The killer storm hit Lake Huron with hurricane force at midday on Nov. 9, 1913. Driven by winds approaching 80 mph, snow and sleet whipped horizontally across waves more than 35 feet high. On Huron's western shore, residents of Port Sanilac, Mich., reported hearing a ship's distress whistle, but the weather was too rough for a rescue boat to be launched, and during the night the whistle stopped. The next morning the first body washed up on shore.

The Great Storm, as it came to be known, raged across the Great Lakes for five days. Eighteen ships were lost, seven of those on Lake Huron. Another 20 were badly battered or ran aground, and 278 seamen lost their lives.

One of the storm's most compelling mysteries was the fate of a Scottish-built freighter called the Regina. Although the mournful distress signal off Port Sanilac was believed to have come from the Regina, the ship was never heard from again. The Toronto-based vessel had been shore-hopping, making deliveries when the murderous weather arrived. In 1913 dollars her cargo contained $33,000 worth of Mumm and Veuve Clicquot Gold Label champagne, possibly a dozen cases of Dewar's and Whyte & Mackay Scotch, and, reportedly, a safe loaded with $86,000 in gold coins. In today's dollars the gold alone would have a meltdown value of $2 million, while the coins would be worth considerably more to collectors. As for the booze, a single relatively youthful 60-year-old bottle of single-malt whisky sold for $8,000 at a London auction recently.

Salvage diver Edward Lee Spence, 40, had long been intrigued by the whereabouts of the Regina but never had the opportunity to search for her. Then, last December, after speaking at a salvage conference in Atlantic City, Spence was approached by Wayne Brusate, a commercial diver from Michigan. "Wayne told me he'd found the Regina," recalls Spence. "He asked if it was valuable. He didn't know how to get funding to do the work." Spence did. He contacted a Canadian salvage firm and arranged backing for a $4,000-a-day expedition beginning in September.

Brusate, it turned out, had come across the Regina quite by accident while testing a new sonar device in the summer of 1986. The wreck was resting upside down in 80 feet of water 6.8 miles from Port Sanilac. Since beginning the salvage operation, Spence and company have brought to the surface more than 200 bottles of nicely chilled champagne. Champagne experts say bubbly this old may well be quite drinkable; indeed Spence maintains it's wonderful. They have also brought up 100 bottles of Scotch ("I'm not a Scotch drinker, but this stuff is so smooth it could make me one," says Spence) and hundreds of less valuable artifacts. Among them are several stoppered bottles of Hinds' Honey and Almond Cream. "This stuff," says Spence of the by now vile-smelling cream, "is guaranteed to make your hands look 74 years older."

Spence traces his interest in treasure hunting back to the first time he read Robinson Crusoe. He was a second-grader in a two-room school in Vietnam, where his father was serving as one of the first U.S. military advisers in the '50s. There, the flights of Spence's childish imagination provided comfort from a terrifyingly clear grown-up reality. "My father was in military intelligence," he says. "We knew the horror stories about what was happening. I thought that if anything happened to him, by diving I could spear fish to feed the family and get dinner plates off the wrecks."

By the age of 15, Spence was a certified diver and an addicted treasure-seeker. Back in Tallahassee, Fla., he researched the 1913 Great Lakes disaster. He read about the storm in old newspaper clips culled from the stacks of local libraries, pored over books on various wrecks and sent away for maps and other information. Later, in the '60s, he dived with famed treasure-hunter Mel Fisher and, on his own, discovered a Confederate cruiser, the Georgians, off South Carolina.

But he never forgot the Regina, now lying peacefully on the Lake Huron bottom until diving resumes next spring. Yet to be located is the ship's gold-filled safe, which Spence believes will be found in the captain's cabin, hidden somewhere under the wreck. The gold would mean a windfall for Brusate and Spence, both of whom are entitled to a percentage of the take. But beyond material wealth, the Regina has already paid dividends to Spence, fulfilling a vividly recalled childhood fantasy. "Remember when Crusoe went back and found the spirits?" says Spence, his blue eyes sparkling. "Well, I've eaten off recovered plates before, but this is the first time I've recovered anything drinkable."

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Briggs-Bunting.