James Hamilton-Paterson describes Three Miles Down (first published in 1998) as 'the account of a treasure hunt in 1995 which I joined as the expedition's chronicler. A group of Britons had chartered the Russian oceanographic ship, the Mstislav Keldysh, to look for the wrecks of two vessels sunk in the Atlantic in the Second World War... Both were alleged to be carrying cargoes of gold.' For the author the experience was to bring home all 'the emotions and practical technicalities of the search phase of marine salvage.'
'[Hamilton-Paterson's] unfolding of the story and his deft sketching of some unusual personalities grips like the skinny hand of the Ancient Mariner.' Scotsman
'He proves to be a chronicler of the intrigue among a crew of strangers, a fount of lore about wrecks and deep-sea exploration, and a marvellous witness to the lightless wonders of profound depths.' Outside
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About the Author
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It is October 1994. I am standing in a bar in Italy, trying to have a phone conversation over the noise of two nearby teenagers playing electronic games that squeal and warble incessantly. At the other end of the line in far-off Sussex Quentin Huggett is enigmatic. It sounds as though he were saying 'How do you fancy coming on a hunt for sunken treasure?' In the next lull I find he really is. 'Ah,' I say, as if quite used to hearing such propositions. 'When?'
Quentin is the marine geologist with whom I went on an oceanographic cruise in the Pacific while writing the first chapter of Seven-Tenths, a book about the sea. Although we are not very old friends, we struck up a rapport on that trip which was more than that of mere shipboard acquaintances. This is why I am paying him serious attention on a phone screwed to the wall of an Italian bar, my forefinger stuffed in my spare ear.
'There's the snag,' I hear him saying. 'It's pretty soon. We're hoping to sail in mid-December.'
'Mid-December sounds like being away for Christmas,' I say hopefully.
'I'm afraid so. The first stage of the cruise will probably take at least six weeks.'
'Afraid? It sounds ideal. Where are we going?'
'I can't tell you that. I'm sorry, James, I'm not allowed to. All I can say is it'll be somewhere not a million miles from the Cape Verde Islands. Sort of West Coast of Africa.'
'Christmas in the tropics?' I say. 'You're on.' Quentin, of course, is a family man. To me the idea of missing Christmasand a winter in Europe is pure jam. 'You might just tell me what it is we'll be looking for.'
There is a moment's silence on the line, though not in the bar. 'I don't want to sound pompous,' comes his voice. 'It's just that I'm under oath not to talk about it too much. What I've been told to tell you is it involves two Second World War vessels which were sunk while carrying quite a lot of gold. They're in hellishly deep water in the Atlantic and this salvage group has chartered a Russian research vessel with manned submersibles to do the job.'
'When you say "quite a lot of gold"... ?'
'Oh, you know, millions.'
'Millions, eh? That's nice. Would any of it be coming my way, do you suppose?'
'That's not up to me, I'm afraid. The point is, this is only a preliminary sounding-out. Sort of getting back in touch. I just want to be able to tell them yes or no, you're interested or you're not ... What?'
'I said "Yes!",' I shout above the local din. 'Yes, I'm interested. What's the next step?'
'Watch this space. Keep in touch with your agent.'
'Quentin? just ... You know, thanks for thinking of me.'
'Don't worry. As soon as I heard about this hare-brained scheme you were the first person I thought of.'
I hang up. I have that sudden ecstatic urge to tell someone the news, something which only happens when you've been sworn to secrecy. For an instant I'm on the point of telling one of the boys, whom I know slightly, when his machine gives a cough and begins to eject coins in a series of pulses which seem to go on for about half a minute and the moment is lost. At any other time I might have interested him mildly by an airy remark about going off to look for sunken gold. But a heavy jackpot-winner is in no mood for other people's dreams.
When I go to London in early December 1994 I still know little more about the scheme than Quentin told me that morning in the bar. I know it is called Project Orca. I know that one of the wrecks we will be looking for is that of a large Japanese submarine. I know that my role will be that of the operation's chronicler. I also know I am far too late to stake even the most modest claim to any gold we might find: it has long since been divided up on paper between twenty investors and the Orca members who will be coming on the expedition. This is scarcely unfair. I am a Johnny-come-lately who has had no hand in the years of preparation. I am not even officially a member of the group, so I feel no inclination to complain. The idea of spending the year's bottom dead centre on the tropical high seas in a quest that may turn out to be more oceanography than salvage is quite good enough for me. Add to that the prospect of going to sea again with Quentin whom I've hardly seen since we parted nearly four years earlier in Hawaii and I couldn't care less about a share in some notional bonanza. I am going because it sounds interesting. I am going because it concerns the sea. And I am going because somebody has held out the possibility that I might just might get a chance to go down three miles to the seabed in a submersible.
Ships which sink do not always disappear as utterly as public amnesia might suggest. Nor is it only the survivors or the victims' families who keep them firmly in mind. Insurance and salvage companies have long memories and keep long lists, even in wartime. Casualties of war may also be actuarial losses. Valuable cargoes can remain in limbo for years in cold storage, as it were; out of commercial circulation but by no means out of mind.
