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Seventy Fathoms Deep!
'In Search of Gold'
Online article and images by Leigh Bishop
Continuing the quest to explore the
world's most famous shipwrecks the
'Starfish Enterprise' focus on the treasure ship 'Egypt'. With it
they bring to the surface the story of history's greatest salvage
attempt as well as the first
images of the wreck taken at 125m!
A gentle breeze moves across the edge of a somewhat busy world
trade route, the northern tip of the Bay of Biscay some 40 miles
north west of the French mainland. 150 miles from Plymouth and
X marks the spot 'Watcher' moves into position, a position in
the Atlantic that had witnessed both tragedy and triumph. For
this is the location where the famous 'Egypt' was lost, and
with it the beginning to one of the greatest feats of salvage
in known history. The shipwreck that now lies directly beneath
us lost in 1922 carried £1,083,527 sterling in gold and
silver bullion and specie approx. 10-tons of silver and 5-tons
of gold! Today's equivalent of over thirty six million English
Steve Wright and Richard Stevenson on the
bridge of the expedition vessel Loyal Watcher maneuvering
the ship across the position where Egypt sank in 1922.
|Expedition leader Chris Hutchison
stands on the foredeck closely watching the activity, today
he will oversee the days diving operations. He wears no diving
equipment and will not see the wreck today either. With no error
to spare in the Atlantic his concerns of the first day lie in
his colleagues and not the wreck. Having led the teams that
located the big guns of Jutland he is no newcomer to his post.
With a mouth watering curriculum vita of Famous deep wreck dives
the successful outcome of his 'Egypt' project simply lies in
the weather! Using the Cis-Lunar Mk 5 mixed gas rebreather;
team member David Wilkins is set the task of securing the grapnel
to the wreck for the remaining to follow. Accompanied by Richard
Stevenson between them they would indicate to the surface
when the route to exploration was open for the remainder. Richard
& David's dive runs smooth other than the fact that David's
CCR 'brick' is surprised to find itself 125m deep in the Atlantic.
His unit is quick to the point, 'should he wish to dive a little
deeper will of course need addressing back in the US'!As a colour-coded
marker appears a distance over to port systems are go and with
a beehive of surface activity the remaining 5 divers are deployed.
Expedition leader Chris Hutchison on deck.
Stevenson with plates clearly identifying the wreck.
|The very success of deep 'Starfish' dives lies
much at the center of a team effort. Who better to have in support
than in fact your diving colleagues themselves, the people that
really know what is required. As it happens on site today the
team's deep wreck experience adds to over 140 years. Today just
7 divers will see the wreck; their remaining colleagues will
work incredibly hard for them to do so only to listen to their
exciting tales at the end result. They made clear their dives
had been conducted on the upright bow of the wreck. The shot
line had cozily draped its self into a trawl net suspended off
the bow tip. The wreck appears very clean in that she is not
heavily encrusted within marine growth, certainly an advantageous
point to the team in that features could easily be distinguished.
We also knew from commercial reports that the wreck lay upright
with a section missing from the Sorima project. Indeed this
was true but how could we be sure this was infact the wreck
of the 'Egypt'. A simply matter of recovering several plates
clearly displaying the P&O shipping crest certainly helped,
this could only be that of the 'Egypt' the only P&O ship
lost in the vicinity. Recovering several items with the same
distinct features secures the point, added to the fact that
portholes also recovered designed with a typical P&O pattern
were equal to those we had seen on other P&O wrecks.
'Egypt' was on the third day of a voyage that would take her
from Tilbury destined for Bombay. For the 'Egypt' built in 1897
an elegant P&O liner of almost 8000-tons this was a route
she was so familiar with one she had run so many times within
her 25-year career. The date was the 22nd the time approx.,
1900 hours and 'Egypt' in a position some 25 miles west off
Ushant now encounters fog. So thick and dense that she almost
came to a standstill. The area is one of a main world trade
route on a bearing across the Bay of Biscay directly for the
northwest tip of Spain and thus Portugal. Notorious for its
treacherous seas this part of the Atlantic often produces 'Egypt'
is not about to be the first vessel to be lost here. Were others
have been taken by the sea or from the Great War 'Egypt's' fate
would be the fog. Nearby could clearly be heard that of repeated
steam whistle blasts. As 'Egypt' continued to do likewise the
blasts became louder until right out of the fog to port side
the French steamer 'Seine' rammed her between the funnels. The
'Seine' whose bows were strengthened to deal with Baltic ice
was little damaged 'Egypt' however heeled over from the impact
and sank in approx. 20 minutes. The 'Seine' remained on site
to rescue survivors to whatever hope that was in the conditions.
