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Copyright © 1987 The Wine Spectator
The Wine SpectatorOct. 31, 1987SECTION: Cover Story
LENGTH: 3,159 words
HEADLINE: Sunken Treasure from the 'Other' Titanic
BYLINE: By Per-Henrik Mannsson, Associate Editor. Photographs by Jack Spratt.
DATELINE: Aboard the Inspector, off Massachusetts.
A salvage crew in the North Atlantic has discovered hundreds of bottles of old wines on a luxury liner sunk in 1909. By Per-Henrik Mansson. Cover Photo by Jack Spratt. [Page 3]
[Cover Scan (504k)]
Exclusive report from the North Atlantic
On the struggle to salvage wine
And other artifacts from the wreck of
The biggest luxury liner of its time
By Per-Henrik Mannsson
Photographs by Jack Spratt
Aboard the Inspector, off Massachusetts
It was the size of a 60-story skyscraper but as elegant as a floating palace. Billed as the ultimate luxury steamer, the R.M.S. Republic, the flagship of Britain's White Star Line, was rammed by another ship one cold and foggy winter night in 1909. When the 15,000-ton, 585-foot Republic sank 39 hours later it became the largest passenger vessel ever to go under until the Titanic met the same fate The captain was the last to abandon the Republic as it disappeared from sight at 8:10 p.m. on Jan. 24, 1909.
More than 78 years later, on June 22, Chris Chamberlain, a Canadian deep-sea diver, carefully slid into a one-seat, black-and-yellow, 18-foot submarine fitted with special underwater sonar detection equipment. He locked his cockpit and was lowered into the ocean with the help of a crane installed on the deck of the Inspector, a 350-foot salvage ship. On his third dive, Chamberlain located the Republic, partly claimed by nature and sand and damaged by trawlers' fishing nets, 50 miles south of Nantucket, Mass.
As the submarine approached the shipwreck, recalls Chamberlain, "It looked at first like a tangled mess. But once you have been around it, there is a sense of order."
Chamberlain and 44 other men aboard the Inspector, including 22 professional divers from Canada, had been hired by a limited partnership from Florida to salvage the Republic, which is rumored to contain gold estimated to be wirth today between $400 million and $1.6 billion.
But instead of gold, the divers first discovered a different kind of treasure on the ocean floor: thousands of wine bottles. "Some of the bottles had been thrown out of the wreck 20 feet away," says Cameron McGurk, 27. "Some we found in the pantry. Some were still in racks, others in some kind of cases."
Divers spotted the bottles 240 feet below the surface of the ocean in 40-degree waters as they struggled against strong currents, uneven terrain and schools of fish and shrimp that were as dense as fog.
"We found bottles the very first day," adds McGurk. "But I never thought the corks would be able to tolerate that kind of pressure or that kind of time frame." Among this sunken wine treasure were 1898 Champaign Bottles from two well-known producers, Moët & Chandon and Dom Ruinart; sparklers with "Coblenz" still clearly inscribed in black letters on the corks; several Mosels and other whites of uncertain origin, and some Bordeaux.
The bottles represent the largest known wine cache ever recovered from the ocean. In August The Wine Spectator spent three days aboard the Inspector to report on the salvage operation and review the wines found in the shipwreck.
By early September, when the salvaging efforts ended because of unpredictable weather, divers had brought up more than 300 bottles and stored them in two large ice boxes in the ship's pantry.
The salvage crew hoped that the wines would be in fine condition and fetch large sums of money at auctions to help defray the $10,000-a-day costs of operating the Inspector. Christie's, the auction house, was approached by the group and asked to evaluate the wines but found no bottles in condition to be auctioned off.
After the disaster with the Republic, the Liverpool-based White Star Line decided to acquire an unsinkable luxury liner. It was christened the Titanic. It sank three years after the Republic to a depth of 12,400 feet after striking an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland on its maiden voyage to America.
Wines have also been recovered from the Titanic's 12,000-bottle cellar, and will be submitted to laboratory tests in France, according to the French group doing the salvaging work. The salvage operation of the Titanic has been off limits to reporters, but a small safe raised from the wreck by a minisubmarine was scheduled to be opened on live television from Monaco on October 28.
