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Treasure hunters test Cambodian waters

Treasure hunters test Cambodian waters

A hi-tech expedition is underway to find and recover precious cargos from ships that

went down in Cambodian waters over the centuries.

A French-Australian team of maritime explorers are now plumbing the depths around

Condor Reef - a rock perilously submerged some 70km west of Sihanoukville - in search

of wrecks containing porcelain, gold and other riches.

"During thousands of years Chinese junks sank with porcelain that may now be

worth a lot of money," said Max Couteau, director of Friedlander Cambodia, the

French marine engineering firm granted a five-year exclusive concession to salvage

and exploit shipwrecks throughout the nation's territorial waters.

"The chances that we come across a junk full of porcelain are as high as 80

percent," said Couteau.

Using state-of-the-art scanners, sonars, and metal detectors, the explorers also

hope to discover gold, the currency exchanged by international traders from the 17th

through the 19th centuries as payment for consignments of commodities.

"There was gold on all the boats," Couteau added. "What did the captain

of a merchant ship that sailed from England or France take with him as money when

he sailed to the other ends of the earth? He could only pay in gold. So there are

strong chances we will find gold."

The expedition, launched from Sihanoukville on Feb 28, is only in its survey phase,

but initially aims to pinpoint six vessels whose net-cargo worth could run into the

millions.

Any recovered objects of Khmer origin will be given to the government, according

to the contract signed by Friedlander Jan 6 with Sok An, co-president of the Council

of Ministers.

Valuable objects of non-Khmer origin will be appraised and auctioned by Christie's

International, with 30 percent of the proceeds to go to the "state" and

70 percent to Friedlander and other investors, according to a copy of the contract

obtained by the Post.

Citing security reasons, Couteau kept tight-lipped about the outlay invested by Friedlander

and United Sub Sea Services, its British Virgin Islands-registered partner in the

joint venture.

He also refused to disclose archival information taken from maritime libraries in

France and Britain about the six boats, where they are thought to have foundered,

and the contents listed on their manifests.

The explorers are confident, nevertheless, that they will find what's left of the

John Wade, an American clipper that sank off Condor in 1859, and the Condor, a German

trader that sank off the reef in 1870.

Both ships sailed the trade winds between Bangkok, Canton, and Hong Kong, but carried

commodities which would be of little re-sale value today: Tin, silk, tea.

Yet the adventurers are adamant that the discoveries of these boats should provide

clues about where more lucrative cargos might lurk on the seabed.

"What has sunk on that reef in the past 500 years...I don't know," said

Michael Hatcher, the director of United Sub Sea Services and the project's chief

manager.

"I know that the Condor did. I know that the John Wade did and others.

"What we're trying to do is unlock the past. What we don't know is what sank

there before the John Wade and the Condor. The others, we believe, go back hundreds

of years."

While project organizers are extremely reluctant to speculate on what they might

find, the amount of money and effort being spent seems to point to a reasonable prospect

that they are looking for valuable cargos.

Sources estimate, for example, that the amount spent in the initial phase of the

endeavor alone is close to $1m.

The crew of divers and technicians - whose number will swell to around 40 when the

recovery phase begins - will each reportedly take home six-digit commissions.

The equipment which will be used in the search and recovery is staggering. It includes:

two Wesmar side-scan sonars, a surveying device pioneered by the United States Navy

during the Gulf War and now used by blue-chip petroleum companies; diving compressors

and chambers; auto marine lift bags that can raise as many as 35 tons; hydraulic

winches; sea strobes; pulse metal detectors; and waterblasters.

Two vessels will also be used in the expedition: the Subtec 3 deep-sea barge, and

the Song Sai Gon, a motorized replica of a 17th century Chinese junk.

Aboard the Song Sai Gon is a television crew filming a documentary for Channel 4

(UK) and National Geographic, as well as Hugh Edwards, author of several books on

recoveries of famous wrecks, who has been commissioned by Harper Collins (Australia)

to produce an account of the Cambodian expedition.

And finally, there is Hatcher, the Australian, who in his long career as a professional

diver and salvager of shipwrecks in Asia, has acquired the legend of being a treasure

hunter.

Hatcher, 56, whose English childhood was blighted by parental abandonment, rose to

the ranks of a millionaire in the 1980s, notably with the discovery of the Dutch

East Indiaman Geldermalsen, which sank off Singapore in 1752.

The so-called "Nanking Cargo" - a haul of perfectly intact porcelain from

the Ming dynasty - went under the hammer at Christie's in 1986, reportedly fetching

$20m.

But Hatcher is no stranger to the perils, as well as profits, of his work. In 1992,

as soon as another cache of ceramics had been hauled up from a 500-year-old wreck

in the Gulf of Thailand, machine-gun wielding Thai Navy officers cruised up and relieved

him of the loot - estimated worth $7m to $15m.

Unsurprisingly, Hatcher has developed the reputation of enforcing strict security

on his ships and keeping missions secret, especially in the early stages.

During another of his earlier forays into treasure hunting, the cook and his accomplices

vanished with half of the contents of a lucrative haul from a Dutch wreck.

As a result, sources say that Hatcher is the only crew member who has security clearance

to monitor the side-scanner.

Small wonder that before setting out from Sihanoukville on his current expedition,

Hatcher was touchy about just what he was looking for.

Particularly so when asked about a sunken European vessel, called the Lambden's (or

Lamphden's) ship, which is on Hatcher's list of possible targets.

The ship is apparently one which crashed on rocks, possibly Condor Reef, in the 1600s.

Unlike most Chinese junks, the ship would almost certainly have had a manifest of

its cargo.

"In 1685, the Frenchman Choisy refers to a submerged and dangerous rock on which

several ships have been recently lost," Hatcher said.

"Now, I do not know the names of those ships, and I do not know what they were

carrying. I don't even know if Lambden's ship is on that rock.

"Everyone said the Nanking cargo was in Indonesia. They were only wrong by 47

miles. Now when you're driving a car that's not very far.

"But when you can only do one square mile a day that is a long, long way. If

I knew Lambden's boat was there, I would go to [Condor Reef].

"If I know there's a boat there with $200m on it, I would go there," he

added. "But now, I am only investigating."

Couteau, for his part, is not in the project so much for the thrill of the hunt but

for purely business reasons.

"For me this is not a sport, but a way to bring in money for my enterprise."

After deducting overhead costs and reimbursing other investors, he maintained that

his firm's return would be between 4-6 percent.

Couteau summed up the treasure hunt simply: "There was a merchant who was sending

a shipment of dishes and the transport sunk. My job is to take those dishes and put

them back in a dish shop" - a century or two late.

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