This Is a Fish Story: Mike Weiner's Wreck Charts Aren't Meant for Treasure Hunters
It's not a melodramatic shipwreck salvage operation where a diver scours the ocean floor in a pressurized suit, fighting off octopuses with one hand while collecting a fistful of Spanish doubloons with the other. But Mike Weiner, 34, a Brooklyn-born printer by training, has quietly plunged into the bureaucracy and brought to the surface U.S. government records that show the locations, many of them pinpoint exact, of about a thousand sunken ships off the Atlantic coast.
Weiner doesn't even care if the ships ever contained anything of great value or have broken up over the years. For one thing, he's selling the shipwreck charts, not using them. For another, he's more interested in helping fishermen than treasure seekers.
Weiner was eking out a living as a king mackerel fisherman off the east coast of Florida when the idea came to him in 1972. "I used to sit out there all day long in the sun on my boat and wonder what was down there underneath the water," Weiner recalls. "I heard the tales about World War II wrecks, and about charts the government had telling where the ships went down. I wanted to see one myself."
His curiosity was not idle. Many wrecks develop into artificial reefs and become covered with marine life that nourishes small fish, which in turn attract larger fish such as cod and sea bass. Any fisherman who happens by profits from the arrangement. Fishermen who know of wreck sites, however, seldom alert competitors. But one day while helping the captain of a government survey vessel locate a sunken ship, Weiner stumbled across a rumpled white-on-black photostat of a government wreck chart, and his appetite was whetted. 'His research took him to the Coast Guard, the National Ocean Survey and a Navy hydrographic office. Eventually he rounded up nine World War II vintage charts listing 420 wrecks from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico.
Soon thereafter Weiner and his wife, Sandy, took $4,000 they'd been saving for a home down payment and started their company, Wreck Charts, in Maitland, Fla., near Orlando. Since then Weiner has compiled information on nearly 19,000 shipwrecks, most within 20 miles of the coast and in less than 100 feet of water. For 2,000 of these, he computerized the coordinates and converted them to the Loran radio navigation system, which determines location by measuring time differences between radio pulses. The system was secret in the 1940s but is now used on many commercial and private craft. "One little mark on the old charts could mean 50 feet or two miles," he points out. "In a boat, that's a hell of a difference."
Right now he sells charts at $15 apiece. He has annotated them to show cargo, tonnage, nationality, even condition of the wreck. "Most books and marine research," Weiner explains, "deal with the history of wrecks, not their position. It is real detective work." Many of the 420 ships on his currently available charts sank during World War II; they were freighters torpedoed by Nazi submarines. No 17th-to-19th-century craft are listed, since the accessible ones with valuable cargoes have decayed or long since been plundered. So far, Weiner believes, few customers have used the charts to salvage a ship, though about 10 percent are commercial salvagers.
Temporarily at least, Weiner has abandoned fishing. While he completes a series of charts of Pacific wrecks, he supplements his Wreck Charts income by working as a copy machine marketing manager. But his heart still belongs to the sea. His 4-month-old daughter, Andrea Dee, is even named for the liner Andrea Doria that went down off Nantucket in 1956. But Weiner insists that he has no interest in the riches of such fabled ships as the Titanic, which sank in deep, mid-ocean waters. "If you can't fish it or dive it," he says, "it doesn't interest me. I'm basically a fisherman."
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