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SHIP OF GOLD IN THE DEEP BLUE SEA, by Gary Kinder, Atlantic Monthly Press, 507 pages, $27.50.

In September 1857, a ferocious storm slammed into the sidewheel steamship Central America as it sailed for New York from Aspinwell, Panama. Though passing ships managed to rescue 153 passengers, more than 400 people died when the ship foundered and sank about 200 miles off the Carolina coast. Lost in the sunken steamer’s hold–and in passengers’ luggage–was an estimated 21 tons of gold from the California gold fields.

In the 1980s, an inventor and entrepreneur named Tommy Thompson set out to find and recover the wreck, using historical accounts, the latest sonar technology, and an underwater robot he designed and built to work in 8,000 feet of water. Most deep-sea search and recovery experts thought it was an impossible task. After technical setbacks, legal disputes, and showdowns with rival treasure hunters, Thompson succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest expectations, recovering rare coins, bullion bars, and nuggets worth perhaps a billion dollars on today’s collectors’ markets.

Alternating between the dramatic events on board the Central America in 1857 (taken from survivors’ accounts and other research) and the 1980s hunt for the sunken treasure ship, author Gary Kinder weaves a remarkably gripping tale. Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea brings to life not only the disastrous wreck, it also evokes Thompson’s quirky genius (he once modified an old Mercedes to run on cooking oil), the dynamics of the modern-day treasure hunt, and the challenges of working at the edges of technology, all in an upbeat and thoroughly satisfying story.

Scott Stolnack is a Seattle-based freelance writer.