February 14, 2013

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

Gary Kinder's Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea is really three stories in one book.  It's the story of the Gold Rush in California. It's the story of the tragic sinking of the S.S. Central America in a hurricane off the Eastern coast of the United States in 1857.  Finally, it's the story of a very determined individual named Tommy Thompson who in the interest of pushing deep-sea engineering to it's limit, decides the 130+ sunken Central America wreck would be the perfect target to test his theories on that aspect of science and engineering.

That's the important thing to remember.  Thompson and the crew he gathers are most definitely NOT treasure hunters.  Yes, they go in search of the wreck of the Central America and it's massive hold of precious metal being delivered straight from the Gold Rush.  But Thompson, for some reason nicknamed "Harvey," decided he was interested in deep-sea engineering and recovery long before he heard of the Central America.  Once he is ready to test out his theories, he and some friends begin going over the historical record looking for a suitable target for their efforts.  This is the 1970s and of course, the most obvious choice would be the Titanic.  They dismiss this because they decide they want something more than a museum piece.  They want something that will thrill investors because they know the equipment and crew they will need to work the deep ocean will need some serious backing.  They hone in on the tragic and compelling story of the Central America whose tale is told in the first third of the book.  Ironically, during the time of their wooing of investors, Bob Ballard and his team do find the Titanic, which helps the cause of Harvey & Co and they interest of said investors.

The rest of the book is the detailed account of the many obstacles they had to overcome to get to the hold of this ship, quietly decomposing in cold darkness more than 8000 feet down, around 400 miles off the coast of the East coast of the US.  It's an unforgiving place on the surface, with frequent storms which makes any recovery mission that much more difficult.  Then there's the competition.  And the funding issues.  And the craziness-that-overcomes-people-at-sea issues.  Oh, and did I mention that they had to invent pretty much every piece of equipment they used as they were working?  Yeah, that submersible Alvin, and the little RC unit Jason that Ballard used for the Titanic would not have been anywhere near good enough to do the things Thomson wanted to do.

Finally, after four years of seasonal trips and millions of dollars spent, the crew is once again looking at their video screens and the techs are moving their amazing submersible around and they are ready to collect some gold..  One more hitch, though.  They have heard from a coin expert that this was all freshly minted stuff.  If they could somehow bring it all up without scratching it at all, that would be good.  How do they bring up thousands upon thousands of pieces of gold without the slightest scratch and without taking years to do it piece by piece?  It's an elegant solution they come up with.

That's the most interesting thing in a book stuffed full of interesting things.  Not the particular solution to that one problem, but just the ingenuity and determination these people have.  They never stop and they never give up.  They just keep going and finding new and different ways to do what they want to do.

And in the end, even after the gold is secure and you'd think they'd stop and celebrate, they continue to work the site with marine biologists and historians and even family members of the lost at sea.  They document and preserve and do everything possible with the technology they have created to work at these incredible depths and pressures.

So if you like history, science, adventure, or just a good story well told, you'll probably like this one.  Well, unless you're an insurance company.  Those guys don't come off so well.