Frank was a wealthy adventurer. He had been a fighter pilot in The Vietnam War and a genuine aviation legend, having won the Reno air races, the world top fuel quarter mile land speed record and the world airspeed record for piston driven aircraft all in one year. His new passion was treasure hunting.
Dave’s last job before handing the boat over to us was the successful salvage of a Dutch porcelain wreck in the South China Sea. Martin ran the diving operation and did pretty well out of my small share of the cargo.
Martin and Frank formed a Diving/salvage Contracting Company in Indonesia and floated a public treasure hunting Company on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Martin went to work in Indonesia running the commercial diving operation while Frank tripped the planet negotiating salvage rights for old shipwrecks in various Asian countries.
They mounted a huge multimillion dollar salvage expedition to China in 1997 using a state of the art dynamically positioned saturation diving vessel M.V. “Stephaniturm”. The job was unsuccessful, they found the shipwrecks and dived on them for over a month but the Chinese had already worked the wrecks and the operation was a disaster.
“I RETURNED TO INDONESIA WITH MY REPUTATION IN TATTERS. WE STILL HAD THE RADER AND I CONCENTRATED ON RUNNING THE COMMERCIAL DIVING OPERATION WITH MODERATE SUCCESS. FRANK CONCENTRATED ON KEEPING THE TREASURE HUNTING CO ALIVE. I WANTED TO GO SURFING; FRANK WANTED TO GO TREASURE HUNTING. WE STARTED TO GO IN DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS.”
“I managed to get away to Panaitan and Sumatra a few times during this period with the boat and it was becoming clearer to me where my real interests lay.”
In late 1989 the relationship with the Indonesian partner deteriorated to full confrontation. For registration reasons, in order to operate in Indonesia the vessel had to be in his name. It became clear that he was increasingly referring to it as his boat and there was imminent danger of losing everything. Frank meanwhile had negotiated permission to salvage old shipwrecks in the Philippines. The diving business was just starting to really take off in Indonesia. Martin had just completed a contract to remove 28 subsea wellheads for Arco. Frank wanted to bring the boat to the Philippines and search for old wrecks.
Martin – When I tried getting clearance to leave Indonesia all sorts of official obstacles started to pop up. I had said that I wanted to go to Singapore for docking but after 2 weeks of trying I still could not get clearance. My Indonesian sponsor wanted me to sign a charter agreement to use my own boat and pay him a lot of money upfront; he owed me $200,000 dollars anyhow from the last contract I had performed for Arco.
ON A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT I BOLTED, SACRIFICING ALL THE MONEY I HAD EARNED FOR 2 YEARS. AT LEAST I STILL HAD THE BOAT. WE DROVE NON STOP TO BATANGAS, PHILIPPINES VIA THE SULU SEA, THE WHOLE WAY TERRIFIED OF RUNNING INTO THE INDONESIAN NAVY AS THE WORD WOULD HAVE TO BE OUT.
The Philippine Salvage job was a disaster; we had the license, the technology, the expertise but no target, no research and not enough money.
Frank would only use “investors” money never his own and all the money Martin had left went into the operation. We went diving on every shipwreck that had been already salvaged and were successful in pulling about 200 pieces of quite good really old Chinese porcelain from a wreck that had been worked by several parties over the previous 10 years or so. We just went deeper down the reef slope to over 200ft. The Filipino museum confiscated the porcelain because Frank had not paid the $5,000 bond for the salvage permit. The vessel was deteriorating rapidly, our visas had expired, the boats paperwork had expired one of the crew didn’t even have an entry stamp in his passport and Frank says that there is absolutely no money left for the operation. Martin contacted Dave Barnett and intimated that the boat could be seized at any moment by the Filipino Coast Guard for being in the country illegally. He was on the next plane. We decided that to give Frank an ultimatum. Find some money, sort out all the problems with the paperwork, and get the boat back into good order or Dave and I were taking over the boat to save losing it altogether. Frank conceded and on another dark and stormy night with a tropical cyclone bearing down on us we once again bolted, this time looking out for the Filipino Navy.
Due to the paperwork problems and lack of funds we couldn’t load fuel. Luckily I had been carrying 6 tons of Avtur high grade jet fuel kerosene in the ballast tanks that I had scored while servicing the fuel loading buoy for Cenkareng airport in Jakarta. We determined that it would run the main “Gardner” engine.
Dave’s plan was to explore the dangerous ground of the Spratly Island Chain, a no mans land in the South China Sea for WW2 wrecks and see if we could salvage some scrap, as the copper price was the best it had been for quite some time.
What the chart and pilot failed to show was there was a secret confrontation going on between China, Vietnam, Malaysia, The Philippines and Brunei over the area. Every reef we went to was claimed by someone or other with Platforms or artificial islands on every reef. We saw an insane left hander peeling down the side of one of these artificial islands. An 8′ north swell was spinning off the cyclone that was following us. The island was a garrison with artillery emplacements and flying the Vietnamese flag. The ultimate bad locals-Vietcong. Needless to say, we just kept moving.
We located some scrap on several wrecks in international waters and continued on to Singapore. I contacted Frank and worked out a deal where I swapped all my stock in the treasure hunting company for his share in the Rader.
Dave put up some money for the explosives, fuel and provisioning etc and we headed out and over a period of a few months recovered over 80 tons of scrap. We shared the proceeds among Dave, myself and the crew.