Off the Netherlands’ north coast, near the island of Tershelling, the 54-metre tug Yakstrained at its four-point mooring, its solid rectangular hull trembling from the onslaught of the gale and from the sea currents harping at the anchor cables. On board, four divers waited for a break in the hellish weather. Even the slightest of spells would allow them to confirm, perhaps even to claim, their prize.
Somewhere below, buried beneath the constantly shifting black sands, lay one of the greatest treasure-troves ever lost. When the 32-gun frigate Lutine had struck a sandbar during a similarly violent storm on the night of October 8, 1799, she had perished with her entire crew of 200 and a reputed cargo of 914 gold bars, worth, at the time of this salvage attempt, an estimated $NZ25 million.
Some of the treasure had already been recovered, the four men knew. A year after the sinking, 58 gold and 38 silver bars plus over 40,000 coins had been scooped up with iron nets before the wreck had become smothered by sand. More gold had been salvaged in 1858 with the use of a diving bell. But the bulk of it was still there, awaiting the lucky, the prepared and the daring—and the four certainly saw themselves as such.
Their leader was Kelly Tarlton, instantly recognisable by his bald pate, with its wild mane of peripheral hair, his beard, and the thick spectacles that framed his friendly face. It was the northern summer of 1980, and Kelly was by now a world-renowned marine archaeologist and treasure-hunter. Only two years earlier he had been in the Caribbean with American treasure-seeker Mel Fisher, looking for the fabled riches of Atocha and Santa Margarita, Spanish galleons that had sunk with Inca gold in their holds.
But Lutine had drawn him away. This was his project—the biggest to date, the best organised and financed, and with the highest stakes. He had with him his most capable and trusted veteran diving buddies: fellow New Zealanders Steve Macintyre and Willy Bullock, and Britisher Peter Oselton.
Two years earlier, Kelly had commissioned an electronic survey of the search area, which had pinpointed a string of 120 possible targets scattered over some 5 km2. To cope with the sand cover, he had designed two prop-wash units—tubes that could be used to redirect the outwash from the ship’s propellers—capable of moving 3000 t of sand in 20 minutes. They could blast craters in the seabed 12 m wide, which would then serve as prospecting shafts. All Kelly needed was some decent weather, but this was proving a tall order.
The diving conditions were desperate, even by professional standards. Steve Macintyre recalled: “It was the only diving job I remember when your fellow divers would not take your turn for you. When we left, none of us was ever going to go back there again, except maybe Kelly. He didn’t say.”
The water was only 6–7 m deep, Macintyre continued, but they were well off-shore and in horrendously rough seas. It was like being on the bar of the Manukau Harbour. We worked in holes dug 20–30 ft [6–9 m] deep in the sand, with the walls collapsing and fluidised sand settling around you. It was like being in a bog, usually with no visibility at all. Kelly was the only one to prefer an aqualung—perhaps he thought it saved time. We reckoned that if you were on a hose [whereby a diver trails an air hose reinforced with a rope] and the sand caved in, you’d live another 10 minutes and the guys on board might be able to follow the hose down to you. If a 20 ft wall of sand collapsed on you when you were wearing a ’lung, that would be it. But it was equally dangerous to be tethered to the ship, which pitched and rolled violently as it was buffeted by waves and wind.
And yet, despite the setbacks and dangers, under Kelly’s leadership the work of blasting holes, diving into them and moving on to the next target proceeded with such professional efficiency that observers concluded it would be only a matter of time before the gold was found.
Kelly was even called off to Amsterdam and asked to pay advance VAT (equivalent to GST) on the soon-to-be-salvaged gold and silver. The Dutch officials estimated the tax at $NZ3–4 million. In his diary Kelly fumed: “...the ridiculousness of being asked to pay duty in advance, before we’ve even found the goddamned gold, is beyond belief.”
Earlier, using the smaller and faster Zeehond while Yak was undergoing repairs, the team had found a wreck. Kelly wrote: Stephen [Macintyre] and I descended the shot-rope, and in the murk we could make out the shape of huge timbers of a sailing ship. Our excitement mounted as we could see in the beams of our torches the flat floor timbers of the hull scattered with ballast stones. Big copper bolts protruded through the timbers. It was 10 days before they got Yak over the find, and when the weather finally allowed them to dive their spirits soared.
Kelly again: ...it is a huge piece of ship...more than 30 feet [9 m] in beam and at least 100 feet [30 m] in length. We exposed this whole section...in one day’s digging, which indicates that if we found a ship semi-intact we would empty it out of sand in no time at all. If we could find a section of Lutine with gold in it, we could have the whole job finished in 12 hours.
But it was not Lutine: evidence dated the wreck to around the 1850s. They continued the search but all they found was junk from previous salvage attempts. Eventually, with their budget allowing only 40–50 days’ tug charter, black liquid sand pouring back into the holes the moment they stopped blasting them, and Yak retreating to port for yet further repairs, Kelly had to admit defeat. The final straw came when, for the second time, Yak lost two anchors and the cables of the other two became crossed, putting such a strain on them that “a winch weighing tonnes was ripped right out”. They limped to port, where repairs were to cost $NZ100,000.
After two months of searching, they had nothing to show but a few bits of shipwreck debris. Such failure would have been enough to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm but Kelly’s. He returned home and began dreaming up an even grander project. With this one he would succeed beyond anybody’s expectations. It was the one for which he’d be best remembered—and which would arguably also claim his life.