Treasure Hunter: Yacht owner Tara Getty on his epic round-the-world adventure
by Stewart Campbell
Captain William Thompson’s orders were straightforward: get the gold out of Lima and transport it to Mexico, away from the rebels threatening the Peruvian capital. It was 1820, and Spain’s grip on Central and South America was weakening. Three hundred years of ferocious colonialism had enriched the motherland but left local populations bubbling with anti-imperial sentiment. When this exploded into rebellion in Peru, the viceroy hatched a plan to smuggle three centuries of loot out of the country in the hull of a ship – Thompson’s.
You turn pirate pretty quick when all that’s ahead of you is ocean and down below is a king’s ransom in plundered treasure. The ship never made it to Mexico. Instead, Thompson killed the guards and set course for remote Cocos Island, a fecund speck 340 miles out into the Pacific off the Central American coast. There, he buried the treasure, thought to include a pair of life-size, solid gold statues. No one knows exactly what constitutes the hoard because it’s never been found.
One of the greatest treasures ever buried remains underground, somewhere on Cocos Island. At least that’s what hundreds of adventurers down the years have believed, one of them Britain’s godfather of speed, Sir Malcolm Campbell. He was obsessed with the treasure and built a boat specifically to find it: Blue Bird, designed by GL Watson, launched in 1938 and now one of the best classic yachts. It was appalling timing – a year later war broke out, the yacht was requisitioned and not handed back to Campbell until 1947. Soon after the land and water speed record holder died, and with him the dream of digging up the Treasure of Lima.
But the story doesn’t end there. Sixty-seven years later, his boat, the 32 metre Goole-built beauty, finally made it to Cocos, and with a tribe of treasure hunters on board – Tara Getty, his wife Jessica and their three children. “We did it – we finished the journey Campbell started,” Getty says. “Cocos has amazing marine life and obviously that was part of it, but the real reason we went there was for the Lima treasure.” Alas, no solid gold statues returned with Blue Bird as ballast (at least, none that were declared). “When you get there you realise why it hasn’t been found,” the grandson of US oil baron Jean Paul Getty says. “The jungle is impenetrable and it’s very lush, with massive waterfalls and mountains.”
Four solid days’ steaming got them to Cocos and then it was a further four to the Galápagos, the westernmost point in the Gettys’ three-month, 15,000-mile journey aboard the yacht they bought in 2004 and meticulously restored. They kicked off the cruise in Antigua in March 2015 and ended it three months later in Fort Lauderdale. In between they visited Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, then it was back through the Panama Canal for a passage up the eastern coast of North America, taking in New York and Nova Scotia. The final leg took Blue Bird back down to Fort Lauderdale, and a transport home to the Med. “The vision for the trip was my children,” Getty says. “My eldest son finished school in South Africa in December 2014 and was starting in England the following September. So we had that December to September period. It was the most amazing opportunity to do something with the children.”
That something started with a five-country tour of Africa, where the Gettys have their home. The option was there to spend the entire period on the boat but “the idea of being stuck on a boat for such a long time didn’t excite Jessica that much”. But there was no negotiation on Cocos. “And once you’re there, you might as well go to the Galápagos. With that in mind, the rest of the trip sort of fell into place,” he says.
The family didn’t spend the whole three months on the boat, instead flying in and out where necessary and sometimes spending weeks on land in the countries they visited. “We’d fly into the Venezuelan jungle and get in cars and do some amazing road trips, and went off in Peru for two and a half weeks while the boat was relocating.”
One of the big questions facing the family was whether to go up the east or west coast of the US. Friends from Boston convinced them to choose the former, and the Gettys didn’t regret it. “The whole New England thing I hadn’t done before, and it was wonderful.” Waking up on board in the middle of New York City wasn’t bad either. The family had been staying in a hotel while in the city, but quickly transferred to the boat after seeing where she was moored. “I’ve got some amazing photos of Blue Bird in this little marina right under the new Freedom Tower. As soon as I saw it I thought, ‘why are we staying in a hotel?’”
