Salvaging a sense of history

It was just before lunchtime on 30 December, 1915. The British liner SS Persia was on the well-travelled empire run from London to Bombay, carrying over 500 passengers. The world was at war but, as the ship left the Maltese port of Valletta to make its way across the Mediterranean to the Suez canal, the trenches must have seemed a long way away.

Champagne was being poured in first class when the ship was hit by a single torpedo, fired without warning from a German submarine. Eye witnesses said it sank within five minutes. Some 158 people survived the disaster, but a further 330 men, women and children lost their lives. As well as her tragic human cargo, the Persia took to the bottom of the sea her treasure - millions of pounds worth of gold, silver and diamonds, the hard currency of empire and trade in the era before intercontinental bank drafts.

Until now, no-one has tried to reach the wreck of the Persia. Lying in water nearly 3,000ft deep, it is beyond the capabilities of conventional marine salvage. But for husband-and-wife team Alec and Moya Crawford, who run one of the world’s leading salvage companies from their base in Fife, it was a challenge within their grasp.

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"We’ve known about the Persia for a long time," says Moya, sipping galley tea aboard the Commander Jack, the ship they chartered for the expedition, currently docked at Leith. "But her depth prevented any sort of salvage operation. She had to wait until we developed the technology." Last summer, the technology was ready.

The Crawfords’ attempts to find the Persia and recover its precious cargo were filmed as part of a Timewatch documentary to be screened this week. The Lost Liner and the Empire’s Gold also investigates the actions of German submarine commander Max Valentiner, who chose to ignore the rules of civil conduct at sea by neglecting to fire a warning shot or allow those on board the vessel time to escape.

The Crawfords’ work combines a respect for the ship’s tragic history with the practical considerations of the marathon task before them: the deepest marine salvage operation ever undertaken. With three separate locations mentioned for the sinking, stretching over some 300sq miles, even finding the ship was a challenge.

Stationed directly above it on the Commander Jack, they used equipment specially designed by Alec to lower cameras and cutting equipment to the seabed - a three-hour journey. Once it reached the ship the equipment, remotely controlled by Alec on the surface, had to cut down through five decks on the ship to reach the bullion room. Thanks to the latest technology and the Commander Jack’s stabilising system, even delicate movements could be controlled electronically from 3,000ft above.

"To be able not only to see pictures of what is down there, but to do industrial work at the same time is a major breakthrough," says Moya. "I’ve been involved in the under water business for 20 years and I’m still astonished. This is the leading edge of technology. The bit that you see on-site is only a fraction of the work that has to be done. All the technology you see working here, Alec has put together, working in various disciplines: engineering, electronics, fibreoptics, hydraulics. It’s a tremendous achievement."

However, there were more challenges to come. The expedition was beset by bad weather and other unexpected difficulties, such as discovering that the bullion room lay directly below the first-class pantry which had a five-inch-thick concrete floor. Almost at the end of their allotted time in the area, the lifting bucket kept returning to the surface bearing nothing but debris, causing Alec to remark caustically that he was operating the world’s largest yo-yo.

Moya says: "It takes just as much hard work to bring up a piece of steel or concrete from the seabed than to bring up gold. The engineering work you have to do to achieve that is the same, you still have to give it your all, yet you’re judged to be a success or a failure purely on the value of the recoveries you bring up. That’s quite a hard thing to cope with."

Sifting through the scooploads of muck revealed a range of artefacts: several unopened bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne dated 1909, cutlery bearing the P&O insignia, a briar pipe as fresh looking as if its owner had just tapped out the last of the tobacco, newspapers from the week of sinking. And, on the last day, a horde of rubies, some as large as two carats in size.

Under British salvage law, the items found are declared to the Receiver of Wreck who will make every effort to find an owner. If an owner is found, the Crawfords will receive a "salvage award" according to the value of the goods. If not, after a year and a day, items found in international waters will be returned to the salvagists.