It is more than coincidence that 1987 brought the first serious attempts to salvage both the Republic and the Titanic.
For decades the two shipwrecks have remained beyond recovery because of the depth at which they rested. But in the past 10 years, technological advances have brought within reach of divers and treasure hunters not only these two wrecks but many others dotting the ocean floors like so many footnotes in naval history.
As this new underwater frontier is explored, the shipwrecks are expected to yield a wealth of scientific and historical information about how the ocean affects artifacts, including wine, bottles and corks.
"I'm sure that in a few years there will be a pattern established that shows how different depth, pressure and currents or pollutants in the water affect wine," says Michael Davis, who is Vice President of Christie's Wine Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of the London-based auction house.
The technological advances of recent years has also made it easier to find investors to back the elaborate and costly operations involved in exploring shipwrecks, according to Martin Bayerle, 36, who researched the Republic and its cargo for 12 years before divers began the salvage operation.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a scuba diving instructor, Bayerle raised operating capital from 36 limited partners after he convinced them that the Republic held a large cache of gold coins. The group, Sub-Ocean Salvors International Inc. of Tampa, Fla., had spent $1.7 million to purchase the Inspector and $700,000 to operate the vessel, according to Bayerle.
Of the bottles recovered so far, only a few had retained some of their fruit and alcohol - and, in the case of Champagnes, some effervescence. Virtually all the wines still had corks that were in surprisingly good condition and had not crumbled, although they lost much of their elasticity and were fitting loosely in some bottles. The labels and foils were gone from all the bottles.
But most wines had been spoiled, smelling of sulfur and rotten eggs. "Apparently most of the wines have been invaded by sulfur-producing bacteria that travel at the bottom of the sea," says Davis. Different degrees of exposure to bacteria may explain why the Titanic's hulk and main rooms were found to be in relatively good condition while the Republic's three upper decks and deck house had collapsed on top of each other, giving the shipwreck the chaotic look of a building razed by an earthquake.
"It's like a junkyard down there. A junkyard that is upside down, tangled and twisted," says Walter Flower, 28, a member of the diving crew from Nova Scotia, Canada.
Despite the condition of the Republic, divers recovered wine glasses and decanters. They also found dishes from the first-class and second-class dining rooms (first-class dishes had a more elaborate pattern than those from the second class).
The White Star Line's logo - a pennant flying in the wind - was still clearly visible on the dishes and silverware recovered from the wreck. The same logo was used on similar items aboard the Titanic, but those items will not be sold, only exhibited, while the artifacts of the Republic are expected to be auctioned off to collectors, according to officials from the two salvage groups. A key difference between the wrecks is that there was little loss of life on the Republic, so its salvage effort has escaped the charge of grave robbing leveled at the Titanic's recovery operation.
Artifacts recovered from the Republic ranged from often delicate personal belongings left behind by the fleeing passengers - such as a woman's stocking or a man's derby hat - to huge, rusty anchors that the salvagers had to lift from the deep with a crane.
In some areas of the Republic, divers were surprised to find artifacts that nobody had expected would survive: 50 paper calendars printed in Italian, clothing and hats inside a modest wooden steamer's trunk that was also intact and in good condition. Similar items elsewhere in the ship had been wiped out by time and corrosion.
These findings seem to indicate that there were, within the shipwreck itself, various "eco-systems," according to Bayerle. These different environments were not unlike different microclimates often found in the same vineyard.
In the case of a shipwreck, where there is less oxygen, there is less bacteria to attack materials and speed up their deterioration, according to Bayerle. "Certain environments will enhance decomposition, others will delay destruction," he says.
We have uncovered a time capsule, a slice of life of 1909," says Bob Stevens, 38, president of Sub-Ocean Salvors. "The Republic was a very opulent liner. She was all set to go and had just left New York. Imagine the wine and food aboard. Imagine a Grand Hotel of the turn of the century, and imagine what it was like aboard the Republic. She has a story to tell and she has waited almost 80 years to tell it."
