The Explorers

There’s not much of the earth that remains incognito—no source of the Nile left to find, no highest peak to climb for the first time, no pole that hasn’t been reached. But there are still discoveries to be made. A handful of Delawareans have dedicated their lives to some of the most interesting.

Vince Capone, Peter Hess and Ric Gillespie, some local members of the world-famous Explorers Club. Photograph by Tom NutterWhen Vince Capone answers the phone, he hopes it’s a call to drop what he’s doing and set off on an underwater archeological expedition. He shares a common bond with Ric Gillespie, who tracks down lost aircraft, and Peter Hess, who has a passion for locating Revolutionary War shipwrecks.

These Delawareans are active members of the Explorers Club, an international society of living and long-gone great adventurers. The Explorers Club, headquartered in New York, is the world’s preeminent organization of men and women who have conquered the earth’s major landmarks or researchers who have completed challenging field expeditions in the name of science. Each of these three guys has notched a unique discovery that qualifies him to be in the league of club members such as Robert Peary, first to reach the North Pole; Sir Edmund Hillary, first to summit Mt. Everest; and astronaut Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon.

Silver ingots and pieces of eight found in the wreck of the 1622 galleon Atocha. Photograph by Peter HessCapone, a business owner from Hockessin, is a modern explorer who searches in a different way for different things. He’s a high-tech guy who is frequently called upon to use side-scanning sonar to help find historic ships and other important objects at the bottom of the sea. “With these devices, we can explore for things much more efficiently,” Capone says. “We can now take on projects that would not have been considered feasible with submarines or other devices.”

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Gillespie in Wales, searching for The Maid of Harlech, a crashed P-38 warplane.Capone pays the bills by doing a lot of work for the U.S. Department of Defense and scientific projects for other government agencies, but he never passes up a chance to explore for something more challenging.

Capone got into The Explorers Club by finding boats from the French and Indian War on the bottom of Lake George in New York. He remains active in Bateau Below, the organization that continues to work on Lake George, and he’s helped with other archeological projects. He recently got a call to start looking for the Alligator Junior, a prototype of our country’s first wartime submarine, the Alligator. Both were built in Philadelphia in the mid-19th century, and the Alligator Junior spent some time in New Castle. It is thought to be lying in the Rancocas Creek near Camden, New Jersey.

Hess, of Wilmington, is also an underwater explorer, but he often searches the old fashioned way—by plunging into the murky depths wearing scuba gear. Hess took up scuba diving in high school. Diving in New Jersey’s Mullica River several years later, he found the wreck of a 200-year-old riverboat.

Vince Capone (right) and crew found America’s oldest intact warship in Lake George, New York, which sunk in 1757.“During the Revolutionary War, crafty Continental privateers—a euphemism for pirates—would scamper out of the river and waylay British supply ships that were on their way to New York Harbor,” Hess says. “The munitions and supplies they captured were very important for our underfunded revolutionary army.” The find led to his membership in The Explorers Club.

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Hess is a maritime attorney with expertise in the rights of salvers and preservationists. Treasure hunters have stepped up efforts to find shipwrecks, so there is increased legal wrangling between the salvers and the preservationists, who want to protect the wrecks and their riches. Hess consults with other club members on legal issues, and he regularly conducts field work to find other wrecks.

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Hess shows a small anchor from a Revolutionary War shipwreck in the nearby Mullica River of New Jersey. Photograph by Gary GentileGillespie, of Wilmington, may be Delaware’s most dedicated explorer. He and his wife, Pat Thrasher, work full time at finding lost aircraft. They conduct their work and support themselves through The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR (pronounced like “tiger”), a nonprofit foundation whose revenue comes mostly from a few hundred aviation buffs.

Gillespie’s ticket into The Explorers Club was the 2006 book “Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance.”

Ric Gillespie maps an archaeological site during an expedition to search for Amelia Earhart’s missing plane on Nikumaroro Island in 2007. “The search for Earhart was mismanaged,” he says. “A lot of information was overlooked, leads were dropped, and there was no attempt to coordinate all of the work that was done. The picture became much clearer when I pieced everything together.”

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Gillespie’s book painstakingly ties together conflicting information from earlier investigations and adds his own findings from six expeditions to the South Pacific. He generated considerable publicity from his hypothesis that Earhart survived a crash in shallow water off Nikumaroro Island, which is close to Howland Island, her intended destination.

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Capone operates an underwater robot on World War II shipwreck Alexander Macomb. Gillespie contends Earhart set up camp on the island and for several days transmitted messages, which other investigators noted. He has a piece of aircraft aluminum and remnants of a shoe he says support his conclusions that she was on Nikumaroro.

The work of these Delawareans is noteworthy. Membership in The Explorers Club is formal recognition of their feats. With dwindling terra incognita, the club is now focused on cultural and scientific research, similar to the work of our Delawareans. 

But there’s another side to the club. “The Explorers Club is different from most others,” says John Levinson of Rockland, a retired surgeon who was the organization’s president from 1985 to 1987. “It’s organized from the bottom up, not from the top down. Many of the members are not primarily interested in the club’s activities. Instead, they tend to be preoccupied with promoting themselves and their own accomplishments.”

Peter Hess displays the first piece of dinnerware found and recovered from the famous USS Monitor. Photograph by Gary GentileIt’s logical that Explorer Club members might have some idiosyncrasies. Hess has proven a commitment to advancing cultural heritage by searching for Revolutionary War shipwrecks, and he has helped out the club by serving in several positions. But there might be more to his interest.

Several wrecks have recently yielded lucrative bounties. In 1985, an American salver found a 17th-century Spanish galleon in the Florida Keys with a cargo valued at about $400 million. In the end, after extensive litigation with preservationists, the salver was awarded the treasure.

The laws governing ownership of shipwrecks and their treasures are unclear. As an attorney, Hess has been involved in cases that pit those who believe such treasures belong in a museum against those who say they belong on a mantel or auction block. He believes both purposes can be served. Salvers should preserve the sites of shipwrecks, but they have a right to the profit from their efforts. And those profits can fund additional underwater exploration, which ultimately benefits the public.

Capone on a search for an antique Sikorsky S-39 aircraft in an Alaska lake. Gillespie represents another type of explorer. He has been totally focused on finding lost World War II and earlier aircraft since 1985. His foundation generates only modest support for his work and his family, but he has not wavered from his eclectic interest. The Earhart mystery is very much alive in his mind, and he devotes much of his time to it. He enjoys the critical thinking that goes into reconciling the thousands of details and conflicting information about the case. Though the Earhart family has moved on, working to preserve Amelia’s accomplishments and her legacy as a gutsy pioneer, Gillespie still struggles to figure out where she is.

In contrast to Hess and Gillespie, Capone is a straightforward explorer. Underwater archeological exploration is an interesting adjunct to his professional and personal life. The task of finding the Alligator Junior has piqued his interest. He says it will be a challenge to see if his skills and his technology are up to uncovering the submarine’s hiding place. 

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