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The Sea Hunters: True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks

The Sea Hunters: True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks

by Clive Cussler, Craig Dirgo

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A steamboat goes up in flames...and down to the bottom of the sea. A locomotive plunges into a creek...and vanishes into mystery. A German U-boat sends an American troop transport, and eight hundred on board, to a watery grave...on Christmas Eve. Clive Cussler and his crack team NUMA (National Underwater Marine Agency, a nonprofit organization that searches for


A steamboat goes up in flames...and down to the bottom of the sea. A locomotive plunges into a creek...and vanishes into mystery. A German U-boat sends an American troop transport, and eight hundred on board, to a watery grave...on Christmas Eve. Clive Cussler and his crack team NUMA (National Underwater Marine Agency, a nonprofit organization that searches for historic shipwrecks) volunteers have found the remains of these and numerous other tragic wrecks. Here for the first time are the dramatic, true accounts of the twelve most remarkable underwater discoveries made by Cussler and his team. As suspenseful and satisfying as the best of his Dirk PItt novels, THE SEA HUNTERS is a unique story of true commitment and courage.

Editorial Reviews

Mark Eddy
Cussler does a job making history...lively and interesting. He entertains and enlightens at the same time....his infectious enthusiasm will have more than one reader wondering if there's any way you can hook up with him on his next adventure. -- Denver Post
Ken Wisneski
If you've ever wondered how Clive Cussler does research for his fabulous Dirk Pitt series, The Sea Hunters should be a tip-off....Reader-friendly....fascinating...The Sea Hunters reads as well as a Cussler novel. -- Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Kirkus Reviews
Life has imitated pop art in the case of best-selling author Cussler (Shock Wave, 1996; Sahara, 1992; etc.), whose avocation is locating great ships lost in deep waters. In his first nonfiction work, the venturesome writer offers engrossing briefings on more than a dozen of the 60-odd wrecks for which he has searched.

Before getting into the self-depreciating particulars of the royalty-funded expeditions he mounts in the interests of preserving important pieces of the world's maritime heritage, Dirk Pitt's creator provides vivid accounts of the last voyages of the doomed vessels he and typically convivial associates have hunted. Although necessarily speculative, the immensely entertaining mininarratives are at least plausible and afford needed context. Among the submerged craft the author has pinpointed and identified are: the steamboat Lexington, a fast paddle-wheeler that burned and sank in Long Island Sound on a cold winter's night in 1840, with the loss of 151 lives; the Confederate submarine Hunley, the first underwater vessel to sink an enemy warship (the Union sloop Housatonic); WW I's U-20, which sank the Lusitania; and the Zavala, a gunboat once in the service of the Republic of Texas Navy. Covered as well is the fate of a Kansas Pacific Railroad locomotive swept away in an 1876 flood that destroyed the bridge over Colorado's Kiowa Creek; after painstaking research, Cussler concludes that he's uncovered a long-buried insurance scam in which the engine was recovered and put back in service under an assumed ID. Also worth the price of admission is the author's antic log of his close encounters with French officialdom while tracking the hulk of the Léopoldville, an Allied troop transport torpedoed off Cherbourg on Christmas Eve, 1994.

Grand stories from the world's oceans, rivers, and tidal basins. The lively text includes a number of handsome, helpful maps, plus line drawings of designated vessels and the vanished locomotive.

From the Publisher
Chicago Tribune The Sea Hunters is a rollicking good book.

Daily News (New York) Cussler tells one hell of a story.

Product Details

Cengage Gale
Publication date:
Wheeler Large Print Book Series
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
6.35(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.16(d)

Read an Excerpt

Introduction It's said that Jules Verne wrote Around the World in Eighty Days without ever leaving Paris. He seldom stepped out of the room where he created the most imaginative novels the world has enjoyed. Most fiction authors, when I ask them what interests they have besides writing, look at me like my head is lopsided. They can't believe there are other pursuits in life beyond creating plots and characters, promoting their books, arguing with editors, or demanding better deals from their literary agents. Their lives are entwined around what comes out of their word processors.

A reporter who interviewed me several years ago wrote that I "follow the beat of a drummer playing with a marching band in a field on the other side of town." I suppose that's true. Feeding my readers adventure tales based on a devil-may-care character by the name Dirk Pitt is only one chapter of my existence. I'm addicted to the challenge of the search, whether it's for lost shipwrecks, airplanes, steam locomotives, or people. I also collect and restore classic and vintage automobiles. If it's old, I'm into it.

There is a piece of me in Dirk Pitt and a slice of him in me. We're both about six feet three. His eyes are greener than mine, and he certainly enthralls the ladies more than I ever did. We have the same taste for adventure, although his escapades are far more extreme than mine. I never raised the Titanic, for example. Nor have I saved the life of the President or found a great hoard of Inca gold at the end of an underground river.

