To Cut a Deal with the Pirate Prince
You, too, can own a share of Henry VIII's sunken flatware—for $50,000. That is, if you cut a deal with Barry Clifford, the Pirate Prince to some, the Underwater Antichrist to others.
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“What is it?” Barry Clifford says to a diver who's rising like a rubber-hided orange beast from the cold, dark Firth of Forth, the 48-mile-long estuary formed where eastern Scotland's River Forth yawns into the North Sea. After climbing over the stern of Calypso, a spiffy local dive boat, the creature shucks its helmet, revealing the tired blond head of Eric Scharmer, a 32-year-old diver from Vail, Colorado. As Scharmer taffy-pulls limbs out of his drysuit and sneezes spray, he files a deflating report.
“It's a, uh, old sewage storage tank.” Ffffffnnnt. “It's about eight feet by eight feet by four feet.”
“How high off the bottom is it?” Clifford asks. An American and Scottish crew of five wind-rumpled guys looks on blankly. They're suffering the Forth's damp August chill to find sunken treasure, and since it's obviously not cork-popping time, they soon get bored and scatter.
“One end's a little bit buried,” sniffles Scharmer, “and one's buried about a foot.”
“Was anything sticking up off the tank?”
“So what's that shadow on the sonar? It looks like a spike's coming off the top.”
“No, there were just holes in the middle.”
It's late in the day. Darkness is splotching the hilly shoreline just to our north, which is studded with small towns linked by a skinny coastal highway. Far across the water to the south, Edinburgh rises in slate-gray model-railroad scale. As mushy waves clap Calypso's hull, Clifford, a stocky, square-jawed 49-year-old dressed in khakis, blue fleece, and a lettered cap that reads EXPEDITION WHYDAH, straddles the deck and chews the info.
It's clear why the object intrigued him. On his sonar-generated map of the bottom, a long scroll marked by hundreds of black smears and jagged lines, it looked like a sizable hulk with a mast. Given that it's Davy Jones's septic locker, it's also clear it should be “blue dotted”—Clifford's term for crossed off—as another promising blip that isn't what he's after: The Blessing of Burntisland, a baggage ferry that in July 1633 sank en route from Burntisland to Leith, today part of greater Edinburgh. Charles I, king of Great Britain, had galumphed through the region on a lavish “second coronation” tour designed to shore up the loyalty of cranky Scottish nobles, and during a crossing at trip's end the boat went down in a gale. Though Charles was safely aboard a second ferry, The Blessing supposedly was heavy with valuable court possessions, including a 280-piece silver banquet service commissioned by Henry VIII.
How valuable? The claim here—widely reported internationally—is that Clifford, a professional treasure hunter from Cape Cod who's best known for finding the pirate ship Whydah in 1984, is closing in on what could be one of history's biggest sunken jackpots. Perhaps the biggest. A prospectus for investors promises that the value of some objects on The Blessing of Burntisland might approach “$10-20 million dollars each. As a collection, the artifacts would likely be priceless.” One published estimate puts the hypothetical payoff at $400 million.
The high stakes help explain why Clifford can't let go of any lead without giving it a full analytical strangle. “What was the bottom like?” he demands, applying the final squeeze.
“Hard. Couldn't even get my hand in up to my wrist. Lots of shit down there, too.”
“Razor blades, bottles, papers, pens…” Squint, shrug. “Shit.”
“Yeah.” Blue dot. Snugging his cap, Clifford heads for the pilot cabin to stare yearningly at the sonar screens.
Welcome aboard one of the world's “most high-tech” treasure hunts. That, anyway, is how USA Today put it. In a story that's typical of the coverage this search has received, the paper indicated that by the summer of 1994 the scene would resemble something out of Thunderball, with cyberseaman Clifford routinely calling upon Royal Navy minehunters and “a remote-controlled sonar-emitting sled” capable of peering into the Firth's black waters for a thousand feet around. Other newspapers spoke of “virtual reality” diving helmets, reported that the lost ferry had “almost been pinpointed,” and said that Clifford had already hauled up artifacts—including rope and leather fragments and the handle from a wagon-wheel tool—that had been dated “to the time of Charles's reign.” One paper, the London-based Sunday Telegraph, reported Clifford's assertion that he had already narrowed the search to “12 contemporary wrecks in a two-square-mile area” and that he expected to recover “a substantial part of the treasure” in a matter of months.
