Barry Clifford's Zany Crew-Including JFK Jr.—Prove That Way Down Deep, They're Golddiggers

updated 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Barry Clifford has a way about him, a kind of contagion that clouds the minds of otherwise normal people. Surely, stumbling on a hoard of pirate treasure and becoming a megamillionaire is a child's dream. But Clifford, 38, has launched an expedition to do just that, and his pitch is so persuasive that a trial judge resigned from the bench to become a deckhand on the mother ship, the police chief of Aspen, Colo. quit the force to sign on as a diver, and no less than John F. Kennedy Jr., 22, enlisted as first mate. As Kennedy says of the silver-tongued Clifford: "He has a good rap."

Clifford's project—an attempt to raise the 1717 wreck of the Whidah from the sea floor off Cape Cod—has one overriding attraction: Eighteenth-century accounts say that the ship was carrying the modern equivalent of as much as $200 million, booty of the legendary buccaneer Black Sam Bellamy. Clifford spent five years studying historical texts and one year taking scientific measurements of the ocean floor before homing in on his wreck.

The enterprise is one of just a handful of operations in North America attempting to raise pirate ships—and certainly the only one that is plagued by paparazzi in small boats, airplanes, and onshore, clicking away at First Mate Kennedy. The Whidah expedition may be the only salvage crew in America that routinely parties with the likes of William Styron, Carly Simon, Henry Kissinger and James Taylor—all of them Martha's Vineyard friends and acquaintances of Clifford, a lifetime salvor, diver and Vineyard restaurant owner who is a local celebrity.

The glorious madness of the expedition becomes evident when Clifford loads up his 25-foot Boston Whaler for the trip from Nauset Harbor to the Vast Explorer II, the 70-foot research ship he bought from the Navy last year, which now lies at anchor over the excavation site off Wellfleet. The whaler is one of the sturdiest small craft on the sea, with two 150-horsepower out-boards and a top speed of about 40 knots. It skips across the roughest waters, challenging lethal storms. On the other hand, loaded with six scuba tanks, bag upon bag of supplies, a heavy magnetometer and seven or eight good-size adventurers, the whaler has a draft of about two feet. This fact assumes crucial importance as Clifford revs his motors and heads for the open sea.

"Find something to hold on to," he warns his passengers as the craft begins to bounce along the waves. "We have to get up a lot of speed."

The whaler, named Crumpstey after a captain whose ship Black Bellamy captured, cuts sharp to port, almost skating on its side as it sends up a plume of spray. "We need more weight on the starboard," Clifford barks through his loudspeaker, and an obedient shuffle of feet ensues.

"There are three sandbars in this inlet that could kill us," crewmember Charlie Burnham, an errant video producer, confides.

"You're speaking figuratively, of course," a visitor asks nervously.

Burnham pauses. "Actually, only the third one could really kill us. The first two would cause a lot of damage."

The whaler is picking up speed, churning a powerful wake that washes onto mussel pickers wading nearby. Since the inlet is shallow, Clifford is hoping that his craft will be able to ride on top of the water, hydroplaning over the danger spots despite its load. He guns the motors and suddenly the sandbar is upon him; his passengers bounce like tennis balls, the Crumpstey rises, slaps the water, rises again and suddenly gains the ocean.

"We had less than 10 inches of water there, folks," Clifford announces in triumph as he turns and heads for the Explorer, three miles up the coast but only 500 yards offshore.

Black Bellamy had less luck than Clifford with the sandbars off the Cape. The pirate met his end one April night when a storm slammed the three-master into a bar, presumably ripping off her rudder and overturning her. Into the sea went about 150 pirates; non-swimmers, like most sailors of the day, they perished. Also lost was the plunder Bellamy had amassed in the two months since he had captured the Whidah, a slave ship, in the Windward Passage and taken her north, looting a half-dozen ships along the way. The treasure has lain below the waves ever since.

As Clifford and his crew charge out to sea on the Crumpstey, the crew of the Vast Explorer wait for them onboard, the dead-of-August Cape Cod sun glaring off the white-tile deck, amplifying the over-90 degree heat. The Explorer's crew—Skipper Richard ("Stretch") Gray, a fishing boat captain, Kennedy, engineer Brad Crosby and diver John Beyer—take on the supplies and the newcomers; that done, Gray grabs his snorkel, flippers and mask and plunges off the aft deck. "I was hot," he later explained.

Within moments Gray emerges from the water with an object in his hand, a black, ugly, carbonaceous lump that only an underwater archaeologist could love. Studded with rocks and the shells of mollusks that might have burbled their last in the Coolidge Administration, the lump is at best uncompelling to an amateur. "I can't say what it is," says Ted Dethlefsen, the former William and Mary archaeology professor who is the expedition's in-house academic, "but it's an artifact of some sort." Here at last is the first proof of Clifford's contention: Something man-made is under there. As one of the crew's less scholarly—but more direct—members puts it: "That's not off a f—-ing Buick. I'll tell you that."

Faced with the knowledge that the Whidah's treasure may have been spread over a four-mile area, Clifford and Co. have been "digging" test holes at sites where magnetometer readings indicate the presence of metal. They use "mailboxes"—vast aluminum tubes that fit over the ship's twin 250-horsepower diesels, directing the prop wash down to blow sand away from the sea bottom and clear the ocean bed. The Vast Explorer is anchored in about 20 feet of water: The mailboxes blow away a layer of sand about 14 feet deep, and crew members dive down for up to an hour, sifting for any traces of the Whidah.

