by Clive Cussler and Craig Dirgo
True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks
There aren’t many thrills that parallel that of swimming through a shipwreck. I’ve always compared it to walking through a cemetery. You can sense and sometimes visualize the ghosts of the crew who lived on board and died without anyone to record their passing. The currents, the gloomy visibility, the silence broken only by the hiss of your air regulator, all add to the eeriness.
Thanks to recent advances in deep-sea technology, a very few tantalizing secrets in the deep have finally been unlocked and recorded on film and video tape. We have mapped and photographed almost every square inch of the moon, but we have viewed less than one percent of what is covered by water. To find the bones of ships and aircraft that have lain untouched in the depths is an experience known to a very few. Those who seek and occasionally find go under a variety of titles. Adventurers, oceanographers, marine archaeologists, treasure hunters, all in one form or other search for historic vessels that have disappeared into the unknown. Sometimes they’re successful. More often they fail. The odds are stacked against them. But as long as they are driven by insatiable curiosity, new discoveries will continue to surface.
The lure of shipwrecks is a siren’s song. There are literally millions of sunken ships. I’ve often wondered how many ancient wrecks lie beneath the silt of the Nile River in Egypt. The Mediterranean is strewn with them. The Great Lakes alone have nearly 50,000 recorded shipwrecks, beginning with famed explorer Sieur de La Salle’s ship Griffin launched and vanished during 1679 somewhere in Lake Michigan, and going up to the Edmund Fitzgerald, lost with all hands on Lake Superior in 1975. The seabed between Maine and Florida contains huge fleets of sunken vessels. Well over a thousand steamships rest under the banks and levees of the Mississippi River.
They all have stories to tell.
I actually walked the decks of one ship that vanished into the unknown.
During the spring of 1964, I took a few weeks’ vacation before I was to start as creative director in charge of television production for a large advertising agency. After painting the house, I had ten days left to do nothing. My wife worked and our three children were in school. A friend persuaded me to work as a crew member on a beautiful yacht called the Emerald Sea, which was docked behind a spacious mansion at Newport Beach, California.
It was pleasant work maintaining miles of varnished wood and wiping the engines. I remember being surprised after a trip to Catalina Island off California. I was given a uniform and ordered to look after the passengers while the skipper manned the helm. The guests of the yacht owner never suspected that they were served their drinks and hor d’euvres by an advertising executive instead of a common deckhand. And I didn’t mind at all when they tipped me fifty dollar bills as they stepped onto the dock. I must admit it wasn’t easy trading the teak decks of the Emerald Sea and the salt-water smell for a sterile office on Sunset Boulevard.
The yacht that was tied up next to Emerald Sea was a large two-deck vessel, built in the 1920s. I could look across the dock onto its spacious awning-covered rear deck and visualize a crowd of men in tuxedos doing the Charleston with flappers in fringed dresses and bobbed hair. There were times I could have sworn I heard the strains of a jazz band. I believe she was called Rosewood. She was an elegant lady and oozed style whenever her elderly owner, a wealthy widow, took her out and partied on the bay.
I became friendly with one of her deckhands, Gus Muncher, who swore he doubled in the movies once for Errol Flynn, but looked more like Peter Lorre. Gus would give me a tour of his boat, then we’d sit on the deck and eat lunch, swilling bottles of beer and swapping stories about the different boats and their owners moored about the harbor. The scandals were often juicy.
Gus claimed he was only working on the yacht to save enough money to get him to Tahiti, where he dreamed of operating a small ferryboat between the islands.
I lost track of Gus after I put on my Brooks Brothers suit and went back to work creating hard-sell drivel urging the masses to buy various and sundry products they could live without. Two years later, I ran into my old skipper from the Emerald Sea at a restaurant. I asked him if he’d seen Gus.
“Gus” he said sadly, “is dead.” “No,” I muttered. “How?”
“He went down with the Rosewood.”
“I had no idea it sank.”