I have, however, attempted some crazy things besides tramping through humid backcountry looking for old cannons or being tossed around a small boat during a Force 8 storm while searching for a sunken submarine. Like riding a bicycle over the Rocky Mountains and through the deserts to California when I turned 50, taking the stick of a glider at 55, and bungee jumping at 60. I'm thinking of sky diving on my 65th.

How did this attempt to mirror fantasy with life begin? Perhaps you remember me. I was the kid in your high school algebra class who stared out the window while the teacher lectured on fractions. I was lost in another time, a million miles away, manning a cannon on John Paul Jones's ship, the Bonhomme Richard, charging up Cemetery Ridge with Pickett's division, or reversing the tide at the Little Big Horn and saving Custer and his 7th Cavalry. When called upon to recite, I could only stare at the floor like an amnesiac and mutter an answer so utterly out of context that the teacher thought I had wandered into her class by mistake.

I was lucky growing up when and where I did. Within four blocks of my family's middle-class, 1940s home in Southern California, there were five neighborhood boys my own age who had imaginations as varied as mine. Together, we built treehouses and clubhouses, dug caves, constructed a ship out of scrap wood in a vacant lot, constructed miniature streets and buildings out of mud and wooden molds, and devised ghostly scenes in my father's garage on Halloween. The Little Rascals had nothing on us. Only when five o'clock rolled around did we dash home to turn on the radio and listen to the adventures of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, picturing ourselves slogging through the Congo jungles at his side.

Sea stories had a particular allure to my wandering mind. I was always immersed in books describing ship-to-ship battles, which included the ironclads of the Civil War, the fights of famous American frigates against the British in the War of 1812, and the Napoleonic sea wars of Nelson, especially the fictional accounts of Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester.

Since I'm a Cancer, I've always had an affinity for water. The first time I looked upon the Pacific Ocean I was six years old. I ran directly into the surf, only to be promptly deposited back on the beach by a breaker. Undaunted, I ran back in over my head. Not a bright move because I had no idea that you were supposed to know how to swim. I recall opening my eyes and marveling at the blurred world beneath the surface. I even saw a small fish before it dawned on me that I couldn't breathe. My father, since it was the only decent thing to do, frantically groped around in the depths until he found me and pulled me back into the atmosphere. My mother, fearing a repeat of my underwater ballet, quickly signed me up at the nearest public pool for swimming lessons. Because I was an only child, I made up games to play. One was with poker chips stacked in the shape of warships. Some hulls had a row of single chips, others two and three rows. The size of the cannon was dictated by the strength of rubber bands. Naturally, the rubber slings of my fleet always blew the chips of the enemy fleet all over the linoleum floor of my mother's kitchen and dining areas. The same basic concept was used in the bathtub, where I coated ships folded from newspaper and then dive-bombed them with marbles until they either soggily disintegrated or sank under the weight of the shooters and aggies that failed to penetrate their thin decks.

I did all the crazy things kids did in the leisurely days before television, like riding my bicycle down a hill and off a small cliff into the tree branches below, jumping off the roof of a house under construction into a sandpile, or building a makeshift raft and sailing down a rushing stream during a rainstorm. There must be guardian angels somewhere up there who watch over crazy, daredevil boys. Amazingly, I never broke a bone until I passed the age of fifty. Since then, I've suffered one fractured ankle while jogging; two cracked vertebrae, when thrown out of a jeep careering over a beach while I held a metal detector, looking for a buried shipwreck; and six cracked ribs, two of them surfing and one on a mountain bike. The others came from stupid accidents.

One thing I learned early is that adventure can come cheap. In college, a close friend, Felix Dupuy, and I loaded up his 1939 Ford convertible and set out one summer on a drive around the country. In three months we covered over 13,000 miles and 36 states. We slept in bandstands in Vermont, railroad boxcars in Texas, and in the bushes beside the nation's capitol in Washington, D.C. The entire trip cost me only $350. We returned home just in time to enlist in the Air Force after the outbreak of the "police action" in Korea, more out of boredom with school than any great patriotic fervor.

I have never forgotten Felix, Jack Hawkins, and me, sitting in the recruiting office looking at each other and repeating over and over, "I'll go if you go," or "If you join, I'll join." I can't recall who raised his hand first and took the oath to defend the country from foreign invaders, but I have never forgiven him.

Despite my applying for aerial photography or the intelligence department, some sneaky sergeant in the Training Command found out I was a California hot-rodder and sent me to aircraft engine school. After my graduation, the Air Force demanded I be attached to Hickam Field, Hawaii, to work on mammoth twenty-eight-cylinder radial engines mounted on C-97 Boeing Stratocruisers. These were large propeller- driven aircraft the Air Force used as transports to fly critical personnel and supplies to Korea before airlifting the wounded back to hospitals in the States.

