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Pieces of Eight and a Green Toothbrush: Buried Treasure of the Baltic

Meri annab, meri võtab (The sea giveth and the sea taketh away)

Today the sea brings a stringer, a joist-like structure which supports a ship's decking. It is knee deep in water and half buried in sand, not more than ten paces from shore. We remove our clothing, get on our knees, and begin carefully carving out sand from around it. It is seventeen meters long, waterlogged, and cannot be lifted. The cold Baltic water splashes our bodies and washes sand back into the trenches we've dug. Two steps forward, one step back.

Jaanus Nõgisto brings a rope, and we tunnel under each tip and secure it. Robin, Jaanus' eleven-year old stepson, and I heave to when a wave comes in, Jaanus rocking the old timber to help it along. One end budges slightly, but we're afraid of breaking it. Part of it still buried, we drop the ropes and continue to excavate. It is the largest piece of shipwreck Jaanus has ever found.

Jaanus uncovers bronze nails, and this excites him even more. "A state ship," he says. "Seventeenth, eighteenth century. Probably Swedish." We dig faster to free the artifact. It has been at sea for three hundred years.

I imagine the captain cursing his crew to drop over the gunwales and inspect the hull. They've hit hard on a sand shoal. This bottom will not move. There is no sister ship to tow them. They'll have to pull it off the shoal themselves. Like us, they affix lines. The shoal isn't large and much of the 20-man crew cannot pull, just a few men assigned an impossible task. It doesn't budge. The captain considers his options.

The tide is in and he'll not get any more lift. If the sea gets angry, a large wave will push the ship over, touching its mast to water. The captain can see men gathering on the shore. Perhaps they'll come to help. Perhaps they'll wait for the mast to touch water and pillage the ship. Perhaps they won't wait at all. Perhaps they'll feign a rescue and murder the captain and crew.

Two hours later we have the stringer on shore. We are two naked men and a boy, dancing around it, pointing, jumping, ecstatic at its condition. Jaanus says we'll have to come back later, when it's drier and lighter, and pull it farther up on shore. Storms come often here. We dress and return to the house, eager to tell someone.

"That's nice," Jaanus' wife says. "You can use it to build my summer kitchen." In the summer, it's too hot to cook inside the beach house, and she has been begging Jaanus to build her an outdoor kitchen. A section of their garden resembles a minor shipyard, piled high with ships' timbers that they've talked about using to build the kitchen, none as good as the piece now resting on the beach.

This piece is too good for the kitchen, Jaanus explains. This piece is so good he thinks the maritime museum will want it. He immediately calls the museum, and while he talks I envision salvage boats and dive crews unearthing a Swedish warship on Jaanus' private beach. I see perfectly preserved, shining brass cannons, pieces of eight, doubloons. For a moment, Jaanus is Jacques Cousteau and I am Robert Ballard.

Until the late 1970s, Estonia did not keep a register of shipwrecks or other objects of maritime interest. Getting to do salvage work in the post-war period of the 1950s and 60s would have been impossible. Pre-war ships were often laden with valuable cargo owned by the bourgeoisie, and there was no desire on the Soviet government's part to call attention to that history.

Things changed in the 1970s when western neighbors started to discover and unearth shipwrecks. The Swedes brought up the battleship Vasa near Stockholm. The Germans found a medieval ship near Bremen. The Danes found a Viking ship in Roskilde fjord. Given the times, these successes could not go unanswered. The Soviets could not fall behind.

In 1978, at the initiation of a fishing trawler captain named Vello Mäss, the Estonian Maritime Museum took up marine archaeology. Mäss formally proposed renting a boat from the kolkhoz Kirov—named for Sergei Kirov, the Politburo member assassinated in 1935 by order of Stalin—to begin registering objects of interest and diving for wrecks. The KGB vehemently opposed Mäss' proposal, but Mäss appealed to the Estonian Institute of History and Academy of Sciences who added their names to the application, mustering significant political influence. Mäss got his permission and a boat.

But permission and a boat hardly constituted professional marine archaeology. Mäss and his crew were still obligated to work their full-time jobs. Mäss was relegated to pursuing marine archaeology more as a hobby.

