I’d heard about a shipwreck that was never found. . . So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go look for it.’ –Clive Cussler
In 1860, a Russian American Company (RAC) sailing ship carrying a precious cargo of ice sank under mysterious circumstances and was lost to history. Over 140 years later, the ship was found by marine scientist Dr. Bradley Stevens. We wanted to know more.
How, exactly, did a biologist doing crab research get wrapped up in discovering and defending a shipwreck?
I was researching the mating habits of crabs in Alaska when Mike Yarborough, an archaeologist, contacted me to see if I’d be interested in looking for the Kad’yak ship. “Why not?” I thought. If I can find a bunch of crabs in 600 feet of murky water with a mini-submarine, maybe I can find a ship.
At what moment did you realize that the search for the Kad’yak had become an obsession?
Mike sent me some materials and as I read through them, the hair on my neck stood up. Questions rushed through my mind. Could the ship still be there? Would any part of it still be intact? And where, exactly was it? Sitting on the sea floor surrounded by some of the coldest water in the world, some of it surely must still be recoverable. I was intoxicated with the idea. The Kad’yak was in my blood, and I needed to find it. . . I spent years of historical research and with the serendipitous discovery of an erroneous Russian map, I was able to determine the approximate location of the ship.
Why was the recovery so difficult to pull off?
As you can see on the map, not only was it incredibly difficult to pinpoint the area of the wreck, the diving conditions were treacherous, and logistics in general were very complicated. Then, friends who helped find the ship betrayed me and tried to claim this significant piece of American history for themselves. Working with professional archaeologists I learned the best way to legally fight pirates was to expose them to the light and recruit public support for historical preservation.
What is the significance of “the saint” and “the sailor” in the book’s title?
The ship’s Captain, Arkhimandritov, had promised the Chief Administrator of the RAC’s wife that he would visit the grave of a beloved Russian Orthodox Priest, Father Herman, and make an offering. But time and work took its toll. When he arrived in Kodiak, he found himself too busy and soon forgot about his promise. Amazingly, when the Kad’yak wrecked, it drifted through a maze of jagged reefs to sink directly in front of Father Herman’s grave, with the top of the mast sticking out of the water, forming the Russian Orthodox cross—a public rebuke that would forever remind the captain of his deceit and haunt the site for over a hundred years.
What advice would you give to marine adventurers who want to search for shipwrecks?
This was the first professional underwater archeological survey ever conducted in Alaska and it set the standard and a precedent for future marine archaeological surveys. We learned many invaluable lessons. Conflicts and arguments over credit for the discovery, ownership of the wreck site, and disposition of artifacts were inevitable. Professional archaeologists can predict and avoid some of these conflicts. Also, through exposure to news articles about discoveries, the public should be made aware of the value of protecting historical sites. Community meetings help to demonstrate that scientists and divers’ primary concerns are the preservation of the wreck site, not removal of artifacts. All of this contributes to a sense of “ownership” among locals and ensures wreck sites are preserved for posterity.
Find out the rest of the story in Stevens’ book The Ship, the Saint, and the Sailor: The Long Search for the Legendary Kad’yak.
Intrigued and want to learn more? Click here to see underwater photos of artifacts from the Kad’yak and maps, like the one above, that Brad used to find the shipwreck.
Meet Brad, as he tells more about the Kad’yak in this video:
Alaska’s land and sea are beautifully described, showcasing Stevens’s deep love for nature. Such details also bring into clarity how dangerous the mission was. Refreshingly honest anecdotes about mistakes, regrets, and difficulties show the human side of the risky undertaking. . . poetic in its approaches to the landscape but is also a factual account that teases out the unseen sides of discovering a shipwreck. –Foreword Reviews