So why is the crew still diving on junk piles? Clifford blames that on a familiar malady: Some journalists can't get their facts right. There's already been plenty of high-tech probing, he says in his quiet monotone, including a sonar sweep, a sub-bottom profile, and computerized mapping. But for now he's crossing off targets the old-fashioned way. As for the quote about possibly finding the treasure in the 1994 dive season, Clifford says, “I didn't say that. The fact is, this is going to take a long time.”
As the crew gathers at the docks, a buzz goes around that certain shady scuzzballs are trying to sabotage the search.
Another possibility, of course, is that in the time-honored tradition of treasure-hunt hype—investors in these quests are usually attracted through favorable media publicity and word of mouth—Clifford piled it on a bit thick. And in fact many of the premature “high-tech” stories grew out of a late-1993 press conference in Scotland, where Clifford's Scottish partners pitched these very details. While that's not exactly headline fodder—BRINY SHOCKER: TREASURE HUNTERS STRETCH TRUTH—the Blessing project still seems a long way from hitting pay dirt during my visit. Clifford's crew is using standard cold-water scuba gear to dive laboriously on one fruitless sonar target after another. The 1995 dive season will see more of the same, along with more sophisticated, computerized bottom profiling.
More noteworthy during my stay is this: A very gung-ho mystery person is trying to sabotage the search. Early on the morning of our second day out, as the crew gathers at the Burntisland docks to prepare for the day's diving, a buzz goes around that certain shady scuzzballs are up to no good. Last night at a nearby marina, police caught “two young punks” who were trying to hijack one of the crew's workhorse boats: a small hard-bottom raft equipped with a global positioning system unit, used to set buoy markers over dive targets. Someone also snipped the ropes on four previously set markers, wiping out a half-day's work. Who? During sotto voce discussions, two local names come up, not as perps but as possible masterminds: a rogue known as Sneaky Pete and, more frequently, a diver named Ronnie Morrison, who evidently believes he has prior claim to the Blessing treasure. Yesterday Morrison was seen skulking around the Burntisland docks, and he's obviously viewed as a threat. At one point Clifford asks a Scottish crewman, “Do you think he'd do anything to harm the divers?”
“Nah,” comes the reply. But he might swipe a boat. “Ya can't troost that fella.”
Who is Ronnie Morrison? That's hard to say, because Clifford balls up tight when I ask. Obviously, he may have his own reasons for being tense, ones that have nothing to do with saboteurs. This search is tough going, and a lot of money is on the line. Investors are being asked to pony up $50,000 for a one-sixtieth “unit” in the operation, which is budgeted to spend $3 million in the next few years. Then, too, the project has received huge amounts of adulatory publicity in Great Britain, putting Clifford in the spotlight in a way that he hasn't known since the Whydah days. Finally, there's a factor that rarely gets reported: Aside from the Whydah, Clifford has never found anything of note during several other treasure hunts in the United States, Belize, Panama, and the Philippines. So maybe he just has stage fright.
Or it could be that Morrison's phantom squawks are cues to a more interesting story behind the story. The possibility definitely seems worth investigating, because it becomes obvious very quickly that life aboard Calypso will consist of ho-hum diving and strained communications with Clifford, who shifts into clench-jaw any time you ask a question he doesn't like. As I'll eventually find out, Morrison is nobody's idea of a hero, but he is the key to understanding what this treasure hunt, at least in part, is about. In Clifford's world, the theatrics of the hunt are as important as the hunt itself. Morrison played in an older production that has been hooked offstage, and nobody wants to discuss him.
“Ahhh,” Clifford says uncomfortably when I press him on the subject, “that's just typical…little town…” He sighs. “I think it's just fairly clear that we're out here looking for a shipwreck and, um, I think this…that he wants to be doing this, too.” Then, he changes the subject.
“You know,” he says brightly, “this Scottish lady called me at two in the morning, telling me she had a dream and she knew where the wreck was. She even told me what side it's lying on.” He flashes a waxy look of bonhomie.
“It's on its right side.”