On the Eastern services 'Egypt' had a reputation for minor collisions
and unlucky groundings, in 1910 she had brought the Princess
Royal home from Egypt itself.
|On the turn of the Great war she was requisitioned
as a hospital ship, painted with the traditional red and white
colours she had once been moored along side the 'Britannic'.
Now three years on and numerous further services on the Australian
run she had been lost, lost in seventy fathoms a depth twice
that man had ventured at the time.
Progress was made good along what can be described as a very
intact bow foredeck then without warning the wreck dropped away
to seabed level. 'Egypt' was designed on old-fashioned lines
with a long, low superstructure, funnels rather far aft and
bows flush with a hurricane deck. There was only a shallow well
deck between the bridge and the fo'c'sle, and the bridge was
infact a long way farther from the forward funnel in proportion
to the ships length than was usual in liners of the time. It
was the first day of a new month and the Atlantic weather was
now somewhat improved, the dives continued.
Mooring bollards on the very bow
Spare prop blade on the foredeck.
|Her port side hull remains very much
intact and all interior deck levels along its internal structure
have broken away again down to seabed level. What remains when
looking up from the seabed from the interior side is a bellied
hull suspended of its own free will clearly displaying the internal
side of those typical P&O portholes. We saw numerous portholes
all with drip trays and square fastening dogs a trademark of
P&O liners similar to those on the Moldavia. Although several
appear damaged, how is unclear perhaps due to salvage work.
Visibility on our visit was exceptional infact when asked those
first divers repeated, "Well how far do you want to see",
easily beyond a lamps beam. As the eyes settled into the dive
the ambient light was obvious clearly displaying the upper outline
of the wreck from the seabed. The seabed itself was made up
of clean sand and pebble, which most probably constituted to
the visibility with depths of approx., 127m over on the outer
side of the port hull. "We were also told that the wreck
is home to some extremely big conger, although we were unaware
how true this could be, indeed it was. Even to the fact that
several took more than a welcome interest in our presence".
|From the bow the bridge was unclear if there at all, infact
past a distance of where it should have been the deck dropped
down a level and a short distance the diver met a cargo hold.
The holds hatch combings appear intact, as were small oblong
brass windows alongside. After this hold the wreck clearly
broke down, Geraint-Ffoulkes-Jones swam a distance beyond
here although reported that the wreck did not change in character.
On the lower deck level was a spare prop blade, upright and
intact quite an unusual sight, and then to the far port side
of here was clearly the lamp locker. Several lamps that could
be seen showed their age as were the compartment walls surrounding
in that sections have now begun to both rot and collapse away.
Central to this deck level was an internal companionway leading
back towards the bow through to the fo'c'sle, however located
on the deck below and inside. Swimming along this passage
and now totally within the wreck itself the divers could see
rooms leading off either side. Some were obviously sanitary
areas with rust stained and broken ceramics, others were clearly
cabins with what consisted of their makeup now slumped to
the floors. In several rooms large amounts of crockery were
easily distinguishable. In all none of the divers reported
sightings of any such gold, ingots or anything that even resembled
the likes, however several plates and a porthole were recovered
for identification purposes on the initial dives. After the
initial dives we established that the wreck infact did not
quite lie in a position across the tide but more so NNE by
SSW with her bow located at the far north west end of the
Almost immediately after 'Egypt' was lost she became a fantasy
She was deep, in fact a depth of over twice any man had been
too at the time, the underwriters had no alternative other than
to consider the 'Egypt's' precious cargo as lost. For seven
years men from several nations had dreamed of slaving the lost
gold, some had searched for the wreck with no avail. Others
worked designs for means to retrieve the gold once found a feat
in itself. Now it was the turn of Commendatore Giovanni Quaglia,
an irrepressible Italian salvage expert who specialized in the
impossible. Quaglia was the founder of an infamous salvage company
'Societá Ricuperi Marittimi' SORIMA for short. Quaglia
used several methods to search for the wreck even taking the
offer of a certain farther Innocent whom claimed to possess
the gift to be able to locate the gold and silver by using divining
rods! The season continued until the bad weathers put stop.