Alec and Moya set up their salvage company, Deep Water, more than 20 years ago, raising a burnt out fishing boat from the seabed to refit as their floating workshop. The story of the business is told in Moya’s book, Deep Water, published in 1999. It’s a story of highs and lows, of records broken and larger competitors left speechless, of danger and drama, of the bank calling in its loans and Alec being arrested in Sicily on suspicion of terrorism, of lasting achievements - the development of technology which is now being adopted by the oil and gas industry - and ambition to reach full ocean depth of 11,000ft.

With the arrival of Robert, the first of their four children, now 24, Moya accepted a shore-based life, managing the family farm in Fife and running the onshore side of the salvage business, holding her own with customs officers and port authorities across the world. Both she as managing director of Deep Water and Alec as technical director are recognised as experts in their field. In 1992, Moya became the first women to address an international salvage conference.

Since their youngest child, Rachel, 18, started university, Moya has returned to work with Alec at sea. All three sons, at different times, have worked with them. "It’s a really amazing feeling being back at sea. When I first married Alec, I was working with him on the Oceanic off the Shetland Isles, going to sea every day. When we had the family, I got the boring bits of the business to do, but it’s great to be back after 24 years.

"I feel very lucky to be 45 and have the family grown up, and to be in this position with the business, at a time when a lot of women are thinking: ‘What do I do now?’ I’m speaking in New Orleans next month, I sit on the council of the Scottish Association for Marine Science. I feel very lucky to have not only a family I love dearly but to have this prospect of a future while I’ve still got the energy to do things.

"When you’re working at sea with your family there are very few special dispensations made for being a wife or a mother, you have to work as hard and as long as everybody else. It’s: ‘Go and get that, mum’ as if I’m still 21, which is a compliment I suppose. Although I have to say after three-and-a-half months on board ship as the only female, I have had a full ten-year quota of certain conversations: football, motorbikes, cars ...

"But the hardest thing isn’t being a woman on board, it is working 24 hours a day under very extreme pressure. The ship is running all the time, so you have to make the most of every moment on site. You get out of bed at 5:30am and think about salvage from the moment you get up till the moment you go to your bed at 11pm."

The Crawfords plan to return to the Persia as soon as the weather calms. Though they will then move on to the next challenge, both agree that it is the most interesting wreck they have ever worked on. Moya’s background research has turned up the remarkable stories of some of the people on board: ex-pats returning from visits home, Indian soldiers from the Western Front, engineers from jute mills in Dundee going to work in the industry in Bombay, the entourage of the Maharajah of Kapurthala who cancelled his own passage on the vessel at the last minute.

Two of the passengers in first class were Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his secretary and mistress Eleanor Thornton. They held hands as a ship sank then became separated; Montagu survived but Eleanor was lost. He later immortalised her when he helped to design the insignia for the fledgling British car company Rolls-Royce: Eleanor is the winged woman on the fender of the great car, commonly referred to as the Spirit of Ecstasy.

Continually, the Persia sent up reminders about her human cargo. Moya says: "As professional salvagists, we have to accept that lives are lost before we do our job. When you look at a wreck it is a financial target, the end has to justify the cost. But to look down and see cutlery, forks and knives, you think of the people who were on it.

"I think you have to be very, very sensitive about the whole matter. When you look at the wreck there are no bodies there, it is just steel and wood, but you’re still dealing with the last minutes of people’s lives. Particularly as we go to sea as a family ourselves, that is something we have great empathy for."

It is perhaps not surprising that she has strong feelings about Max Valentiner, whose actions caused moral outrage across Europe. He was later tried for war crimes but acquitted, claiming he believed the Persia was a troop transport ship. "The actual words in his log were: ‘I assume it is a troop ship’. You can’t tell me he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. He had already sunk the Ancona, which was an Italian passenger ship and, as he did so, he ran up the Austro-Hungarian flag because Italy was not technically at war with Germany.

"I consider it one of the privileges of the job to begin to know people’s stories. I’m very conscious that we have a responsibility to the people who survived as well as those who died, to tell the story and tell it carefully."

• Timewatch: The Lost Liner and the Empire’s Gold will be shown on BBC2, 8pm on Wednesday, 21 January