Author of Undersea Thrillers Finds His Own Adventure


Like sirens of Greek myth, the rusted, rotting hulks that lie on the ocean floor or under its silt sing their own alluring songs.

Salvagers and treasure-seekers, hoping for the big find that will fetch either doubloons or top dollar on the collectors' market, hear the syncopated rhythm of clinking coins. Marine archaeologists hear refrains of past civilizations or historic events.

Then there's novelist Clive Cussler. When not spinning yarns about the adventures of Dirk Pitt - a hero he introduced in 1973 - or attending to his collection of antique cars, he's likely to be found researching and looking for historic wrecks. For him, the thrill is in the hunt.

"My accountant, my wife, and a lot of people think I belong in a rubber room in restraints, because they come into my house or my office and there are no artifacts, not a one," he says with a chuckle during a recent Monitor interview in Boston. "I suppose, because I've been able to make a very good living writing books, that going out and finding another million dollars under the sea is not the fascination. The fascination is in finding the ship."

To date, he has nearly 60 finds to his credit, including the Confederate submarine Hunley, the first sub to sink a warship, and its forerunner, the Pioneer II. He recounts highlights from his expeditions in his first nonfiction volume, "The Sea Hunters," published this month by Simon and Schuster.

Mr. Cussler's brief stopover in Boston came as he headed to Maine to try to answer an aviation riddle he says is second only to Amelia Earhart's disappearance.

Twelve days before Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop across the Atlantic, two French pilots tried the same feat. On May 8, 1927, World War I aces Charles Nungesser and Franois Coli left Paris in a single-engine craft christened Oiseau Blanc. Shortly after takeoff, the two jettisoned the plane's landing gear, figuring they could save weight.

As for landing? No problem. They'd perform a belly landing once they reached North America. The two vanished during their attempt, and searchers at the time found no trace of the Oiseau Blanc at sea.

Since then, people have combed Maine's woods for evidence of the pair. Cussler, however, is eyeing lakes. "It's a million-to-one shot," he concedes. But it's a logical approach. If the duo made landfall at all and had a choice, ditching the plane in a lake was preferable to shredding it in a sea of towering evergreens.

In addition, Cussler says he hopes to find remains of the Confederate raider CSS Georgia, which foundered on Maine's rocky coast in 1868.

In fact, many of his targets have been Civil War vessels, whether the CSS Virginia, which battled the USS Monitor to a draw at Hampton Roads, Va., or armed riverboat ironclads such as the CSS Arkansas or the USS Carondelet.

Part of their attraction stems from their locations. Many lie in shallow waters, which are the most accessible to Cussler's low-budget search efforts. But for Cussler, there is a deeper attraction. "I've always been a Civil War buff," he says. "In fact, the ships that always fascinated me the most were the ironclads, because they were the start of an era" in naval warfare. "They were a kind of Neanderthal, a branch that stopped and where we might be related somehow."

Cussler says his efforts also are driven by an abiding interest in history.

"I was born about 80 years too late," he says, lamenting what he sees as a general decline in public interest in history. "If you were a kid in 1910, the Fourth of July was a big deal. You knew all about the Revolution, and you still had Civil War veterans.

"Today, even with all the World War II veterans, kids couldn't tell you anything about World War II And Korea? Forget it!"

Some of the decline he traces to the way history is taught in schools. But the attitude also can be fostered in families, he says. He recalls attending a party with a neighbor who, he says, was worth about $100 million and along with his two sons was an avid diver.

The neighbor asked if he and his sons could accompany Cussler on his second expedition to find the Hunley. Cussler, who largely pays for his sojourns out of his own pocket, says he OK'd the request if the neighbor put up $10,000 to help offset the trip's cost. The neighbor, Cussler says, hasn't spoken to him since.

"If it had been someone earning $50,000 a year, I'd have said: 'Sure, just cover your own expenses.'

"People are not willing to invest in history the way they used to. If I were to say I'm looking for treasure, people would come up with the money. When I say I'm looking for a historic wreck, they're not interested," he says, noting that funding is a significant problem for archaeology in general.

Of the two wrecks he'd most like to find, the Hunley and John-Paul Jones's Bonhomme Richard, he's found one - the Hunley. Later next year, he'll have more time to devote to the second. When he wraps up his current Dirk Pitt novel, which he expects to be published next fall, he says he's ending the series.

"I'm going to take a few years off. I'm burned out," he says. "I'm not like Stephen King. I'm running out of plots. When I write dialogue, I think: Oh no, I used the same line four books back."

At the end of "The Sea Hunters," Cussler writes: "The bottom line is that when the final curtain drops the only things we truly regret are the things we didn't do."

Given his list of targets - from the Bonhomme Richard and Carpathia to the 1880s "ghost ship" Mary Celeste and the grave of Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo - he clearly is trying to minimize any "regrets."

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