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Copyright © 1999 Globe Newspaper Company
The Boston GlobeJuly 18, 1999, Sunday, City Edition
SECTION: METRO/REGION; Pg. B9
LENGTH: 1359 words
HEADLINE: Divers wage battle to save the Republic
BYLINE: By Stephanie Ebbert, Globe Staff
NANTUCKET - The rumor surfaced soon after the luxury liner RMS Republic sank in the icy waters off Nantucket.
There was gold on that ship, one story goes - a cache of American Gold Eagle coins hidden in the ship's hold, a secret loan from the French government to bolster Russia's last czar as his country turned to revolt.
Now, nearly a century later, the rights to the wreck of the Republic - and a share of the $1.6 billion in gold rumored to lie with it - have sparked a war between two would-be salvors.
On one side there is Martin Bayerle, a . . . boisterous big-talking entrepreneur who touts the Russian connection as his own trademarked "Third Theory." On the other is William Cleary, a personal injury lawyer from Hackensack, N.J., who calls Bayerle's theory far-fetched and calls Bayerle the "ocean equivalent of a strip miner."
The two divers are locking horns in federal court over the rights to salvage a wreck that may or may not contain gold. Bayerle, who located the Republic in 1981, claims the ship as his to salvage. Cleary, who recovered a porthole from a dive there last summer, asserts that Bayerle lost his rights because he hasn't maintained the ship or conducted a dive there in years.
Whoever wins in court will still have to contend with powerful forces of nature. The crumpled Republic, which rests near the Mount Everest of dives, the wreck of the Andrea Doria, lies under 270 crushing feet of water. Because of the depth, divers must spend protracted periods of time returning to the surface to prevent "the bends," the formation of potentially fatal gas bubbles in the blood.
But the Republic has the added lure of sunken treasure - a vaguely circulated legend since it sank in 1909.
"I don't believe anyone has been able to bring up any of the so-called treasure," said Paul C. Morris, a marine historian and author on Nantucket. "The trouble of that is, if anybody does, they're going to lie about it."
The twisted tale of international intrigue that preoccupies Bayerle began in 1909, when the 585-foot, 15,378-ton RMS Republic made its way through murky fog off Nantucket and was struck by a passing Italian liner, the SS Florida. The sinking Republic became known for its distress call - a precursor to the "SOS" that brought the first successful lifesaving effort to a sinking ship, according to published accounts provided by the Nantucket Historical Association. But its fame was eclipsed by a sister ship - the Titanic, also owned by White Star Lines - which suffered a better-known fate three years later.
For years, Bayerle said, published documents put the wreck of the Republic at incorrect coordinates, about 7 miles from the actual site. (He explains this as a government coverup bent on protecting the sunken gold.) The former Martha's Vineyard dive shop owner located the wreck in 1981 and, after years of extensive research and travel expeditions, concocted his own complicated theories about the presence of treasure on the Republic.
His research showed that the French government bought $3 million in gold in 1909 - a loan, he believes, to help Russia's Czar Nicholas fight the Bolsheviks. There is no record of those coins reaching a destination, so Bayerle believes they were on the Republic, lost to the bottom of the sea and political sensitivities that made revelations of the secret donation impossible.
For his novel "Third Theory," he uses a TM trademark for each citation on his Web site, which is devoted to ruminations on the Republic. In the 1980s, the concept proved so persuasive that Bayerle - and his "Far Fetched Salvage Company" - was able to raise almost $3 million from investors for his gold-digging expedition to the wreck.
The crew he assembled aboard the SOSI Inspector staged a highly publicized, 72-day, around-the-clock dive in search of gold. But despite Bayerle's research and unvarnished optimism, the expedition yielded little but 5,000 bottles of tainted wine, rendering Bayerle something of an island eccentric.
. . .
While Bayerle was gone, Cleary edged onto his watery turf off Nantucket. The 38-year-old lawyer began diving the Republic for sheer adventure, he said.
"The treasure is not what has attracted me to the Republic or White Star either," he said. "It is, and has always been, exploring."
Last summer, Cleary and his crew unearthed a porthole which gave him an invaluable window to the wreck: With that artifact, the US District Court in Newark ordered Cleary to "arrest" the wreck - meaning he's the salvor in possession and has, at minimum, the right to be compensated for anything he recovers. Bayerle lost that right by not salvaging anything there for 10 years, said Peter Hess, Cleary's attorney and a fellow diver.
Bayerle is disdainful of his rival's actions. "Now a recreation technical diver who can dive down and recover a porthole and a few shards of china wants to use that to cloak himself as a 'salvor,' " he said by telephone.
Cleary recently hauled Bayerle into a New Jersey court to legally prevent him from salvaging the wreck; he had spied Bayerle's Internet postings revealing another planned expedition. But Cleary failed to win an injunction against Bayerle, largely because the coordinates Cleary listed for the ship were wrong.
"He can't even get the location of the wreck correct," said Bayerle, who peppers his comments about Cleary with name-calling: Interloper. Claim-jumper.
Hess, Cleary's attorney, said he plans to correct the coordinates and return to court. In the meantime, Cleary plans another dive this weekend to attach to the ship the "arrest papers" that affirm his legal claim. And Bayerle's lawyer hints that his client will be going back on the offensive to reclaim the wreck using his correct coordinates in court.
"I'm sure that he's not going to let Mr. Cleary interfere with his salvage rights and his plans," said attorney Tim Barrow. "I'm sure you haven't heard the last of this, by any means."
But neither salvor has maintained the site, noted ship captain Steve Bielenda, who suggests that neither man has proper claim. Bielenda manned the Wahoo with Bayerle in 1981, the year Bayerle located the Republic, and then turned around to help Cleary with locating the wreck after Bayerle sued him for breach of contract. "I'm still bitter," he admitted.
Cleary claims he's not even convinced there is gold aboard and says he wouldn't solicit funds for such an extensive expedition without firmer evidence - gleaned either by diving or by uncovering hard historic data that he says Bayerle lacks. "He uses all negative inferences that the gold is there," Cleary said.
Bayerle points to his elaborate research of import-export documents showing a $3 million loss in January 1909. What makes him so sure it was on the Republic?
"There is evidence," Bayerle said, though he admits it is circumstantial. "That's why we're looking for the smoking gun."
Cleary alleges that Bayerle is careless with precious artifacts in his pursuit of gold and pledges to restore and display any artifacts he finds.
"I want to shift the public's perception from that type of salvor to the type of salvor I see myself as - someone interested in the exploration of these beautiful shipwrecks," Cleary said.
Nevertheless, he keeps the names of those who contact him about future investment in a gold-diving expedition.
Just in case.
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