Washington treasure hunters find shipwreck

Washington treasure hunters find shipwreck

SEATTLE – After a dozen expeditions and decades of searching, it was a few pieces of driftwood and a fearsome octopus that helped two inventive sailors find the wreckage of the SS Pacific.

The legendary steamship sank in 1875 somewhere between British Columbia and San Francisco. The 220-foot ship was carrying gold worth $5 million today, 230 tons of coal and more than 325 passengers when it was struck by a schooner that mistook it for a lighthouse. Only two survived.

Aboard the rescue ship Seablazer, Jeff Hummel, discoverer and rescue team leader for the USS Pacific shipwreck, with the remote-controlled underwater drone, FALKOR, he designed and built.

Greg Gilbert, The Seattle Times via TNS

Almost 150 years later, a few miles south of Cape Flattery, as Jeff Hummel and Matthew McCauley used subzero drones in what they believed to be the Pacific Ocean, they spotted an octopus with a tentacle wrapped around what appeared to be an object. made of copper, probably from the ship.

“We just sat there and looked at it in disbelief,” Hummel said. “And we’re like, well, this has to be our shipwreck because every good shipwreck has an octopus.”

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His granddaughter named it Lilly, but the cephalopod disappeared on the next dive.

In November, Rockfish Inc. was granted exclusive federal rights to salvage what was left of the Pacific. Hummel is president of Rockfish and director of the Northwest Shipwreck Alliance.

His background is in marine navigation systems and product design; McCauley’s is in business, diving, history and communication. They created NSA when they were both students at Mercer High School. In 1984, they were sued by the US Navy and won, giving them the rights to a World War II plane they found on Lake Washington.

The pair have been saving planes and ships together for decades, but the Pacific is unique.

Jeff Hummel, explorer and rescue team leader for the sinking of the USS Pacific, below deck in one of the repair shops.

Greg Gilbert, The Seattle Times via TNS

Clues leading to the ruins had eluded treasure hunters for more than a century.

The ship was bound for San Francisco during the gold rush when it ran into a treacherous storm. The means of navigation in the 19th century were not advanced.

On the morning of November 4, 1875, the Pacific collided with the schooner Orpheus, after a miscommunication caused the schooner to turn when it shouldn’t have. The captain of the Orpheus was held responsible for what happened to the Pacific, but was not punished.

Pacific Captain Jefferson Davis Howell was commander of a rebel gunboat during the Civil War. His brother-in-law was former Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The day before her death, the ship had taken passengers to Seattle, Olympia and other small towns on Puget Sound. SP Moody, owner of what was then the largest lumber mill in the west, came on board in Victoria, British Columbia.

The kaleidoscopic cargo included wealthy travelers, miners, immigrants, a lumber magnate and a circus troupe of performing horses.

In many ways, the steamboat was as much a nugget of gold for America as it was a part of the Pacific Northwest.

The debris is about 23 miles offshore and spread over a slope about 1,000 to 3,000 feet deep. Work to clean up the surrounding debris field could begin as early as 2023, while salvaging the main site is likely to begin next year.

Parts of the salvage site are in international waters, so to seek federal protection of the site, the shipwreck alliance had to bring part of the wreckage to court. What they brought back was a piece of brick that was likely part of the ship’s steam boiler and planks from its hull.

Jeff Hummel, right, leads the rescue team for the sinking of the USS Pacific. Phill Drew, left, is a member of Hummell’s team.

Greg Gilbert, The Seattle Times via TNS

“Based on what we’ve seen so far, we believe there are artifacts on the ship that will blow people’s minds,” said Hummel, who also captains the RV Seablazer.

Rockfish is a company built solely for the salvage of the Pacific, and Hummel’s efforts to recover the wrecked steamship have been supported for years by 45 benefactors contributing $2.1 million.

Aboard the Seablazer in December in Seattle’s Salmon Bay, mounted on trolleys next to the Hummel were the two submersible drones — nicknamed Falkor and Draco — used to set up underwater sites. He designed and built the drones, along with other robotics used in a dozen expeditions to painstakingly narrow the Pacific.

“It’s better to leave it where it is than to get it wrong,” Hummel said.

Rescuers will first recover the surrounding area, as stretches of seabed have been stretched in different directions by the fishermen’s nets. Then their efforts will be concentrated on the ship itself.

It is unlikely that any human remains will be found after so much time has passed.

Still, sonar and video footage of the site show a shipwreck in “extraordinary condition”.

Everything recovered will be subject to claim by the family members, as required by the legal process. After that, Hummel and McCauley said the plan is to build a museum somewhere near Puget Sound. Profits will be shared among the volunteer crew, but finding and safely retrieving the artifacts that have been submerged for more than a century will be a challenge.

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