During the three years I was stationed on Oahu, my buddies Dave Anderson and Al Giordano, a gritty and witty Italian who was the model for Al Giordino in my books, and I explored the inner jungles of the island, searching for lost aircraft, ancient Hawaiian burial caves, and missing people. I recall finding none.

We also became early diving fanatics. This was in late 1951 and there was little in the way of underwater equipment. We made our own camera cases, spear guns, and floats. My first mask was a weird affair made in France that covered the entire face, with two snorkels that contained Ping-Pong balls to halt incoming water. As I recall, it was made of gum rubber. The early commercially produced dive fins fit your feet like bedroom slippers with flaps.

We hit the water every chance we had, exploring the bays and coves around Oahu. I also took my gear and dove around Midway and Wake islands during refueling stops on flights to Tokyo. Those were the days when you seldom ran across another diver.

Wanting to go deeper, my buddies and I ordered what we were told was the first tank and regulator to be shipped to Honolulu. After picking it up in a crate from the sporting-goods store, we rushed back to an aircraft maintenance hangar, where we pumped 200 pounds of stale air from a compressor into the tank. Then we took turns diving off a reef in 20 feet of water. Those were the days before scuba certification by qualified instructors, and it was a wonder we didn't suffer any number of diving maladies. Air embolisms and decompression times were vague terms and were not considered by most sport divers in 1951.

Upon returning to civilian life, I tried college again, but found that nothing had changed. The same musty classroom smell still nauseated me and, besides that, I had no thought of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Drawn back to the smell of oil and gasoline, my old school chum, Dick Klein, and I bought a gas station just off the San Bernardino Freeway six miles outside Los Angeles, and we operated it for almost four years.

On weekends, Dick and I used to travel around the deserts of Southern California in an old 1948 Mercury convertible that we stripped before installing oversized truck tires on the wheels. A shame. In pristine condition today that car would be worth the price of a new one. We searched for lost gold mines, lost ghost towns, and any sign of an artifact that looked as if it had been forgotten by old prospectors or the early Spanish explorers. Success usually eluded us, but we did have a great time shooting antique rifles at rocks in the distance.

I finally became a certified diver after quitting a high-falutin advertising job in Hollywood to work as a clerk with a small chain of dive shops in Orange County. There was a method to my madness, however, as I had decided to write sea stories, and what better place to launch my career as a writer than from behind the counter of a dive shop? Don Spencer, Ron Merker, and Omar Wood, legendary divers and owners of the Aquatic Center dive stores, wondered which part of the moon I'd dropped from when I applied for a job that paid $400 a month after making $2,000 a month as creative director for a national advertising agency. But shrewd and canny guys that they were -- Spencer has since passed on -- they put aside their doubts and hired me. They became good friends and I've always owed them all a great debt of gratitude. I fondly recall when Merker certified me with a Los Angeles County card. He wasn't awfully impressed with my diving abilities even after I reminded him that the Red Baron, Manfred Von Richthofen, who shot down 80 Allied planes in World War I, had nearly flunked out of flight school.

With great trepidation, he sent me to Catalina as divemaster on a chartered boat with 20 other divers. Staring up at the kelp from the seafloor as it spirals toward the surface is a sight you'll always remember. I know I'll never forget how the sport divers attacked the food spread on the deck like a school of malnourished barracuda.

Using my devious talents for promotion, I pulled off all types of crazy stunts to increase business, endeavors that doubled sales inside six months. Besides standing a bikini-clad mannequin out on the curb in front of the store, painting an aircraft belly tank fluorescent orange and installing it on the roof after filling it with more bikini-clad mannequins, I began phrasing strange witticisms on a theater marquee in the parking lot. One traffic stopper, as I remember, read, KEEP AMERICA GREEN, BAN LOBSTERS FROM THE HIGHWAYS. I always felt smug about the fact that we far outsold Mel Fisher's dive shop in Manhattan Beach. Of course, Fisher got the last laugh after he found the treasure-laden Spanish galleon Atocha.

I also became a legend of sorts when I took over the recorded dive report that divers phoned for water conditions before heading into the deep. Instead of the old austere "This is the Aquatic Center dive report," in a droning voice that murmured, "The surf is three to four feet, the water temperature is 76 degrees, and the visibility is 10 feet," I came on and said, "Hi, ho, divers, this is your daredevil darling of the dismal depths, Horace P. Quagmire, once again with the latest report on diving conditions." I even threw in recipes for abalone. And, not one to let an opportunity pass, I ended the report by mentioning several items of merchandise that happened to be on sale. Don't ask me why, but they loved it. California divers still ask me to autograph their books with Horace P. Quagmire.

