Monday, December 06, 2004


American seeks pirate treasure in Indian Ocean


Concord Monitor online

December 04. 2004

In a lagoon in the Indian Ocean, somewhere 25 feet below the surface, Robert Graf is chiseling off chunks of granite and sucking up sand and grit with a four-inch-wide vacuum dredge.

Graf, a 49-year-old American treasure hunter, is searching for the entrance to a stone vault he believes contains a pirate hoard - part of what many consider the largest high-seas heist in history - stashed nearly 300 years ago.

A former U.S. Air Force technical instructor, Graf breathes through a 50-foot-long bright pink hose attached to an air tank on shore. He wears a face mask, a tattered wet suit and 26 pounds of lead weight strapped to his waist.

Off and on for 15 years, he has been hauling up stone and sand in search of the prize he's confident lies beneath the waters of this rocky beach on Mah_De, the largest of the 115 granitic and coralline islands that form the Seychelles.

Historians believe that cached somewhere in this archipelago are the plunders of Oliver Le Vasseur, aka La Buse, a French pirate who roamed the Indian Ocean during the early 1700s.

For the December issue of Smithsonian magazine, Graf launched into a breathless retelling of how he'd voyaged some 10,000 miles from his Colorado home, married a Seychellois hotel reservations manager and spent more than $450,000 of his own money looking for a treasure that others have failed to find.

"In 1923 a rare storm came through the Seychelles," Graf says, "It eroded many of the beaches." One particular beach was in Mah_De near the home of Rose Savy, a local landowner. Supposedly, the storm exposed boulders on her property with mysterious markings. The markings might be related to a set of 200-year-old papers, which La Buse is believed to have flung at the crowd before his execution.

Graf, who moved to Mah_De in 1984 to manage a satellite-tracking station for a U.S. contractor, first learned about La Buse from a magazine article. By then copies of the La Buse papers were in the hands of another treasure hunter, John Cruise-Wilkins, who was resuming work started by his father, who'd acquired the papers in 1949 from Rose Savy and squandered 27 years looking for the treasure.

Graf agreed to help fund Cruise-Wilkins' project, and the two toiled together in the rocks for four years before Graf broke with his partner over where to search. "Cruise-Wilkins gave me copies of the papers," recalls Graf, "and told me to figure it out for myself." Graf then negotiated an exclusive agreement with the Seychelles government to dig on his own, which he did until 1998, when a license to continue was given to Cruise-Wilkins for two years. In April 2003, Graf once again obtained permission to dig.

Graf says he narrowed his search by trying to reconcile the La Buse papers with the markings on the rocks, which led him to the spot where he constructed his lagoon. "I tried to get into the mind-set of pirates," he says, "I had this dream, and every single morning for two or three weeks I'd wake up wondering 'What does this single dot on the rocks mean?'"
Today it's thought that La Buse's share of the Cabo heist could be worth $200 million, but Graf says that figure varies depending on who you talk to. He's heard sums as high as $500 million. "But even if it's only $5 million," he says, "that's still a lot of money." Uunder Seychelles law, he says, half of any earnings must go to the government. Yet time is running out. Graf's excavation permit is due to expire in April 2005, and Cruise-Wilkins is standing by, ready for a third assault.

Graf insists that he is closer than ever to a narrow channel that he says will lead him to the vault La Buse alludes to in his papers. However, when the so-called ceiling of the channel begins to collapse, Graf says he'll have to dig out part of the ceiling to prevent a cave-in - a setback that will cost him a least a couple of more months.

In the meantime, he'll have to persuade his wife to hold out a bit longer. "She's sick of it," he says. "She wants me to go back to the states so I can take a 9-to-5 job. But I won't do it. I've got five different letters that point to the same spot. The treasure has been sitting there for 300 years and I've only got a couple of feet to go."

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