Mäss' first boat was an out-of-service fishing trawler and not equipped for wreck diving. Mäss, his divers, and a few volunteers worked on their own time to put the boat into shape. The team's first expedition was not until Mäss' summer vacation. It was perhaps the perfect symbol of the Soviet government's commitment to marine archaeology. But Mäss was not deterred. For him, this was no hobby. He had been waiting his entire life for the job.

As a boy, Mäss' heroes were Charles Darwin, Jacques Cousteau, and Sven Hedin, the Swedish explorer of Asia. Mäss was inspired by William Beebe's Half Mile Down, which had been published in Estonian in 1939. In the 1950s, when Mäss was a young man, he and a friend were arrested by the Soviet border guard when they made swim fins by melting car tire inner tubes over wire frames, fashioned their own masks, and set out to explore Estonia's northern coast. The border guards judged them dangerous enough so that their gear was confiscated, and each was required to write and sign a statement reading I will never dive again in my life.

 Despite the improvements Mäss and his crew made to their boat, it still had no sonar, a critical tool for finding wrecks. Mäss was confined to a crude method of search, circling the suspected area and looking for abnormalities on the sea floor, diving when something appeared amiss, or more often, when instinct required. It was a frustrating exercise in trial and error.

Mäss kept an office in the museum and began to record information given him by fishermen, divers, coast guard, anyone with any business being at sea—which was not many. Even Mäss had to do all his work under the watchful eye of the KGB. Mäss made entries in a student's notebook crammed in the top drawer of his desk in the Fat Margaret tower in Tallinn's old city's defense. When he heard of a wreck, he recorded whatever information he could get: rough location (as the fishermen recalled it), what was seen, depth of water, who reported it.

Jaanus, Robin, and I decide to do the same. We purchase a twenty year-old Russian army kayak—a canvas two-seater which can be disassembled and packed into a duffle. Jaanus, an avid sailor, has a hand-held GPS unit that he uses in regattas. I have a mask and snorkel which I'd meant as a birthday present for Robin. For the meantime, we will borrow it. Although confined to shallow water, we are every bit as well equipped as Mäss in 1978. We name our boat Otsija, The Seeker.

I take the stern position and we paddle several hundred meters from shore. I mark the position in the GPS. Jaanus dons the mask and slides over the gunwale. I paddle around in circles, Robin peering over the side into two meters of water. Jaanus surfaces and removes the mask.

"This mask is shit," he says, removing the snorkel and tossing it into the boat. "Where'd you get it?"

"Dive shop," I answer. Considering we call our leaky kayak a salvage boat, I think it is fair to consider Wal-Mart a dive shop.

"Shows what they know about diving in Arkansas," he says.

"Let Robin have a turn," I say. "Maybe it will fit him better."

Despite the limitations of our mask, we find the sea floor littered with treasures, too many to possibly bring up. There are bits and pieces of ships everywhere, not all of them old. We find deck planking, uprights, and fragments of what might have been a strake. We find a wooden boatswain's chair, and Jaanus tosses it aboard.

"Here's some fine china," says Jaanus, surfacing and tossing a rusted teapot full of sand into the boat. "Clean it up with this." In comes a green plastic toothbrush.

"Hey, that's mine," says Robin, reaching for the toothbrush. He holds it up for a look. "No, I guess not. Mine was different."

Jaanus leaps out of the sea like a dolphin and balances himself on the gunwales before pulling himself into the open-hulled kayak. It's Robin's turn with the mask, and he's over the side immediately. With their comings and goings, there's a good inch of water in the boat.

It's easy to see how a ship would run aground here. We are in three meters of water and then, only seconds later, are in less than one. Two boat lengths' away, Robin rises completely from the water atop a boulder.

"Look," he yells, "I'm Jesus." It does have the appearance he's walking on water. But he slips and falls immediately. The rocks are slick with moss.

"So much for Jesus," says Jaanus, sliding into a sweatshirt to keep warm.

The Baltic Sea is one of the most dangerous seas on earth. It is more dangerous than the infamous North Sea, the Estonian coastline riddled with sudden depth changes and thousands upon thousands of uncharted shoals in an archipelago which can easily cripple a modern ship. Today, still visible on clear days off Kõpu Peninsula, is a Russian cargo ship which has rested on a shoal since 1981.

