Yo Ho Ho
Dale Clifton has created a museum of maritime artifacts to rival any. For free, he’ll regale you with story after story of shipwreck lore—and maybe a dram of the finest cane hooch the sea has ever revealed.
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“This is a $250 shot I’m about to give you,” Clifton says, reaching into a secret cabinet he keeps behind a roped-off nook in his museum. “So you better drink all of it.”
Clean and clear, the spirit starts to trickle forth from an extremely weathered glass bottle—no label, no visible markings, almost ancient—and into a small, plastic Dixie cup, where it rests as still as a fog before the dawn. After taking a moment to bow at the altar of its history, I take the drink.
Clifton watches carefully as I do, taking note of my expressions with his signature broad smile, ringing laughter and slight Southern drawl. “Now,” he says, touching my shoulder like a football coach just before the big game, “since you were brave enough to drink that, let me tell you what you just had.” And Clifton starts telling a story. He’s got a million of ’em.
In 1986, while exploring the wreck of a colonial Spanish ship that sank off the coast of Florida in 1733, Clifton and a team of marine archeologists obtained more than 150,000 artifacts from the sea floor—gold, silver, dishware, dozens of jewels. But of all those relics, Clifton’s favorite was a crate of 30 bottles of Royal British Navy rationed rum, 18 of which were still sealed, still drinkable.
When they took one of those bottles to Sotheby’s in New York, it auctioned for more than $20,000. But the reason Clifton was so giddy about them had nothing to do with getting rich. Like everything he brings up from the darkened depths, he had no intention of selling them. Instead, he wanted to keep them here in his museum—so he could share them with folks like me.
Because really, it’s not about the money. It never is with Clifton. Over the course of 35 years of exploration, he has amassed the largest private collection of shipwreck artifacts in the country, but his mission extends far beyond the prosaic lure of dollar signs.
“Everyone comes here and they see all this and they say, ‘This guy must be rich.’ Well, I am. But I’m artifact rich and money poor,” he says, smiling again. Always smiling. “There’s a market, for sure. Everything has a market these days, which means there’s always someone willing to buy. But the historic value of these things greatly outweighs their monetary value.”
Page 2: Yo Ho Ho, continues...