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Voyage to bottom of the sea for Sir Francis Drake's remains

By Emily Smith for CNN
November 9, 2011 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Entrepreneur Pat Croce dives over the ribs of a ship believed to be part of the wreckage of 16th century ships Delight and Elizabeth.
Entrepreneur Pat Croce dives over the ribs of a ship believed to be part of the wreckage of 16th century ships Delight and Elizabeth.
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Francis Drake expedition dive
Drake expedition
Sir Francis Drake
Pat Croce
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • English explorer Sir Francis Drake was buried at sea 400 years ago
  • Businessman Pat Croce is on a mission to find his coffin
  • Croce says he's found the wreckage of two ships scuttled near where Drake was buried

London, England (CNN) -- Pat Croce is a man on a mission -- a mission to find his all time favorite pirate.

The highly successful businessman, who rose from being a trainer in the locker room to president of one of the most storied franchises of the NBA, is on a quest to find the body of English explorer Sir Francis Drake, who was buried out at sea more than 400 years ago.

Sir Francis Drake was an adventurer and a true pirate of the 16th century. Drake is credited with being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. He led several voyages, many of them aimed at capturing Spanish territories and taking their treasure. While he made enemies with Spain, he enchanted Queen Elizabeth I, who is believed to have fondly called him "my pirate".

But the Spanish got their revenge. Drake's voyage to the West Indies was disastrous, with the Spanish fleets prepared for the English. The adventure was to be his last and in 1596 he fell ill with dysentery. Dressed in armor, Drake's body was placed in a lead casket and thrown overboard off the coast of Panama. Days later two ships in the fleet were scuttled nearby, ensuring they wouldn't get into the hands of Drake's enemy, the Spanish.

Now, centuries after he was laid to rest, Croce is on a quest to locate Drake's coffin. "I'm a businessman with a passion for pirates and I'm all about taking action on your passion," Croce enthuses.

I'm a businessman with a passion for pirates and I'm all about taking action on your passion
Pat Croce, businessman

Croce has invested a great deal of time and money -- somewhere in the region of hundreds of thousands of dollars according to some experts -- into finding Drake's final resting place. Last month he had a major breakthrough.

Armed with high-tech equipment, a team of archeologists and divers and using the information given to him by a researcher he has hired -- Croce set about combing the seabed in an area off the Panama coast. What they came across Croce describes as a tremendous find.

They uncovered two ships that appeared to be burnt out, lying perpendicular to one another, in an area which Croce now likes to call 'Drake's alcove'. They didn't find a name on either ships, or the ships' bells, yet Croce and experts are quite convinced the ships are the "Delight" and "Elizabeth" -- the two ships in Drake's final voyage that were scuttled.

Croce's passion for pirates is colossal. What started as a hobby as a child has exploded into a business empire, with books and a Hollywood movie project in the pipeline. The American businessman has even established 'The St Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum' to share all the treasures he's collected over the years.

But it is Drake that he admires and relates to the most. "He was an entrepreneur of his day," explains Croce. "He talked investors into investing into his adventures and then brought back a return on the investment."

It's not just Drake's business brain that Croce has a high regard for, but also his rise from commoner to knighthood -- a journey not too distant from Croce's own. "I was a trainer who eventually owned a basketball team. That's unheard of!" Croce, a physiotherapist by trade, made his fortune by building up, and eventually selling, a successful sports medicine business. His term as president of the Philadelphia 76ers will go down in folklore, with the side going from last place to first in NBA standings.

It is Croce's dream to one day see Drake's body eventually returned to Britain and buried in Plymouth with drums sounding and overseen by Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch who shares the same name as the royal who thought of Drake as her own private.

For the moment though, another mission will require a permit from the Panama government to continue diving off its coast. However Croce believes they can't be far off locating Drake's coffin. While Drake would return to England with stolen Spanish treasure, for Croce he says his lost treasure is Drake's coffin and the history behind it.

"All I can say to my man Sir Francis Drake is: I'll be back," he says.

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