CHAMEAU TREASURE: KEEPING IT MAY BE TOUGHER
FINDING THE: I AST resting place of the French treasure ship Le Chameau (The Camel) off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, was difficult, agonizingly slow and often hazardous. But that was nothing compared to the task Alex Storm and his partners Dave MacEachern and Harvey MacLeod faced when they came to lift the treasure from the seabed where it had lain for two hundred and forty-one years. And now, before they’ve spent a penny of the estimated quarter-million dollars they discovered, they find they have to battle to keep it.
In April, when news of their find was published around the world, two other groups with whom Storm had once sought riches on the seabed laid claim to at least part of the treasure: claims which the courts of Nova Scotia will be asked to consider within the next few months.
But on September 19 last year that headache was undreamed of: as the first instalment of this story explained, Storm and his partners were simply excited because they had found the final resting place of the Chameau. It was a Sunday, and they had been diving inshore for three days before turning to make the day’s last dive in deeper water, about three thousand feet from the rock on which the Chameau was wrecked in 1725. Storm made the dive, and found a pile of rocks almost geometrically laid out, one hundred feet long, eight feet high and ten to fifteen feet wide. Among them he found two lead sounding weights, a beautifully preserved gold watch, some silver cutlery and ten dirty, foul-smelling silver coins.
Then the air in his twin-tank scuba-diving gear ran out and he was left high and dry aboard the Marilyn B II, holding his first treasure. He also held the conviction — al-
though he couldn’t be certain — that he and his partners had done something that most people dream of, but seldom achieve: they had found a long-lost fortune.
Storm and MacEachern, the other diver, could not dive again until their tanks were refilled with air in Sydney, twenty-three miles away. And, anyway, the next day was a Monday, and all three had to be back at work. And the day after that as well. Recalling those two days, Storm later said, “Have you ever seen a man having his first baby? Well, that's what 1 was like, but worse. I chewed my nails. I smoked until you’d think I had a fire in my belly. I kept seeing a sailing ship instead of the drawing board (he’s a draftsman). I didn’t want to eat, and when I did get to sleep I dreamed I was in the genie’s cave, running his treasure through my fingers. And yet somehow I just knew we’d found the treasure: I had a sort of ache to prove I was right.”
But was the treasure still there? Maybe it had become buried under silt and could never be recovered. Maybe the records were wrong and the Chameau didn’t have almost 300,000 French livres aboard. Maybe — this was a
cruel trick for the
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continued from pape 14
Discovery! Would a
cunningly bent nail keep their secret?
mind to play—maybe someone else had found it years before and quietly taken it away to avoid paying the government its ten-percent share under the treasure-trove laws, or to avoid letting coin collectors know of the hoard and perhaps depress the market.
By Wednesday, September 22, the three partners could wait no longer. They took the day off from their respective jobs and set out to end the agony of wondering. I hey sailed the four and a half miles from their hase at l ittle Lorraine to the buoy that marked the spot where Storm had found the coins in water seventy feet deep: it was a piece of two-by-four timber with a nail in the end. a nail bent in a manner known only to the treasure hunters to distinguish it from the decoy buoys they had also laid to confuse what they call “deep-sea gangsters.”
At the buoy, Storm and MacEachern dived down to where Storm had, three days earlier, found the pile of stones which appeared to be keel ballast from the Chameau. Here and there along the pile, black, spongy timbers jutted out. At one end, two small cannon stuck over the lip of the rockpile. Storm's dive on September 19 had taken him about a third of the way down the rockpile from these cannon, and it was here he had found the first treasure.
Now he and MacEachern followed the buoy rope down to the rocks. Storm’s diver’s logbook reports: “I
showed Dave where I had found the coins. After this we both went our ways. I moved a few feet to the norwest of my last find, and sure enough here 1 discovered the remains of a chest filled with silver livres. They were darkened by corrosion, but that did not matter one bit. 1 signaled to Dave and he swam over and I shook hands with him. After this we both started to fill our canvas bags with coins. After thirty minutes Dave signaled to me that we had to surface.
I did same with a bit of resentment, for I enjoyed too much this great moment of collecting handfuls of coins. And then we broke surface and broke the good news to Harvey.”
The sea had at last given up the treasure of the Chameau: the gold and silver sent to pay the armies of Louis XV’s New France.
