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On board with Carl Allen, serial yacht owner and CEO of Allen Exploration
With a personal fleet that includes an aircraft and a submarine, superyacht owner Carl Allen tells Cécile Gauert how, after selling his business, he found new purpose in exploring the deep and researching its pollution...
His last name is Allen, his personal fleet includes a submarine and he loves finding sunken ships. His first name, though, is not Paul. This is Carl Allen of Dallas, married to Gigi, and the driving force behind the Allen Exploration company. “I have been accused of being his nephew a few times,” Carl says of that other Allen, as he comes up naturally in a conversation about shipwrecks. “He’s found the Indianapolis, which was something else,” he says.
If the name of Allen Exploration is not that familiar yet, it is because Allen is only getting warmed up as an environmental warrior, studying plastic pollution and fish migration, with a secondary mission as retriever of sunken history. He recently sold his family’s Heritage Bag Company, a manufacturer of institutional rubbish bags, which he headed for many years. With that, and in spite of his many interests including raising fallow elk, Sitka deer and Russian boars in Tennessee, he needed a new purpose and acquired the tools of his future trade and lifelong avocation.
Travelling with his 50 metre Westport – bought for and named after his wife on her birthday – are his 55 metre Damen support vessel Axis and Viking 52 Open Express Frigate. The fleet also includes an Icon A5 aircraft and a Triton submarine, both stored on Axis’s deck. The support vessel has some uncommon add-ons, including a deep fryer and a smoker grill, hinting at the 26 years the couple spent in Texas. “I love it here. I will never leave Texas,” Allen says.
I meet him in the office of Allen Exploration in a corporate building in Irving, which overlooks a vast swathe of flat Texas land. The fog is thick on a mid-December day but not enough to conceal the startling absence of salt water. An Emmy statuette sits at the centre of the conference table in the hushed, comfortable atmosphere of a plush corporate office. All is oversized, Texas style. “Being right here on top of a building in Dallas, Texas, everybody thinks we’re an oil and gas firm and I have to explain that, no, we are true exploration — our logo is Air, Land, Sea and Below,” he says.
His curiosity for what lies below was born in an unlikely place, the Midwest, where he grew up. He obtained his PADI certification in a sunken quarry in Wisconsin one January, bumping in the dark against an enormous carp. “It was about 60 pounds and I was freaking out.” He kept up diving in fresh and occasionally frigid water until his stepfather – Charles Walgreen III, the grandson of the founder of Walgreens – bought a home in Florida. He was an avid boater and fisherman as well, and the family enjoyed the sea. To memorialise him after he passed away in September 2016, Allen and family dropped an anchor to mark one of his favourite fishing spots.
“When I discovered salt water, that was the end of the lakes,” Allen says. In the salty shallows around Florida he found more, different kinds of fish and the remains of cargos from armadas of ships. It fired his imagination. And then he met Mel Fisher, the chicken farmer turned millionaire and self-confessed part pirate who found the 17th century Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha and its cargo of gold and emeralds.
“A buddy of mine and I decided we were going to take a three day vacation to Key West. I was 20 years old. Maybe 21.” They toured the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and Allen was thrilled. “There is a little sign at the end of the tour that says: ‘This is only 10 per cent of the collection.’ I said: ‘Let’s go introduce ourselves.’” They walked into Mel Fisher’s office.
Allen remembers it very clearly some 30 years later. “He’s just sitting at his desk in a chair much like this one,” he says, brushing the arms of his own chair. “He’s got this necklace; it’s a solid gold cross, and on each point of the cross is a 40 carat emerald. That piece alone is worth millions of dollars. And I’m just fascinated. We’re beginner divers and we’re talking about quitting school, and going to work for Mel Fisher.
“I said: ‘Mr Fisher, with all due respect, you’ve looked for this for 15 years. Have you found everything that is out there?’ His office looked like an old pirate ship and it had sand floors. He was very softly spoken, kind of a quiet guy, and he reaches down, grabs a big pile of sand and lays it on the desk. My buddy and I were thinking, ‘what’s he doing?’”
Allen demonstrates what happened next and all of us around the table lean a bit closer to hear the story. “He pulled off a couple of kernels [grains] and he said: ‘This is what I found. THAT [pointing to the rest of the sand] is what’s still out there.’ And that was the end for me. So I had a career, built my business up and I got to amateur treasure hunt whenever I could,” he continues. On display in the Allen Exploration office are a few of his finds. Nothing quite like the treasure of the Atocha, at least not yet. “I don’t really want to say more than that.”
Part of the thrill of the hunt is the thrill of the find. Allen believes there are billions of dollars’ worth of sunken Spanish treasure still at large – gold coins, jewels and a life-size gold statue. “That turns me on, but I am not after that,” he says. “I have already achieved success.” He believes that whatever treasures are still at large belong, in part, to the country closest to where they lie.
What Allen loves is what these objects say about the people who were alive at the time. He is not a history academic but he knows an awful lot, for instance, about what sailors had to endure during months of travel – including their diet and its consequences. He found a strange object once, a story he tells with glee and humour. A professor at the University of Florida in St Augustine identified the object he had found – a 17th century enema kit. Ask Carl about fish paste sometime. Or King Philip IV of Spain – “kind of a strange dude”.
“Part of what I love about this is that you really learn what people were like back then. They were nothing like us,” he enthuses. “They were tough. They could go weeks without food. Survived sickness and broken bones.”
Allen Exploration’s primary goal is to help governments carry out research into their natural resources. Allen says his years in the family business inspired him. “I was one of the largest manufacturers of trash bags. Part of the give back for me is that I really want to study pollution. We are going to do serious studies along not only the shores of islands, because that’s really where the pollution exists with a lot of bottles and plastic film, but also below the surface and we can make samples with the submarine at different depths,” he says. “Bottles are ugly and they’re hard to look at, but they’re not really hurting the environment. The micro stuff is what we should be very concerned about. And this stuff moves too. It floats.”
He also plans an expedition to the Galápagos, once the permitting of the fleet has been done. “I’m here to research; this isn’t just a bunch of guys running around on jet skis. We’re going to share everything we see, everything we do. We want to work with local education facilities, universities, high schools and townships.”
Allen still is an avid fisherman, which gives him credentials to document what is happening with fish populations. “As fishermen, we’re the best eyes and ears. We know the migrations, we see the schools, the birds, the currents. We have fish aggregating devices [FADS] set up in a lot of places out there today, and that’s another thing Axis is going to be able to do. They’re set in very deep water with buoys and things such as tarps and pallets to attract fish, and they really work. The Bahamas are great because they’re protected, but also they’re the first thing the fish migrating from Europe run into.”
On occasions during our conversation, Allen gets up to check on pressing matters. During one of these breaks I look at the Emmy on the table. When he returns, I ask about it. “I owned about 30 per cent of a company called MandtVR, and we got that for virtual reality and augmented reality. It is something I really get excited about. In the future there’ll be a time when you’ll be able to walk with your favourite golfer live.”
There is much more to this, but we have to end the tale here. Watch for headlines: Carl Allen, retired in name only, will be there soon enough, remaking history.