Cover Story

X Marks the Spot

by Mary Tutwiler

How a hunt through basement archives led four Acadiana divers and partners on an obsessive 20-year quest to find an 1846 Gulf of Mexico shipwreck.

Avery Munson doesn’t look anything like a pirate. He’s clean-shaven, tall, slim, and wears button-down shirts, with nary an eye patch or peg leg. But don’t let him near your boat. Within 10 minutes of meeting him, he’ll sweet talk you into pointing the prow due south and heading out into the Gulf of Mexico to go looking for sunken treasure. And you won’t return from the indigo blue waters until you’re out of gas, out of groceries, sunburned, weary, and probably out of luck.

Growing up in Guam, Munson learned how to dive with his brother, King, before the family returned to New Iberia in 1976. The brothers continued their sea explorations, spear-fishing and combing through the occasional shipwrecks they discovered half-sunk in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico.

Their mother, Margi Munson, who was raised in Houma, told the boys about German U-boats that had gone down during the war; she remembered seeing the survivors being brought through town on their way to the prisoner-of-war camp in Jeanerette. When Avery enrolled at LSU, he started digging through records in the basement of the Middleton library and in the Hill Memorial rare books library on campus and found a reference to a sunken ship located in a pipeline right of way.

“I got in touch with Gary,” says Munson.

Gary Hebert is a third generation sugar cane farmer, with family fields south of New Iberia in Lydia. He bought his sailboat, the High Bid, at a sheriff’s auction; it had been seized after running aground on Marsh Island carrying two tons of marijuana. Gary met the Munson brothers spear fishing in the Gulf. “Avery had done some extensive research,” Gary says, “and he had some info from the Navy. So we went back and forth looking with a fish finder. One wreck was where it was supposed to be, and the other we found just cruising around with the depth finder after we had given up. Two wrecks in one weekend — we were hooked.”

That was 1982. Avery started spending all of his time reading historic nautical records, looking at ships’ plans and diving — instead of studying for his finals at LSU. “I failed Russian of all things, an elective,” he says. “I had to tell Pop I was on the five-year plan. I just kept looking for sunken items, drilling rigs, trash.” He managed to graduate and tried to go into the underwater sonar business, an endeavor that failed. So he moved to Seattle to look for a job and wound up selling cars. But every summer he came home on vacation to dive wrecks with Gary.

Another regular was engineer Craig DeRouen of New Iberia. “I’ve known Avery since we were 2 years old,” Craig says. “I’d go whenever I had time. Like when the oil business crashed in 1986, I had plenty of time. We’d go out there and dive these things and they were interesting and all, but we got to talking and I told Avery, ‘If you’re going to do all this research and spend all this time, seemingly you can find something that would pay for itself, instead of a banana freighter. Maybe you could find a ship that was carrying something.’”

During the winter of 1986, Avery read about an 1837 side-wheel steamer, the New York, owned by shipping magnate Charles Morgan. Between 1833 and 1885, Morgan built shipping companies that ran up and down the east coast, then expanded into the Gulf of Mexico, where they plied passengers, U.S. mail and freight between ports. Inevitably ships went down. Three of them sank in the Gulf of Mexico: the Mary, the Josephine and the New York.

The New York was an elegant steamer, writes Jack B. Irion and David A. Ball in an International Journal of Nautical Archaeology article titled “The New York and the Josephine: Two Steamships of the Charles Morgan Line.” Her salon had polished mahogany walls, stained glass windows, and dinner tables set with engraved silver, crystal and fine blue and white porcelain china — decorated with an engraving of the ship with the Texas eagle hovering over her. She maintained a weekly route between New Orleans and Galveston. On Sept. 7, 1846, scarcely 50 miles outside of Galveston, the New York ran straight into the path of a hurricane. Twelve hours after she left harbor, the storm ripped in her starboard guard and wheelhouse, blew off her smokestack and extinguished the boiler fires. The ship’s bell rang one final toll, recounted the Sept. 10, 1846 edition of New Orleans Gazette, and she sank in 10 fathoms of water. Thirty-six survivors clung to wreckage until they were rescued the following day. Lost with the ship, according to The Daily Picayune, Sept. 10, 1846, was “thirty to forty thousand dollars in gold, silver and bank notes.”

That 1846 account of the sinking of the New York caught Avery’s eye. The shipwreck had never been located, and besides the romance of a new wreck, the ship went down with its strongbox filled with coins. “In 1987 I came down from Seattle, but we didn’t find it,” Avery says. The fish finder wasn’t imaging a wreck buried under several feet of sand — but Avery is nothing if not resourceful. The south Louisiana boy in him knew the people with the best knowledge of the bottom of the gulf are shrimpers, whose nets constantly snag on obstacles. So he started reading shrimpers’ logbooks, which wasn’t a cakewalk. “Shrimpers hang their nets on everything — pipelines, wires, hard mud,” Avery says. They hunted all through the summers of 1988 and 1989.

