Treasure hunters solve 180-year-old mystery


Cold and shivering, Bill Day hauled himself out of the water and into an inflatable boat bobbing lightly on the incoming tide. He pulled off his diving mask and looked around the cove. It was a rare day in the Auckland Islands. Sunlight streamed into a huge archway big enough for a ship to fit through. A waterfall flowed from the middle of a cave roof, washing over hanging rocks and into the ocean below.

"Isn't it a pity that ships don't go down in places like this," Day told the boatman at the engine.

The expedition team had swum the length of the west coast of the islands, which lie like irregular dragon's teeth, 300km below New Zealand's southernmost tip.


Day, a maritime services businessman of Wellington, had just finished 50 minutes in the frigid waters before it was the turn of the next diver, Willie Bullock. He rolled in and the boatman moved the dinghy a few hundred metres to wait for him to reappear.

Underwater, everything looked the same. They were searching for shapes not found in nature – a straight line, a regular curve – anything that might betray a story lost to the sea.

This is where the Roaring Forties scream across the Southern Ocean. The islands, remnants of two ancient volcanoes, punctuate what feels like the edge of the world. Here, midway between the 100km of towering cliffs that make up their west coast, the salvage team had made their next prospect.

Bullock surfaced. He pulled the regulator mouthpiece away from his face. Breathing heavily, he pointed toward the sea floor.

"There's some metal down there," he gasped.

Day, who still had a few minutes of air left in his tanks, put his mask back on and tumbled into the sea. Sure enough, in the rubble on the sea floor, about 20 metres down, Day could see anchors, a chain and even a part of a cannon. "Here we have it," he thought, "just as the survivors' reports had said."

This was a ship in a cave at the back of a cove. It was right in the middle of the area where the wreck should be. This had to be the General Grant. And inside, surely, was a golden payload.

That was 1986. It would be 10 years before the diver-turned-entrepreneur could return with his own expedition – one capable of attempting a salvage.

On May 4, 1866, the General Grant sailed from Melbourne bound for London via Cape Horne. Mariners called the route "dead man's road". The ship was making good progress when, 10 days later, in a black night and a light wind, cold rain began to fall. Seaman Joseph Jewell remembered a dense haze hiding a full moon. At 11pm, the islands were sighted dead ahead.

"Land appeared like a cloud over our heads," he later recounted. The crew were unable to change course. The ship struck a cliff, turned in the water and then drifted into a large cave about 100 metres from the western shore.

Rocks overhead quickly broke the masts and shunted them through the wooden decking. The General Grant, according to its manifest, was carrying 58 passengers, 25 crew, a mixed cargo of colonial produce, including nine tonnes of zinc spelter for ballast, and exactly 2576 ounces of gold. By the next day only 15 survivors had made it to land and the captain had gone down with the ship. Eventually 10 people were rescued, the following November.

When Day and his crew returned to the site in 1996 they manoeuvred his vessel, Seawatch, into position and set up a myriad of moorings to stop it smashing into the cove's rocks. There was no margin for error. There was more than $5 million in gold at stake.

The vessel's winches whirred into action. The divers, wearing helmets which allowed direct communication with the surface, and with hot water pumping around their suits, went in. Large boulders, some as big as hatchbacks, lay over the wreckage. Divers attached winch cables to the rocks, moving one every five minutes. Then smaller rocks were shifted and, finally, gravel and sand were suctioned away. The hull, they found, had disintegrated, and the site was little more than a debris field. It was not possible to say how the ship lay and there was no way of knowing where the master's cabin was – the place, it was believed, where the gold had been stored.

The first coins they found were a large grouping of silver half-crowns. Some were in stacks; others were strewn across the seabed – 63 in all. Then, eventually, amid the murk, something glimmered.

Almost every metal tarnishes with exposure to seawater. Brass, copper, even silver will corrode over time in the ocean. The metal will dull with a blackish grey film. Every metal does this – except gold.

"Sparkling like the day it slid into the sea," Day said, holding a gold half-sovereign in his palm. There were more to come. The team was buoyed.

There was a surgeon's kit complete with a large syringe for injecting mercury into the urethras of syphilitic sailors. Nearby was a button bearing an anchor with a serpent entwined around it – the symbol of the Royal Navy surgeons' corps.

But as the clues emerged slowly, something was not right. There was no sign of any gold bars. There was no zinc spelter. The coins found pre-dated the wreck by too big a margin – none was later than 1832. The evidence pointed to one conclusion – this was not the General Grant.

Then what was it?

There were seven known wrecks peppered around the island's coasts and coves. They had been dived and searched and ticked off by an armada of salvage missions for more than 150 years. There was the Invercauld, the Dundonald, the Anjou, Grafton and Compadre. There was the Derry Castle and the Marie Alice. This one, however, had no name.

It became known as the "Half-Crown Wreck" in honour of its dubious booty. But what of its passengers? Whom did the half-crowns belong to? Who wore the uniform bearing that button?

John McCrystal did not know much about Day when he was invited on a tour to the Auckland Islands in 2008. Aboard the Russian icebreaker, Day gave a presentation about the General Grant and his salvage expeditions. He spoke of his mission and how all the artefacts pointed, not to the Grant, but to a small British vessel lost not very much later than 1833.

McCrystal, a self-confessed "armchair" shipwreck expert, soon realised he was in the presence of someone who knew more than anyone else alive, about where the General Grant was not. He saw a glint of obsession in Day's eyes. The Grant was his Everest and he wanted to conquer it.