Clifford's ever-present “Expedition Whydah” cap serves two purposes: It protects his balding dome from follicle-ravaging winds, and it reminds bystanders of the ship that made him famous. Famous? OK: well publicized. The only truly famous American treasure hunter is Mel Fisher. The controversial, gold-necklace-wearing, vulgarian grandee of Key West, Florida, Fisher is best known for finding the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a gold-laden Spanish galleon whose mother lode, which he hit in 1985, was reputed to be worth $400 million.
Clifford's name is bankable, too, thanks to his discovery of the Whydah, a buccaneer's galley that sank off Cape Cod in 1717. Clifford hauled up a collection of coins, artifacts, and cannons that, according to several media accounts, was worth as much as the staggering haul from the Atocha.
During the search, Clifford attracted celebrity coverage in outlets like the New York Times, Parade, CBS, and People, which played up the occasional glamorous presence on Clifford's crew of amateur diver John F. Kennedy Jr. In 1993, Simon & Schuster published Clifford's autobiography, The Pirate Prince. Excerpted in Reader's Digest, the book presents Clifford as a can-do action man with a conscience, whose talent for finding watery loot borders on the mystical. The excerpt brought Clifford to the attention of his current partners, a group of Scottish treasure buffs and amateur historians whose research into British archives convinced them that The Blessing went down with what Alex Kilgour, an ebullient, 36-year-old businessman and sometime sports promoter who heads the Scottish contingent, calls “the King Tut treasure of Great Britain.” Clifford was brought in because, despite a hopeful start in 1990, the project hadn't made much headway by 1993.
“Basically,” explains Kilgour, a grin widening on his freckly face, “we'd run out of money. We were about to make a deal with some South Africans when, believe it or not, my secretary comes running in with an article about this Barry Clifford chap.” Kilgour decided that “the Yank” could help the project succeed on two levels. First, obviously, the Scots want to find the treasure. Second—and Kilgour hits this note hard—they want to put an end to the tribal loathing that underwater archaeologists harbor toward treasure hunters, and they believe Clifford's the man to do it.
The bad blood dates back to the early days, post-World War II, when new scuba technology made it possible for divers to start plumbing previously inaccessible waters. In the United States, the initial rush occurred in Florida, where for centuries Spanish ships shuttling gold and silver from South America to Spain scooted through, and often sank in, the Straits of Florida. The history since then is long and complicated, but to underwater archaeologists like Daniel J. Lenihan, head of the National Park Service's Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, the bottom line is pretty clear: Investors usually get bilked, and their money pays for what all too often is a highly destructive practice.
“Treasure hunters always say they want to work hand-in-hand with archaeologists,” says Lenihan, “but what they really want is to find the goodies and get them out as soon as possible.”
An example of treasure hunting's risk and waste is the Atocha. Its announced $400 million value turned out to be considerably overstated, with the result that many Atocha investors, whose payback was much less than they'd hoped, sued Fisher for breach of contract. For archaeologists, says Lenihan, “Fisher's leavings were almost useless, even though he hired archaeologists to mumble scientific incantations over the site.”
Kilgour has heard these gripes and says the Blessing search is different, a win-win operation with the classy spit-and-polish of a project that he cites often: the Mary Rose, a Henry VIII warship that was slowly, meticulously salvaged in the eighties by the respected British underwater archaeologist Margaret Roule. The Blessing will be delicately retrieved, and its treasure “will not under any circumstances be sold.” Instead it will be displayed in a private, for-profit museum, probably in Edinburgh. Additional money would be generated by books, tours, and other offshoots that involve selling not just the treasure's allure, but the historical “excitement of the search itself.”
“The Scottish coronation trip and the shipwreck have never been written about,” says Kilgour. “In any history book, you will not find but three lines about Charles's visit. Historians have said they reckon we've uncovered what is probably the biggest gap in British history.” Kilgour adds that Charles apparently “covered up” the shipwreck to avoid political embarrassment, that Prince Andrew and the Earl of Elgin (“the highest royal official in Scotland!”) are enthusiastic backers, and that, just days before my arrival, the divers found a potentially valuable historical dividend from a different era: a downed World War II fighter plane.
“Our experts are looking at it,” Kilgour says with a palpable smack. “This is pure speculation, but…there is a chance that it's from the first bombing raid in Britain. Now that would be a sensation!”
Sounds enticing. but with treasure hunters, there's often a hidden clause. As it turns out, in the United States, a large chorus of critics—consisting mainly of Clifford's old colleagues, journalists, and hostile archaeologists, including a number who worked on the Whydah—consider him the last person on earth to run an “archaeological” treasure hunt.
