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

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 8:40 p.m. MDT

Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery ship Capt. Billy Rawson, right, of the Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery ship the Karli Ann, and first mate Joe Markovic show many items recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco) Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery ship Capt. Billy Rawson, right, of the Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery ship the Karli Ann, and first mate Joe Markovic show many items recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco)

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.

Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery teams excavate the site of a shipwreck off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco) Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery teams excavate the site of a shipwreck off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco)

"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.

This is a replica of Le Scipion, a classic 74-gun ship of the line that sank near the Dominican Republic in the 1700s. Murray-based Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery is currently excavating the site of the shipwreck of Le Scipion. (Deep Blue Marine) This is a replica of Le Scipion, a classic 74-gun ship of the line that sank near the Dominican Republic in the 1700s. Murray-based Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery is currently excavating the site of the shipwreck of Le Scipion. (Deep Blue Marine)

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.

This map shows the shipwreck site of Le Scipion, a French This map shows the shipwreck site of Le Scipion, a French "ship of the line" sunk during the Revolutionary War, being excavated off the coast of the Dominican Republic by the Murray based business, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery. (Deep Blue Marine)

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.

Blum also took the company public to help finance what can be expensive undertakings. It's on the stock exchange as DPBE.

Some underwater salvage companies specialize in hauling up modern-day wrecks, but there aren't very many that go after history. Blum says there are fewer than a dozen worldwide. Getting started is about meeting others and forming contacts. It didn't take Deep Blue long to locate others who could either use a hand or were willing to give them one. Before too long, Deep Blue's crew was busy harvesting relics of the past from the ocean floor, as subcontractors on permits that Bowden had been issued by the Dominican Republic government. They went to work on Le Scipion in 2007.

Several silver reales, official Spanish currency minted in Mexico in 1542, were discovered by Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco) Several silver reales, official Spanish currency minted in Mexico in 1542, were discovered by Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco)

It's easy to be mesmerized by the shipwrecks, especially when you're watching Blum reach into a trunk to pull out bits and pieces of American history. However, there are other jobs the company tackles that are as technically demanding, though not quite as romantic. Early on, they had a subcontract to help bring up a giant crane that fell into the Colorado River below Hoover Dam. They helped Utah's other underwater recovery company, Cross Marine of American Fork, recover the light plane which crashed into Lake Powell in 2007 with Olympian Rulon Gardner on board.

But they are particularly fond of historical wrecks. Blum and Champion, for example, long to bring up the Bluenose, a famed Canadian racing and fishing vessel that's been depicted on the Canadian postage stamp and dime. It foundered on a Haitian reef in 1946.

In July, Deep Blue added two new contracts of its own in the Dominican Republic: One gives Deep Blue the rights to explore and excavate in approximately 40 miles of coastline on the north shore of the island. And the recovery company has signed an agreement with the Punta Cana Foundation to do research and recovery in a specific area near Punta Cana, a port town on the eastern-most tip of the Caribbean island.

This silver belt buckle was recovered by Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco) This silver belt buckle was recovered by Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco)

The company brings up the past with four boats, which bear the names of the women in Blum's life. The Kerri Lynn and Karli Ann are identical 78-foot boats that are Deep Blue's boat twins, named after the human twins who dive from them. The Lady Laura, owned by Capt. Billy Rawson, is a smaller 40-foot dive boat used for daily transportation to the wreck sites. Laura is also the name of Blum's wife. The last boat bears the name of Blum's nondiving daughter, Amber Jane, 28, and is used to identify the remains of shipwrecks. It is Deep Blue's research ship, now dry-docked on the coast of Florida while the thrust system is reworked, then it will anchor at the Punta Cana site.