Before the day is out, the expedition's divers emerge from the ocean floor with an old copper nail, a variety of black, gooey chunks and some disappointments. When the captain surfaces with an object that turns out to be ordinary rock, Kennedy derides him with good-humored sarcasm: "This may turn out to be the find of the day." Their most important find on this day is a grungy, U-shaped object so heavy it has to be hauled out of the sea by a winch. It seems to be the rudder strap of an 18th-century boat, an iron piece that helped hold together the massive rudder timbers of a 200-ton ship. In short, one like the Whidah. With characteristic enthusiasm, Charlie Burnham proclaims: "This is the most important day in the history of American underwater archaeology."

It could indeed be significant. By now the Whidah probably has been largely destroyed by tides, but the treasures it carried—gold and silver coins, gems and ivory—are most likely intact. If Clifford finds them, he plans to build a museum around them; the revenue from ticket sales, book royalties and, he hopes, documentary and feature film deals will more than compensate for surrendering the treasure. The process of completely excavating the wreck (if it indeed is the Whidah) by accepted archaeological methods will take Clifford most of a decade.

So far the expedition has survived on about $300,000 raised privately from investors, mainly from Colorado; the Explorer's crew members and backers hope someday to split the project's proceeds.

The Whidah has been Barry Clifford's obsession since his childhood. "I heard about it from my uncle, Bill Carr, who was a treasure hunter," says the Hyannis native. "When I started doing serious research, I had to cut through the legends to get to the red meat. You know how it works: You tell your grandson a story about a shipwreck and say you've seen a mermaid, and he believes it and tells his grandson, and it becomes two mermaids...." In the case of the Whidah, Clifford had to cut away an accretion of myth about Bellamy's love affair with a Wellfleet witch, then unearth a contemporary surveyor's report that pinpointed the site of the wreck. Finally, he had to sweep the area with magnetometers, searching for signs of objects in the seabed to convince government authorities, prospective investors and his 15-person crew that he knew what he was about. It was a work of single-mindedness, almost fanaticisim, but, as one crew member says, "It takes a Captain Ahab to find the White Whale."

Of course, the most famous of Clifford's devotees is Kennedy. An athletic, even-tempered young man whose strident normalness comes as a surprise at first, Kennedy has adapted easily to life as a crewman. He is the expedition's resident wit, bantering constantly with his crewmates. "Who left personal belongings in the dive room?" he bellows when he catches Clifford in violation of a house rule. "Let's throw them overboard."

Many nights Kennedy sleeps over on the Vast Explorer in a cramped four-bunk room forward of the engine room, sharing the space with crewmates who rotate the job of keeping watch on the ship and the site. After one night on land while the Vast Explorer lay over in port for repairs, Kennedy joined the rest of the crew for a trencherman's breakfast—toast, flapjacks, two large apple juices—and a voracious pass at the New York Times. He talks about his boss and his project: "I met Barry on the Vineyard a couple of years ago. We started to talk about diving, and through a shared interest in it we became friends. He was telling me about the Whidah, and he said, 'If you want to do some diving, that's fine.' How often do you get to do something like dive a shipwreck?"

In some ways, Kennedy is the most serious of the crew members. He reads the papers; his mother's copy of The Economist is lying around the pilothouse; and he plans to leave this fall to study Third World problems at the University of New Delhi before working in an underdeveloped Indian village. But he is just one member of a crew that has become celebrated all over Cape Cod. John Levin is a Dustin Hoffman sound-alike who worked as a prosecutor on the famed Serpico cases in New York before moving to Colorado and becoming a judge. Rob McClung was the police chief of Aspen, Todd Murphy, a Green Beret. There are also a rodeo rider and a jet pilot in the lot. They take turns at menial chores at one of the two houses Clifford has rented for the duration.

So far the crew has been paid mainly in local fame. They often visit on the Vineyard—last weekend cruising over to attend William and Rose Styron's 30th-anniversary party—or drop in at clubs and restaurants throughout the Cape. Heads turn when they arrive, as befits a team of heroes. "For me, it was the chance to live a dream," says McClung. For the groupies who spy on their ship with binoculars from the shore and the dignified citizens who quietly stare at the crew in public places, its dream is equally attractive.

For now the dream is still that: Until Clifford can scientifically demonstrate that Barry has found the Whidah, his state-issued permit is limited to making test excavations. Another group of salvagers is trying to lay claim to an area not far from the four-square-mile site he has staked out, contending that they know the true location of the pirate wreck. At a hearing before a Massachusetts regulatory board convened to sort out the dispute, the rival salvors pressed their claim last month. Clifford argued that he should be allowed to bring up pieces of the Whidah wherever he might find them; the Cape's strong currents have presumably caused much of the wreckage to drift far south. Some members of the board indicated that they are inclined to find in Clifford's favor—if he can show that he has the Whidah. To that end, he is back at work, making more craters in the sand, looking for solid evidence.

At the end of another hard day on the ocean, Barry Clifford is ready to turn in by 9 p.m. Some ribbing from his housemates convinces him to make a quick trip to a local club, the sort of Cap Cod roadhouse where the faces—and the music—haven't changed in 20 years. Driving up, he eases a bad back by lying down in the back seat of the car and tells his listeners that the previous night had been a sleepless one. "I woke up in the middle of the night and I was sure that Black Bellamy was there," he says. The car arrives at the saloon, and Clifford and his party enter. Seconds later the music stops, the air conditioning dies, and the lights go out. "It's Bellamy again," says Clifford. Later, as the party leaves, he points across the parking lot to the ocean; the Vast Explorer is anchored just beyond the point of land. Somewhere out there is Black Bellamy. And someday, he and Barry Clifford will meet.

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