Golden story sunk by tedious detail

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 October, 1998, 12:00am

'Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea' by Gary Kinder, Little, Brown, $170 During periods of inaction a quest to find, explore and recover an 1857 shipwreck and its treasure from the seabed 2,400 metres down in the Atlantic Ocean was excruciatingly boring. Unfortunately, so are chunks of this overly exhaustive account of a truly extraordinary accomplishment.

Time and patience, qualities generously given to ocean engineer Tommy Thompson, are essential at times to plough through prose that bogs down in detail.

It is almost as if the book was written for Thompson, a far-sighted intellectual who applies pedantry, persistence and science to every challenge he encounters, rather than for the lay person looking forward to a cracking tale of a treasure hunt.

But the efforts of Thompson and the many parties that helped fulfil his dream of finding the SS Central America about 200 nautical miles off South Carolina in 1988 amounted to much more than a modern treasure hunt. They rewrote the rules that had until then severely limited exploration and salvage in the deep ocean. Through innovation, engineering brilliance and dogged determination they achieved what eminent scientists and Navy brass had denounced as impossible.

They helped to complete a chapter in US history. They photographed and filmed sea creatures that had never been previously documented. And, finally, they brought to the surface mint-condition gold coins and bars worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the result of back-breaking labour during the 1850s California gold rush, as well as artefacts and personal effects like letters, clothing and crockery.

The almost 600 passengers - tycoons, newlyweds, poets, society matrons and husbands returning from gold fields with the spoils of several years of panning and rock-breaking - were bound in 1857 for New York from Havana on the SS Central America, a sturdy steamer.

They were ready to enjoy the last leg of a long journey that had begun when news of the rich gold strike in California had first trickled east.

'Many of us had been away for years,' recalled Oliver Manlove. 'We awaited the time of meeting our loved ones again. We were jubilant and made the old ship ring with our voices.' On board was the passengers' personal booty, much of which life savings that filled small trunks or chests with gold. But the ship was also carrying a vast hoard of the precious metal for the US Government. She sailed under the command of Captain William Lewis Herndon, a heroic adventurer who had, under Navy Department orders, explored the Valley of the Amazon from high in the Peruvian Andes to Brazil.

The sinking of his ship shortly before 8pm on September 12, 1857, after valiantly battling for days in a hurricane, not only touched millions of Americans who mourned the loss of more than 400 lives in the country's worst maritime disaster, but also rocked financial markets because of the loss of more than 21 tons of California gold.

Hundreds of newspaper accounts based on interviews with the survivors, mostly women and children who were picked up by a passing ship, described the desperate efforts of Captain Herndon, his crew and passengers to keep the ship afloat by pumping and bailing for days and nights on end. The stories of the men who clung to wreckage in storm-ravaged seas went around the world.

During 10 years of research, author Gary Kinder lost his father and brother and watched his mother committed to a nursing home after a series of strokes. His writing of the human stories that are morbidly fascinating 140 years later is compassionate and touching. Indeed, these are often more compelling than the story of its 1989 retrieval by Thompson, who fought legal battles against opportunistic insurers and others.

By blending more historical detail with the often-dense analysis of complex modern ocean engineering techniques, this would have been a better read. Also lacking is a sense of the fate of Thompson, who was awarded a vast chunk of the recovered treasure. As the central character, who devoted several years of his life to finding the Central America, a description of how it had changed him in the years since 1989 would have been welcome.