by Tim Gilmore, 6/26/2014
Standing atop the wheelhouse on the listing old carcass of the Arctic Discoverer does strange things to your notions of time. Ragged broomsedge grows up through the flecked paint and rusted machinery beneath the dead rigging at the top of the old ship, and staring out at billions of years of blue waters and sky, it’s easy to imagine this boat’s a thousand years old.
But the A.T. Cameron, as it was first known, was commissioned in 1958 as a Canadian research vessel and icebreaker. Its main claim to fame is as the vessel Tommy Thompson used to retrieve three tons of gold from an ocean-floor shipwreck in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before defrauding anxious investors of millions of dollars and disappearing.
As Ted McGowan, director of the Clay County Port, tells us before we sign liability waivers, the Arctic Discoverer could soon set sail from the port at Green Cove Springs upon its final voyage, to sink to the ocean floor and become a reef for divers to explore.
If the sale of the old boat goes through, it will entail an expensive environmental cleanup, and McGowan can’t say if the Discoverer will make its final home off the Florida Keys or somewhere on the other side of the world.
* * *
Wanda Glennon Canaday, my sister and favorite photographer, can’t stop herself from making jokes about walking the plank as we make our way onto the boat.
We step through and across as many grasses as we do old iron, rusted machine parts, and broken glass from higher-up windows and beer bottles.
Walking the forecastle, I think about the way things age. I remember a strange but poignant remark the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss makes in his 1955 Tristes Tropiques (The Sad Tropics), that he found the “New World” sometimes older than the “Old World,” since the newer one aged so much quicker.
Stepping over great heavy pieces of broken iron that have rusted and rusted but might still rust for millennia, time seems relative to aging, less so to clocks and standards. How fast does an iron icebreaker age? Even ancient, is the ship capable of aging for unfathomable (pun) decades longer than it might appear?
Aren’t there 15 year old houses that are older than 60 year old houses? And 900 year old wooden houses in the Faroe Islands of Denmark or 700 year old wooden temples and schools in Kyoto?
And how old is my own face in relation to the aging of a magnolia blossom, a Neandertal skull, an Arctic icebreaker?
* * *
Tommy Thompson got his hands on the A.T. Cameron, then most recently named the Arctic Ranger, convinced investors to give him almost $13 million, located the 1857 shipwreck of the treasure-laden S.S. Central America, and built a sea-floor scavenging robot named Nemo to bring up the gold.
The Central America was en route from Panama to New York when it sunk somewhere off the Eastern Coast of the United States, and treasure hunters salivated over the possibilities of its location for well more than a century.
In 1986, Thompson succeeded in convincing 161 investors, both individuals and companies, to come together as partners in Recovery, Ltd. Two years later, he found the shipwreck full of gold 8,000 feet below the surface of the ocean off the coast of South Carolina.
Though the Arctic Discoverer left estimations of between 12 and 18 tons of gold at the bottom of the ocean, almost a decade of complicated litigation ended with courts awarding Thompson and his investment groups more than 90 percent of the three tons of gold he’d reclaimed, and Thompson soon sold his investors’ portions of the gold for $52 million.
By 2005 and 2006, Thompson’s investors and those who’d helped him develop the technology instigated several lawsuits, but it took six years for Thompson’s chief technician to get a trial scheduled in federal court, by which time, the summer of 2012, Thompson’s company had just filed for bankruptcy.
When Thompson didn’t show up to court, his attorney said he was “out to sea,” did not even know his whereabouts, and said Thompson knew nothing about the charges against him. How could he, when the world could not reach him, adrift on the earth’s vast waters?
* * *
Across the decks, tall grasses and broomsedges grow, and mosses and lichens climb up the captain’s quarters and the wheelroom. In the captain’s quarters and refectory, old cushions and carpets sting our nostrils with stink.
The stench is generations of composting cotton and mahogany and canvas now teeming with bacteria and the resultant breakdown of who-knows-what toxins we’re breathing.
The ceilings chip and flake and buckle above us and I hit my head repeatedly when rounding corners or stepping over debris in panelboarded corridors. Obviously being short and light, neither of which am I, would recommend you for deployment on such a boat.
Battered black plastic phones hang from their cradles. Sperry Doppler-speed logs that measured nautical miles per hour remain screwed in place. The galley is piled high with filthy dishes, fire extinguishers, and coffee cans, while bottles of decades-old wine and margarita mix stand beside refrigerators oozing with unidentifiable creeping contents.
In the mess room, we find three boxes of Trivial Pursuit, warped and yellowed paperbacks of forgotten novels with names like Jamaica Passage, “a thrilling sea-saga of the slave trade,” and the inexplicable Heads, and Coast Guard communication manuals.