Journalist David Scotts impression of how the wreck would
have looked during the salvage project back in the 1930s.
Scott was on board the vessel to report on salvage events.David
Using the traditional method of toeing a suspended cable between
two vessels over the seabed proved successful in locating the
wreck. Quaglia's company Sorima although at the very cutting
edge of salvage was now faced with their most challenging operation
to date. The wreck lie upright on an even keel her strong room
where the bullion was stowed in a small narrow chamber 7m long
three deck levels down at the bottom of the ship. Quaglia's
technique for recovery was based on the 'Iron Man' an armored
diving suit of ½-ton in weight that could be lowered
to the wreck as an observation chamber. The diver, encased within
would then direct operations carried out from the surface by
means of a telephone link to the salvage vessel 'Artiglio'.
The surface team was then able to guide cranes and winches,
which in turn lowered explosives and steel grabs into place,
for the next two years the team would slowly tear their way
through the wreck in search of gold. Even in the years of depression
Quaglia's personal fortune followed Sorima's working capital
into the undertaking and at one stage work stopped while the
Italian sought more capital.
The Salvage team SORIMA aboard the vessel Atiglio that was
ultimately responsible for the project that recovered 98%
of the gold between 1930 & 1935. David
SORIMA divers with the first hauls of gold to come up from the
wreck during 1932,
For three years Sorima had battled the Atlantic in quest for
gold but now the impossible had become a reality the first gold
being recovered from the wreck. By the end of the month the
operation amassed a pile of ingots and coins! Quaglia reported
to Lloyds in London and was given a heroes welcome. The world
was intrigued by the feat and newspapers around the globe ran
the story. Readers could see for themselves progress from illustrated
drawings of the operation and were given regular updates. From
now on each season Sorima returned to the wreck, a task not
abandoned until 1935, by which time an estimated 95% of the
treasure had been recovered. Sorima's operation was a story
of ultimate success a story still regarded within the marine
recovery business as one of the greatest salvage feats of all
time. The story of the 'Egypt' and her gold would never be forgotten,
a story that is guaranteed to spring up in almost any treasure
shipwreck book since written!
'Egypt' had laid quiet for some 52 years and now commercial
diving operations once again commenced over the wreck this time
by 'Consortium Recovery'. From the Dutch salvage vessel 'Holga
Dane' the quest to recover the remaining bullion was now on.
With operations in excess of £10,000 a day the deep saturation
team was eventually pulled off the wreck having only recovered
a single bar of gold and five silver worth at the time approx.£100,000.
Research indicates that in fact the gold was cast in several
different sizes, 28lbs, 20lbs and small 2½ lb ingots,
today still unaccounted for amongst the wreck lie 14,929 sovereigns,
17 gold bars and 30 silver ingots!
With such precious little bottom time, a dive of this nature
is over all too soon. Maximum times ran up to 20 mins actually
on the wreck and when the contents gauge needle moves with each
breath, time is of the essence. That is of course for those
few that choose to dive the wreck on open circuit. Convinced
he was carrying enough gas in his twin twenties Chris was openly
reminded of his depth after assessing his gas consumption only
to find that he still had 230bar remaining 10 minutes into his
dive! The pressure was so great the glass of the gauge forced
upon the needle prevented it from actually operating!
The 2001 team on route back to the United Kingdom after a successful
|If he returns Chris openly admits he will treat himself to
oil filled gauge! Diving with him, Christina Campbell would
now set a new record for the deepest wreck to be visited by
a female, a record she gained from the Britannic dives. Although
modest of her ability Christina openly admits she's not in the
game to claim records or be the first, like the lads she simply
enjoys exploring wrecks "It just so happens some of them
are a little deep". Some days later Chris remarked "did
we really pull that dive off or was I dreaming?" mate your
dream was true we saw the famous 'Egypt' with our own eyes not
to mention actually exploring her!
The divers Chris Hutchison, Christina Campbell, Geraint-Ffoulkes-Jones,
Leigh Bishop, Rob Royal, Bob Hughes, Richard
Stevenson, Jon Adams, Alan 'Bones' Boness, Robin Benford,
Paul Kent and Alex Vassallo.
The Times journalist David Scott covers this incredible story
of salvage in detail with in two rare 1931/2 books 'Seventy
Fathoms Deep' and 'The Egypt's Gold'.
©Leigh Bishop July 2001
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