The small piece of metal didn't seem like much.
Rodney Grambo and Pat Murphy found it on the bottom of the ocean, about 120 feet below the surface, at a shipwreck 40-some miles from Wrightsville Beach. It was brass, not gold or silver. Not especially valuable.
Grambo is 57. He's been a treasure hunter all of his adult life. It's the only job he's had since graduating from high school in 1979. He's dived on dozens of wrecks and collected thousands of coins.
"I am one of the luckiest guys at finding gold; I've got the highest gold count of anybody that's still in this business that does it like I do, shallow water diving," he says. "They always tease me about it and ask me, 'Why are you so good at finding gold?' I say because silver gets my hands dirty."
He was diving one of the wrecks of the famous 1715 Fleet off Fort Pierce, Florida, back in 1988, when he had a day all treasure hunters dream of.
"I found a pile of almost 1,000 gold coins," he says. "That day was good."
A little piece of brass could hardly compare to that. But then the crew of the Blue Water Rose took a closer look and saw the one word that changed everything.
The small disk was a luggage tag from the shipwreck of the fabled paddle steamer, lost since it went down off the North Carolina coast in 1838. The inscription "SB Pulaski" confirmed that the joint Blue Water Ventures and Endurance Exploration Group crew had found the remains of the famous ship.
"It's a little brass tag with a little bit of lead on the back of it, but that's one of the most exciting finds I've ever had," Grambo says. "I've never found anything that identified a ship. I've got to admit, that's probably one of the best moments."
Further evidence came when the crew discovered a candlestick, also inscribed SB (Steam Boat) Pulaski. In the treasure hunting business, provenance is everything. By proving that the coins and artifacts being recovered came from the Pulaski, the little brass tag could mean millions.
"That was the biggest thing anybody could have given me," says Keith Webb, owner of Blue Water Ventures. "Once you have provenance, we can put certificates of authenticity on everything. That ups the value."
The crew started diving the wreck in September 2017. They recovered coins that all predated the wreck, solid evidence they had found the Pulaski. But the excitement of finding treasure was tempered by the frustration of not having conclusive proof.
The Blue Water Rose left its berth at the Bridge Tender Marina in January and wintered in Florida. The boat and crew returned in April, finding the tag and candlestick on one of the early dives of the spring.
"That's it," Webb says. "The moment when everything you believe, the exhaustive hours of research, when you can prove that, it's all worth it. The wreck is legendary, folklore."
"The Titanic of Its Time"
The Pulaski departed from Savannah on July 13, 1838, with a complement of nearly 200, including passengers and crew, bound for Baltimore after a stop in Charleston. Onboard were some of the rich and famous of the day, including New York congressman William B. Rochester and six members of the Lamar family, then among the wealthiest in the Southeast.
"The passengers were from the elite," Rebecca Lamar McLeod, one of the survivors, wrote some years after the disaster. "Sojourners returning to their distant homes, and others from farther South and West, assembled on the deck, presenting a picture of unusual brightness; so many happy faces animated by hope and expectation. [The Pulaski] inspired confidence. She appeared so strong, and looked so comfortable."
The Savannah and Charleston Steam Packet Company boasted of the ship's 225-horsepower engine, her copper boilers, and her luxurious accommodations.
The combination of the state-of-the-art vessel and the upper crust passengers have led writers and historians to label the Pulaski the "Titanic of its time." Comparisons to one of history's worst naval disasters might be overstated, but like the famous luxury liner, the Pulaski was destined to end up at the bottom of the sea.
The ship that appeared so strong was off the North Carolina coast when one of its boilers exploded. She sank within 45 minutes, taking 128 people, including the captain, with her. Just 59 survived.
The "Wilmington Examiner" published an account of the sinking of the Pulaski on June 18, 1838.
"About 11 o'clock in the night, while off the North Carolina coast, say 30 miles from land, weather moderate and night dark, the starboard boiler exploded, and the vessel was lost."
The newspaper gave a firsthand account from the first mate, identified as Mr. Hibberd, who was briefly knocked out.
"? upon the return of consciousness, he had a confused idea of having heard an explosion, something like that of gunpowder. He discovered that the boat midships was blown entirely to pieces, that the head of the starboard boiler was blown out, and the top torn open; that the timbers and plank on the starboard were forced asunder and that the boat took in water whenever she rolled in that direction."
The crew lowered four lifeboats but two immediately sank, leaving passengers desperately clinging to anything that floated. Hibberd kept the remaining two boats on station as long as he could, but with both full, he had little choice but to pull for shore.
"At about three o'clock in the morning they started amidst of the wailing of the hopeless beings who were floating around in every direction, upon pieces of the wreck, to seek land, which was about thirty miles distant," the "Examiner" reported.
He attempted to land the boats on the beach east of Stump Inlet in Onslow County. One made it through the breakers. The other capsized in sight of land, and another two lives were lost.
Back out at sea, 30 survivors were clinging to a makeshift raft, going without food or water for three days. Finally, with hope all but gone, they were rescued by the Henry Camerdon, a schooner bound for Wilmington.