The story of the Republic's ill-fated voyage started in mid-afternoon, Jan. 22, 1909, when it sailed out of New York's harbor with 461 passengers and as many crew members aboard.
The Republic was heading for a round-trip to the Mediterranean with stopovers at Gibraltar and several other ports, including Alexandria in Egypt and Palermo and Genoa in Italy. The ship's pantries and storage rooms, some of which held hundreds of bottles of wine, beer and liquor, were fully stocked for the long trip.
Billed as a "palatial steamer," the Republic was designed to provide the best in luxury cruises that money could buy in the early days of this century. The cruiser's first-class quarters included a dining salon seating 200 that featured a hand-made, stained-glass dome and wood carvings. A white Star Line booklet handed to the passengers invited the men to enjoy a "fragrant Havana" in the Smoke Room and recommended the Promenade Deck as the "domain of the ladies."
The $400 cost of the cruise was more than 25 times the cost of the average trans-Atlantic fare at the time, and many of the passengers belonged to the rich and famous of their day. They included captains of industry and banking, such as Jams R. Mellon, a banker and the founder of the Shell Oil Co., and General Brayton Ives, the former president of the New York Stock Exchange, who was traveling with a valet. Other passengers included European nobility, the archbishop of Montreal, two novelists and the wife of a congressman.
The passengers had been aboard for about 12 hours when another ship, the Florida, rammed the Republic in dense fog, at 5:40 a.m. on Jan. 22 [sic, should be 23], 1909. The Florida was carrying 60 immigrants and was 30 miles off course when it struck the Republic, reducing half a dozen staterooms to ruble and killing W.J. Mooney, president of the Cavalier County National Bank of North Dakota, and the wife of a Boston businessman. The businessman, Eugene Lynch, was critically injured and later died in a hospital. Four people aboard the Florida were also killed.
The collision tossed Samuel Cupples, a millionaire from St. Louis, Mo., out of his berth, he later told a New York newspaper. "For a minute I could not think," he was quoted as saying. "My mind seemed blank. Then the thought rushed into my head that we had struck a rock." He and his family left behind $25,000 in jewelry in the rush to get off the sinking Republic, which was quickly evacuated.
As news of the wreck reached the mainland, persistent rumors began to spread in New York that the Republic carried $3 million in newly minted American eagle coins. The gold was reportedly stored in 78 wooden cases wach weighing 144 pounds.
To find the gold, the Inspector's divers searched the shipwreck for more than 10 weeks this summer, working around the clock in 10-hour shifts. The divers lived in isolation from the outside would in a round, 20-foot long compression chamber, which holds six divers and is located below the Inspector's deck. In the chamber, the divers breathed a special combination of helium and oxygen and were put under conditions similar to those found on the ocean floor - 200 feet of water pressure.
For their descent to the shipwreck, each diver dressed in a wet suit lined with a sprinkler system through which hot water was pumped to keep him warm in the cold waters below. The he crawled through an airtight metal passage connected to a round, white diving bell that resembled a space capsule. The divers shut a lock in the diving bell, which was then lowered by crane through a hole in the middle of the Inspector. The trip to the ocean floor took about five minutes.
While searching the Republic, the divers were connected to an "umbilical" air tube lowered from the Inspector that allowed them to breathe. Each diver wore an $18,000 yellow helmet equipped wit a camera and a bright light. The camera beamed back live black-and-white images to monitors installed in a control room on the Inspector, where diver supervisors followed the search on screens. The supervisors wee in constant communications with the divers, whose helmets also carried microphones and earphones.
Diver supervisor Dennis Barrington, 30, of Toronto, Canada, was in the control room in front of the monitors when the first big cache of bottles was discovered inside the shipwreck. A diver had lowered himself into a shaft leading to one of the ship's seven "hold" areas - 50-by-20-foot cargo rooms in the hull of the ship below the three collapsed decks.
"We were naturally expecting to find wine aboard but we didn't know they were storing wine in that part of the ship. It was just a matter of going down that hole, and there it was. The diver brought up a few samples for us to look at and see what was down there."
