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The Arctic Discoverer

The repurposed research vessel that an intrepid oceanic engineer used to hunt down the treasure of the SS Central America.


The Arctic Discoverer | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

Take a picture, trick!
I'm on a boat, bitch!

This is what I sang to myself as I sprinted across the unsteady plank of wood placed between the dock and the boat and flung myself over onto the deck of the Arctic Discoverer. 

As the song says, I proceeded to take a good hard look at the motherfucking boat. The first thing that caught my attention was that the entire vessel was listing to the side. Years of neglect in the small marina had allowed the hull to rust through in places and water to fill parts of the lower levels. Compared to its more seaworthy neighbors in the marina, the old research vessel looks more like something that would be found in a scrap yard but these rusty remnants are a testament to a real life story of treasure, trickery, and a legal battle that still continues to this day.


A painting depicting the Sinking of the Central America from the National Maritime Museum in London

The story begins in 1857 with another ship called the SS Central America, a 280-foot sidewheel steamship on a course from New York to Panama. The ship was carrying 578 passengers and crew as well as 38,000 pieces of mail and 21 tons of gold, a haul which translates to hundreds of millions of dollars by today's standards.

To be fair, no one really puts much stock in weather reports – how many times has the news said that it will pour rain all day Saturday so you cancel your outdoor plans and when Saturday comes the weather is beautiful and there isn't a cloud in the sky? In the mid-19th century though, the study of

weather patterns and weather prediction was in its infancy. There were no newscasters to stir up a panic and start a stampede on the water isle at Publix whenever a hurricane developed so when the winds picked up and seas became rough off the coast of South Carolina on September 9, 1857, the passengers aboard the SS Central America had no idea what was in store for them.

"On Friday, the storm raged fearfully," recalled survivor H.H. Childs. He was among the passengers who worked tirelessly all day and night to bail water from the vessel as it spilled into the hull and extinguished the boilers.

"The fatal Saturday came at last, but brought nothing but increased fury in the gale," said Childs. "At 7 o'clock we saw no possibility of keeping afloat much longer." He had just managed to grab ahold of a life preserver when "a tremendous sea swept over us and the steamer went down."

Childs was one of only 153 passengers to survive the sinking of the SS Central America. By the time the hurricane had passed, over 400 passengers and crew and 30,000 pounds of gold went down with the vessel and were lost to the sea 160 miles off the coast of South Carolina. The loss of the gold was so significant that it contributed to the financial Panic of 1857, as New York banks were awaiting a much-needed shipment.

Flash forward to over a century later in the early 1980s when a Han Solo-esque oceanic engineer by the name of Tommy Thompson began organizing an expedition to locate the sunken ship and the gold that rested with it on the floor of the Atlantic. Thompson promised investors a spectacular payday and succeeded in raising over $12 million for the expedition.


The Arctic Discoverer | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

For his treasure hunt, Thompson would need a vessel that could be retrofitted with the necessary equipment for their endeavor as well as capable of transporting the unmanned deep sea submarine named "Nemo." In 1988, Thompson purchased a 30-year-old fishing research vessel and icebreaker called the A.T. Cameron. The ship was one of the first to have a global positioning system on board and would go on to be renamed the R/V Arctic Discoverer.

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Tommy Thompson, left, stands at the helm of the Arctic Discoverer in 1991. Photograph: Doral Chenoweth III/AP


The Arctic Discoverer | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

The Arctic Discoverer and its crew set out in the summer of 1988 in search of the sunken ruins of the SS Central America and against all odds, in late 1988 they struck gold – quite literally. Thompson was able to retrieve 3 tons of gold bars and coins from the ocean floor, a discovery that he would go on to describe as "otherworldly in its splendor."

The splendor would be short-lived, however, as insurance companies came along to ruin everything like they always do. Thirty-nine insurance companies, corporate descendants of those from the 19th century, sued Thompson. The insurance companies claimed that they had insured the gold in 1857 and that the find belonged to them. This was quite a stretch, even for insurance companies, and a judge seemed to agree because in 1996, it was ruled that Thompson's company would keep 92% of the treasure, while the rest was to be divided among insurers.


The Arctic Discoverer | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

The R/V Arctic Discoverer continued working at the shipwreck for two years excavating the gold as well as examining and documenting new species of octopus and sharks. Along with their research, the crew also played a lot of Trivial Pursuit, judging by my findings while exploring the old research vessel. The ship was equipped with sleeping quarters for the crew as well as a full kitchen with two stoves, dining and recreation areas, laundry room with a washer and dryer, and a pantry which was always kept well stocked with Juicy Juice.


The Arctic Discoverer | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

In 2000, nearly two decades since he began organizing his expedition, Thompson sold off 532 gold bars and thousands of coins to a gold marketing group for $50 million. The rest plays out like a Han Solo-centric arc of a Star Wars movie. By 2005, the original investors had yet to see a single cent of the grand payday that had been promised to them and two of them filed lawsuits against Tommy Thompson. The following year, nine members of Thompson's crew also filed suit against him, claiming that they had been promised some of the payoff from the discovery as well and had also not been paid.

Thompson then went into seclusion, shutting himself away in his Vero Beach mansion and refusing to use his real name on utility bills after claiming that his life had been threatened. His behavior became increasingly bizarre - or what would be considered bizarre anywhere else, but he was in Florida so his behavior was probably pretty run of the mill by comparison.


The Arctic Discoverer | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

The last sighting of Thompson was by a maintenance worker who recalled going to the house and seeing Thompson on the pool deck, his hair "all crazy", and wearing only socks, shoes, and dirty underwear.

It's unknown exactly when Thompson absconded with his remaining riches. He failed to show up for a court hearing on August 13, 2012, his lawyer appearing on his behalf with only a paltry explanation of his client's absence, claiming that Thompson was "at sea." Tell that to Kanjiklub.

The judge was about as impressed with this explanation as Bala-Tik and the Guavian Death Gang were with Han in The Force Awakens and found Thompson in contempt, immediately issuing an arrest warrant. Inside Thompson’s now-abandoned mansion, maintenance workers and investigators found disposable cellphones, bank wraps for large bills, and a book titled "How to Live Your Life Invisible."


The Arctic Discoverer | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

After two years on the run, Tommy Thompson was discovered only 70 miles away from his former residence. He and his girlfriend had been staying in a $200 a night hotel in Boca Raton and living on a cash-only basis - a scenario that would raise eyebrows anywhere else, but once again; Florida. Thompson finally appeared before a judge, who demanded to know where the remaining gold coins were. Thompson, in an admirable display of dismal honesty or audacious apathy, responded that he was unsure of whom he had given the gold to due to short-term memory loss from a chronic condition he suffers from.

Tommy Thompson was sentenced to 2 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for failing to appear 2 years prior in addition to being fined $1000 per day until he cooperates and answers questions about the whereabouts of the gold. U.S. Marshals believe that Thompson buried the gold somewhere after finding empty tubes in his abandoned mansion.


The Arctic Discoverer | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

Following Thompson's disappearance in 2012, the R/V Arctic Discoverer was seized and sold at auction for $50,000. The buyer planned to strip the boat and sell the scrap metal and a majority of the equipment and logs from the vessel were auctioned off on eBay. Much like how the Millennium Falcon ended up in a desolate shipyard on Jakku, so too was the Arctic Discoverer moored and left to rot. The future of the R/V Arctic Discoverer, the vessel that helped to raise the riches from the "Ship of Gold," remains uncertain. One thing is for sure though; Han shot first.

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