Despite the hop-on, hop-off nature of the adventure, there was no escaping the passage out into the Pacific – but nor was there ever an intention to. Getty wanted the complete experience. “Cocos is impossible to get to anyway,” he says. “There’s no landing strip and it’s too far for a helicopter. A seaplane really isn’t an option as out there in the Pacific the swell is 15 metres high, but it’s about 300 metres between crests so you don’t really notice it in a boat.” The family all took turns on watch during the passage, sharing the four-hour shifts. They even strung up a hammock in the wheelhouse to make it a bit more comfortable. “The weather was wonderful,” says Getty. “We had a bit of a funny time at one point but the boat, I thought, handled it extremely well. We fitted zero-speed stabilisers, which were a godsend.” Tradition was maintained when Blue Bird passed over the Equator, with anyone who hadn’t yet crossed it dunked in slops from the kitchen. “My daughter was not happy,” Getty laughs.
Getting permission to land on Cocos wasn’t easy, but nothing would stop Getty from completing Campbell’s voyage – and retracing his steps. The speed legend had actually been to Cocos before building Blue Bird – in 1920, aboard the 37 metre former pilot vessel Adventuress. It was owned by a fellow racing driver and friend, Kenelm Lee Guinness, who Campbell convinced to sail halfway around the world to go digging for long lost treasure. They made landfall on Cocos but Guinness and his friends were soon back on board, driven off by the heat, crocodiles, mosquito swarms and thick, punishing jungle. Campbell stayed on land, accompanied by two crew, and endured for several more days, hacking through the undergrowth following a treasure map, his acquisition of which is a story lost to time. He was, obviously, unsuccessful and soon returned to Adventuress empty-handed for the long trip home. He vowed then that “one of these days, I shall return to Cocos”.
The boat he built for the task was a beauty: high topsides, raked stem and demure funnel just behind the teak pilothouse. He had her built at a commercial yard, the Goole Shipbuilding and Repairing Company in Yorkshire, northern England. It had never built a yacht but it had crafted many tough trawlers, barges and military vessels. Campbell commissioned Blue Bird to have ocean-spanning range and go-anywhere naval architecture, characteristics that attracted the Admiralty at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. The war years almost broke her but she played her part, helping in the evacuation of Dunkirk and later serving in the Irish Sea as a mine spotter and inspection vessel.
After the war, she passed through a series of owners, even Renault kingpin Jean-Louis Renault in the middle of the 20th century. There were stops in California, the UK and finally Holland, where she was found by Getty in the small town of Elburg. She was described as “dilapidated”, but he saw potential. After three years at Astilleros de Mallorca, she emerged gleaming, with a new Bannenberg & Rowell interior. Beyond the aesthetics, she was kept true to Campbell’s vision. “I designed the boat originally for the Indian Ocean,” Getty says. “I wanted two of everything: watermakers, washing machines, dryers, so if something breaks we can continue. At one point our hydraulic pack broke but we had enough redundancies to carry on.”
The island that greeted the Gettys after four days at sea seemed a little more welcoming than the one explored by Campbell. “To me it was the most marvellous place and I was a bit worried about it because Campbell had called it a ‘mosquito-infested pit’, or something like that. And actually it was just charming.” Apart from some rangers and a specialist guide, the five-mile-long island is uninhabited. “You really feel when you’re there that you’ve got somewhere that people weren’t going to,” he says.
Despite not finding the Treasure of Lima, Getty did make one discovery. It has became tradition over the years for visitors to carve the names of their yachts into the island’s rocks, and Getty found Nahlin’s, the 91 metre clipper-bowed classic built in the UK and launched in 1930. She visited the island in 1931, the evidence of which is her name immortalised in stone. Getty found the carving while looking for the one for Adventuress. “He had quite a big ego, old Campbell, and I was sure he would have tapped his name in the rock somewhere, but I couldn’t find him.”
Future fortune-seekers and visitors to Cocos will know his boat, Blue Bird, did eventually make it to the island – Getty made sure of that. “You’re not allowed to do it any more,” he whispers, “but I walked up to a beautiful look-out point, found a little spot and tapped ‘Blue Bird’ into the rock.”