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Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Seaby Gary Kinder
Outside Battelle, Tommy was now amassing voluminous notes on underwater technology, beginning to formulate relationships with suppliers, and corresponding with historical archives at several libraries on the East Coast. For years he had collected information on deep-water, historic shipwrecks, and the list had grown to forty. He and Bob met more frequently, together refining what they called the Historic Shipwreck Selection Process and narrowing the targets to a project Tommy could present to investors. "We developed the language as we went along," said Bob, "the selection criteria for projects in general, and then we analyzed the risks involved with each ship."
They divided risk into intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic risks were those inherent to the site: probability of previous recovery, accuracy of historical documentation, and the environment around the site. All deep-water shipwrecks scored high in the first category; most of them scored high in the second category; few of them did well in the third. Shipwrecks with a high total score then advanced to form a universe of "Feasibly Recoverable Shipwrecks with Low Intrinsic Risk."
Next, they assessed the extrinsic risks, those that had to do with recovery: Favorable Operational Factors, Positive Site Security, Legal Rights Obtainable. Is the technology available to access that site, can we guarantee site security in that area of the world, and do we have legal protection?
Once they had eliminated all ships but those with low intrinsic and low extrinsic risks, each ship had to pass a final test: Was there anything on board worth recovering?
The Titanic was a hunk of steel seven hundred feet long that would burn a hole through a sonar chart; even if it rested in mountainous territory, they could probably find it, and the abundant historical documentation would help them narrow the search area. But the Titanic presented two insurmountable risks: Her steel hull would be impossible to penetrate even with the technology Tommy saw on the horizon. And if they could get inside, she carried nothing worth recovering; some loose jewelry perhaps, rings and bracelets and necklaces scattered in various small cubicles, but no treasure centrally stored, nothing they could use to make the payoff attractive to investors.
"In terms of financial risk," said Bob, "the Titanic was not a good project."
Other deep-water ships presented similar problems. Myths had arisen around some of them that tons of gold lay stored in secure compartments. But no historical data supported the myths. In 1909, the British White Star luxury liner Republic had gone down fifty miles off Nantucket, and for decades, rumors had circulated that it had taken millions in gold coins with it. But no official records existed. "Sure, there were a lot of rich people on board," said Bob,"but how much was in the purser's safe? Nobody knows."
The Andrea Doria, an Italian liner hailed by her owners as the "Grande Dame of the Sea," collided with another ship in dense fog in 1956 and also went down just off Nantucket. She was a glistening seven-hundred-foot floating museum of murals, rare wood panels, and ceramics designed by Italian artists, and her passengers also were wealthy, but once again myth about the treasure on board sprouted from rumor with no documentation.
Tommy and Bob were convinced that the San José had carried more than a billion dollars in treasure to the bottom when British warships landed a cannonball in her munitions cache and sank her in 1708. But the San José was off the coast of Colombia in murky, turbulent waters.
After many deep-water shipwrecks were run through the selection process, the sidewheel steamer SS Central America rose to the top in every category. It had sunk in an era of accurate record keeping and reliable navigation instruments. Dozens of witnesses had testified to the sinking, and five ship captains had given coordinates that placed the ship in an area where sediment collected no faster than a centimeter every thousand years. The extrinsic risks looked as favorable: She had a wooden hull, which would be easier to get into, and massive iron works in her steam engines and boilers that would provide a good target for sonar, even if much of the iron had corroded and disappeared. And it was off the coast of the United States, so they wouldn't have to negotiate with a foreign government and they could more easily provide site security.
One other thing appealed to Tommy and Bob: the ship was American and its treasure symbolized one of the most defining periods in American history, that narrow window running from the California Gold Rush through the Civil War. If they could find it, they would open a time capsule representing an entire nation during a crucial period in its formation.
"The Central America," said Bob, "scored much, much higher than any other project when subjected to this selection process."
And her gold shipment was documented: With gold valued at $20 an ounce in 1857, the publicly reported commercial shipment totaled between $1.210 and $1.6 million. Although many of the Central America's records, including her cargo manifest, had been destroyed in the Great San Francisco Fire of 1906, some accounts estimated that the gold carried by the passengers at least equaled the commercial shipment. And the Department of the Army recently had confirmed a story approaching myth that had circulated for years: that the Central America carried an official secret shipment of gold destined to shore up the faltering northern industrial economy. The letter, dated April 2, 1971, acknowledged that the information about the shipment had been declassified, and it verified that secreted in her hold the Central America had also carried six hundred fifty-pound bar boxes, or another thirty thousand pounds of gold.
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