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A Personal Record of a Lifetime of Diving for Wrecks

The Sea Hunters

By Clive Cussler and Craig Dirgo

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Simon and Schuster

364 pp., $24

Yarn-meister Clive Cussler is best known for his adventure novels whose main character, Dirk Pitt, seems part James Bond and part Indiana Jones in a "Sea Hunt" setting.

In his latest book, "The Sea Hunters," Cussler and his tiny band of volunteers replace Pitt & Co. as the main characters in a set of tales of underwater (and in one case, under parking lot) discovery, frustration, and near-religious devotion to a maxim attributed to the grizzled treasure-hunter taking a break in a waterfront hostelry: "If it ain't fun, it ain't worth doin'."

Cussler's nonprofit corporation, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) - named for the fictional federal agency that puts Pitt in harm's way - has discovered or surveyed 38 ships of historic significance to the United States, many of them Civil War vessels. Cussler has discovered or surveyed another 32 foreign wrecks.

"The Sea Hunters," Cussler writes, is not only his way of documenting some of his successes and failures, but also of giving credit to the many people who have helped him and his agency - from hardy skippers of converted North Sea fishing boats to country sheriffs who loaned him their outboard-powered skiffs.

The book is divided into 10 parts, each dealing with one or more vessels; Cussler likes to double up on search targets when he can. He begins each part with a dramatized history of the ship, then follows with the story of his efforts to find its remains.

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Readers learn, for example, that if Henry Wadsworth Longfellow hadn't been delayed by an argument with his editor over changes to his poem "The Wreck of the Hesperus," the United States could have been prematurely deprived of one of its greatest poets. The ferry Lexington, which he missed literally by a few feet as it pulled away from the pier, caught fire, burned, and sank during its trip from New York to Stonington, Conn. Out of 150 passengers and crew, only a tiny handful survived.

Readers meet a legion of little-known captains, crews, and sometimes ungainly vessels that nevertheless made maritime history - from the Confederate ironclad riverboat Arkansas, which never lost a battle and gave Union Adm. David Farragut fits, to the Zavala, one of a small number of vessels in the short-lived navy of the Republic of Texas.

Part 9 alone, though, is worth the price of the book. Cussler recounts how, in 1984, a hasty (as in beat a hasty retreat) attempt to find the remains of the Allied World War II troop ship Leopoldville threw a wrench into the efforts of the world's intelligence agencies to monitor the start of sea trials for a new French nuclear submarine outside Cherbourg.

His experience left him and his crew so ill-disposed toward the French (and, presumably, the French toward him) that after he outraced French patrol boats and reached port in England, he and his crew pelted an unsuspecting outbound French Navy frigate with potatoes.

Do not try this at home, even under adult supervision.

*Peter N. Spotts is a Monitor science writer.

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