The Baltic is also shallow, which makes it possible for the wind to quickly change otherwise predictable sea currents. The average depth of the Baltic is 55 meters and its greatest depth is only 450. In contrast, the average depth of the Mediterranean is 1,000 meters. The Baltic produces some of the finest sailors in the world, since they must learn to sail under conditions which do not exist elsewhere. Jaanus has sailed around Cape Horn, the famed graveyard of ships, and claims that if a sailor can navigate the Baltic, he will have no trouble with Cape Horn.

But there are no world-famous Estonian sailors. The Baltic sailing season is short, only several months, and the country is relatively poor, as far as sailing nations go. Jaanus says it would be virtually impossible for Estonia or an Estonian firm to produce the two hundred million dollars necessary to fund an America's Cup team. I ask if Estonia could somehow host the race in the Baltic, would Estonians stand a chance of winning. He shakes his head. Under each sail on an America's Cup boat is a professional sailor holding a laptop and shouting trim corrections. Ironically, Jaanus notes, landlocked Switzerland produces the world's finest sailors, not Estonia with two-thirds its border being coastline. Professional sailors sail every day of the year and are paid to live in California, New Zealand, and Australia. An America's Cup captain earns millions of dollars per year. Jaanus says Switzerland once attempted to buy a section of France's coastline in order to make a bid at hosting the America's Cup, but the French figured out what they were up to and refused to sell. It is almost unfair to call the America's Cup a race and the boats boats. Financially speaking, it is a business. Technologically, it is a space program. And poor Estonia has hardly enough money to fund a salvage boat.

It's clear we're not going to find anything good paddling around in our leaky Seeker. My fantasy of finding bronze crosses, a count's signet ring, or a Teutonic sword are unrealistic. We would need serious gear: a metal detector for working underwater, some sort of vacuum, lights, diving equipment, a winch, and this is just the beginning. We'll have to be satisfied with the boatswain's chair, which Jaanus says will make a nice swing for his daughter.

In 1982, Vello Mäss persuaded the government to junk his boat and pay for renovation of another trawler. Mäss ignored sailors' superstition and renamed the boat Mare.

But Mare was no gem. Birches thick as fingers grew between the deck planks. The ship's wheel was missing and had been replaced with a tinker's stone sharpening wheel. But it was completely overhauled, and Mäss now had a boat of professional quality.

In all respects, Mare was an improvement. But the most useful tool was the side scan sonar.

Mäss' wreck register grew to include close to a thousand objects of interest—bells, cannons, ships' compasses, intact hulls, entire ships in pristine condition, even aircraft—objects which Mäss could now explore governed only by the limits of his physical ability to do so.

The Baltic Sea's conditions are ideal for preserving wrecks. The water is extremely cold, surface temperatures ranging from one degree Celsius in winter to an average of 19 degrees in summer. There is little oxygen in the water, and the salt content is so low that freshwater fish co-exist with saltwater varieties. There are also no wood-eating mollusks which condemn wrecks to short lives in warm-water seas such as the Mediterranean.

Wooden ships, under Baltic conditions, can be preserved for thousands of years. As an experiment, maritime museum workers attempted to saw through a small section of a deeply submerged 1300 year-old oak plank. The wood was soft for three centimeters and then was good as new. The workers attempted to deepen their cut and snapped the saw blade in two.

By comparison, iron in the Baltic decays at 100 times the rate of wood, making it, ironically, a more urgent matter to salvage newer ships which have foundered in the dangerous Baltic.

In addition to ideal conditions for preservation, the Baltic Sea has had ideal political conditions. Salvage, even when legal, has been under funded. The Baltic is ideal for a budding pirate like me.

Since childhood, pirates and pirate treasure have fascinated me: gold earrings, cutlasses, secret maps of parchment where X marks the spot. Since coming to Estonia and spending time on the sea, I have heard stories about Mäss. I have heard that he possesses a secret map. I have heard that he has been offered suitcases of money for this map. That he has said no, time and time again. I have heard that it is impossible to buy him, that he has a rigid sense of right and wrong, that he will not sell at any price.

In Estonia, right and wrong are not always clearly defined. Pilfering state assets has made many a politician rich. Western governments and newspapers have blessed this behavior by calling it inevitable. At the encouragement of the West, Estonians have accepted the premise that before a society can have a middle class, it must have the rich and the poor. It must have robber barons before it can have modern American-style success. Estonians must have a Rockefeller if they are ever to have a Gates.