Perhaps the remarkable thing is that it hadn’t been found before. Everyone knew where the Chameau was wrecked, and its treasure had for two hundred and forty-one years been the target of generations of treasure
hunters. But they all failed to find the Chameau’s last resting place because they assumed the hull lay by the barely hidden reef called Chameau Rock on which the frigate had been wrecked. In fact, tides and treacherous currents had carried the remnants of the hull about three thousand feet inshore— and Storm, MacEachern and MacLeod were the first to deduce this. They had also devised a piece of equipment they called “The Bed,” which was, in fact, fashioned from the end of an old iron bedstead because, says Storm, they couldn't afford electronic metal-detection equipment. Just what it is and how it works remains a secret because, says Storm, “it’s going to find us a lot more treasure and no one ever invented anything like it.” But this “bed,” which looks as though it might have been designed by Rube Goldberg, was apparently instrumental in enabling the three treasure hunters to find the resting place of the Chameau.
So now they took their annual holidays and spent twenty days recovering the treasure from the seabed. Storm
and MacEachern would dive, fill canvas bags with coins, then stack them in a basket made from a dollar’s worth of chicken wire for Harvey MacLeod, the skipper, to haul up to the decks of the Marilyn B II. After that first find of the contents of a rotted chest, it became hard work to recover the rest of the treasure.
Storm later concluded that the money had been stored below the cabin that housed the two stern chaser cannon. Through the years the timbers rotted through and treasure chests and cannon fell onto the ballast rocks below. Thus the rest of the treasure was finally found buried in a twenty-foot stretch of the rockpile. The rocks had become the home of fish and crabs, lobsters, eels, and odd and rarely seen marine life.
As the two divers began to dig — in all they probably shifted ten tons of rocks — crabs and eels and fish of all kinds crowded around, feasting on the tiny marine animals that the men disturbed.
The lobsters largely ignored this
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CHAMEAU TREASURE continued
Suddenly, a raging
sea: would triumph turn to tragedy?
bounty. Indeed, they seemed angry at being disturbed. One day, when the two men had shifted more stones than usual, MacEachern looked up to discover the area was, as he puts it, “lousy with lobsters. It sounds funny I suppose, but they seemed angry, cranky. Everywhere you looked you’d see lobsters standing up on their tails with their claws opening and shutting, opening and shutting, just as if they were about to attack. I was scared I was going to step back into one. I looked over to where Alex was working and I could see a big lobster just behind him, maybe twelve inches away. I've lived by the sea all my life. I know lobsters don’t attack anyone. I know they’re just simple organisms incapable of communicating and deciding to act together. But, dammit, I tell you, that day sent shivers up my spine.”
It was important to keep secret the fact that they had found the treasure. Before it was publicized they wanted the coins cleaned and examined by an expert numismatist — and, besides, they could sell their story to a magazine. So each night they carried the day's treasure haul ashore in a sack which normally held diving equipment, and once an old fisherman who had followed their efforts that summer with amusement yelled, “See, I don’t need dark glasses to shield my eyes against the glitter yet.” They smiled, but it distressed Storm for, as he said, “that old man had been a friend to us and it seemed a shame not to let him in on our secret.”
The first coins they found were all silver, but toward the end of the first day they found nineteen gold louis d'or. Then later they discovered more gold than their research had led them to expect. All the rocks they had to move had become cemented together with coralline, and had to be pried apart with a crowbar. Storm got behind one particularly big rock, inserted his crowbar and flailed the water with his flippers to get leverage. Finally, it rolled slowly over and tumbled down the pile to the seabed, and there in a crevice lay perhaps three hundred coins, about half of them gold louis d’or. It was, in some ways, the most exciting day of all.
Storm beckoned MacEachern over, then showed him a handful of the gold coins. The two men shook hands, then performed a little aquatic jig. When they’d collected a bagful of louis d'or. they surfaced, climbed aboard the Marilyn B II and showed MacLeod. who sang. “Gold-finger, Goldfinger ...”
And then, on the last day's diving and when what the partners estimated as about ninety percent of the Chameau's treasure had been recovered, the Marilyn B II nearly sank in an incident that endangered a large slice of the treasure itself and its finders’ lives as well. Storm had engaged a local photographer to come out with them and shoot pictures of the diving. With them they took a third of the recovered treasure for use as a photographic prop. On the trip out from port at Little Lorraine the engine gave trouble. And then on the re-
turn journey it broke down altogether.
In his diver’s logbook, Storm records the next hour’s events this way: “There was a big sea and high winds. The waves were ten feet tall, and white-capped, and each one came roaring at the boat like a charging bull. We were still about four miles from Little Lorraine, and the shore, which is just jagged cliffs and reefs thereabouts, was about half a mile away. Harvey opened the engine cover to attend to the engine, and then a huge wave came roaring in and smashed my air tanks against the engine, severing the fuel line and the magneto wires and rendering the engine useless.
Would the anchor hold us?
