CRAWFORDSVILLE, Ore. — In the beginning, before he was sent to Vietnam, Rick “Smitty” Schmitt dove to ease the pain.
After breaking his back at the age of 14, he spent a year trapped inside a steel body brace. In those days, when he was still a boy, his only interests were Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic.
After the war he took a commercial diving course, paid for by some agate he found near his family home in Crawfordsville, then bought a $75 ticket on Greyhound from Oregon to Key West, Fla. That’s where he met Mel Fisher, the legendary treasure hunter who discovered “Our Lady of Atocha,” a Spanish galleon that sank in a hurricane in 1622. The ship was returning to Spain carrying a full load of gold, silver, gems and jewels.
For over 20 years Smitty dove the Atocha off and on. But he also did commercial diving jobs here in the Pacific Northwest and sometimes taught at Seattle’s Divers Institute of Technology. But it’s the Atocha that Smitty can never forget.
So far almost $450 million has been recovered from the wreck, and it’s only 60 percent complete. Divers like him were paid a percentage of the artifacts they recovered.
“[Mel] would pay us with treasure,” Smitty said. “And then it was up to us to realize the value of the treasure.”
Though people ask him all the time if he’s rich, Smitty estimates he’s only made about $50,000 in Atocha treasure over the years.
“Most of the divers are as poor now as they were then,” he said. “Treasure is only worth what someone is willing to give you for it.”
Now 64, Smitty can’t dive anymore because of a bout with cancer. But his appetite for discovery is healthier than ever — the desire to find something both ancient and new.
“A lot of it is stuff that man has lost himself,” he said. “A lot of it is stuff that was there before we were ever around.”
To keep the search alive, he formed the Ancient Divers Treasure Society, a group of people who meet to discuss buried artifacts along with expeditions to bring them home.
“All you really have to do is believe in your dreams,” he said.
These days he lives in his family home, and the nearest water is the shallow stream of the Calapooia River. But after 48 years of diving he can always close his eyes… and dive for his own memories.