Not all Estonians agree with this. Lennart Meri, Estonia's former president, singled out politicians who became rich in office and called them "the scum on the state cauldron." Interestingly, a mayoral candidate in the capital city of Tallinn once campaigned with the promise of "I'm already rich, so I won't steal."

What I had heard of Mäss was that he was pure, immoveable, physically and mentally tough, and completely uninterested in any personal benefit public recognition might bring. It has always seemed to me that Estonian children have had few public role models. I want to shake Mäss' hand and look him in the eye and form my own opinion. And if I like him, I want to do my part to make him better known.  More importantly, if he is bona fide, I will record him in personal registry, that mental list I keep of people from whom the rest of us take inspiration, people who are absolutely certain of who they are and why they live their lives.

I have also secretly harbored the fantasy that Mäss might see quality in me, take me into his confidence, show me to a secret room, open a dusty war chest and produce the secret map, a thousand Xs marking the spot.

Jaanus knows Mäss and agrees to introduce me.

Mäss meets us in the lobby of the museum. He is a sturdy man, stands five feet nine inches, has a youthful, tanned, absolutely wrinkle-free face. He wears a navy blue felt shirt, black jeans, and loafers. He asks what language I want to speak.

"He speaks Estonian," says Jaanus.

"Good," says Mäss, and takes me to a cabinet full of artifacts from a ship he's recently found. Mäss speaks perfect English—he has published articles in English and regularly deals with foreign maritime museums and other archaeologists—but he chooses Estonian, to either test me or pay me a compliment. Perhaps both.

We make our way through the museum to his office. It is littered with maps. A machine gun hangs from monofilament above his desk, a Plexiglas box forms the magazine, but otherwise the gun is intact. I take hold of the grip and sight down the brass barrel. I have a British man-o'-war in my sights. It's on fire. Sailors are jumping from the rigging. I order her boarded. The king's treasure is mine.

"We didn't have room for that in the display area," Mäss says. Journalists have written that he wants so much to protect wrecks that he refuses to keep any artifacts outside the museum. To avoid any possible appearance of impropriety there is not a single artifact in his home. "So what do you want to know?"

I ask some questions about Mare, fantasizing about accompanying the crew on a dive.

"How many crew?" I ask.

"Six," Mäss says, "Five divers."

"Who's the sixth?" I ask.

"A mechanic. No one else is necessary."

"You're the captain?"

"And diver and sonar operator. I do everything."

"No passengers?" I'm not very large. I don't take up much space.

"If you're not a diver then you're furniture."

I know Mäss is pressed for time. Summers are short in the Baltic, and every minute spent with me is a minute not spent diving. His look seems to say he doesn't want any bullshit questions, so I cut to the chase.

"How many ships have you found?" I ask.

"950 objects." He does not pause to think.

"I've heard you have a secret map."

Mäss smiles broadly. He likes this question. "Sort of," he says.

"Can I see it?" I ask. The worst he can say is no.

He produces a plastic notebook. "See this? This is a code. Then I have a description of the object. For example, this object is a German submarine. If I want to find its location, I take the code to another building, open a safe where I have the locations stored on floppy disk. For security, there are other copies of this floppy disk in other places."

"GPS coordinates?"


I ask about sometimes.

"Each summer," he says, "we can only explore twelve wrecks. I haven't personally seen most of the 950 objects in the registry."

"But you know where they are."

"Roughly. Sometimes I only know within a nautical mile. I could find them easily enough with sonar."

"Why don't you contract with some private organizations? Find the objects. Bring them up. Or at least record their exact locations. You've surely had offers."

"Where business begins, science ends," he answers curtly.

In 1992, shortly after Estonian independence, Mäss was approached by a Finnish diver, who asked if he could poke around some wrecks on the northern coast of Hiiumaa island near the town of Kõrgesaare. To Mäss, the man seemed harmless, a fellow diver with an interest in wrecks, a Finno-Ugric brother, as the Finn himself had pointed out. Mäss sent the diver in the right direction and heard nothing else from him. The next time Mäss was in Kõrgesaare, he asked around, curious about the diver and his whereabouts.

The diver, yes, the townspeople told him. They were familiar with him, certainly. The Finn had purchased property on the shore, where he'd anchored his dive boat and renovated a small house. And he had done more. He had advertised in international dive publications, inviting divers to visit Estonia and dive the wrecks.