The idea of salvaging a wreck remains perennially interesting because it is understood that nobody would bother unless it involved something of great enough value to make the venture worthwhile. A wreck might be valuable for itself, of course, rather than for its cargo or the scrap value of its hull and fittings. A ship like the Mary Rose is of historical interest and her salvaging was more in the nature of an archaeological dig which happened not to be performed on dry land. The Titanic, too, is now viewed (if there's anyone left who can bear to look) in a similar light, thanks mainly to some very well orchestrated publicity which hopes to supplant the ship's poetic and melancholy status with that of a treasure-trove of artefacts. It is, indeed, becoming less of a scientifically-conducted archaeological dig than a free-for- all jumble sale. (Archaeological? 1912? Most of the objects so far raised are the sort of inconsequential junk one threw out of one's grandmother's house after she died.)
What really grabs people's attention is the prospect of hugely valuable cargoes being found and restored to the upper air. Newspaper editors understand perfectly that treasure and treasure-hunts come very high on the list of things which induce their readers to suspend a normally serviceable disbelief. Professional salvors, meanwhile, deeply resent being called 'treasure hunters'. They prefer their activities to be described as 'cargo recovery', a highly specialised business closely connected with the world of insurance and loss adjustment. Be that as it may, as the various technologies for finding and salvaging wrecks slowly improve, so the arresting newspaper stories become less rare.
These things need to be put into some sort of perspective. At any given moment there will be perhaps thirty teams around the world seriously at work on shallow-water wrecks. These hulks might range from sunken Spanish galleons in the Philippines or the Caribbean to undistinguished little coasters in the North Sea. In many cases the wrecks lie so shallowly that the whole operation can be done by divers using scuba gear. Spanish galleons, of course, hold out the prospect (usually chimerical) of caskets of jewels and sacks of doubloons. A modest twentieth- century cargo vessel, on the other hand, may well be worth a small operation on the part of a diving club simply to salvage the ship's manganese-bronze or phosphor-bronze screw for scrap.
Although the principles of researching and locating remain common to both shallow and deep-water wrecks, the techniques are mostly quite different. Deep-water salvage is in a class of its own and world-wide there are probably only three or four companies equipped to undertake it. At the moment of writing there is a mere handful of deep-water wrecks subject to serious salvage operations. These include the Central America and the John Barry. Of the two, the Central America is the more famous, largely because of the vast sums plucked from the air by the popular press as to the value of its cargo (up to a billion dollars). The ship sank in 1857 while en route from the Californian goldfields. She was known to be carrying gold in nuggets, dust, bar and coin. Newspapers have reported that around $200 millions' worth has so far been recovered, with more (endlessly more) to come. While it is true that for many reasons a company like the Columbus America Discovery Group might want to conceal or downplay the amount it actually salvages, professional salvors maintain in private that the real figure recovered to date from the Central America is not much more than one million pounds. On-site operations have been dragging on for years, as has some very expensive litigation about the wreck's ownership which, for the moment, has brought operations to a halt. Many feel that by the time all the sums are done the investors' profits may turn out to be comparatively modest.
The John Barry is a US Liberty ship sunk off the coast of Oman in 1944. She was carrying about 30 tons of silver one-rial coins destined for the Saudi Government. More than half have already been recovered. However, rumour suggests she may also have been carrying 2,000 tons of silver bars currently worth $300 million. This was allegedly being sent in secret by President Roosevelt to the USSR (then, of course, a wartime ally) in defiance of Congress. For this we have the word of the ship's purser who swore he saw bullion boxes being carried aboard. Again, this is exactly the sort of story the press likes. It not only suggests fabulous wealth but political skulduggery which, if confirmed, would be of considerable interest in itself. Many salvors doubt there is much more to be found in the John Barry but this is unlikely to dampen speculation, and salvage operations are continuing on the unopened cargo holds.
Collectively, and in one form or another, there is an inconceivable hoard of money lying scattered about the seabeds which cover more or less seven-tenths of the planet's surface. Much of it lies in international waters and is therefore pretty much free to whoever fancies nibbling at its edges. Absolutely none of it is guaranteed to prove profitable to anyone trying their hand at bringing it back to daylight. Salvage is always a gamble. The deeper the treasure, the greater the gamble because the costs of recovery go up exponentially. It is not a game for the faint-hearted, least of all for conservative types who like to invest their money so as to yield fixed returns on capital, and who keep all sorts of insurance policies handy for papering over life's unforeseeable cracks. It is, as an American salvor remarked, 'a balls-out business' designed for people who enjoy the romance of risk-taking.
In the Second World War two particular vessels were sunk in the Atlantic off the West Coast of Africa. One was a very large Japanese submarine, the I-52, on its way from Kobe in Japan to a rendezvous with a German U-boat. It was bombed and confirmed sunk by US naval aircraft in June 1944. The other was a liner, the SS Aurelia (not her real name), which the British Government had requisitioned for the duration as a troop carrier. She was on her way from Durban to Liverpool with nearly 1,900 people aboard, including 500 Italian prisoners of war. In March 1943 an Italian submarine torpedoed and sank her. There were some 1,500 survivors.
