eastward to a point north of Bermuda where the fleet would catch the prevailing winds that carried them across the Atlantic to Spain.

By noon on Tuesday, July 30, 1715, a strange calmness had settled in, punctuated by occasional gusts of strong wind that whipped the waves into ever mounting heights of whitecapped water. By mid-afternoon the sky had darkened and the wind was gusting steadily, whipping spray from the breaking waves over the doomed fleet.

In the early morning hours of July 31st, the wind suddenly shifted to the east-north-east, and the hurricane struck with all its fury. The ships, gripped in the incredible force of the crashing waves and mighty winds of nature's most awesome phenomena, were lifted like matchsticks on mountainous crests to be plummeted in the next instant into deep troughs of the ocean. Tons of seawater crashed over the railings of the galleons and, with the shriek of the wind, drowned out the screams of the seamen washed overboard to their death.

Huge anchors were dropped in a desperate attempt to bring the bows of the ships around into the wind and hold them in the deeper waters offshore. As the wind howled and the hurricane increased in intensity, the panic stricken sailors watched the thick anchor lines snap, one by one. Second, and sometimes third, anchors were dropped as the tempestuous sea pounded the ships relentlessly closer and closer to the jagged reefs and shoals. Ultimately, as the oaken hulls of the once proud and mighty Spanish Treasure Fleet were ripped by the cruel coral of the Florida coast, the seawater poured into the smashed ships and they heeled over and sank.

For the wretched survivors, the hurricane had inflicted an incredible measure of death and destruction; one thousand persons perished, eleven galleons sunk, and fourteen million pesos of treasure lost. Only one vessel survived, under the masterful seamanship of its captain, to limp back to Havana with news of the disaster. Destiny brought the ghosts of these Spanish Galleons, that had set sail bravely from Havana Harbor July 24, 1715, to a rendezvous in an Admiralty Court at the United States Courthouse in Key West, Florida, two hundred and sixty-six years later on July 27, 1981.*


Nearly two hundred sixty four years from the day these ships were lost to the ocean in the terrible hurricane of July 1715, the treasure and the remains of one ship became the subject of a suit in admiralty in this Court. On August 17, 1979, the plaintiff Cobb Coin filed its complaint seeking to be declared owner in possession of the wrecked vessel located "within 3,000 yards of a point beginning at coordinates 27° 43.8' N. latitude by 80° 22.8' W. longitude." Alternatively, it sought an award for salvage services performed on the vessel, her tackle, armament, apparel, and cargo. Three days later the plaintiff retrieved a cannon from the wreck site. On August 29, 1979, the State of Florida answered the complaint, and counterclaimed by asking this Court to declare it owner of the vessel and for restitution from the plaintiff for items it had salved. The State contends it owns all such wrecks within its territorial waters under its Archives and History Act, chapter 267, Florida Statutes (1979), and thereby has plenary authority to administer their salvage.

The State's agents have backed up Florida's claim by attempting to enforce the criminal sanctions against unauthorized exploration and salvage against the plaintiff's agents. By mid-summer 1981, those agents were so energetically pursuing that prosecution as to prevent the plaintiff from salving as it is entitled to do under the order of this Court. The plaintiff Cobb Coin, and the intervening plaintiff Real Eight Company, Inc., filed an application for temporary restraining order and motion for preliminary and permanent injunction June 25, 1981. On July 7, 1981, this Court issued a temporary restraining order enjoining the State, its agents, employees, and attorneys from interfering with the plaintiff's ongoing salvage operations by carrying out their threatened arrests. Following that order, an eleven-day hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction ensued, in which the parties presented extensive evidence and oral argument in the premises. Part of the following procedural history is taken from the July 7, 1981, order of this Court.

Cobb Coin Company, Inc., a Florida corporation, filed its complaint in admiralty August 17, 1979, contending that it had title to the abandoned vessel described as the defendant in this Court and believed to be a Spanish Galleon which sank in 1715 at a point a few hundred yards off the Sebastian Inlet, St. Lucie County, Florida. The claim of title was founded upon the discovery by the plaintiff of the abandoned and wrecked vessel which, it was alleged, was in the total and exclusive possession of the plaintiff at the time of filing the complaint in this Court.

Thereafter, on August 29, 1979, the United States District Court entered an arrest in rem directing the United States Marshal to take into custody a cannon from the Spanish Treasure Galleon which had been brought up from the ocean floor on August 20, 1979.

Earlier, on August 22, 1979, the plaintiff corporation sought a temporary restraining order against the intervening claimant, State of Florida, alleging that said intervenor was intending to interfere with the jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Specifically, the State's agents threatened to arrest the president of the plaintiff corporation and the captain of the salvage vessel employed by the plaintiff for alleged grand larceny of the cannon from the wreck site.

At a hearing on the application for preliminary injunction held on August 23, 1979, the Honorable Sidney M. Aronovitz, United States District Judge, held that this Court had jurisdiction of the subject matter of this cause pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1333, and that possession of the cannon recovered from the wreck site on August 20, 1979, "constituted constructive possession of the wreck itself and everything that is a part thereof, wherever located, and whenever removed therefore, past, present or future." Judge Aronovitz ordered the United States Marshal for the Southern District of Florida, "to receive and take into his possession and control any and all items that have or will come up from the wreck in question, no matter who has brought up or who will bring up such items until a...

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    • July 15, 1988 the State is pre-empted by federal maritime law. Specifically, Plaintiff relies on Cobb Coin Co. v. Unidentified, Wrecked and Abandoned Sailing Vessel, 525 F.Supp. 186 (S.D.Fla.1981) (Cobb Coin I), for the proposition that "Florida's licensing scheme and the criminal penalties imposed fo......
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