Then came the expedition of 1990. “The first time we missed it,” says Avery. Due to the violence of the storm, the wreck was scattered over a quarter of a mile. “So we went back. We knew it was somewhere in this area.” What they found was part of the steam engine sticking up 2 feet out of the sand. “You could tell when you dove down that it’s part of a ship,” he says.

“We tried dredging,” he continues. “We had a cattle trough to use as a coffer dam. We’d set up the hose, and run this pump, it’s not running well, the sand is like sugar and it would fall in, and we’re digging and digging and digging.” They’d give up for a while and go fishing, but Avery was obsessed.

Craig went when he could. “When I dove it in 1992, they’d already known about it for a couple of years,” he says. “If you know Avery at all, you realize my skepticism kicked in, but he was sure this was in fact it, and that little piece sticking up was the top of the steam engine.”

In 1994 they fell in with some true treasure hunters who went out with them in a 100-foot boat. They pitched in a couple of thousand dollars each, dove and dug holes in the ocean floor for 17 days. It was the equivalent of more than a $5,000-a-day operation. During that dive they found a rock with five coins stuck in it. One of them was a common British sovereign. “We just spent 17 days with divers and pumps, dredges and all this stuff and we found six coins, which in their entirety were worth 80 bucks,” Munson says.

The years passed. “Every time one of our friends got laid off, it was great,” Avery says. “We had somebody we could take.” His brother King’s wife was not pleased that King spent their first five wedding anniversaries on the water. “It was priceless, but as far as financial gain — you could look at it two ways. It’s gone, there’s nothing there, or we’re close. We never doubted it was there. Never for a moment.”

Avery and Gary struggled with the wreck throughout the 1990s. In 1996, Gary met Covington native Renée Blanchard. He taught her to dive, and by 1998 she had fallen in love not only with Gary but with the depths as well, becoming a certified diver and regular member of the treasure hunting crew.

In 2004, Craig was unemployed and went back out to do some diving. After all the difficulty they were having, he decided to design a new dredge. The most famous treasure finder in recent history, Mel Fisher, found the Spanish galleon Atocha, filled with gold ingots and emeralds, by moving sand with his boat’s propeller. “He had a device he lowered off the back of his boat to cover the propeller and direct the thrust down to the bottom to move mud,” Craig says. So he and Gary drew up the plans for the dredge and had it built over the winter of 2004.

The next year, in August, they were back on the water with their new device. They turned on the propeller, let it run for an hour, then Avery and Renée made the first dive.

“That’s when we found the bell, after the very first prop wash,” says Renée.

It was only then, when they read the ship’s name engraved on the bell, that they were certain they had the right shipwreck. “And then we knew it hadn’t been touched,” adds Avery, “because the ship’s bell, there’s only one, and nobody’s going to leave it behind. We were out there about a week.”

Shortly after their big find, Hurricane Katrina hit. They were preparing to go back out again when Rita struck land, and that was it for 2005.

In the summer of 2006 they headed back out in Avery’s 36-foot Navy survey boat, the Imagine That, and Gary’s 42-foot lobster boat, the Barracuda. That summer, after an hour of prop washing, Avery and Renée made the first dive. “Avery pointed at something,” Renée recounts, “and I didn’t know what it was. It was all encrusted, and I thought, oh, a knot of wood, and then he picked it up — it was a coin. We were swimming around and he turned and pointed down, and oh, you could actually identify it. It was a gold coin. It was just beautiful.”

Says Avery, “It’s like finding sunshine on a black carpet. You shine on one with a flashlight, and it shines like it was a mirror.”

They barely could contain themselves until they got to the surface. “Then it got to be like Christmas,” Renée continues. “Avery, he’s real fast. He covers a lot of distance and has a nose for where the coins are. He manages to come up with coins every time.”

“The adrenalin starts pumping,” Gary says. “You get really excited. You forget about how much air you’re using. You forget about how long you’ve been down there and then it starts getting hard to breathe.”

Over the course of the following week, they found coins daily. After five days, the air tanks were nearly empty (there was no compressor on board), food stocks were low and they were running out of fresh water. Renée and Gary made a run into the harbor in Galveston to refuel. “It was a mad rush,” says Renée, “because the whole time, we’re talking to them on the cell phone, and they were finding more and more. We wanted to get back out there.”

Craig had taken a week off to go diving and never expected to find gold. He called his office. “I told them, ‘Well, I’ll be [here] a little longer.’”