When business slowed in midafternoon, I sat at a card table in the back of the store and wrote a book called The Mediterranean Caper on a portable typewriter. After making up my mind that I had at last found my niche in life, and signing with New York literary agent Peter Lampack, I sadly left the Aquatic Center dive shops to pursue my new career as a writer. Spencer, Merker, Wood, and I shook hands all around, and they were kind enough to present me with an orange-dial Doxa dive watch that I've treasured for over 20 years. I wrote all three of them in as characters in Raise the Titanic!, which became a best-seller and a terrible movie.

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, with the success of Raise the Titanic!, I now had the time and funds to search for lost shipwrecks.

In December of 1977, I read in one of the books written by Peter Throckmorton, dean of American marine archaeology, that a gentleman in England, Sidney Wignall, was following up leads to John Paul Jones's famous Revolutionary War ship, the Bonhomme Richard, which sank after an epic battle off Flamborough Head in the North Sea. Having studied the famous fight where the underdog shouted, "I have not yet begun to fight," when his ship was shot to shreds, I bit the hook when I learned that Wignall was casting about for money to launch a search.

My British publishers tracked down Wignall, and I called him. A peppery Welshman, he assumed that I was some kind of deranged con man when out of the blue I offered to fund an expedition to locate the Richard. Reasonably satisfied that I didn't wear a Napoleon hat and a straitjacket, we arranged for a meeting to discuss the basics for organiz- ing a search expedition, not the least of which was the budget. In this case a cool $60,000.

The final cost was $80,000.

Sidney had discovered a Spanish Armada galleon and searched for Sir Francis Drake's lead coffin off Portobelo in Panama. He was a top-notch historian, but organizational know-how was an enigma to him. I should have been a bit more cautious of striking off into the unknown, but with shipwreck fever mounting to a heated pitch, I plunged in up to my ears. I now know where the term "babe in the woods" comes from.

The expedition later veered two degrees beyond a fiasco. Tons of unnecessary equipment, including a decompression chamber, were loaded aboard an old World War II British minesweeper used for geological survey by an outfit I suspected of operating as the Shagnasty Barn Door and Oil Company. The Flying Dutchman sailed in a better ship than this one. Its geriatric diesel engine broke down with agonizing regularity three times a day. The ship's crew would have made a saloon full of heavy-metal bikers hold their noses and run for the exits. These guys thought bath was a city in England. There was one crewman who for some inexplicable reason has never left my mind. His name was Gonzo. I recall the name because it was tattooed on his forehead. The boat was called the Keltic Lord. Being a dumb American, I always thought Keltic was spelled with a C.

Everyone assembled in Bridlington, England, a blue-collar Las Vegas, during August of 1978. Several divers from the University of Wales showed up to participate. My son-in-law and daughter, Bob and Teri Toft, had arrived early to work with Sidney Wignall assembling the gear and gluing together an old boat that was to be used to ferry the search team and supplies between the Keltic Lord and shore.

The devil-may-care Gary Kozak showed up to operate the side scan sonar, an electronic instrument that records acoustic imagery of the sea bottom. The image the sonar signal reflects looks much like a photograph that has been copied three or four times.

Marty Klein, the little giant and CEO of Klein Associates, Inc., the builder of the sonar unit, also came along on the hunt for the Bonhomme Richard. On thinking back, I realize the sonar was the only unit, man-made or otherwise, that performed flawlessly. I was also introduced to Colonel Walter Schob, who had come off the Mary Rose project and volunteered to dive when and if we found the remains of John Paul Jones's ship. If nothing else came out of my amateurish inauguration at mounting a shipwreck expedition, Gary, Marty, and Walt became my good pals and have remained so for nearly two decades.

My wife, Barbara; younger daughter, Dana; and son, Dirk, also joined the expedition. I found it comforting to have friendly shoulders to cry on as the project began to unravel. We all stayed at a hotel on the beach, called the Excelsior, which I was told was a Latin form of "high excellence." An interesting place. I doubt if it's been remodeled since the Romans left for home. My wife's perfume turned up missing, as did Teri's camera. Noticing that the bedding was unusually rumpled one evening, I asked the chambermaid if she had changed the sheets that day.

She looked at me queerly and asked, "Did you want your sheets changed?"

Ah, yes, innocents abroad. But we evened the score down in the dining room. At most English seaside hotels, you are given a particular table to eat your meals. Even single people chat across the room while sitting alone at their respective tables.

I was usually the first one up in the mornings and read the paper over breakfast. When Gary and Marty walked into the room, I'd invite them to sit with me. Then Dana and Dirk would go over and sit with Teri and Bob. This threw the dining-room staff into a frenzy.

"Sorry, but you are not supposed to seat other guests at your table," the maitre d' admonished me, face red with stress. "Each guest is assigned their own table."

"Is it a privilege or a penalty?" I asked innocently.

The humor escaped him. "These people cannot sit with you. They must dine at their required table."