The most serious charges against Clifford are laid out in Walking the Plank: A True Adventure Among Pirates, a self-published book about the Whydah salvage by Stephen Kiesling. An Ashland, Oregon-based freelance writer who was originally hired to co-write The Pirate Prince, Kiesling was fired midway through the project. Why depends on who's talking. He says he wised up to Clifford's lies and wanted to tell the truth, even at his own considerable expense. Clifford alleges that Kiesling is “a borderline psychotic and drug addict” who made sexual overtures to Clifford's girlfriend and to Clifford himself. “This is weird,” he says, quietly shocked, “but I honestly think Kiesling was attracted to me.” In a fax and phone barrage that begins soon after I return from Scotland, Clifford says Kiesling's “mental breakdown” rendered him unfit to do the job.
For his part, Kiesling admits that the Whydah project did cause him personal grief but scoffs at Clifford's comments. “I spent a lot of the time wanting Clifford to be a hero,” he says, “because I wanted to believe that there was still room in the world for one guy going out without the Ph.D. and coming up with something good. He turned out to be a crook.”
After the warring factions lobbed lawsuits, it was agreed that Kiesling could write his own book. The result is a flawed but often convincing work that at the very least gives Clifford the penumbra of cheesiness. While he was still on the inside, Kiesling had access to Clifford's papers and the project's records, and he uses these to support serious allegations. Among much else, he charges that Clifford lied habitually about his background and exploits, announced that he “found” the Whydah several times before he really did (to attract investors and secure needed permits), and deceived officials in Massachusetts, where state law requires that a professional archaeologist be on hand during every step of an underwater excavation. Specifically, he says Clifford hastened to expose the core of the Whydah site between the time he found the ship in July 1984 and the day the first archaeologist arrived less than a month later.
“If Barry Clifford tells you the sky is blue,” said a marine historian with the Smithsonian, “you'd better look up.”
“By the end of the first dive season in 1984,” asserts Kiesling, who bases this claim on dated site maps produced by Clifford's then-partner, Rob McClung, “everything they ever found of importance, except the ship's bell, had been exposed.”
This matters because in 1987, when E. F. Hutton sold stock in a limited partnership to continue excavation of the Whydah, Clifford was telling the media that the “mother lode” was still on its way. Led by aggressive hype to believe that the treasure's total value might amount to $400 million, Kiesling writes, investors purchased 150 units costing $40,000 each. So far, none of them has seen a return. How could this be, if $400 million was hauled up? Because it wasn't. According to documents produced by Roland Betts and Tom Bernstein, New York motion-picture financiers who organized the Hutton offering, the treasure was worth only $4.7 million as of 1987. No significant finds followed, and an attempt to make this collection pay—a proposal for a “$70 million pirate-motif tourist attraction” that was pitched in both Boston and Tampa—came to nothing. Today the Whydah treasure, which consists mostly of artifacts, cannons, a few thousand silver coins, and only nine gold coins, is partly in storage, partly on display at a small museum in Provincetown.
Clifford, naturally, tells a different version, denying that he pushed the $400 million figure. While he doesn't deny that investors lost their money, he insists that the saga isn't over. Millions in Whydah treasure is still down there, he claims, and he plans to return this fall to get it. And while he has defenders—including investors in the Hutton deal who apparently considered it a worthwhile, fun experience—his detractors, to put it mildly, are skeptical.
“If Barry Clifford tells you the sky is blue,” says Paul Johnston, a marine historian with the Smithsonian Institution, “you'd better look up.”
Even more blunt is Rob McClung, who these days lives in Florida and is still hunting treasure himself. “Barry has always been a borderline pathological liar,” he says flatly. McClung hasn't followed the Blessing project, but he says he doesn't need to. He already knows what to think.
“If Barry's involved, I guarantee you this,” he rumbles. “There's a problem with it. Just because he's there.”
“Look, with all due respect,” Clifford says grumpily, “I am totally, totally focused on this wreck.” It's early on a typical day aboard Calypso. Clifford and I are making a short carhop from the crew's group house to the Burntisland docks, and we've hit a relationship shoal. My fault. By phone a few weeks ago, Clifford told me that Kiesling was shortly going to be slapped with a whopping libel suit, so I asked about it. Clearly annoyed, he says that it's best to address any further Whydah questions to “others who were there” and temporarily clangs a manhole cover on the subject.
