SAUSALITO, Calif. -- The next time your yacht sinks, call Mitch Marken.
"What I'm good at is finding things," said the veteran undersea explorer as he relaxed in the living room of his Sausalito home.Behind him was a huge vintage photograph of the SS Tahoe, a 169-foot steamer long gone but hardly forgotten from the surface of its namesake lake.
Marken, 39, put up the picture years before he was recruited to locate the SS Tahoe's resting place 400 feet beneath the waves. Thanks to Marken's spot-on reckoning, 10 divers will be able to make a death-defying visit to the ship's well-preserved carcass in August.
An icon of bygone times at the lake, the SS Tahoe was scuttled off Glenbrook Cove in 1940. From 1896 to 1936, the queen of the lake had carried up to 200 passengers, as well as heavy cargo, from town to town around Tahoe's 70-mile shoreline.
Eventually, the construction of roads around the lake and the loss of a lucrative mail contract made its operation uneconomical.
Even then the elegant craft -- appointed in bronze, brass, marble, teak and leather -- had come to symbolize a vanishing way of life in the High Sierra. Tahoe shore dwellers "swore that her sinking had been a sacrilege," according to lake historian Edward B. Scott.
Six decades later, the legend lives on. Even people who never saw the SS Tahoe -- that's pretty much everybody -- madly miss her. Photos of the classic craft decorate businesses and residences around the lake.
"It's Tahoe's Titanic," said Marken, an underwater archaeologist who has dived to the fabled treasure ship Atocha and written a book on Spanish shipwreck pottery. "It's from the same period. Even the lifeboats are very similar."
Like the Titanic, the Tahoe has been the subject of intermittent searches over the years. A National Geographic crew, directed by Marken, managed to capture filmed images of the sunken ship in 1993. Others have tried to "salvage" the boat by chomping into it with grappling hooks, causing some damage.
In March, Marken brought the recently formed New Millennium Dive Expeditions team back to the spot where the SS Tahoe rests. The team, led by Martin McClellan of Reno, sent a remote underwater vehicle down to the Tahoe on a reconnaissance mission.
"Without Mitch's help, we would have been a hair to the south, and we might not have been able to find the wreck all day," said McClellan.
He said data gained from the ROV would be essential when he and his team made their daring dive to the SS Tahoe -- the deepest dive ever undertaken at such a high elevation.
McClellan said the divers would be able to spend only about 10 minutes each at the wreck site. What will they do there?
"Various things," he said. "Our task on the first dive is to dedicate a brass plaque to the D.L. Bliss family (former SS Tahoe owners). We'll hang it on the bow, or maybe just set it there. It will have an engraving of all the names of the dive staff."
On subsequent dives, McClellan said, the team will conduct archaeological research -- testing hull integrity and mapping adjacent debris fields.
Some debris on the deck -- including fishing lines and grappling hooks broken loose in unauthorized attempts to snag part of the boat -- might be removed if Marken approves.
McClellan said the dive would be broadcast live on the Internet and taped for a documentary that he hoped would air on the Discovery Channel.