Review: Robert Kurson’s ‘Pirate Hunters’

Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship. Robert Kurson. Random. 275 pages. $28.
Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship. Robert Kurson. Random. 275 pages. $28.

Who’s to blame for our improbable love affair with pirates? Robert Louis Stevenson? J.M. Barrie? Walt Disney? Johnny Depp? All of the above, probably, as well as our human propensity to admire the rebel, especially if a couple hundred years have passed. Romanticizing daring exploits is much easier then.

Even savvy, successful people are prone to such admiration. People such as John Chatterton, the subject of Robert Kurson’s 2004 bestseller Shadow Divers. That book chronicled the dangerous quest by Chatterton and his diving partner, Richie Kohler, to identify a German World War II submarine that they found off the coast of New Jersey.

Kurson’s new book Pirate Hunters follows Chatterton again, though this time he’s searching for a ship, not its identity. And he has a different partner, a New Yorker named John Mattera, who grew up with mobsters and wound up owning a successful security company.

The two are in the Dominican Republic getting ready to look for a treasure galleon when they get an offer they can’t refuse to join a renowned treasure hunter looking for a more elusive prize.

A pirate ship won’t be laden with gold and jewels. But its story is irresistible, and it’s a far rarer find. The only documented pirate ship ever found is the Whydah, discovered off the coast of Cape Cod in 1984.

“Nothing was harder to find underwater — or maybe in all the world — than a pirate ship,” Kurson writes.

The crew of divers is motivated by the money they expect to make if they find such a rarity — one night they amuse themselves by listing the sports cars and minor league sports teams they’ll buy with their share when they find it. But they’re really after renown, fame, immortality, the same factors they decide must have motivated Joseph Bannister, whose ship they are seeking. Bannister abandoned his career as a successful merchant captain for a life that, in most cases, ended at the end of a noose.

Kurson tells the story skillfully and is at his best in his profiles of the main players. Readers of Shadow Divers will find Mattera’s story especially interesting, since we haven’t met him before. His story reads like a mash-up of Goodfellas and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou: He grew up on Staten Island among members of the Gambino family, even as he was captivated by history books from the library and scuba diving after seeing Jacques Cousteau on TV.

In one telling scene, the divers imagine Bannister’s motives for going rogue, and what they say sounds remarkably like their own motives for spending huge amounts of money and time searching for him:

Chatterton: “He has the chance to do something great …”

Mattera: “He’s got a chance to do something people will remember and maybe even read about, centuries later.”

The ship they’re looking for, the Golden Fleece, has an especially notorious history. It was an English merchant ship until Bannister stole her and went rogue. The divers consider him “the greatest pirate of them all” in what Kurson repeatedly refers to as piracy’s “Golden Age” from 1650 to 1720. Bannister outwitted the British authorities and held off the Royal Navy in a way that is worthy of a modern movie.

Bannister’s story, as much as his ship, captivates the divers. Historical accounts of Bannister’s final battle tell them roughly where to look for the Golden Fleece. But naturally, the search is more complicated than it appears. Otherwise, the wreck would have been found long ago.

The book could have used more of Bannister’s personal history, especially his social background. But, as Mattera learns, that’s the problem with looking for pirates as opposed to treasure ships: They don’t leave the same sorts of manifests and ship’s logs as a galleon or merchant ship on legitimate business.

And in the event of a wreck, “If any pirates survived the ship’s demise, they weren’t going to report the loss to authorities,” Kurson writes.

The stories of the modern-day pirate hunters aren’t quite parallel with that of their quarry, even as they admire and partly share Bannister’s rebellious nature. As Kurson notes several times, international agreements will soon spell the end for independent, risk-taking salvors like Chatterton and Mattera, along with their forbears Mel Fisher and Art McKee. This book offers a front row seat for what could be one of the final acts.

Nancy Klingener covers the Keys for WLRN-Miami Herald News.

Meet the author

Who: Robert Kurson

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

Info: 305-442-4408