Not that Clifford is averse to talking. He just prefers a perkier topic: his life story, the Horatio Alger saga of a self-starting youth (“I was dyslexic as a kid, and I busted my ass to overcome it”) who grew up hunting and fishing in the woods and marshes that surrounded his Cape Cod hometown of Brewster. There he was infused with magical tales told by his Uncle Bill, a “dreamer” who liked to spin treasure yarns, especially ones about the Whydah. During the first few years after his 1969 graduation from Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado, Clifford forgot treasure fantasies as he got on with life—marrying, starting a family, divorcing, returning to Cape Cod, remarrying, and teaching high school physical education. Eventually, treasure fever started to burn, and Clifford began doing salvage work on the side while he researched the Whydah. Though the costs of his quest were high (including a second divorce), he triumphed over the naysayers to make a find that, in retrospect, seemed fated.
Now hard at it in Scotland, Clifford says he's tapped a similar psychic vein: It's as if he's meant to be here. “Back at the hotel they call me Bahhhry,” he says, producing a respectable Scottish brogue. “I'd never been here before, but the people here have been so… It's almost like I've come home.”
Shortly Clifford and I turn into the docks—a cluster of rusting structures and cracked concrete left over from Burntisland's long-gone days as a major shipyard. We crunch to a stop on a gravel lot, and Clifford jumps out and legs it down a concrete ramp to where Calypso is docked and bobbing. Himself a multifaceted enterprise, Clifford spends as much energy on side ventures as treasure hunting, sometimes with results. (Last July, Touchstone Pictures paid him $300,000 for a feature-film idea about a treasure hunt that takes place in caves and underwater river systems.) Today a freelance film producer from the United States is on hand with a two-man Scottish camera crew, shooting footage that she'll use to pitch a cable-channel documentary on the Blessing search. Clifford essentially spends the day playing himself, and he's surprisingly stiff at it. Periodically, the cameramen encourage him to pep it up as he talks about blue dots and sonar.
Off camera he's the same, and you get the feeling that the real Clifford could be hard to pin down. With his flat voice and cold gaze, he has an android quality that is hard to penetrate. The closest I ever come to “knowing” him occurs after my visit, when we settle into an ongoing, usually friendly scrum about Clifford's enemies. During these debates, the Clifford that emerges is partly an entertaining phone pal, partly an insatiable attack dog. His second-favorite target, after Kiesling, is an older foe, Ricardo J. Elia, an associate professor of archaeology at Boston University who favorably reviewed Walking the Plank in Archaeology magazine.
“Elia,” Clifford snarls, “has been lying about me for years.”
Finally I decide that Clifford isn't the underwater Antichrist so much as a hyperactive, often slippery salesman. Clearly passionate about treasure hunting, he's equally determined that somebody else should pay for the risk. When it serves his purpose, he's more than happy to open the hype nozzles, hitting the media with a steady gush that conveys the desired message: that the search is going well, that the treasure is the biggest and best, and that success is just around the corner. Chameleon-like, he also tailors his image to the project at hand. It was “romantic wild man” in the freebooting Whydah days. Now, befitting this search's tonier style, Clifford's MO is more gentlemanly, a combination of Indiana Jones and the Quiet Man. He's Barry Clifford, son of Scotland, doggedly helping his people unearth their heritage.
Problem is, these personae sound scripted, and Clifford undeniably does tell fibs. In 1988, for example, he announced that he'd found the spot in Boston Harbor where the Boston Tea Party chests were dumped. A neat trick, because the site, Griffin's Wharf, was known to be under landfill, as Ricardo Elia pointed out at the time.
Are the whoppers flying in Scotland? Well, yes, but they're mainly a salesman's jabber, stretchers that are consistent with what almost all treasure hunts are really about: selling the allure of a “treasure” that in fact may never be found. For example, it turns out that Charles's coronation journey has been written about—at length—and many historians chuckle at the idea that this search could “rewrite” British history. And the plane Kilgour is crowing about couldn't possibly be the “first” World War II plane shot down over Britain. According to an expert on the Firth of Forth, that happened some 40 miles away from the Blessing search site.