Gary and Renée Hebert, Avery Munson and Craig DeRouen aboard Night Moves in 2007

After a day of diving, the crew members would sit out on the deck, drinking beer, cooking dinner and letting their luck sink in. As a child, Gary’s aunt had given him a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. “There’s a part where the pirates are talking among themselves and they’re trying to recruit more pirates to take over the ship, and they referred to themselves as Gentlemen of Fortune, rather than pirates,” recounts Gary. “I always said, when I make it big, I’m going to have a big old boat and I’m going to call it the Gentleman of Fortune. Once we started digging up some stuff, we had to form a company and make a claim on it, and we sat around for maybe one or two beers, and I said, I know, ‘Gentlemen of Fortune.’ It just fit.”

They filed the claim in federal court in Lafayette on Aug. 31, 2006. “We went before Judge Tucker Melancon,” says Avery, “who listened to the evidence and found for us under the Law of Finds, which is finders keepers. The ship has to be abandoned. The ship was uninsured, and we showed him that the chain of title had stopped because the owner was the captain and he died of yellow fever with no heirs in 1847 in Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. So there were no claimants. We did all the admiralty proceedings and weren’t challenged. So we own it.”

After they collected all the easy money — the loose coins — the summer of 2007 proved to be a lot of hard work. The ship’s safe had been crushed due to the violence of the wreck. They knew they had found it, or what’s left of it because they uncovered the key and latch mechanism and hinges. But over the years, all the iron elements of the ship, which included the safe, oxidized. Mixed with sand and clay and seashell, in the course of 160 years, all the metal formed giant chunks of concrete. As they hunted, they realized the bulk of the coins and the remnants of the safe were encrusted in these giant globs of rust.

Cajun ingenuity came to the rescue again. They bought a shrimp boat, the Night Moves, and used the winches and trawl nets to lift the rock-encrusted safe. Munson, who had done underwater archeology field work, called in the Minerals Management Service to help preserve the historic integrity of the site. The New York carried a rare, early form of a crosshead steam engine used by Robert Fulton, and according to Irion and Ball, the vessel is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Currently, rare coin experts are removing the encrustation from the treasure trove. Once that is complete, the coins will be graded and offered at auction to coin collectors.

The Central America, a similar steam ship that went down off the coast of South Carolina in the same time frame, was carrying 16 tons of gold, ingots, gold dust and 5,700 copies of the same coin, an 1857 $20 gold Liberty head. That particular coin was trading for $25,000 before the wreck was found. Once the market flooded, the gold coins devalued to $10,000.

“So in the world of shipwrecks it’s not very big in the monetary payoff,” says Avery. “But in the U.S. coin collecting world, it will be big because of the coins.” Their treasure includes U.S and foreign gold and silver coins spanning a time frame between the mid-1700s up to 1846. “We have Chilean, Colombian, German, Prussian, Italian, Danish, Dutch, French, English, lots of Mexican silver, lots of U.S. silver of all sorts, including some dimes,” Avery says. “They’re all rare.”

A combination of factors drives the rare coin market. Scarcity is the most important: The fewer known coins in existence of a certain mintage or year, the more valuable. The second factor is condition. Mint condition can command hundreds of thousands of dollars; the scale runs from zero, worth nothing, to 66, a perfect coin. Avery says he is more interested in the historic value of the collection. “It wasn’t a mint shipment, it was commerce — that’s why it’s so diverse.”

Will they all be millionaires? “We’re still not really sure of the worth,” says Craig. “And the partnership is just four people. So it doesn’t have to be such a big find to pay off.”

Rare coin dealer John Albanese, who is appraising the collection, says it is worth more than $1 million. His judgment is upheld by Q. David Bowers, a prominent researcher and former president of the American Numismatic Association. “This is the most important group of Southern gold coins ever found on a treasure ship,” says Bowers. “These are some of the finest known Quarter Eagle ($2.50 denomination) and Half Eagle ($5) gold pieces struck at branches of the U.S. Mint in Charlotte, N.C., Dahlonega, Ga., and New Orleans.”

The coins of the New York will be probably be offered on the market in specialty magazines before the fall. “At some point I guess I have to go back to work,” Craig says. “It’s not enough to retire on. All my stuff is still in my office at the consulting firm, but it’s been a year since I’ve been there. But how many times in your life does something like this come along?”

As the four divers and partners wait during the final stages of the coins’ journey to market, Gary and Renee are content to do some spear fishing, and Craig has no problem hanging out on a boat, doing some diving and having some drinks. As for Avery, he still doesn’t consider himself a full time treasure hunter. “No, I call myself a treasure finder,” he says. “There’s a lot less of those.’”