“Fortunately, we saw another boat coming from behind. It was the boat of other divers who had been working on a salvage operation, and they threw us a line. Harvey (MacLeod) tied it to the ring bolt in our bow, but on the first strain the ring bolt was torn out of the wood decking. Then they threw us another line, and because we had nowhere else to tie it, we fastened our anchor to it and then smashed the anchor through the cuddy (wheelhouse) window. Then we jammed the anchor underneath the little seats at each side of the cuddy, and Harvey braced himself with his back against the cuddy wall and his feet against the anchor, holding it in place. And that way they began to tow us in.”
Within a few minutes, MacEachern relieved MacLeod, who went back to fix the engine. The photographer held the engine cover open, but a wave smashed it from his hands and it fell on MacLeod’s head, stunning him. When he recovered, he repaired the smashed fuel line and reconnected the
magneto wires. Just outside Little Lorraine harbor they shed the towline and tried to enter the harbor under their own power. But this time the engine transmission broke down, and the other boat again had to turn back and tow them in.
There were other hazards, other difficulties. But this day alone was enough to explain Storm’s anguish months later when another group of Cape Breton treasure hunters claimed part of the treasure. “God,” he said, “we dived in the sea for it and now these . . . these others are diving in the banks.”
But for eight months, from September 19 to mid-April, Storm, MacEachern and MacLeod enjoyed the secret knowledge they had their treasure safely in the bank, and had legal title to it. Storm had obtained a treasure-trove permit from the Nova Scotia government (it permits him to keep the treasure, provided he hands over ten percent to the province), along with permission from the Department of Transport to keep whatever he found from the Chameau without first handing it over for inspection by the local Receiver of Wrecks, who controls all salvage operations on behalf of the federal government.
The three partners signed an agreement with Jack Stephens, a buildingsupplies merchant in Sydney, twentythree miles from Louisbourg, who also runs a coin shop in the main street. Linder it, Stephens’ responsibility was to market the coins through dealers in New York, London and Paris. And in the meantime, the treasure was stored in the vaults of two Sydney banks.
But in April their find was reported in newspapers around the world. Robert D. MacDonald, a thirty-two-ycarold Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, machine-
CHAMEAU TREASURE continued
Who gets it? The
shop operator, promptly obtained a coiiit injunction ordering Storm and his issociates to hand over the treasure and any artifacts from the Chameau to Cape Breton Sheriff James MacKiliop pending a court ruling on MacDonald’s claim that he and four others were entitled to share it, MacDonald, acting on behalf of himself and the other four, argued that Storm had signed an agreement with them in 1961 under which all agreed to search for the Chameau treasure, and shaie whatever they found.
Tliis injunction was issued in the middle of a week during which Storm and his partners were besieged by a couple of dozen reporters who descended on sleepy Louisbourg to report on the discovery of treasure which was at first—and inaccurately —reported as being worth seven hundred thousand dollars. A CBC film crev joined in and took Storm and Mac Lachern for a helicopter ride over Chameau Rock to film the scene of the wreck of the ('hameau. And when that was over, and Storm had finished answering a call from a woman in California who said her name was also Storm and wondered whether they were rebated, MacLachern sighed and said. "I begin to wish we'd never found anything."
Storm admitted that he had signed the agreement on which the other treasure hunters' claim was based, but he insisted that the group abandoned its search in 1961 or 1962. He says the group asked him to join them after he found a silver coin near (’hameau Rock in the summer of 1961.
At that time he was diving on another, newer wreck as part of a salvage crew run by a Portuguese-born skipper sailing out of Louisbourg. A week after MacDonald obtained his injunction, the Portuguese skipper announced that he, too, was claiming part of the treasure. After all, he said in effect, Storm was working with him when he stumbled on that first silver coin. And at that Storm laughed. "Now everyone wants to go treasure-hunting without getting their feel wet," he said.
Precisely who is claiming how much, is, at the time of writing, somewhat obscure: a judge, and perhaps a jury, will hear these claims sometime soon. Brit until they do, it is impossible to determine precisely how much the treasure is worth, since no one can tell for sure until the last coin is sold. According to early estimates by Storm and his partners, their find consisted of roughly eleven thousand pieces of silver and almost two thousand gold louis d'or. An official count by Sheriff MacKiliop showed they had banked almost eight thousand silver coins and slightly under one thousand gold coins. MacDonald greeted this official count with some suspicion. "It seems to me that Storm must have known what the Chameau carried," he says, "and if he says they recovered ninetypercent of the treasure then either it's not all in the bank or they didn't get it all up from the wreck." It may be so: Storm and his partners have kept the precise location of the Chameau a secret, and when last I saw them they