I looked at Marty and Gary, who held their silverware in a death grip. "I believe these gentlemen are happy right where they are and would like a menu."

"This is not the way we manage things here," the maitre d' hissed in total exasperation.

"Then it's either my way, or I'll complain to the health commission about the sea gull droppings on the balcony outside my room."

It was a small battle, but I was happy to win it.

Dinner involved creative ways to eat boiled potatoes with catchup and Worcestershire sauce. Once I asked the hotel bartender for a martini straight up. I got exactly that, Martini-brand vermouth straight up. Teri was about 18 at the time. Bless her heart. She took it upon herself to set the bartender straight and instruct him on how to make bloody Marys and screwdrivers.

The opening day of the search didn't get underway until almost eleven o'clock in the morning. The sea was fairly rough and the boat ride from the dock to the Keltic Lord was an adventure in itself. When we came alongside, Gonzo and another crew member helped everyone climb aboard the ship but me. I was left ignored and forgotten on the leaky ferryboat in a rainstorm, knocked up and down against the hull by aggressive wave action, while clutching a briefcase containing my research material, charts of the search area, and a sack of cookies pressed on me by my wife.

My faithful ship's crew, my loyal team of technicians, had all rushed into the galley for a cup of coffee.

Struggling over the railing with my load, I reached the galley soaked through to my undershorts. No one gave me so much as a glance. Sid Wignall acted as though I didn't exist. It was then I introduced my hand routine, which became beneficial over the years in dealing with mutinous boat crews and dive teams.

I raised my right hand into the air and inquired in a loud voice, "Does everyone see this hand?"

They all stared indifferently and nodded silently.

"Whatever happens," I continued, "a fire aboard ship, we strike an iceberg, or we're torpedoed by the crew of a U-boat who forgot to surrender, you save this hand."

Good old Gonzo sailed into the net. "Why should we bust our arse to save that hand, mate?"

I had the power, the Force was mine. I looked him square in the eye and said, "Because this is the hand that writes the checks."

It was amazing how I went from Rodney Dangerfield to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the space of 30 seconds. Now I was the first one helped on board the ship. Gonzo became my pal and always kept my coffee cup full. Even the captain began calling me "sir." I knew then that searching for shipwrecks was in my blood.

Because of the late start during the first days into the search, by the time we began running our lanes in the search grid, which meant towing the side scan sensor back and forth as though we were mowing a lawn, half the day was gone and we had to return to Bridlington before dark. When I discussed this problem with Sidney, he came up with a brilliant solution: "Tomorrow we'll pull up the anchor and head to the search area promptly at six o'clock in the morning." There was groaning in the ranks, but they all agreed that if we were to accomplish anything we had to get off the mark early.

The shore team showed up at the dock promptly at 5:30. Solid Walt Schob was already there with the boat, standing by to ferry us to the Keltic Lord. Poor Marty Klein looked as miserable as a lobster in the desert. Gary Kozak had one of the worst hangovers I'd ever seen. It was not a pretty sight.

When we reached the boat, after groping our way through a thick fog, we boarded and found the decks devoid of life. The crew, the British dive team, and Sidney Wignall were all sound asleep, no doubt with visions of Yorkshire pudding dancing in their heads.

Eyes brimming with malice and undisguised contempt for those who hadn't suffered as we had, I stormed into the crew's quarters, kicked Wignall's door off its hinges, and yelled, "If this boat isn't underway in 10 minutes, I'm tying you to the propeller!"

I'll give Sidney credit. He showed great depth of understanding. The anchor clanked up, the ancient engine coughed up a cloud of black smoke through its stack, and the bow cut the water in eight minutes flat.

The wreck that Sidney thought might be the Bonhomme Richard turned out to be a cargo ship sunk by a German U-boat during World War I. And so the curtain came down on my introduction to the intrigue and adventure of hunting for shipwrecks.

Six months later, I was saddened to learn that the Keltic Lord, along with its entire crew, vanished without a trace in the North Sea during a winter storm. I'll bet the pubs in the seaport city of Hull haven't been the same since Gonzo's been gone.

Much to everyone's surprise, I got up off the mat and came out for the second round. I organized another expedition for the following year. Wayne Gronquist, Austin, Texas, attorney and eventual president of NUMA, suggested that for tax purposes we should incorporate as a nonprofit foundation. Wayne filed the papers in Austin, and we became a Texas not-for-profit corporation. Early on, the trustees wanted to call it the Clive Cussler Foundation. Humble Herbert I ain't. But my ego isn't quite that monstrous. I nixed the idea. So they decided it would be humorous to name it after the government agency that employs the hero in my books, Dirk Pitt. I was outvoted and the National Underwater & Marine Agency was born. Now I could say, "Yes, Virginia, there really is a NUMA, a NUMA dedicated to preserving American marine heritage by locating and identifying lost ships of historic significance before they are gone forever."