Day knew of McCrystal's background as a researcher and shipwreck aficionado, and invited him on a short half-day dive. They would go to a spot Day had researched with the use of notes from one of the very first salvage missions in the late 1860s. It was a spot, he believed, where the Grant could be. He decided not to use a magnetometer – a device capable of measuring the strength of magnetic fields – which could be dragged across the sea floor searching for any sign of metal hidden in the gloom. Instead, Day determined on "Mach-1 eyeball" – 11 divers in the water, all sworn to secrecy. Day had high expectations. But after several hours there were no straight lines and no regular curves to be seen.

Back on the bow of the boat, Day stood by himself gazing out to the water. One by one his colleagues approached to offer their commiserations. He was disappointed, he said, because he had put so much faith in the logic that led him to the site. McCrystal moved towards him.

"You look at that film Lord of the Rings and how much Gollum wanted that ring?" Day said. "Well, you compare Gollum with me and you just have to say Gollum lacked commitment."

"So you'll be back?" McCrystal asked.

"I'll be back."

Eighteen thirty-three. The date rang a bell with McCrystal. He had religiously read and reread New Zealand Shipwrecks, which documented almost 300 wrecks, and had formed somewhat of an encyclopaedic knowledge of the early misfortunes of colonial ships. It was in late 1833, McCrystal recalled, that reports reached Sydney of a large amount of wreckage found on the beaches of the north-western coast of the islands.

A sealing gang sent ashore on the islands reported a cargo of wool and whale oil strewn across the beach. The produce suggested that it was a ship which left Australia, bound for Britain.

"Great anxiety is felt by numberless persons in Sydney," wrote the Sydney Monitor, "to know what vessel the wreck on the Auckland Island belongs to."

There were contradictory statements as to its identity, the newspaper said, and so it was desirable to send a small vessel down "in order to ascertain the name of the ship".

In the days before the telegraph, the transmission of information depended on news carried to and fro by other shipping vessels. It took an average of 105 days for a ship to cover the distance between Australia's east coast and the United Kingdom. It could take six months before it was realised a vessel was overdue or had gone missing.

McCrystal scoured the shipping records. He called in favours overseas to search British and Australian newspapers in an era when records and newspapers were notoriously sparse in detail. He tracked arrivals and departures, scanning faint, densely handwritten pages containing thousands of entries a month. It was there he found her.

Hidden in the Lloyd's Register of 1833, number C32, a ship owned by Iron Standards and built in Montreal. Her name was the Rifleman and this was her last voyage.

She was, the Old Quebec noted "a beautiful ship of about 400 tonnes" – a single-decked trading vessel with a square stern built of hazel and cedar.

Her maiden voyage was on June 23, 1826.

Before she went missing, the Rifleman suffered misfortune, as McCrystal discovered. She was notoriously "leaky", having to repair several times in port. Then, in 1830, while in Hobart, a drunken seaman named John Anderson fell overboard and drowned. Before the Rifleman's final voyage from Hobart, in an incident McCrystal believed to carry "eerie" similarities, the Rifleman lost another man overboard during Christmas Eve revelries. He, too, drowned.

Three years later, she sailed for "London direct". She had 12 crew aboard and six passengers including Dr William Porteous, a surgeon returning to England after working aboard a convict ship. Months passed. No word.

Eight months on, the Rifleman was thought to be lost.

"We regret to say that no tidings have arrived," the Hobart Town Courier wrote, "Or of the safety of the Rifleman about which serious doubts now begin to be entertained."

Although many vessels disappeared without trace in the later years of colonial trade, in every case their fate is known. The only ship that sailed from Australia's east coast between 1830-1834, never to be seen again, was the Rifleman.

At the centre of McCrystal's interest in shipwrecks was always their untold stories. There were many young men on the Rifleman. "Genealogical dead-ends in someone's family," he called them. "It's nice to ink in something of what happened to them."

There is at least now a human face to the site – a young surgeon named Porteous, who left his tools on the bottom of the ocean. McCrystal could say, with "almost 100 per cent certainty" that the Half-Crown Wreck could now be properly identified.

And yet there is no account. If the disaster occurred in rough weather, McCrystal said, it was likely that the ship went down quickly, with all aboard perishing. But there is another scenario. If conditions had been calm – not unlike the night the General Grant went down – there might be an echo of the other stories of survival against the odds on the islands.

McCrystal would like to go back to the site and search the top of the cliffs with a metal detector. The climbing is not too hard there, and he would just like to see for himself. There might be a sign. Maybe someone crawled out of the wreckage and, if only for a short while, tried to make a life on the edge of the world.

There was a feeling of a chapter closing last week when Day and McCrystal presented their research to the Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand in Wellington. The report – "The Riddle of the Rifleman" – was complete, and one part of the General Grant saga solved. Its 50-odd pages were dedicated to the wreck's "lost souls".

While Day spoke once more of his expeditions, his thoughts were on unfinished business.

"If it was easy I wouldn't be doing it," he said. "It is just such a damn good puzzle."

He had access to another magnetometer.

It wouldn't be a huge job – just a few weeks down at the islands dragging the sea floor. He has a few more theories, too. He thinks he may have idea of where his Everest might lie.

"I don't think the Grant is lost forever," he said.

"I don't think it is lost to the sea. It's out there."

Most summers the ships needed for such an expedition are busy. All he is waiting for is one to be available.

Sources: The General Grant's Gold by Ken Scadden and Madelene Ferguson Allen; The Riddle of the Rifleman published by the MAANZ.

Sunday Star Times