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By Sarah Ryan | Photo: Frank Ishman | Shot on location aboard Tall Ship Windy | September 2, 2015
Robert Kurson, local author of best-selling Shadow Divers, heads back to the sea for his newest nonfiction follow-up, Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship.
Guiding advice to budding writers is often, “Write what you know.” But for Chicago-based author Robert Kurson—veteran of the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago magazine and Esquire, and author of The New York Times best seller Shadow Divers—uncharted territory has proven most rewarding. His latest effort, Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship ($28, Random House), returns to the ocean with Shadow Divers’ rugged real-life hero, John Chatterton, on a hunt even more swashbuckling than the last.
While Kurson admits that deep-sea diving didn’t have particular significance to him prior to Shadow Divers, in which he chronicled Chatterton’s discovery and identification of a World War II German U-boat, the same could not be said for pirates. “I have been interested in pirates since I was about 8 years old,” Kurson says. “The idea of people deciding, sometimes at a moment’s notice, to throw over the rules and restrictions of society—it was just irresistible.” The story held the same temptation for divers Chatterton and John Mattera, who introduced Kurson to their enterprising and often-times dangerous hunt for the Golden Fleece, the lost ship of Joseph Bannister, a respected English sea captain who infamously turned rogue. Bannister’s ship, sunk in 1686 off the coast of the Dominican Republic during an aggressive two-day battle against two of the Royal Navy’s finest warships, had never been found (despite the ship’s fate, the pirate himself escaped and ran free a few more months, making him even more the stuff of legends).
The challenge of finding such a ship proved too captivating to ignore for Chatterton and Mattera, who temporarily abandoned a long-planned hunt for a treasure ship worth an estimated hundred million dollars or more to find Bannister’s boat. For these men it was more about the challenge than the money, which made the story even more intriguing for Kurson as a storyteller—he observed a similarity between the two men and Bannister that was particularly fascinating for him. “I noticed each of these three men was headed for his own kind of soft landing in life,” Kurson observes, noting that Bannister had a comfortable retirement in the cards after his service on the high seas. “Any of the three of them could have chosen to live conservatively, play it safe and reap the rewards. But none were willing—that would have been a fate worse than death.”
Thus, Chatterton and Mattera embarked on a thrilling search, combing the waters near Santo Domingo and delving deep into pirate history, learning things that turned all pirate movie stereotypes on their heads. “I was surprised to learn they never made people walk the plank; it was too much trouble,” Kurson says. Another thing pirates never did? Buried their treasure, or drew maps to help them find it again (they spent money as quickly as they could steal it)—which meant no easy answers for Chatterton and Mattera. Instead, they had to get into the heart and mind of a man like Bannister, understanding his motivations and strategies. And when the men started thinking like pirates, the real story began.
For Kurson, a book featuring protagonists like that practically writes itself, which was much of the fun of it. “The thing that surprised me the most was how tenacious these guys were in their search,” Kurson says. “They had the opportunity to find something so rare, and they refused to let go no matter what it cost them, which is a thrilling story element.” It also doesn’t hurt that the two men had backstories as fascinating as Bannister himself (Chatterton was a medic on the front lines in the Vietnam War, and Mattera, who formerly owned an executive security firm, grew up in the same neighborhood as members of the Gambino crime family). “They are such good storytellers,” Kurson says. “These guys have such rich appetites, you would expect them to see the world in a very big way.” They do, as does Kurson, and the results make for quite a read.