By Mike White - Stuff
Bill Day has spent 35 years and millions of dollars trying to find one of the world’s most famous shipwrecks – the gold-laden General Grant.
The ship struck the Auckland Islands in 1866 and has attracted pirates, treasure hunters and adventurers ever since. Next week, Day leaves from Bluff on his fifth, and final, expedition to discover the wreck. Mike White meets the man who might finally solve the riddle of the General Grant’s gold.
It was a rare and welcome thing – a calm day in the Auckland Islands, a place notorious for being the storm-slashed graveyard of ships and sailors.
It was January 1986 and Bill Day had just slithered back on board an inflatable boat after a fruitless dive trying to find the most famous of these wrecks, the General Grant. He perched on the boat’s edge, admiring the cove they were in, a waterfall tumbling off one edge, a neat archway piercing a peninsula.
“Isn’t it a pity wrecks don’t go down in places like this,” he lamented to the boatman.
Minutes later, fellow diver Willie Bullock broke the surface clutching a lead weight old ships used to measure the water’s depth. “There’s a bit of s..t down there,” Bullock spluttered.
Day couldn’t believe his ears or luck – an unknown wreck in a beautiful location, which fitted the description of where the General Grant sank with a fortune in gold. He flicked on his mask and fins, and rolled back into the water.
As the bubbles cleared in front of his mask and he dived towards the seabed, Day was already thinking that maybe they’d finally solved the mystery of the General Grant that had confounded and eluded so many, for so many years.
The General Grant had set sail from Melbourne in May 1866, bound for England with 83 crew and passengers on board. It was a 180’ square-rigged sailing ship, built in Maine two years before, and carrying a cargo including wool and skins. But it also carried 2576 ounces (73kg) of gold, probably in bars and sovereigns.
And on top of that, many of the passengers were miners returning home with small fortunes in gold, scraped and scrabbled from the unforgiving earth of Victoria’s goldfields. On the evening of May 13, 10 days after setting sail, the General Grant’s captain was alarmed to hear a cry from the masthead that land had been sighted dead ahead, and altered course.
Half an hour later came the same chilling cry.