05/22/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Barry Clifford vividly recalls the moment he saw it. Diving in 20 feet of murky water off the coast of Madagascar last January, he spotted a mound of rocks. Swimming closer, he realized it was a ballast pile, the heavy stones placed in the hull of a ship to help steady it. "At that point I was out of air—I had sucked my tank dry," he says. "I came up and said, 'I've got something.' "
That something may well turn out to be the Adventure Galley, the 110-ft., 287-ton ship on which Britain's Capt. William Kidd legendarily made a bloody but lucrative pirate's living before he was hanged in 1701. Within minutes a fellow diver found an oversize metal oarlock of the kind that might have been on Kidd's craft, a latter-day galley that could be rowed with long oars. Nearby were Chinese porcelain shards of appropriate date. "We're not 100 percent sure," says John de Bry, 56, director of the Center for Historical Archaeology in Melbourne, Fla., who was part of the expedition team. "We need to go back and do some excavation, but so far there is not one single artifact that tells me it's not [Kidd's ship]."
If his hopes are borne out, the ship is the most significant pirate find since Clifford's discovery of the Whydah, a buccaneer vessel that sank off the coast of Wellfleet, Mass., in 1717. After stepping from the water, Clifford, 55, was "ecstatic," says writer Paul Perry, who collaborated with him on the 1999 book Expedition Why dab. "We sat around that night drinking huge bottles of Madagascan beer and eating soggy peanuts."
Clifford, who spent summers as a youth in Cape Cod hearing tales of the swashbuckling Kidd, admits he never outgrew his obsession. "Kidd was a pretty wild character," says Clifford, who knows as much as anyone about the sparse details of the captain's life. Born in Scotland to a Presbyterian minister around 1645, Kidd emerges in the historical records 44 years later as a privateer in the Caribbean. He settled down in New York City with Sarah Oort, a wealthy socialite, and by 1694 the couple owned property on Wall Street as well as a pew in nearby Trinity Church. But Kidd grew restless. The next year he went to London and again became a privateer, hired by the king to attack enemy vessels in times of war.
After arriving in Madagascar in 1697, Kidd made his storied turn to piracy, battling Portuguese naval ships, seizing a Dutch galley and attacking a British-allied merchant ship. That prompted British traders to demand justice. Kidd, seeing the wind was against him, abandoned the Adventure, which had been damaged, in the harbor of lie Sainte Marie and made his way back across the Atlantic. Remarkably word of his crimes had reached the colonies, and he was arrested in Boston and sent to London. Sentenced to death after a two-day trial, the unrepentant Kidd was twice hanged—the rope broke the first time—on May 23, 1701. According to legend he buried treasures of gold and silver in scores of places up and down the Eastern Seaboard, leaving a dead body atop each pile of loot as a ghostly sentinel. Kidd is "the one pirate the ordinary guy on the street could name," says Ken Kinkor, a Cape Cod-based historian who has worked closely with Clifford.
Clifford fixed on the notion of finding the Adventure three years ago, when Kinkor showed him a sworn statement by a pirate named Theophilus Turner describing where the ship went down. After securing funding from the Discovery Channel (which plans to make a documentary of the expedition), Clifford, who has been criticized by some archaeologists for his inexperience in conserving artifacts and for commercializing his findings, hired de Bry. The museum director brought more than expertise; he later discovered a map in the Bibliothèque Nationale in France that purported to show the exact site where the galley sank. Armed with underwater magnetometers and other high-tech equipment, Clifford, his photographer fiancée, Margot Nicol-Hathaway, 31, his son Brandon, 22, and a crew of 10 flew to Madagascar on Jan. 26. Almost as easy as X marks the spot, they found the ship on their second day.
The oldest of four children raised by his stepfather, Robert, 77, and late mother Shirley, both real estate agents, Clifford worked as a lifeguard, gym teacher and construction worker before starting his own boat-salvaging business in the mid-'70s. In 1985, when he dredged up the Wbydah, which he had estimated had $200 million in cargo, he was after the money (there was virtually none). Now he claims he's more concerned with history. "I started with the idea of selling treasure, but I never have and I'm happy with that," he says. "But it was also the people that fascinated me."
Clifford has made it his mission to get others fascinated—and appears to be succeeding. An exhibition of his booty from the Wbydah at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., last year drew a near-record 120,000 visitors. Today, Clifford, who also has two other children, Bryant, 29, and Jennifer, 28, from his first marriage, lives in a cramped oceanside apartment in Provincetown, Mass., above a museum filled with thousands of Whydah artifacts. "People have been writing about the buccaneers for a long while," says Kidd historian Robert C. Ritchie. "But Barry's the first one to come up with a lot of things that tie us directly to that age." Still, some experts dispute Clifford's finding. "I hate to rain on his parade," says Richard Zacks, who is working on a new Kidd bio, "but they didn't introduce iron oarlocks for almost another century."
Clifford admits there's a chance he has found the wrong ship. That's why his crew made a careful photographic record of the site, measured the ballast pile and took wood samples for further analysis. Clifford contacted Madagascar's minister of culture to apply for a permit to further excavate. "We have four wrecks in the area," he says. "The worst case is that if wreck A is not the Adventure galley, then it's wreck B."
Once he confirms his findings, Clifford hopes to create a full-size replica of the Adventure for exhibition in Massachusetts. This probably won't make him rich, but there are other rewards. "There wouldn't be anything bigger than Captain Kidd's ship," he says, smiling, "in terms of talking to your 6-year-old."
Tom Duffy in Provincetown