The skipper nodded. “The old lady who owned her died and the estate sold it to a car dealer in New Jersey. After passing through the canal, the Rosewood vanished with all hands in deep water west of Bermuda. Gus was one of a crew of three on board.”
“Poor old Gus,” I murmured.” He never saw Tahiti.” My memory of Gus faded over the next fifteen years. After I bade a happy farewell to the advertising agency and could finally make a living as a writer, my wife, Barbara, and I stopped over in Tahiti for a vacation after completing a book tour in Australia. While Barbara was doing some gift shopping in a village on the island of Bora Bora, I walked into a little bar overlooking the island’s famed turquoise lagoon. Out of the corner of my eye I notice a fellow wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, a flowered shirt, and a pair of ragged shorts. He was sitting next to a striking Tahitian lady with flowing black hair and a smile sparkled by gold fillings. A thick red beard covered half his face, but I recognized him in an instant.
I stepped to his table and stared him in the eye. “Is that really you, or am I seeing a ghost?”
“Just to show you I am alive, I’ll buy you a beer,” Gus Muncher said, laughing. “Just forget you ever saw me.” He then introduced me to his wife, Tani.
“So you made it to Tahiti after all,” I said, fighting the desire to pinch his arm and see if he yelled.
“Got me a fifty-foot catamaran, and make a good living carrying goods and passengers around the islands.”
“Your dream come true.”
“You remembered,” he said with a grin showing under his beard.
“I heard you went down on Rosewood.”
“In a matter of speaking, I did.”
“I’d like to hear about it.”
“Not much to tell. We open all the seacocks and she went down like a stone in a thousand fathoms.”
I stared at Gus incredulously. “Doesn’t make any sense to sail a perfectly good yacht nearly five thousand miles and then scuttle her.”
Gus’s eyes beamed like a lighthouse. “Can you think of a better place to sink a boat for the insurance than the Bermuda Triangle?”
I should have voiced an argument about morals and legality, but sitting there in a bar overlooking spectacular scenery with an old friend who I thought had died, it just didn’t seem appropriate. After two beers Barbara found and collected me, and I bade Gus and his lady goodbye.
Ten years later, I met a French official from the Society Islands and asked if he knew Gus Muncher. He nodded and sadly informed me that Gus, his wife, his catamaran, two paying passengers, and a cargo of eighty chickens went missing in a storm off Moorea. A search turned up no trace.
I’ve always wondered if Gus slipped off the earth again or was truly on the bottom of the sea. I supposed a clue might be found if one investigated insurance-company records to see who received the settlement for the loss of Gus and his boat. I was curious, but not knowing the name of his catamaran and which marine casualty company settled any claims and to whom, I turned my back and went on to other projects. I kept his memory but let the mystery die with him.
For some odd reason, I’ve never been big on doing documentaries on NUMA’s expeditions. I almost never take pictures during a search. My publicity lady once insisted on giving me two little automatic Kodak cameras, thinking that by making it easy I’d finally shoot a record of events. My son, Dirk, shot about three frames, which I have yet to develop after four years.
I probably don’t receive all the hoopla I should because I don’t solicit the big photo publications and television programs. I once called the National Geographic to see if there was any interest in my forthcoming expedition to search for the Bonhomme Richard. During a conversation with a lady who said she was in charge of editorial assignments, I was told in no uncertain terms, “We’re not giving out any funds.”
“I don’t need funding,” I replied. “I’m paying for the search out of my book royalties.”
“Don’t expect us to pay for anything,” she announced acidly.
“Won’t cost you a cent.”
“Then why did you call?”
“Just to alert you that a search expedition was being launched to find John Paul Jones’s famous ship. I thought perhaps you might be interested.”
“We don’t fund shipwreck hunts.”
“We’ve been through that,” I said exasperated.
“Call us if you find it.”
“We’ll assign a writer and a photographer to do the story.”
“I’m a writer.”
“We prefer a professional,” she said matter-of-factly.
