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Jackpot

<i> Richard Ellis is the author of "The Search for the Giant Squid" and "Imagining Atlantis," both scheduled for publication this year</i>

The dream of every writer of nonfiction (certainly mine) is to find a subject that is intrinsically fascinating, will seize the imagination of almost everybody and has never been written about before. With “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea,” Gary Kinder has hit the jackpot.

In September 1857, the paddle-wheel steamer Central America departed from Panama for New York carrying 600 passengers, many of whom were gold miners returning from California with newfound riches. In addition to the gold coins and gold dust carried by the forty-niners, the Central America was also carrying a shipment of gold from the San Francisco Mint that was destined for banks in New York. Off the Carolina coast, the ship ran into a monster hurricane and sank. Of the 600 people, 56 women and children and 44 men were offloaded into lifeboats during the hurricane, and another 49 men were found floating on bits of flotsam and picked up by passing ships.

In Defiance, Ohio, in the late 1980s, an engineer-inventor named Tommy Thompson, an alumnus of Ohio State and Mel Fisher’s quest for the Spanish treasure ship Nuesta Senora de Atocha, found off Key West in 1985, put together a group to search for the Central America. With secrecy worthy of the Manhattan Project (they didn’t want anyone to know where they were looking for the wreck), Thompson assembled a consortium of investors called the Columbus America Discovery Group. (“Columbus” for Columbus, Ohio, where most of the money was raised.) They examined every record they could find of the wreck, from accounts of the survivors to contemporaneous newspaper stories, and concluded that it was lying some 200 miles offshore in 8,000 feet of water. Even though Bob Ballard had found the Titanic in 13,000 feet of water in 1985, Thompson’s feat was more ambitious: He not only had to find the wreck, he had to bring up materials that had been lying on the ocean floor, a mile and a half down, for 132 years.

The opening sections of the book, dealing with the California gold rush and the monster hurricane that sank the ship, make for white-knuckle reading, as exciting as anything Sebastian Junger gave us in “The Perfect Storm.” Like the movie that will undoubtedly be made, Kinder then cuts back and forth between the past and the present. This to-ing and fro-ing gives the early chapters a somewhat fractured feeling, because as soon as we become engrossed in the wreck, we are transported to a boardroom in Columbus, Ohio, 1986, where lawyers are discussing confidentiality agreements.

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But short of starting at Sutter’s Mill in 1849 and moving steadily toward the astonishing conclusion of the search (with a century-and-a-quarter hole in the middle), this may have been the only way to tell these two interconnected stories. Each is fascinating in its own way, one for the wealth of historical detail that the author has amassed, the other for the intricacies of technology, maritime law and seamanship required to find the ship and extract the treasure.

In 1986, Thompson and his team searched the bottom with a prototype sonar device that enabled them to survey 5,000 feet in a single swath. Thompson also designed an underwater robot that could raise heavy weights and also lift items as delicate as a teacup from the bottom. They spent one whole season photographing a wreck that turned out not to be the Central America. They fought off competitors on the high seas and in the courtroom. And finally, in the breathtakingly dramatic finale, they saw that “the bottom was carpeted with gold; gold everywhere, like a garden. The more you looked, the more you saw gold growing out of everything, embedded in all the wood and beams. It was amazing, clear back in the far distance, bars stacked on the bottom like brownies, bars stacked like loaves of bread, bars that appear to have slid into the corner of a room.”

With this wealth of material, the author stumbles every once in a while, sometimes becoming too effusive about Thompson’s almost superhuman capabilities and sometimes overloading the narrative with completely extraneous material. Do we really need to know that Thompson and a friend once drove from Ohio to Quebec, “searched in vain for a glimpse of a legendary prostitute named Angie, ate sheep brains soaked in black butter, drank two bottles of sweet wine and stopped the car in Ontario to throw up on the way home”? And Kinder occasionally misinterprets the historical accounts he has so carefully researched. During one of the rescue attempts in 1857, we find ourselves aboard a ship called the Ellen, with a Captain Johnsen being attacked by a “man-o-war hawk” with teeth like a hacksaw. The bird is probably a man-o-war bird, also known as a frigate bird, not known for its attacks on people or its hacksaw teeth.

But these minor editorial cavils notwithstanding, “Ship of Gold” is a marvelous tale, with generous portions of history, adventure, intrigue, heroism and high technology interwoven. Shipwrecks make for enthralling reading; adventure stories have been a mainstay of literature since “The Odyssey”; tales of individual heroism ditto; and Gary Kinder can join Jules Verne, Bob Ballard and Tom Clancy in making underwater technology thrilling.

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Although Thompson evidently struggled throughout his campaign to categorize his enterprise as science and not treasure hunting, there is no question that finding a mountain of gold on the floor of the ocean is the engine that drove him and indeed drives the book. At 1857 prices (90 cents an ounce for gold), the gold aboard the Central America was valued at about $1.2 million; with gold selling at about $360 an ounce today, the treasure is now worth an estimated $450 million. (If the coins were sold individually, however--mint double eagle gold coins are worth about $20,000 apiece--the value of the treasure might reach $1 billion.) The shares of Thompson, his boyhood friend Barry Schatz (who painstakingly plotted the data that enabled them to find the wreck) and geologist Bob Evans are not disclosed, but since each investor’s $10,000 might now be worth $1 million, it is not unreasonable to deduce that the people who put together the Columbus America Discovery Group, found the ship and actually retrieved the largest treasure ever brought up have become very rich indeed.

Add fabulous riches to history, adventure, intrigue, heroism and high technology, and in “Ship of Gold” you get a foolproof combination. Luckily for him, Gary Kinder has the skill to put it all together, and luckily for us, we get to read it.


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