Book Review: Galleon Hunt

NOTE: Earlier this decade I posted reviews of many books online, but since and inexplicably, I have fallen away from doing so. This post, on a book I just finished, represents a re-entry into uploading book reviews now and then, and perhaps, I’ll go back and post on a few of the more memorable tomes I’ve read in the ensuing 7-8 years of negligence in reviewing! Any review posted in this BLOG also will go into the online set linked above.

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Galleon Hunt

by Robert ‘Frogfoot’ Weller

      RATING: * *

Captivating treasure hunting tales, mediocre writing, terrible editing

As one who pursues and photographs violent storms, I can relate in many ways to the salvage diver. Despite many logistical and time-scale differences, underwater treasure seeking has many parallels to storm chasing that should be rather obvious to veterans of either endeavor. Both share nontrivial risk to health, life and equipment, a strong dependence on both skill and luck, increasing rates of success thanks to technological advancement, and still, extensive stretches of toil and tedium punctuated by the brief but amazing moments where the elusive quarry is found. Both also are burdened by a disproportionately shrill minority of Johnny-come-lately posers and/or egomaniacal, showboating daredevils who never met a microphone they didn’t like, interspersed with the honest, careful and appreciative majority. And so… When a fellow storm observer living in Florida lent me her copy of Galleon Hunt, it stoked in this former Keys fisherman a strong desire to learn more about the pioneer era (some would say golden age) of treasure diving.

In this age of high-tech, big-budget, corporate treasure salvaging and accompanying publicity overkill, it’s insightful to roll back the clock a few decades before the Internet, when GPS was unimaginable, to a time when typewriters and handwritten notepads were the writer’s tools of choice, ship captains still navigated by radio, sun, stars and a compass, and a handful of individuals and dive teams plied the reefs of the Caribbean in search of elusive, treasure laden sailing vessels of the Spanish colonial fleet. That is the era of salvaging from which Bob “Frogfoot” Weller penned a fascinating history of still earlier days of treasure hunting, in the form of a biography of pioneer diver Art “Silver Bar” McKee. Galleon Hunt takes the reader back to McKee’s youthful days in New Jersey and his early interest in diving, through his failed relationships in Jersey and his escape to Florida for physical healing and a new life, and his many subsequent decades as a salvage diver of wrecked Spanish galleons. McKee is depicted as an adventuresome, crafty, versatile, somewhat swashbuckling sort for whom the search was nearly as much a part of discovery as the find itself. The tales themselves are gripping, especially those of his many brushes with death, and his ultimately successful 26-year quest for the richly loaded wreck of the Genovesa off Jamaica. The facts revealed are themselves treasures of adventure storytelling, making the effort to read the book worthwhile.

Reading Galleon Hunt, unfortunately, does require effort — much more than it should. Bless his heart, the author (by all accounts) was a genuine good guy in the salvaging trade, widely respected for his talent, and obviously was a deep well of knowledge about the history of treasure diving. [Frogfoot Weller died just a few months ago as I write this.] He was a fine storyteller, but that doesn’t translate likewise to writing ability, which appears only fair. The wild tales contained in the pages of Galleon Hunt were not penned with a befitting richness of prose, and that’s a shame. The manuscript needed thorough, highly skilled, professional editorial oversight and didn’t receive it.

Galleon Hunt appears to be self-published, and guess what — it shows. The prose suffers from many characteristic compositional afflictions of books produced on the cheap that, in the process, circumnavigate skilled proofreading. Errors of grammar and usage abound, as do needless redundancies of verbiage, and internal inconsistencies of spelling and capitalization. Some of the page numbers in the Index are wrong. The manuscript suffers from distracting episodes of arcane lingo, along with occasional stylistic choppiness to rival that of the stormy seas described therein. Why, for example, isn’t the quaint distance term “league” defined somewhere before the final chapter (creatively titled, “The Final Chapter”), despite its frequent prior use? In my paperback version, it is not apparent in any way that Galleon Hunt is a biography of Art McKee until five paragraphs into the Foreword — not on the outside, where such clues typically may be found in the form of either a front-cover subtitle or gushing platitudes of selectively excerpted book reviews on the back. Individually, such minor blunders and omissions are mere irritants, bits of stale black olives to be picked off the otherwise tasty pizza beneath. As a sufficiently interested reader, I can skip over the many minor nuisances, but why should I have to? Even half-passable editing expunges the preventable detritus before the pizza is baked.

Most troubling are some lurching gaps in the story itself, and questions left unanswered unnecessarily. For example, only at the end do we find out that McKee wasn’t a big fan of SCUBA gear. How, when and why, during all those decades of going underwater, did the great Silver Bar McKee, the man who invented treasure diving as we know it, make the transition from bottom-walking with helmet and weight belt to SCUBA? Why didn’t his (by then) 21 year old daughter Karen, who apparently was interested, dive with him on his last expedition to Pedro Banks? How did Gay McKee handle raising kids with Art gone so much on this expedition and that, and how did she brace for the distinct possibility that he might not return alive from any given sojourn at sea? So much more of her story should have been woven into the tapestry of his life than was depicted in Galleon Hunt. How did the family deal with his death, especially Art and Gay’s kids, who seemed to be destined for treasure salvaging endeavors of their own? Weller easily could have told much more in about the same space, by culling tangential wanderings and frivolous minutiae in favor of more robust substance. I finished the book wanting to know much more about the subject and his family than the author managed to convey. “Silver Bar” McKee was a most fascinating adventurer, and his life story deserved a richer examination.



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