wreck

How to salvage shipwrecks

Photo above: pixabay.com

John Kingsford, CEO of Deep Ocean Search, tells us his top five tips for finding buried treasure. 

On November 6, 1942, about 1,000 miles off the lower west coast of Africa, the German submarine U-68 sank the SS City of Cairo, a British passenger steamship being used as a supply ship during World War II. The U-boat captain surfaced his sub, found survivors in lifeboats, pointed them toward land and said, “Goodnight, and sorry for sinking you.” In September 2013, a team led by John Kingsford, CEO of salvage firm Deep Ocean Search, found the wreck of the City of Cairo and began removing its cargo of 100 tons of silver coins—the deepest salvage ever, at almost 17,000 feet. In April it was revealed that the haul had a value of $52 million. Kingsford and his team currently have a dozen wrecks in their sights.

1. Play the long game

“The City of Cairo salvage was many years in the making. We did the research and found out what was on the ship in 1984. Back then, we couldn’t have found her; she was too deep. We tell potential recruits that they have to have a sense of humor to work for us to put up with the stresses, both financial and technical. The investors need a sense of humor, too. It’s very difficult to bring everything together.”

2. Detective work

“It starts with researching public and private archives the world over. Sometimes we look at shipping or insurance companies; other times we get indication of a particular vessel. Everything has to be factual, and we follow a process to arrive at an owner. Some have been quite surprised when we’ve knocked on the door and said, ‘Did you know you lost this in this ship a hundred years ago?’ ”

3. Think inside the box

“We use all possible existing data to establish where the ship is. Computer modeling exists, but we prefer to use a chart and a pencil. Then we put a search box around the site—our search vessel uses long-range sonar to locate the ship. This can take months; often it takes a few days, sometimes just hours.”

wreck

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4. Take the pressure

“The survey ship makes a map of the shipwreck and surrounding area using high-frequency sonar. That’s given to the salvage team, who go out on a bigger boat with heavy equipment and the space to hold hundreds of tons of material. They send down remotely operated vehicles that can open the structure and grab cargo in big chunks. And we have very good security teams with us all the time.”

5. Rise to the occasion 

“We’ve done 14 salvages in the last five years, mainly finding less-precious metals such as copper and tin. People are less interested in reading about those. With the City of Cairo, I took my son, who was 9 then, to Cape Town for when the salvage ship docked. We had about 10 tons of silver coins on that trip. It was enormously satisfying. Actually, I’m not sure which one of us was the little boy at that point.”

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