The plane story also brings Kilgour into sharper focus. Whether he knew anything about Clifford's controversial past when he brought him aboard—oddly, Clifford says he did, Kilgour says he didn't—he's clearly comfortable with hype. In fact, he sometimes outdoes the master. When I asked Clifford about the plane in Scotland, he smiled wryly and instantly dismissed it.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “It's just a plane. No big deal.”
It's the morning of our second day out on Calypso, and the American and Scottish crewmen are happily pitching wisecracks. It's a means of releasing tension on a diving job whose nasty conditions, as Clifford accurately puts it, “are not fun.” The underwater workhorses are Eric Scharmer; Wesley Spiegel, a big, friendly thoroughbred from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who dives for sea urchins in the winter; and Pierre Benson, a stout, muscular Scot who served in Scotland's special forces. Also on board are Clifford, his longtime friend and crewmember John Beyer, and the boat's young Scottish skipper, Stewart Taylor. Away on other errands are Clifford's technical expert and his dive-safety chief.
If you were on board as a potential investor—something you could arrange to do by making the right rich-guy noises to Kilgour or his American counterpart, Clay Hutchison, Clifford's 37-year-old business manager—the crew would provide both reassurance and additional confusion. They're all nice guys, and they work hard, like Nebraska farm boys squeezed into scuba gear. On the other hand, they don't have enough to do. This mission is a slow meander, so you'd wonder how long you'll be paying their $700- to $1,000-per-week salaries. And they've obviously been programmed to say nothing about certain topics.
“Don't know about that,” says Spiegel when I ask about Ronnie Morrison. “Better ask Barry.”
On the boat, after a prolonged futz, we chug away from Burntisland and curve left into the Firth of Forth's dark, sun-dappled chop. There's no great hurry, because strong tides allow only two dive “windows” per day, and today's are at roughly 11:30 A.M. and 7:00 P.M. With time to kill, we putt around in lazy patterns, using Calypso's sonar to look for new targets. With a call from Clifford—”You guys getting dressed up?” —Spiegel and Scharmer climb into their drysuits, check their gear, and try to relax. The water here is deep (dives are from 60 to 150 feet down), cold, and coffee brown.
In exchange for your money, you're promised only that there's a very good chance you'll lose it all.
“Mainly it's the lack of visibility and the darkness that bothers you,” says Scharmer, “especially if you get tangled in something.”
There's plenty to get tangled in. Aside from containing tremendous amounts of outright crap, the Firth of Forth has swallowed up an armada of ships. In his 1993 book Shipwrecks of the Forth, Scottish diving writer Bob Baird estimates that the entire estuary, a shipping lane for centuries, has claimed at least 500 vessels since 1830. Along with groundings and wartime sinkings, one cause has been the generally lousy weather that can quickly whip up into gales. Search work in this part of the Forth is especially tedious because the water is blackened by drifting silt. “The area where those men are diving is not an area I would choose to dive in,” says Baird, who doubts Clifford will ever find a trace of The Blessing. “A lot of the pleasure of diving,” he laughs, “is associated with being able to see where you are.”
In due time, Spiegel dons his helmet and lumbers into the water to dive on another beguiling hump. Clifford tells him, “Twenty minutes, Wesley. If we rap on the hull, that means come up.”
“We couldn't be doing better,” Clifford says as we stare at Spiegel's rising bubbles. “We're really going strong now, eliminating targets.” The bigger question, of course, is whether the target they're searching for was loaded with loot, something the standard historical accounts say nothing about. Clifford's Scottish researchers—Robert Brydon, Howard Murray, and Martin Rhydderich—say that by combing Great Britain, they've found heretofore ignored documents that convince them of the following: Charles I took his silver-plate dinnerware to Scotland, but it never came back. A new set was produced. When Oliver Cromwell cut off Charles's head after winning the Civil War, he melted down the service, which was actually the replacement set. The original lies waiting in the Firth's refrigerated mud.
Is there anything to it? Only the Blessing partners know for sure. The project plans to publish books on its archival finds, but for now it has passed on the academic gesture of plopping its findings in refereed history journals. Until then it's anyone's guess, and opinions range from fascination to scorn. Kevin Sharpe, a history professor at England's University of Southampton and the author of a biography of Charles I, says, “If they've come up with an archival cache that I've never set eyes on, I'd be interested to see it. I've heard stories—not from them—of this dwarfing the Mary Rose.” Taking a dimmer view is John Cannon, a history professor at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, who examined a “Project Information” booklet at my request and blasted it in a written response.
