Bringing up the past: Utah divers bring up a revolutionary war ship

Published: Sunday, Nov. 14 2010 12:10 a.m. MST

It is a windy, wicked strip of the Caribbean and the battle is wildly uneven: three English ships hammering the French vessel Le Scipion and its escort, Le Sybille. Still, Le Scipion, only four years old, is a veteran of this Revolutionary War. She's fought alongside the upstart Americans in the tide-turning Battle of Chesapeake Bay and later in the Battle of the Saints.

Although her captain, Nicolas Henri de Grimouard, and 43 of the crew are wounded, another 15 dead, Le Scipion will not back down.

In the heat of battle, cannonballs flying, the crew manages to rake the 90-gun London, wounding it. Then they race the ship away, into the shelter of Samana Bay, just off the coast of Hispanolia, now the Dominican Republic.

As he tells the story on a recent October day, Wilf Blum is sketching the treacherous Mona Passage on the whiteboard in his Utah office, punctuating it with dotted lines and trade routes and mad scribbles that oddly contribute to the sense of a frenzied fight. There's a chest at his feet and a visitor's quick glance spots photographs and coins and bits of pottery.

"I get caught up in the story," he says. "Stop me if I go on too long or you get bored."

Then he dives back into the October 1782 battle. Enemy fire, he says, can't take her down. But a reef can. As Le Scipion moves to drop anchor, she founders, then begins to break apart. There's just time to get everyone off the ship before she disappears into 25 feet of water.

Nearly 200 years, he says. That's how long she lay there before world-famous diver Tracy Bowden found the ship in 1978. Even then, it would be close to three decades before Le Scipion would get much undivided attention.

Blum is a "recovery" expert in this most unlikely of places, landlocked Midvale, Utah, headquarters of Deep Blue Marine. As he draws pictures and rattles off facts about famous battles and lesser-known ships, the fax machine in the background is spitting out photographs in real time of the items Blum's twin daughters are recovering from the wreckage of Le Scipion: the musketballs and coins, the still-intact vinaigrette and the decorative buttons of the Revolutionary War.

Underwater recovery is not unlike an archeological dig somewhere on solid ground, although it poses very different logistical problems and carries grave potential danger. It's Blum's passion; he got his first taste for diving off the coast of Australia in 1975, where he was serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He took an unsanctioned dive and was hooked. When he returned home, Blum continued to dive for fun while he made his living with real estate and investments.

One day around 2004, lying on his couch flipping through channels, he stumbled on a TV special about underwater treasure hunter Mel Fisher. Fisher had discovered the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon, Nuestra Senora de Atocha. As Blum watched, he was bit anew.

A history buff himself, Blum was sure he'd enjoy salvage work, particularly on historical wrecks. But getting started isn't as simple as buying a storefront and setting up shop. He was already a certified diver, but he needed a vessel, a crew — and something he could legally go after. Most wrecked ships actually belong to the government where the remains lie. And it's a paper-intensive profession, with lots of certifications, permits and documentation required.

Still, he just couldn't shake the notion that great adventures were beckoning. That, combined with his love for history, were all Blum needed. He bought a vessel, then assembled a crew.

His crew includes old friends and family. His twin daughters, Karli Ann and Kerri Lynn, 21, are among the core dive team and his son-in-law, Cohwen Eggli, is one of his favorite deck hands. Randy Champion, vice president of Deep Blue Marine, was Blum's childhood chum back in his native Alberta, Canada.

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