June 1998

Gary Kinder

Real-life treasure hunters discover America’s richest shipwreck
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Late last year, when Gary Kinder read about some guy named James Cameron and a forthcoming movie called Titanic, he was devastated. It wasn’t just that Cameron had decided to embellish the actual story of the sinking of the Titanic by adding a romance between two star-crossed lovers, but he’d also framed his story with a tale of high-tech, modern-day treasure hunters. Cameron’s fictionalized account mirrored the true-life story Kinder had just spent the last 10 years scrupulously researching and getting down on paper. "I figured it was going to destroy everything I’d done," Kinder says.

By the time we talk in late April, Kinder seems to have accepted his agent’s assurances that the success of the movie can only add luster to Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, Kinder’s book about the 1857 wreck and recent recovery of a ship carrying gold from the California Motherlode. Kinder has even been to see Titanic with his mother and his two daughters (who have seen it twice!) and loved it. But he’s not quite ready to trust the early praise for Ship of Gold, which likens it to such riveting accounts of peril and adventure as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm.

In Ship of Gold, Kinder interweaves two dramatic stories. The first is the story of the S.S. Central America, a sidewheel steamer that shuttled passengers and cargo between New York and Panama, taking California-bound goldseekers on the outward journey and making the nine-day journey back to New York with those who had struck it rich in the goldfields, as well as those who had struck out. Between 1853, when it was launched, and 1857 Kinder discovered, the Central America "had carried one-third of all consigned gold to pass over the Panama Route." Not to mention the untold millions in gold dust, nuggets, coins, and bars that had "traveled aboard her in the trunks and pockets and carpetbags and money belts of her passengers."

On the fateful journey from Panama to New York in September 1857, the Central America carried its full complement of 500 passengers. Among them were newlyweds Ansel and Adeline "Addie" Easton (sister of one of the richest men in California); Judge Alonzo Monson, who was legendary for his gambling losses in the gold fields; and a disappointed young goldseeker named Oliver Manlove, who had recorded in his diary every mile of his journey west. The ship was captained by William Lewis Herndon, a legendary sailor and explorer who several years before had written a classic of 19th-century adventure, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, about his experiences in South America.

Kinder estimates that he read hundreds of contemporary accounts, interviews, diaries, and reminiscences of Central America passengers to construct an almost moment by moment account of the ship’s encounter with a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas; the heroic efforts of passengers and crew to keep the ship afloat (for hours and hours and hours, male passengers formed a bailing line to keep the rising water away from the steam boilers); the desperate transfer of some of the women passengers in storm-tossed waters to ships that had come to assist the foundering Central America; the heartrending separation of the Eastons; the steely last moments of Captain Herndon, who went down with his ship; and the horrible days adrift of the few others who ultimately survived. It is a wrenching and thrilling account, and any writer would be proud of the power of its telling.

But, as fascinating as it is, the story of the sinking of the Central America is not Kinder’s main story. Instead, it is the search for the wreck and the recovery of its treasure that make up the bulk of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. And in Kinder’s hands, this story — even with all its technological and legal details about deep sea recovery efforts — is at least as riveting as his historical account of the sinking.

As Kinder tells it, after he had finished writing his previous book (a bestseller about a man who claimed to have had contact with aliens), he was looking for a project that would involve him physically. Kinder had gone to law school in Florida and learned to scuba dive there, and somehow these facts made him tegin to think about treasure hunting as a subject for his book. When he first heard about the Central America, he says, "it didn’t interest me even a little bit. I wanted something sexy. I wanted lots of jewels and gold reliquaries and the romance of the high seas in the 1600s and 1700s."

But that was before he met the team and crew of the Columbus-America Discovery Group, led by the extraordinary Tommy Thompson, whose personality dominates Ship of Gold just as it dominated the ultimately successful efforts to find the Central America and its cargo. Thompson was both the technological innovator, who could think his way through the awesome dangers and difficulties of working at great depths in the ocean, and the steely operator, who could stare down his competitors during tense encounters on the high seas and direct the Herculean efforts of a large recovery team of experts and crew members.

"The biggest problem I had in writing this book," Kinder says, "was trying to tell this story exactly as it happened without making Tommy seem too perfect. It was a very, very big problem, because everybody I talked to said Tommy was perfect. I began to wonder how to make this guy seem real."

Of course, Tommy has his defects. He exercised rigid control on the project, for example, not allowing certain crew members to even see the gold and artifacts as they were being brought to the surface. That engendered some deep anger, Kinder says.

Thompson eventually allowed Kinder unprecedented access to the project records and personnel, and Kinder has put that access to good use. His account is informative, dramatic, and even funny. It didn’t come without effort and a big dose of frustration. The book was scheduled to be published for the last three or four years, but publication had to be delayed while competitors’ lawsuits against Thompson and Columbus-America wound through the courts. Kinder used the time to rework the book. "As things turned out, it ended up being a much better manuscript," he says with characteristic grin-and-bear-it good humor.

As Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea at last arrives in bookstores all across the country this month, Gary Kinder sits in Seattle (where he runs a business teaching lawyers to write) waiting for his ship to come in.

Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland, California, and a frequent contributor to BookPage.

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