“The account…is not wrong,” he wrote, “but…is certainly pumped up…. The most immediate comments on the shipwreck make it sound small scale. Let me quote. Sir James Balfour of Kinnaird (a contemporary): 'His majesty with no small danger recovered his own ship…only there was a little boat with some of the king's plate and money and 8 servants lost…' In short, this does not look like a…Mary Rose.”
In the end, investors have to decide whom to believe, but they'll want to think long and hard, since they assume all the risk. In exchange for your money, you're promised only that there's a very good chance you'll lose it all. “The undersigned is aware,” the paperwork says, “that the Units are extremely speculative…and involve a high degree of risk of loss of [the] entire investment.” With good reason, Clay Hutchison has called this “the Doom & Gloom memorandum.”
Almost a half-hour after going down, Wesley comes up with nothing to show. We chug in for lunch, and I head off to hit a few hotel pubs, searching for man-on-the-street clues to the Ronnie Morrison mystery. Inside the Bankhouse Hotel, a small establishment on Burntisland's main street, the proprietor and bartender, Graham Alexander, says that he not only knows the “whole sorry tale” behind this search, but knows Ronnie Morrison, too. “That lot you're talking about done him over,” he says, twitching his head toward the Firth as he dries glasses. “Ronnie's a good boy.”
Sounds…too good. Graham goes on to say that Morrison was an original partner on the project but was shoved aside to make room for Clifford. Why? “Donno. You'll have to ask Ronnie.” With a friendly flourish, he hands me the phone. I dial Morrison at his diving company down the road in Inverkeithing. He's not in, so I leave a message. When I return, Graham has good news. “Ronnie called back and says he'll tell you the whole story! Be here Saturday afternoon at woon o'clock.”
“There's your credibility! To get the Earl of Elgins! Prince Andrews! Buckingham Palace researchers! Every one of us, like Barry Clifford, myself, we've all been analyzed, and to have a member of the royal family…imagine having Prince Andrew help us if we were…you get checked!”
That's Kilgour, talking about the big shots who have endorsed the Blessing search and highlighting the day in 1994 when Prince Andrew showed up in the Forth to command a minehunter, HMS Cottesmore, as it tried to “pinpoint targets.” It's a rainy afternoon, and we're spinning toward the Broomhall estate of the Earl of Elgin, Kilgour's indisputable Exhibit A that “the top, top people” in Britain are behind this search.
Kilgour isn't going on like this unprompted. I've been nagging him about Morrison, and he's steering me back to the high road. In time, though, he sighs and confirms that Morrison was an original partner and briefly served as head of diving operations but was fired because he allegedly did a slipshod job. Kilgour says that Morrison had a contract to do three months of diving but worked only three days and that his equipment was subpar. “And that's one of the reasons we got into financial difficulties, and we were very lucky to be able to bring Barry Clifford in.”
We pull into a long, winding driveway that leads to the Earl's sprawling mansion. Four of us (Kilgour's assistant and my wife are along, too) are escorted upstairs, past rooms the size of small-plane hangars, into a huge sitting room that contains more than a dozen large, white, chunky Greek friezes. We're under strict orders not to ask about these babies, which serve as a fine symbol of the cross-cultural, cross-class appeal of loot. Kilgour says they're the privately held remnant of the Elgin Marbles, the world-renowned collection swiped from the Acropolis by the Earl's ancestor, Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin. The bulk of the marbles are in the British Museum, and the collection is a famously touchy topic. The Greek government has been demanding the return of the friezes for decades.
Already assembled in a large circle of chairs are the Earl (full name: Andrew Douglas Alexander Thomas Bruce, the 11th Earl of Elgin), Clay Hutchison, and a couple of American friends of Clifford's. After introductions, we chat about the project, a pleasant exercise that reveals that the Earl, a florid, balding man in his late sixties, knows a lot about local history but little about the search. Has he gone out on the boat with the boys? “No, no,” he says, as if the question were shocking or silly. Later, Graham Alexander will come down especially hard on the Earl's expertise.
“Ah!” he says. “He's a figurehead! He don't know nuttin' about it!”
