Treasure hunter seeks gold in sunken British ship off Uruguay

Colonia del Sacramento (Uruguay) (AFP) - More than 250 years after Spanish forces sank the British warship Lord Clive off the coast of Uruguay, treasure hunter Ruben Collado is working to raise it from its watery grave.

Collado believes the ship may have been carrying 100,000 gold coins when Spanish cannon fire sank it in 1763, as Britain and Portugal tried to seize the city of Colonia del Sacramento during the Seven Years' War.

The Argentine adventurer spent 14 years searching for the wreckage before finding it by accident in 2004, when the propeller of his boat struck a sunken mast as he trolled around the River Plate estuary.

After waiting more than 10 long years for authorization from the Uruguayan authorities, Collado is finally set to fulfill his dream: to haul what is left of the wreckage to the surface, repair its cracks and bring it to shore.

The 78-year-old bursts with energy as he discusses his plans, brushing aside conservationists' calls to leave the ship where it is and skeptics' doubts about its cargo.

"I'm a professional treasure hunter. If the ship doesn't have any treasure, investors don't put up any money," he told AFP, his eyes alight as he looked out over the water from a bar in Colonia del Sacramento.

- Fateful error -

This fortified city of cobblestone streets was founded by the Portuguese in 1680 and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Just off the coast, in the estuary that splits Argentina and Uruguay, five orange buoys float above the remains of the Lord Clive, marking the spot where Collado and his team are at work.

Pencil in hand, Collado sketches out a map to show where the 64-gun privateer lies, with a cargo he says also includes thousands of liters of rum, 18th-century weaponry and other vestiges of an era when Europe's colonial powers were battling each other around the world.

Collado, who has done extensive research on the ship and its cargo, says its fatal error that January 6 was casting anchor too close to shore.

The Lord Clive, which belonged to the British East India Company, was sailing at the head of a fleet of 11 ships.

Collado believes its mission was to drop arms and equipment ashore to supply an uprising against the Spanish crown across a vast swath of South America, in hopes of winning control over the region's commerce.

"The ship had incredible firepower," he said. "It's a fabulous historical treasure for research on period weaponry."

But despite its three storeys of cannon, the Lord Clive anchored just 350 meters (380 yards) offshore -- making it an easy target for the Spanish, and putting it too close for its own guns, which fired over the city.

"They kept lowering the cannon, but they couldn't hit the city because Colonia sits so low," said Collado.

"The Spanish hit them and hit them, until the ship started to sink."

- Searching for luck -

Collado says he has not managed to locate the ship's manifest to confirm its cargo.

But he believes it was carrying the gold from a Uruguay-bound cargo ship it had captured. And he has convinced investors to fund him.

He estimates his haul will total hundreds of millions of dollars -- half of which will go to the Uruguayan government.

It will take two years to clear the rocks and mud covering the ship, run a huge metal lattice under it, raise it, patch it up and bring it to shore.

He and his team have already found cannon balls, bottles of rum, a fragment of the main-mast and shoes made with iron nails.

No one knows for sure what else lurks beneath the surface. But Collado is confident.

"You have to get out there and search to have good luck," he said.