Strict rules govern an underwater dig of historical merit, but they vary from country to country. In the Dominican Republic, a government official must be on site, watching to see what rises from the depths. When something's found — and often it will be barnacle-clearing, sand-removing days before they really know what they just pulled off the ocean floor — it must be photographed in place, then drawn into the detail map that staff archeologist Alejandro Selmi maintains with great precision. All this must take place before a find can be lifted aboard the ship and taken to the conservators who clean and catalog items. Deep Blue gets a portion of whatever is recovered from a wreck site, while the government gets the rest.

Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery ship the Lady Laura is seen here on site in the Dominican Republic. The white areas in the water are where airlifts are being used underwater to excavate the site of a shipwreck. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco) Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery ship the Lady Laura is seen here on site in the Dominican Republic. The white areas in the water are where airlifts are being used underwater to excavate the site of a shipwreck. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco)

In September, Deep Blue opened a tiny but extremely well-stocked museum in Samana Bay, a gift to the community. It is rich with remnants of life on Le Scipion. Old sails drape across the ceiling of the 1,000 square foot museum. Visitors snake back and forth past exhibits ranging from the replica brick oven to the authentic chunk of silver that bears the stamp marking the king's portion. The museum is small, says Champion, but packed with history, each bit of space well-used. As visitors wend through the narrow aisles, creaking sounds create a surreal experience. It is to this museum Blum donated his favorite pieces of history: two lovingly restored 18-pound cannons which now grace the deck outside the museum. The 18 pounds refers to the weight of the cannon ball; such a projectile is accurate up to 600 meters.

The past and the present meet in the museum's gift shop, where replicas of historic items are displayed beside T-shirts and Deep Blue's own line of suntan lotion.

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On the day the Deseret News visited the Midvale office, Blum and his colleagues were discussing the pros and cons of very different jobs in two parts of the Middle East. The work can take them anywhere.

"Not very many people do what we do," says Blum. "It's not like Hollywood."

But it does have some of the drama and excitement of a movie. There's something "spectacular" and otherworldly, he says, in underwater recovery. Not long ago, he and Kerri were under the hull and found a copper wash basin from the captain's cupboard. They know precisely who it belonged to. As he touches bits and pieces of long lost possessions of someone now long dead, he wonders about that particular person "and about what the object meant to them."

Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery president Wilf Blum at his Midvale office. (Keith Johnson, Deseret News) Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery president Wilf Blum at his Midvale office. (Keith Johnson, Deseret News)

They've hauled up Revolutionary War grenades — hollowed out cannon balls that had been filled with gun powder — and a jacking bar and musket balls and pottery chards and ...

Most often, they can't tell what they've got until it's on deck and they can inspect it. On Blum's last dive, they found a heavy piece of brass — about 65 pounds — that looked like junk. It proved to be a blunderbuss, a 17th century rail gun. Time, sand and sea life may weld two or three things together in an unwieldy disguise; you have to peel away the layers to see what you have. It's part of the fun.

On the ocean floor, Blum says he learned not to set things down. In your house, it's a mess. Set it back down on the ocean floor, though, and it may simply disappear forever.

Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery archeologists excavate the site of a shipwreck off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco) Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery archeologists excavate the site of a shipwreck off the coast of the Dominican Republic. (Deep Blue Marine Underwater Recovery, Deep Blue Marine Underwater Reco)

Humanitarian work is another endeavor for the company when it's in the Dominican Republic. The Deep Blue crew have provided more than 18,000 pounds of rice and beans to the islanders, along with more than 5,000 pounds of clothing. Such helping hands are made possible by gifts from the Salt Lake community. Deep Blue Marine also boosts the Dominican economy by hiring locals.

One of the things they like best, adds Blum, is showing school kids the fruits of their labors. They love to visit classrooms to show off what they've found.

"Getting to know the ocean is a lifelong pursuit; to know it you have to spend years on it, you have to taste it, you have to be held in its liquid iron grip," says Blum.

You can see more images and find contact information online at alldeepblue.com.

e-mail: lois@desnews.com, Kcox@desnews.com Twitter: loisco

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