One account says the survivors included a Mr. Ridge and a Miss Onslow. Mr. Ridge made a raft from an old sail, pieces of furniture and an empty cask. After climbing aboard, he saw Miss Onslow struggling in the water. He helped her onto his raft and begged one of the lifeboats to make room for her, but she refused to leave him. The report states they were taken with each other's courage and fortitude, and became engaged while floating in the middle of the Atlantic.
After they were rescued, Mr. Ridge offered to release Miss Onslow from the engagement. His entire net worth, some $25,000 in gold coins, was lost with the Pulaski. Miss Onslow wouldn't hear of such a thing. She might have been prepared to live with her new love in poverty, but she didn't have to. She was a wealthy heiress worth $200,000.
The tale of Mr. Ridge and Miss Onslow is a wonderful, romantic love story. But that's not what got the attention of treasure hunters. It was the realization that his gold coins, along with those of the other wealthy passengers, were still at the bottom of the sea.
"This was a really fast luxury vessel," Webb says. "This particular trip had an extreme amount of the country's wealthiest folks on board. They carried large amounts of wealth with them, and jewelry because it was a status symbol. From what we estimate, there were 150,000 different coins on board. Pesos, British, U.S."
Finding the Pulaski
The ship and the treasure were lost for nearly 180 years. Officially, that is. The Blue Water Rose crew has heard stories of spearfishermen diving the wreck, oblivious of what it was.
A diver and treasure hunter named Herbert Humphreys Jr. located the wreck three years ago, but he was battling cancer and approached Endurance Exploration Group and offered to sell his list of sites. "He said he had a bunch of wrecks," says Ray "J.R." Darville Jr., a survey engineer with Endurance Exploration. "He gave us quite a few different sites."
One looked particularly intriguing. Reports from the time said the Pulaski went down 30 miles offshore, but Endurance suspected it was farther out. Humphrey's coordinates placed the wreck more than 40 miles from the coast. Darville found it in April 2017 by using side-scan sonar to map the bottom in a 5-by-2-mile grid.
"We found the target and identified the debris field," he says.
Kurt Flitcroft, a 55-year-old search-and-recovery diver from Wisconsin, was the first on the wreck. The dive remains indelibly etched in his mind.
"We had 50-60 feet of visibility that day," he says. "I'm in the open ocean, all alone, very solitary. It was a little bit creepy. As I dropped down, it came into view. I see a huge pile of shipwreck material. Unmistakable. Partitions folded over. The boilers split wide open."Endurance Exploration filed an admiralty claim in federal court to secure exclusive rights to the site, and approached Blue Water Ventures about becoming partners in the recovery.
Wrightsville Beach was the closest port to the site. Webb approached dockmaster Tripp Brice about using Bridge Tender Marina as a base.
"It's the fastest route from the dock, to the ocean, to get to the wreck," Webb says. "I met Tripp and told him what we were doing. He's a good guy. Everything we need is here. Restaurants for the guys, Home Depot, Costco."
The boat began making the roughly 3-hour trips to the site, running at 12-16 knots. Each dive provided further evidence that the Pulaski had been found.
"Everything was starting to match up," Grambo says. "One of the stories was one of the boilers blew its top off, and one of them split down the side. Well those boilers are laying there, one with the top blown off and one split down the side. On the second trip out we started finding treasure. From September to January we found 51 coins."
Rough winter weather forced the crew to leave the site, but they returned in the spring of 2018. Since finding the precious piece of identification, they have continued to gather treasure -- coins from six different countries, including gold pieces from Colombia discovered in early June; a gold necklace; pottery, stoneware and plates; light fixtures; three pocket watches.
Coins and artifacts are buried two to three feet deep, under layers of sand and shell. The crew blasts holes in the ocean floor with huge blowers attached to the stern of the Blue Water Rose, then use metal detectors to search for artifacts.
"We blow for an hour or two to really clean things up, and then we'll go down there and search through the sand and the shell to find coins and whatever else," says Jimmy Gadomski, one of the four divers in the crew.
The boat stays on site from two to five days, depending on weather and supplies. When they get back to the marina, Murphy and Darville, representing the two companies, catalog the finds and record the GPS coordinates.
"This is all documented," Darville says. "Me and Pat both -- no one else touches it -- we tag it and put it in a document. He keeps a record and I keep a record."
The coins are cleaned up, certified, and prepared for sale in the lucrative collecting market by affiliated companies Numismatic Conservation Services (NCS) and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC).
"I keep them locked in the safe until somebody's ready to take them off my hands, and we do chain of custody forms," Murphy says.
The Pulaski is significant because it contains early American coins. The crew has recovered half dollars and half eagles from the 1830s as well as several earlier issues.
"There were not a lot of coins minted in that period," Webb says. "That's why this shipwreck is so special. We're going to find a percentage that are very rare. A certain $5 piece could be worth $170,000."