Norman Gardner of Boston, the Inspector's cook, says the first bottle opened was a Champagne. The cork identified the bottle as an 1898 Moët & Chandon. It still had bubbles and a "very strong" taste that reminded him of brandy, he says.
"It was nice and cold when we brought it up. We didn't expect it to be good, but we drank some of it and it tasted excellent," he says. "In fact, I got a little buzz out of it."
Barrington recalls the mood aboard the Inspector after the find. "To come across an array of bottles at the bottom of the ocean is pretty exciting," he says.
The divers were assigned to find corked bottles and bring them up from the shipwreck. But many of the bottles had either lost their corks or the corks had been shoved into the necks of the bottles, which had filled with sea water. Divers had to do a lot of sorting on the bottom of the sea to find bottles with corks on, according to Barrington.
"We went through a couple of thousand bottles checking each individually, just to find a couple of hundred," says McGurk, the diver, adding that it took several dives to bring up about 300 bottles with corks.
In some areas you are really working hard to get a few bottles, digging them out of the silt. In a 10-hour diving run you could come up with two dozen bottles," adds McGurk, noting he found more corks among bottles that were resting in racks than among those sitting straight up.
No list of the Republic's wine inventory has been located, but the wines recovered from the Republic were representative of wine served on many cruises in those days, according to Davis.
"They were what you would expect to serve on a cruise like that: a great deal of Champagnes and wines you could serve chilled and not very many Bordeaux," says Davis who tasted three bottles brought to Christie's New York office and about 15 others aboard the Inspector.
Among the wines Davis tasted in New York was a red wine that was determined to be a Bordeaux from the shape of the bottle. But it was not clear what estate it was from because the cork didn't identify the producer, he says. Another wine was identified as a Mosel, again from the unique shape of the bottle, and a third bottle was an unidentified Champagne.
Aboard the Inspector, Davis tasted bottles of 1898 Dom Ruinart along with other Champagnes, Mosels and reds. "There were some Bordeaux but none had an identification. Corks were in such bad condition that I was not able to really judge the branding from the cork," says Davis.
Silt and sand should act as a filter against bacteria, at least theoretically, according to Davis. "But some of the wines I saw on the Inspector had been buried under silt and they were also bad," he says.
Davis speculates that there may be more bacteria at the site of the Republic shipwreck because of more pollution off the coast of Massachusetts than at other shipwreck sites such as the Titanic's off Newfoundland. Depth may be another factor; there may be more bacteria at 240 feet than at 2 miles below the surface.
"Sadly, these wines were very much in the same condition as the wines tasted in New York," says Davis. "Some of the Champagnes were almost palatable. There was one bottle in particular that retained some of its flavors, but even that one had some salt contents. I was very optimistic in the beginning about the Champagnes, because some of the pressure in the Champagne could neutralize the water pressure at that depth. But I was even less hopeful for the other wines once I tasted the Champagnes."
But Bayerle remains optimistic that the Republic's best wines will be found in a lead-lined storage room believed to have been the cellar used to keep the wines destined for the first-class dining room.
"We haven't found that main wine lock yet. All we have got so far is the area that supplied the first-class bar and second-class bar," says Bayerle, adding that Sub-Ocean Salvors International plans another expedition next summer in a second attempt to recover more wines and the gold, which eluded divers this year. Bayerle, who was vice president of Sub-Ocean Salvors, left the partnership after a disagreement with the group's other partners surfaced in September, according to Stevens.
The discovery that shipwrecks seem to contain microclimates raises the tantalizing possibility that while wines may be spoiled and destroyed in one area of a wreck, they may survive in perfect condition in another area.
To demonstrate this point, Bayerle motions to some buckets filled with water and artifacts. "Some shoes will have just the sole left, and others will be complete with leather uppers and even the shoelaces, depending on the environment," he says.
If the micro-environment theory holds, then some of the Republic's wines may still be sold at auction, and today's collectors will have the opportunity to drink and enjoy them - an opportunity the Republic's passengers missed.