This second attempt to locate the Richard was headed by former Navy Commander Eric Berryman. We covered 10 times as much territory with a cost factor less than half the first effort. This trip I had the good fortune to meet and work with Peter Throckmorton and Bill Shea of Brandeis University, both of whom became trustees of NUMA. I also found a solid and comfortable boat called the Arvor III, a yacht that was strangely built to the specifications of a Scottish fishing trawler. An indomitable Scot by the name of Jimmy Flett was the Arvor's skipper, and a finer man I've never met. Even with a top-rated team, we still failed to find the elusive Bonhomme Richard. We did, however, run onto and identify a Russian spy trawler that had mysteriously sunk a short time prior to our discovery. The Royal Navy was immediately notified, and they initiated a classified underwater investigation. I never did learn what secrets they found.

Someday, I'll give it another try. Gary Kozak once said, "Shipwrecks are never found until they want to be found." Hopefully, next time the Richard will be ready to show a beckoning finger.

NUMA was now a reality, and with very canny and respected people on board as trustees and advisors, including Commander Don Walsh, who made the ocean's deepest dive aboard the Trieste; Doc Harold Edgerton, the energetic and prodigious inventor of the side scan sonar and the strobe light; and Admiral Bill Thompson, who almost single- handedly directed the funding and construction of the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., we began an earnest program of shipwreck search projects.

After the unsuccessful '78 and '79 expeditions, we turned our ventures to home shores and made our initial try for the Confederate submarine Hunley in the summer of 1980. This preliminary search took in a small grid extending one-half mile from the inlet the Hunley sailed through outside Charleston, South Carolina, before she torpedoed the Union sloop-of-war Housatonic. After the attack, she and her nine-man crew vanished, never realizing they had gone down in history books as the first submarine to sink a warship.

It soon became apparent, after research and initial probing into the seafloor outside of Charleston, that the Hunley had slowly become buried in the soft silt that covers the seabed off the coast. We found that the remains of Housatonic had also worked their way under the seafloor.

The only instrument generally used to locate a hidden object entombed under saltwater and sediment is a magnetometer. If the side scan sonar is the right arm of any shipwreck search, the magnetometer is the left. The two metal detectors used most frequently for finding and measuring the magnetic intensity of a buried iron object are the proton mag and a gradiometer. Both basically do the same thing, but use different systems of measurement.

After finding no trace of the Hunley near shore, we realized the search grid had to be greatly expanded.

In 1981, we returned with an efficiently organized expedition. Alan Albright, chief marine archaeologist with the University of South Carolina, was most cooperative, loaning us a boat and a team of divers. Bill Shea operated his home-built proton magnetometer along with Walt Schob, who steered the search boat back and forth along the grid lines. A second vessel, a dive boat, followed behind to check out any interesting anomalies found by Bill's mag. The diving operation was headed by Ralph Wilbanks, the state archaeologist who represented the university.

To keep the mag survey boat in precise position at all times, the Motorola Mini Ranger Navigation Unit was used, with my son, Dirk, sitting in an oven-hot rental van on shore, staring at a graph and giving directions that kept Schob on a straight course while running narrow lanes of 30 meters.

Although we ran over 500 miles of search lanes, we failed to pass over the grave of the Hunley. Our dive boat, however, discovered the remains of four Confederate blockade runners, the Union iron-clad monitors Weehawken and Patapsco, and the dual-citadel ironclad, Keokuk. We were finally getting our act together.

After every expedition, we always take what we call a graduation picture of everyone involved with the project. As I studied the 17 volunteers who worked so hard to find the Hunley and accomplished so much in the discovery of other Civil War shipwrecks, I wondered what a leaner and meaner crew could do.

In the spring of 1982, armed with the faithful Schonstedt gradiometer, always loaned to us by a wonderful and kindly man, Erick Schonstedt, who supported NUMA every inch of the way, Walt Schob and I set out for a wreck survey on the lower Mississippi River. Renting a station wagon, when they still built them, at the airport, we drove through New Orleans and down into the river delta until we reached the end of the highway at a town called Venice, the jumping-off point for supplies and crews heading for offshore oil-drilling rigs.

Here we charted a small sixteen-foot aluminum skiff that was owned by a taciturn Cajun fisherman. The first morning, he took my money and never spoke a word to us. By the third day he realized we were nice guys and began telling Cajun jokes. Because I had broken my right ankle two days before, and had a cast halfway to my knee, he kindly loaned me a lawn chair so I could sit comfortably in the bow, my plaster cast propped on the boat's gunnel, hanging out over the muddy water of the river like a battering ram.

During three days of magging, we found the Confederate ironclads Manassas, next to a load of iron pipe, and Louisiana, both later identified in an on-site study by a scientific team from Texas A & M. We also discovered the remains of the gunboats Governor Moore and Varuna, sunk during the battle of the forts when Admiral David Farragut's fleet of Union warships captured the city of New Orleans.

