LARGO – Jim Leatherwood is convinced there is an as-yet-undiscovered shipwreck just off our shores. The treasure hunter from Largo backs his claim with dozens of ship-related artifacts, discovered while beachcombing with a metal detector.
His finds include large keel pins, used in building wooden ships. They connect the wood and keep the ship together. He shows a heavy pin that is bent, evidence it has been under stress. “That tells you it has been in a wreck,” said Leatherwood.
Weighty spikes, bolts and wedges were all part of a ship’s outfitting, and further indications of a nearby shipwreck, according to Leatherwood. A brass nail would have tacked down the metal sheeting on a boat, while a pulley was connected to the rigging.
A piece of chain showed a string cheese pattern, indicating a long-ago blacksmith had worked it.
Dainty rings of ancient vintage, likely part of the ship’s cargo, carry distinct markings. A cat’s head, two “sea monster” dragons facing each other. One ring appears to have been made from a teaspoon.
A piece of shell/coral conglomerate contains the remnant of a dinner plate, with a design still discernible. Several nails in the cluster suggest that the plate was in a nailed box. Another conglomerate piece is embedded with a fragment of wood, nearly petrified from age, which was part of a ship. These are very rare finds, Leatherwood said, which his metal detector picked up because of the iron nails present.
Leatherwood held up a piece of coal. There is no natural coal in the ocean, he said, so its presence would mean a steamship had been nearby. “(The coal) would be the first thing that would turn me on to a site,” he said.
Numerous clues, such as the blacksmithing marks and nail head style, suggest that many of the items he has found date from the 1800s.
Leatherwood said he has probably walked a thousand miles along the local beaches, from Pass-A-Grille to Clearwater, in his treasure hunts. But his shipwreck discoveries have all been concentrated in one area – Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores. And they have mostly turned up during and after storms.
“When there’s a storm, that’s when you find the most,” said Marlene Leatherwood, Jim’s wife. He added, “You need to go out in really bad weather to find these things.” Even with the waves stirring things up, the items are usually buried under the sand, so finding them is not an easy task. Of course, the metal detector also turns up many unwanted items like bottle caps, so perseverance is required to locate the “keepers.”
Finding numerous ship-related artifacts of a similar age in one concentrated area is convincing evidence that points to the presence of a nearby shipwreck, Leatherwood said.
“I believe there’s an old ship out there,” he said with conviction.
That belief has been backed up by knowledgeable members of Leatherwood’s metal detecting club, as well as associates at Odyssey Marine Exploration in Tampa, salvagers of sunken ships around the world.
Leatherwood brought his first find, an encrusted bar, to a metal detecting buddy shortly after he took up the hobby seven years ago. “I asked him what it was, and he told me to clean it up and show it to him again.”
“That’s a keel pin, from an old ship,” the man said, after viewing the scrubbed down version. The discovery launched Leatherwood, a retired teacher, on what would become his career hobby – collecting shipwreck relics.
Cleanup of the artifacts is a tough job, Leatherwood has found. “Many of the iron pieces are really encrusted and it takes a lot of work to get the encrustation material off,” he said.
Most shoreline treasure hunters regard iron as a discard, preferring to collect coins and lost jewelry that are of more monetary value and easier to process.
One group that considers the shipwreck artifacts priceless is the Indian Rocks Historical Society and Museum. Leatherwood is donating his collection to the museum.
“I found these things at Indian Rocks Beach and they belong to the community,” said Leatherwood, who recently became a volunteer docent at the museum.
Museum exhibit coordinator Jan Ockunzzi said a shipwreck exhibit would fit nicely into their plans to expand the museum next year.
“I’m really excited about having a new exhibit closely tied to our coastal heritage, with artifacts found on our beach,” Ockunzzi said. “This will add a new dimension to our museum’s collection.”