The crew had recovered more than 150 gold and silver coins through the first couple of weeks of June, but those were all believed to be personal items. The real treasure trove, safes that held most of the passengers' valuables, were yet to be found.
Blue Water Ventures and Endurance Exploration Group are publicly traded companies. Webb is leery of running afoul of Securities and Exchange Commission regulations and is cautious in what he says. Still, he can't help but dream of what lies beneath.
"There could be $20-25 million in coins," he says. "There's no indication how much jewelry the women had. If we found $20 million, we'd be happy as a lark."
The two words conjure up romantic images. Shipwrecks. Gold. Doubloons. Brave men battling the elements and fighting off sharks.
"There is a cool factor," Pat Murphy says. "A lot of times we'll tell people and they don't believe us. No really, that's what we do."
Murphy, "43 going on 12," is the captain of the Blue Water Rose. He was born in Connecticut and now calls South Florida home, but he says he's "from the ocean." He's always been a waterman -- as a salvage diver, commercial spearfisherman, and captain of dive boats, yachts, and charters -- but this is his first treasure hunt.
"I love it," he says. "I was always a big fan of history, especially American history. This combines something that I grew up liking [with] the opportunity to dive."
Keith Webb emphasizes the history aspect when describing Blue Water Ventures.
"I like to say 'historic shipwreck recovery company with a twist of archeology,'" Webb says. "People look at treasure hunters a different way, like they're shady or something. We're an archaeological company that carefully extracts things from the ocean floor."
The historic importance of a shipwreck like the Pulaski can't be overstated. But still, there's something incredibly exhilarating about finding treasure.
"You find a good little pocket of coins, and it's fun," Murphy says. "You get into it. I've spit my regulator out once. I started yelling and oops, well, need that, got to get that back."
J.R. Darville, who's "37, I think," says he's been in salvage since he was a kid. He's worked for Endurance Exploration for 10 years. He looks a little like a pirate with his long beard and close-shaved head, but he's the technical guy on the team, the one who knows about sonar, scanning, GPS, and ROVs (remote operated vehicles). He builds a lot of his own equipment, and maintains it all.
He stays topside and doesn't get the thrill of uncovering the coins, but he experiences the same excitement in finding treasure.
"When the coins started coming up I lost it," he says. "I was like a kid again. We have some video of us cursing and going crazy. We went ballistic. My hands were full of gold!"
Jimmy Gadomski, who's 31, was brought onto the team because of his background as a technical diver.
"They wanted to get more bottom time," he says. "They were getting 20 minutes, 25 minutes at first. Now we're getting an hour on the bottom. But you can't go right to the surface like you would on a normal dive. We'll stay down there and accumulate nitrogen, which puts us in decompression. We do staged stops."
He takes a scientific approach to diving, and has everything planned out on computers. But none of that matters when the first-time treasure hunter is finding things under the sand.
"I've done just about everything I can in the diving industry except for this," he says. "I wish I would have started it earlier. You get all excited down there. I found this little golden box, and this little watch locket. Somebody might have worn this around their neck, I'm not really sure."
That's what Kurt Flitcroft, who left the crew in May, calls "the mystery and the history."
"It's not just about money," he says. "You see part of a boot lying there. Whose boot was that? What was their name? What did they do? What whappened to them? I get chills. There's a story to be told. You think about the travels these coins have made. How did they get here? What was the road traveled?"
The Blue Water Rose is in port. The entire crew is on deck while Murphy and Darville catalog items. Flitcroft points to a couple of objects on the desk where they are working.
"What are these things? I think they are wall sconces, or candle sconces," he says. "This hanging fixture, in my mind's eye, I see that entire fixture hanging from a ceiling on the ship. Was it in the first class dining hall? Was it in the captain's cabin? Where did it come from? What's the story? Pun intended, I'd love to shed some light on it."
Rodney Grambo is the grizzled veteran of the crew, the experienced gold finder. But even he still gets excited.
"There's a passion about it," he says. "You're touching something that hasn't been touched in hundreds of years. And you're the first one to bring it to the surface. Then you get to show it to somebody and say this is what I do. I'm 57. I'm the oldest guy on the boat. I couldn't imagine doing anything else."
It's not all treasure and glamour. There are long days and bad weather. And months away from home.
"It's the most horrible job to have if you have a relationship with anyone," Grambo says.
This operation has unique challenges.
"We generally hunt within sight of land," Grambo says. "When you're out there and you have no reference, it's a little unnerving sometimes. We're 40 miles offshore. We're really, really exposed out there. We've had our butts handed to us, too, when the weather kicked up on us. We're only a couple of miles from the Gulf Stream, and that creates its own weather."
As long as there are coins and artifacts to be found, the Blue Water Rose will stay. They'll be working until winter weather sends them back to Florida. Webb says the recovery operation could take a few years.
And that's OK with the treasure hunters.
"There's nothing in the world like this," Grambo says. "I can't imagine another job that could be as rewarding. It's always nice to be able to say you love what you do."