Outwardly, there is nothing to connect these two sinkings, which happened more than fifteen months apart and were separated by almost a thousand miles of ocean. Yet the vessels did have one thing in common besides being chance casualties of the same war. Each is believed to have been carrying several tons of gold.
In the early 1990s a company was founded expressly to find and raise the gold from both vessels. From the outset Project Orca was unique in several respects. The wrecks were thought to be lying in 4,500-5,000 metres of water. It would be the first time a salvage operation had ever been attempted at such a depth, especially one which might require intricate cutting techniques (the Titanic's objects have mostly been scooped from where they were scattered at 3,800 metres). Both the Central America and the John Barry needed to be opened, but they lie in shallower water, at between 2,000 and 2,600 metres. It would also be the first time a deep-sea salvage operation had tackled two targets in a single expedition. Most salvors would have been daunted by either one; Project Orca seemed intent on increasing the gamble still further.
This might look like a case of greed overcoming prudence. However, in addition to the constraints of finance and opportunity one has to remember the salvage techniques currently possible as well as the peculiarities of these two wrecks. Such depths are, of course, way beyond any that could be reached by a diver. At the moment there are two main ways of salvaging cargoes from deep-water wrecks. The first is known in the trade as 'smash-and-grab'. This is done from the surface, using heavy equipment on the end of cables guided by ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles), which are small unmanned submersibles equipped with lights and video cameras to 'eyeball' the wreck. This is the technique being used on the John Barry. A team from the French oceanographic institute Ifremer adapted a deep- drilling rig with a 5o-ton pair of pliers on the end of a cable. Having failed to blast a way into the ship with explosives (which are unreliable, difficult and dangerous to set at such depths), the Ifremer team resorted to the pliers and 'tore it open like a tin of sardines', in the words of the operation's chief engineer.
For all its technical wizardry (imagine trying to operate a tool dangling on the end of a cable nearly three kilometres long), 'smash-and-grab' is crude even when effective, but it does have the advantage of being safe. The other technique is the very opposite. It involves people going down to the wreck in manned submersibles which, in addition to lights and video cameras, have their own manipulator arms capable of operating precision drills and cutters. Using manned submersibles is unquestionably dangerous. Mechanical failure or a trapped vehicle could easily lead to harrowing rescue attempts, a tragic outcome and the loss of millions of pounds' worth of equipment. On the other hand, for Project Orca's purposes this was by far the cheaper alternative. To assemble 'smash-and-grab' apparatus capable of being deployed at nearly twice the depth of Ifremer's would be prohibitively expensive. The heavier ROVs, grabs, and oil drilling ship necessary for such a venture could not possibly be economically viable. Besides, it seemed likely that the Japanese submarine had broken up as a result of the aerial attack which sank it, leaving a debris field for which manned submersibles would be the only effective scavengers.
Finally, Project Orca had the opportunity to hire the very outfit responsible for filming the Titanic and bringing up many of the objects so far retrieved. This was the R/V Akademik Mstislav Keldysh, the chief research vessel of the P. P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology (an independent branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences), with its two MIR submersibles and experienced crew. Orca could rent the Keldysh for five months. The brilliant engineer and chief designer of the MIRs, Anatoly Sagalevitch, would himself be aboard as head of operations. The gamble was that both wrecks could be located and salvaged in that period. Orca's backers had put up $3.6 million: they would not chip in any more as the operation progressed. It was to be all or nothing, success or failure, but arguably with the best equipment and personnel available anywhere. If Project Orca's intelligence was correct there was anything up to $83.12 million in gold to be raised for that $3.6 million outlay. As salvage in international waters and free of outstanding legal claim, all profits would go to the Project and its investors.
Yet even if it failed, there was a further way in which the expedition would be unique, one which was purely oceanographical. The area where the sunken submarine lies is known to marine geologists as 'off-axis', meaning away from the Mid- Atlantic Ridge. In fact, such regions hold little interest for the world's oceanographers. The seabed there is about 50 million years old and of a kind which geologists habitually write off as too boring to investigate being covered with too much sediment to be interesting as hard rock yet with too little deposition to be worth examining as an example of sedimentation per se. This attitude is blasé, considering that marine geologists have so far seen only an infinitesimal fraction of the world's seabeds and almost nothing at all at this depth. Certainly no human eye had ever seen this particular piece of Planet Earth before. Any observers in their MIR submersibles, three miles beneath daylight and fresh air, would be the first to know exactly what it is that lies under these two patches of the Atlantic. A final irony was that they would be civilians: citizens of NATO countries using an ex-Soviet ship and its equipment to investigate an ocean which was and to a surprising extent still is one of the world's prime military domains. It had struck several members of the Orca group that questions of military secrecy might become interestingly involved in what was entirely a private commercial venture. This simply added a certain piquancy to a highly-researched gamble unmistakably tinged with gaiety.