Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea

It’s a terrible title — like something that belongs on the cover of an Enya CD — and it’s a terrible challenge to interest a populace that’s already had Titanic up one nostril and out the other and is sated with (if not jaded by) the seafaring-catastrophe genre. But Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, Gary Kinder’s engaging, magnificently researched account of another steamer’s tragic sinking and its amazing partial resurrection in the late ’80s, is richer and more fulfilling than its ornate title or overworked genre would lead you to believe. Readers expecting a gloss on the now-familiar Titanic tropes of bravery and selflessness, loss and rediscovery, first class and steerage, and big budgets and priceless lost treasures will find all of those here, rearranged into something new: a complex, bittersweet history of two centuries of American entrepreneurship, linked by the mad quest for gold. In 1857, the four-year-old steamer SS Central America set sail for New York, carrying nearly 600 passengers and the dreams of wealth they’d made manifest during the California gold rush — at least 20 tons of gold bricks, gold bars, gold coins, gold nuggets, even satchels full of gold dust (considered legitimate enough currency that in some establishments back then, you could pay by the pinch). The Central America never reached port; the ship, the gold, and more than 400 lives were lost in a storm 200 miles off the Carolinas’ coast.

From carefully preserved letters and diaries of the few dozen survivors as well as copious newspaper accounts (the disaster, in which residents of all 31 states perished, had roughly the impact on the country in 1857 that the Oklahoma City bombing had in 1995), Kinder has fashioned a soul-stirring account of the ship’s last hours that will affect even those tear ducts that haven’t been prelubricated by James Cameron. His narrative is fascinating in its specificity (as the ship took on water, men started chopping its timbers, tearing off doors, looking for anything that might float) and in its eye for wrenching graphic detail (many of those overboard died not by drowning, but when debris from the sunken ship soared back to the surface and hit them with bone-crunching impact).

The sinking, though, is less than half the story. Most of Ship of Gold is devoted to a gold rush that took place nearly 130 years later — in the 1980s, when a young engineer named Tommy Thompson began a years-long quest to find the Central America and retrieve its riches from nearly two miles beneath the surface of the ocean. Goodbye, stoic seaborne majesty and quaint 19th-century pathos; hello, limited partnerships, complex subsurface sonar, and entangled maritime jurisdictional disputes. High tragedy gives way to high-tech comedy, most notably in a passage both hilarious and suspenseful in which Thompson’s crew, on the verge of discovering the Central America, faces competition from another vessel on the open sea. How do these late-20th-century not-quite-pirates resolve their dispute? Avast, mateys! They call their lawyers.

Kinder provides a more-than-you’d-ever-want-to-know ream of info about the evidently extraordinary deep-ocean technology that made possible the finding and retrieval of the Central America’s bounty, but he never loses sight of the simplicity of his story: Somewhere, an old ship filled with riches lies at the bottom of the sea. How to find it, how to claim it, and how to bring objects as tiny as a single coin back to dry land without even scratching them are intriguing puzzles. But none of the answers come close in impact to the breathtaking moment when Thompson’s high-tech camera discovers, enthroned among tube worms and anemones, piles and piles of gold, perhaps close to a billion dollars’ worth, found and lost and found again by a new generation of frontiersmen looking to make their fortune. It’s not giving anything away to tell you where the gold ends up this time — in court, of course. How else do modern treasure hunts ever get resolved? A-

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder $27.50 ATLANTIC

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea
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