Mäss was livid. He'd been taken, and he felt naïve. He now understood the real value of the information he possessed. He paid a visit to the Ministry of Culture, and began proceedings to force the Finn to discontinue his dive business and end the endangerment to Estonian national treasures. In a week, the Finn was sitting in Mäss' office, dangling a fat envelope in front of his nose.

"I pretended I didn't see it," Mäss says. "He put it in front of me and told me that he would now continue to do business."

Mäss saw things differently. The Finn was removed from the island.

Two years ago, a well-known Tallinn businessman approached Mäss in his museum office. The man made no bones about what he wanted or why he was there. But he had an original approach, one Mäss had not seen before.

"He told me that I was an employee of the state, that he was a taxpayer, and he therefore demanded—demanded!—that I turn over all maps and locations of wrecks to him. The arrogance! The ignorance!" Of course, the man was shown the door.

Mass has had his successes, too.

In 1918, during the war for Estonian independence, the British sent a fleet to the Baltic Sea to fight on behalf of the Estonians. At this time, experts believe there were 60,000 mines in the Baltic Sea. Some were anchored in known locations, others came loose from their moorings and drifted, making even friendly waters dangerous. The British ship, Cassandra, hit one of these mines and sank, prompting the British government to recall the entire fleet. The British had had mixed feelings about Estonian independence from the beginning—they supported it, but they also supported the White Russians, who opposed it. Still, they were all fighting the Bolsheviks, and so the British had reluctantly agreed to send a fleet. Now, because of the Cassandra, they were pulling out.

The Estonians dispatched three representatives to London who inquired if the sinking of an English ship meant a change in British foreign policy. Surely slightly embarrassed, the British agreed that if Estonia would supply a pilot for each ship in the fleet, it would return to the Baltic. Over the course of the war, the British supplied 238 ships to the cause, of which 17 sank. All 17 still lie on the floor of the Baltic Sea.

One of those ships, minesweeper HMS Myrtle, was first discovered in the 1980s by a group of fisherman from Saaremaa island. The group had been organized by a young man from Tallinn, who was certain he knew the location of Valeria, a legendary ship of gold. When the fishermen located the wreck, the young man sent to Tallinn for divers. They first found a large stone and then the Myrtle. The young man from Tallinn gave up the search for the Valeria, but the Myrtle location was now known. Vello Mäss added one to his registry.

In 2001, Mäss led an expedition to the Myrtle. The wreck was explored and Mäss' team placed a plaque near its remains. Mäss wrote and directed a documentary film called His Majesty's Warship about the salvage, which has aired in both Estonia and Great Britain. The British, in an ironic repeat episode of the events of 1918, perhaps could have better supported the Estonian efforts. The British provided no funding for the dive and even charged Mäss to film in the British War Museum. There is of course no mention of this in Mäss' documentary.

Mäss made his most famous discovery only recently. In July of 2003, Mäss located the Russian ship Russalka, a ship he had dreamed of his entire career. In 1893, the Russalka perished on a Tallinn-Helsinki journey with 177 souls aboard. It was, at that time, the equivalent of the sinking of the Kursk, and its discovery helped to solidify Mäss' reputation as one of the world's great marine archaeologists. Ironically, technology played almost no part in the Russalka's recovery. A light simply came on in Mäss' head. "Where could the damned thing be?" he told a reporter. "It's there." Mäss drew a square on the map, his crew searched, and in 65 minutes the sonar showed a picture of the wreck.

If I wanted to find wrecks and salvage them, I would not need Vello Mäss' map, although it would save me time. I would need only a modern dive boat with sonar. I would need funding and patience, and perhaps not a lot of either. There are thousands of wrecks in the Baltic Sea. Some estimate as many as 100,000. There is gold—no one has found the Valeria—priceless pottery, ancient artifacts from 3,000-year old civilizations. And to sell the items there is a ready market, ebay, where someone once advertised a piece of a U.S. space shuttle.

No one has come to look at our stringer. While fascinating to us, the piece isn't sexy enough to draw crowds. They have too many projects and too few hands. But out of respect, Jaanus cannot sentence it to life in the kitchen.

Three days later the stringer is still on the beach, and Jaanus, Robin, and I gather to say goodbye. Jaanus removes three bronze nails from the board, one for each member of our crew. Robin salutes the stringer. It seems appropriate, so Jaanus and I do the same. The timber is drier now, and we lift and place it in the surf. The sea will take it.