Walt and I then bade fond farewell to the fisherman and drove to Baton Rouge to search for the famous Confederate ironclad Arkansas, which is covered in more detail in a later chapter of the book.

This was truly a sublime shoestring operation. If nothing else it proved that you can accomplish a lot if the commitment is there. The biggest expense of the entire project was the airfare. One thought to remember, if something is still missing after the passage of time 90 percent of the time it is because nobody has looked for it.

Also, unavoidably, time buries all memory of the location.

To embark on a search for a lost shipwreck, an Indian mound, gold bars, silver coins, or porcelain chamberpots, you don't need the backing of the government or a university. You don't need a truckload of expensive equipment. You don't need a million-dollar inheritance. All it really takes is dedication, perseverance, and a grip on your imagination, so you don't get carried away on a wild-goose chase. Some artifacts can never be found. Some were never lost to begin with, some were figments of somebody's imagination, and all too many are not anywhere near where they are supposed to be.

The Mississippi side-paddle riverboat Sultana is a prime example. She was a luxurious boat that carried passengers from New Orleans to St. Louis. Shortly after the Civil War, a greedy Union officer, receiving $22 a head from the shipping company for every military passenger, crammed 2,400 troops aboard. Many of them were badly treated prisoners recently released from the infamous Confederate prison camp Andersonville and heading home to their families. The Sultana also carried 80 paying passengers and 40 mules. A photograph taken of her when fully loaded has an eerie look about it. All the shadowy figures clustered on the roof and crowding the decks, including the mules, look like phantom wraiths.

About 15 miles above Memphis, Tennessee, at 2 A.M. on April 27, 1865, a boiler on Sultana exploded and turned her into a holocaust before she sank in a cloud of steam and smoke. At least 1,800 died, and perhaps as many as 2,100. The disaster still ranks as the worst marine tragedy in American history.

In the summer of 1982, Walt Schob and I worked with Memphis attorney Jerry Potter, the leading expert on the disaster and author of the book The Sultana Tragedy. Using the gradiometer, we ran search lines over several sites north of the city on dry land because the Mississippi River has considerably altered its course since 1865. Potter recalled that Mark Twain once wrote "that someday a farmer would turn up a piece of the old Sultana with his plow and be much surprised." Twain was very prophetic. The burned-out hulk of Sultana was eventually discovered within 50 yards of the position I had reckoned, two miles from the present banks of the Mississippi, 21 feet deep under a farmer's soybean field in Arkansas.

Research is the key. You can never do enough research. This is so vital I'll repeat it. You can never do enough research. Without a ballpark to provide reasonable boundaries to look, you'll be wasting time and money on an effort with the same probability of success as finding the Pied Piper of Hamelin and the town's kids on Mars. Sure you can get lucky, but don't bet your bank account on it. The odds can be a hundred to one, and yet there is still that slim possibility of victory. A thousand to one? Not worth the effort.

Research can either lower the odds or tell you it's hopeless. Many's the wreck project I filed away without making the slightest attempt to explore because the data showed that it was a lost cause. A ship that disappeared in the Gulf of Mexico, a ship that vanished on a voyage from Bermuda to Norfolk, a ship that sailed unobserved into oblivion somewhere between San Francisco and Los Angeles, forget them.

Without a clue, you're looking at a search grid that could extend over a thousand square miles.

If and when they decide to be found, it will be purely by accident. Threading the needle through investigation and study is my true love. I've often said that if my wife threw me out of the house, I'd take a cot and sleeping bag and move into the basement of a library. Nothing can match the intrigue and rapture of knowing you have pinpointed the location of a lost artifact and thus found the answer to a mystery thought unsolvable through the dust of centuries.

Many people think looking for a lost ship is exciting and adventurous. I can't speak for the big boys, the old pros like Bob Ballard and his Wood's Hole Institute team, but for the little guy it's no bed of orchids. The truth is, the actual search is the living embodiment of tedium. You're thrown hither and yon in a small boat by waves from dawn to dusk, sweating your pores out in a humid climate while fighting to keep from becoming seasick as you stare at little lines squiggling across graph paper. Still, when an image appears on the sonar recording or the marker sweeps across the aluminized paper of the magnetometer and you know you've got an anomaly or a target that matches the signature you're after, the anticipation becomes overwhelming. Then, when the divers surface and report that they've identified the object of your search, the blood, sweat, tears, and expense are forgotten. You're swept by a wave of triumph that beats sex any day of the month. Well, almost.