End of conversation.
A few years later, I was in Washington, D.C., for my walk-on role in the awful movie based on my book Raise the Titanic! On the way to the hotel where they were shooting a press-conference scene with Jason Robards, I stopped off at the editorial offices of the National Geographic. I walked up to the receptionist and asked to speak to any editor who could spare me a few minutes.
She was gracious enough to call four different editors and say I was in the lobby. After the last call, she look at me sheepishly and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cussler. None of them wish to talk to you.”
Scorned by the National Geographic.
“If someone should ask,” the receptionist murmured sweetly,” what should I tell them you wish to see them about?”
“Just tell them I ran in here to get away from a mugger and didn’t know when I was well off.”
Shattered and distraught, I went back to my room at the Jefferson Hotel, and except for the two hours I spent repairing a non-operating grandfather clock in the sitting room, I cried in my pillow the rest of the night.
Not content with putting demoralizing and hilarious concerns behind me, I then alienated the Smithsonian magazine.
Nicolas Dean, a truly fine photographer from Edgecomb, Maine, was assigned by the Smithsonian magazine to shoot a photo story on NUMA’s discovery of Cumberland and Florida. He shot rolls of film on the divers and the artifacts recovered from the wrecks. Then, for some reason, the editors of Smithsonian killed the story. Nick received a small kill fee, but not nearly enough to cover his expenses after flying round trip from Maine and spending five days on the expedition.
Several years later, I was called by the secretary of one of Smithsonian magazine’s senior editors and asked if I would check out a story on a shipwreck for any inaccuracies. Since it was a ship I was familiar with, I agreed. The story arrived in the mail, I read it, made a couple of suggestions, and sent it back.
The secretary then notified me by phone that the fee for my editorial expertise was $200. Overwhelmed, but keeping my emotions in check, I told her not to send the check to me, but rather make it out to the editor.
“I don’t understand,” she said confused.
“I insist my compensation go to him,” I reaffirmed.
Unenlightened, she muttered, “It makes no sense for a writer’s fee to go to an editor.”
“It does in this case.”
“May I ask why you are doing this?”
“Yes, Tell your boss that the two hundred bucks is a bribe. I’m paying him never to mention my name in the Smithsonian magazine.”
The secretary came unglued, “You don’t want your name in our publication. This is unheard of.”
“There’s always a first.”
I have no idea what they ever did with the check. I know I never got it.
NUMA has been fortunate in achieving so much with so little. Nearly sixty sunken wrecks in lakes, rivers, and seas have been found and surveyed. I’ve covered only a handful in this book. A few were discovered by luck, most only after long hours of investigation and hard work. Cost is, of course, always a factor with any expedition. But if the hunt is not overly complicated and can be conducted with simplicity, the price remains low.
Despite stories by fiction writers like me, the search for historic treasure is seldom dangerous and all too often is downright tedious, but it is still an adventure that can be enjoyed by dedicated people or families out for a weekend of fun. Discoveries can be made anywhere and may take place within walking distance of your backyard. You’d be amazed at how many famous historical sites remain lost because nobody ever bothered to look for them.
I suppose it would be more practical to sink my book royalties into municipal bonds and real estate, something that would yield a financial return. Lord knows my accountant and broker think I belong under restraint in an institution. But my philosophy has always been that when my time comes, and I’m lying in a hospital bed two breaths away from the great beyond, I’d like my bedside phone to ring. A big, blonde, buxom nurse, taking my pulse for ebbing vital signs, leans over my face, picks up the phone, and holds the receiver to my ear.
The last words I hear before I drift off are those of my banker telling me my account is ten dollars overdrawn.
The bottom line is that when the final curtain drops the only things we truly regret are the things we didn’t do.
Or as an old grizzled treasure hunter put it to me over a beer in a waterfront saloon late one evening,
“If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doin’.”
To those of you who seek lost objects of history, I wish you the best of luck. They’re out there, and they’re whispering.