On the drive back, Kilgour glows with pride—until I gratingly mention Ronnie again: “I've been asking around and people have mentioned that they think Ronnie was screwed, but they're vague on how.”
“Well,” Kilgour snorts, “through drink maybe, he's gone to pubs and said that, but I can assure you, Ronnie Morrison has had the chance to come to Prince Andrew parties. He never turned up! He's upset because he's not getting articles in the paper about Ronnie Morrison.” Pause.
“I could introduce you to people who would tell you horror stories about the man's background…about what he's done to his own family!”
“What? Does he beat his wife?”
“Yah. Yah. Apparently so.”
The last morning aboard Calypso is like the first two. The men do their jobs; little happens. And today we seem to lack a coherent mission. Clifford's not on board. Wesley Spiegel says he's off meeting Morrison. Why?
“I don't know,” he grins. “To make friends?”
After we chug into the open water, a double rainbow appears, visibly touching down on the shoreline rocks. As Pierre Benson grunts into his tight black drysuit, Eric Scharmer jokes about “pots of gold” and turns his hat inside out to make a “rally cap.”
“What's a rally cap?” asks Spiegel, whose interest in professional sports appears to be nil.
“You put these on to turn things around.”
“Huh. Before my time, I guess.”
Benson goes down for a half hour, emerges with a woman's shoe in his belt, and reports on what he saw: “Nuttin'. Rocks and a big moody trench.” And that's it for the morning's productive output.
The next day I skip Calypso altogether and head for the Bankhouse Hotel. Disappointment. Morrison doesn't show. On the phone he unapologetically says he “couldn't make it” and surprisingly adds, “I have no problem with Barry Clifford anyway.” Strange, I say, because the other day he was implying that you stole his boat. “No, he's been very friendly to me.” He grudgingly agrees to see me in a few days.
The bottom line: Man who despised Clifford and Kilgour now loves them, even as they call him a drunk, a layabout, and a wife beater.
The next morning at breakfast, I have a final talk with Clifford, who nukes Morrison by showing me a promotional letter that Clifford somehow obtained. In it, Morrison is attempting to sell shares in the Blessing search. “This prestigious project has, for the time being, been hijacked by a group of Americans led and misled by their British partners,” it reads. “It is my unqualified opinion that this project can be taken back from the American group without too much difficulty.”
“That's just to show you the kind of person your boy Ronnie is,” Clifford says.
Days later, when I finally catch up with Morrison in his diving headquarters, it's obvious why he might have been dumped: image. In contrast to the handsome Clifford, he's a rumpled, middle-aged lardo who chain-smokes. He won't talk about Clifford except to say that “Barry” has graciously offered to help him promote a treasure hunt of his own, which involves salvaging fine china sunk off the coast of Wales.
“So Alex and Barry are good guys?”
“Yeah. I have no complaint with them.”
Thus the bottom line reads like this: Man who apparently despised Clifford and Kilgour a few days earlier now loves them, even as they call him a drunk, a layabout, and a wife beater behind his back.
Back in the United States, in an ongoing experiment designed to clear up these incongruities, I ask a friend—call him Mr. $—to phone Kilgour, posing as a rich, interested American. The first results come in immediately. Mr. $ gets a call back from Clifford, who says that the window of opportunity on The Blessing of Burntisland may be closing—the crew has identified a wreck that might well be the boat. However, Clifford could turn him on to a $50 million wreck that involves “gold and rare china.” Morrison's name is never mentioned—so, as Kilgour would say, “It's pure speculation”—but I conclude that, during the 72-hour period in which I saw him mutate from foe to friend, he was easily co-opted.
The final payoff comes many months later, when Clay Hutchison, in a conversation prior to the next dive season, is pitching Mr. $ to commit to investing. First he says that the previous dive season didn't yield anything of interest. (Oops. Guess Clifford fibbed to Mr. $ about that.) Then he says that the new year looks very promising and that the total haul of the Blessing hunt could top $1 billion, much of it generated from a “King Tut-style” world tour of the loot. Dutifully impressed, Mr. $ nonetheless expresses doubt that “ticket sales alone” could produce such huge revenue.
“Well, yeah,” admits Hutchison after further prodding, “we'll probably have to sell the treasure to see that kind of money.”
Alex Heard (@alexheard) is the editorial director of Outside.