I receive 10 to 20 letters a week from people volunteering their time and energies to NUMA. I deeply regret turning away their kind offers. Many think we're a big conglomeration with a ten-story building perched on pilings over the ocean. The truth is, we have no office, no employees, not even our own boat. We tried operating NUMA out of an office for a couple of years under the able management of Craig Dirgo, but there was little or no business to conduct and we closed it down. Expeditions only occur when I'm in the mood, which is seldom more than once a year.

Our crew of volunteers is small. Few are divers. Most are marine- history buffs and electronic technicians. When we go to a particular area to search for a lost ship, we charter a boat and invite local divers familiar with the waters we'll be working. Quite often we are joined by members of a state archaeology team.

Because most of our expeditions are funded by my book royalties without any type of donations or grants, my wife and accountant, and yes, the IRS, all think I require a frontal lobotomy because I indulge in all this madness for no profit or gain. This is actually the first time in nearly 20 years I've put my experiences down on paper. I'm new at writing in the first person, but it does provide an opportunity to mention and thank all the wonderful people who have supported NUMA.

If there were more peculiar persons like me out there willing to spend money without the slightest hope of a return, we could take on more projects. A few people have talked big about wanting to become involved with NUMA's search for legendary shipwrecks but never put their checkbooks where their mouths are. I wish I had a bottle of beer for every time someone offered to contribute to a shipwreck search only to back out at the last minute. I could open my own saloon on promises alone. Many have promised much, but with no pot at the end of the rainbow; not one ever came across with a dime. Too bad they'll never experience the excitement of the chase or the satisfaction of a successful discovery.

The only man I know who shares my love of the search and is willing to lay a buck on the line is Douglas Wheeler, an executive from Chicago. He generously comes through whenever NUMA launches a search for the unknown.

Eccentric that I am, I've never searched for treasure or taken artifacts NUMA has raised from a wreck site. All recovered objects are used strictly for identification purposes before being preserved and donated to museums. Nothing is kept. Visitors and guests are stunned to find no maritime artifacts in my home. My only mementos are 13 models I've had built of the shipwrecks NUMA has discovered, the buoy tied to the Hunley when my team first dove on it, and a life ring from Arvor III.

Why do I do what I do for no financial gain and despite frequent failure? I can't really say. Curiosity maybe? A fanatical desire to achieve what is all too often the impossible? To find something no one else has found? There aren't many of us out there who are driven by the same madness.

Alan Pegler is one who dared to follow that faraway drummer. Mr. Pegler, a jolly man with thick Burnsides whiskers, was the owner of a thriving plastics manufacturing company. One morning over breakfast, he read in the London Times that the Flying Scot, the famous crack express train that ran between Edinburgh and London during the late twenties and early thirties, was going to be sold for scrap. He contacted the chief director of the railroad and purchased the majestic old locomo- tive and its cars before they were destroyed. He then had the entire train immaculately restored to its former glory. Not content to let the train merely sit in a museum, Pegler took the Flying Scot on whistle-stop tours throughout England and the United States.

Unfortunately, the operation proved exorbitantly costly and drove Pegler into bankruptcy. He was, however, able to donate the Flying Scot to a nonprofit foundation, which currently maintains and operates it for the public. People, young and old, can still thrill to the sounds of a steam locomotive as they are carried through the countryside under a column of black smoke and white steam.

At the bankruptcy hearing, the rather stern judge admonished Pegler: "Your downfall arose from your unbounded enthusiasm for railways. The Flying Scot has been your folly."

Pegler, incredibly cheerful under the circumstances, answered, "Of course, I cannot say that I do not regret losing all my money, my house, my country manor, my villa in Italy, my Bentley and my Volvo, and being left with only what I stand up in. But I do not regret one moment buying the Flying Scot. It was saved and that is worth it all." Obviously Alan Pegler is my kind of guy.

What follow are the chronicles of lost shipwrecks and the remarkable efforts by a group of dedicated NUMA volunteers, who worked long and hard to find them. The people who are portrayed, past and present, were and are real. The historical events, however, although factual, were slightly dramatized to give the reader a more focused insight into the action.

Copyright © 1996 by Clive Cussler

Meet the Author

Clive Cussler is the author or coauthor of over fifty previous books in five bestselling series, including Dirk Pitt®, NUMA® Files, Oregon® Files, Isaac Bell, and Sam and Remi Fargo. His nonfiction works include Built for Adventure: The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt, and Built to Thrill: More Classic Automobiles from Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt, plus The Sea Hunters and The Sea Hunters II; these describe the true adventures of the real NUMA, which, led by Cussler, searches for lost ships of historic significance. With his crew of volunteers, Cussler has discovered more than sixty ships, including the long-lost Confederate ship Hunley. He lives in Colorado and Arizona.

Brief Biography

Phoenix, Arizona
Date of Birth:
July 15, 1931
Place of Birth:
Aurora, Illinois
Pasadena City College; Ph.D., Maritime College, State University of New York, 1997

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