In the captain’s quarters, everything’s thick mahogany—doors, walls, desk, and drawered-beds upon which a decayed and stinking flowered mattress stands upended.
Wanda knew about salvagers who’d stripped the ship, and Ted McGowan confirmed that a recent owner extracted its most valuable pieces to add to his small private North Carolina museum.
Though he no longer owns the ship, he still offers on ebay items like the “solid brass 1950’s vintage porthole that I removed from the port side of the treasure hunting ship, Arctic Discoverer (Tommy Thompson’s ship)” for $275.
* * *
Below us, looking out from the wheelhouse, a lifeboat lies near great coils of arm’s-width ropes, a welder’s mask, and the dangling cords of cracked and corroded ship’s microphones.
Behind us, knobs for gyroscope directions stand out from a wall. An engine alarm panel wires into three rounded bells that look to have been encrusted in multiple layers of flaking paint for a thousand years.
But isn’t that, once again, the relativity of time? The world was old before it began, while the earth always springs from the old world in new grasses and lichens. We haunt ourselves by feeling we’ve been here before, though our memories are so terribly sad and poor.
You might justifiably curse Florida for its lengths and depths of humidity and heat, but Florida must renew itself a thousand times for every summer in Massachusetts. That Floridian renewing of the earth and aging of the world includes more fungal infections like Athlete’s Foot and ringworm than any other U.S. state, also more lightning, serpents, and alligators.
If you want to imagine where the world will end and where the earth began, and if you want to understand how those two headlines describe the same landscape, come explore the abandoned houses and skyscrapers and listing boats of Florida.
* * *
It only makes sense then that Tommy Thompson held late-1980s meetings with co-conspirators on the waters that comprise more than 13 percent of the surface area of Jacksonville, and it only makes sense they docked the Arctic Discoverer at the now-defunct Atlantic Marine, halfway between rural Northeast Jacksonville’s Blount Island and Fort George Island, 25 miles from downtown Jacksonville along the St. Johns River to the Atlantic Ocean.
When the Arctic Discoverer left Jacksonville in the late 1980s, Thompson met with his crew regularly on the foredeck to discuss who would dive, who would be allowed in the control room, and how the darkroom would process photographs, video images, and digitized shots for scientists who wished to see clear images of a unique sponge or, more importantly to the crew, investors who demanded proof of upcoming gold coins for sale or auction.
In the record heat temperatures of the summer of 2015, we walk up and down vertical iron steps like ghosts in an M.C. Escher lithograph. We stand on top of the listing boat and sink down into the depths of its engine room.
An oil foil surrounds the Arctic Discoverer from the dock and manatee surface slowly and gently just the other side of the protective line.
Down in the depths, four inches of oil congeals against the bottom steps of steel ladders.
The most accessible part of the abandoned ship is the central engine room. We come to it by ladders from the first and second floors, the captain’s quarters, the wheelroom at the top, and all directions.
So it’s inevitable we drop into the middle depths of the ship. Stairs step down steep, turn in the darkness at right angles, then drop straight down again. Stenciled wooden signs warn, “No Visitors, No Open Lights.” The dark depths drop.
We descend and we sweat. If it’s almost 100 degrees on the decks by the water, it’s 115 down here in the gears of the guts.
The final descent drops straight into the pools of oil and extends between great dead engines and tanks and pumps and pipes before climbing another set of steep steel steps to another platform further and deeper into the dark several stories beneath the wheelroom…
…the wheelroom from which the captain looked out to sea for days and nights and days and nights and saw nothing, nothing, nothing, but the ancient, ancient ocean, ocean, ocean.
Against which there is no Arctic Discover, no Tim Gilmore or Wanda Glennon Canaday wandering the old oceanic beast, no Herman Melville writing Moby Dick, no Captain Ahab demanding, “Hast seen the white whale?”
No 12 to 18 tons left of shipwrecked gold at the bottom of the sea after Tommy Thompson and his girlfriend Alison Antekeier were arrested in South Florida, having hidden in plain sight, paying cash each month for more than two years to reside in the Hilton Boca Raton Suites, 74 miles north of the Vero Beach mansion they’d vacated when investigators raided it in 2012, four years after Thompson was arrested and released in Jacksonville.
In the Vero Beach mansion, investigators found plumbing stuffed with cash.
* * *
Wanda and I come up from the oily depths of the engine room onto the broken decks.
I wonder not just if we step where Nemo deposited tons of gold, but where Newfoundland sailors worked the ropes in the harbor of the capitol of St. John’s in 1972.
And I realize that every ghost is equal.
And I hope that someone who scuba-dives this carcass on the ocean floor in 25 or 50 years reads about our wanderings from the Arctic Discoverer’s oily bowels up through its abandoned cerebral wheelroom.