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Copyright © 1987 The Journal of Commerce, Inc.

Journal of Commerce

June 12, 1987, Friday


LENGTH: 1182 words


BYLINE: TOM McNIFF, Jr.; Journal of Commerce Special



Lost treasures and shipwrecks have become staples of the news-short summer- silly season over the past few years, so here we go again.

In 1985 and 1986 it was the finding and videotaping of the Titanic. Earlier, the Lusitania, Duke of Edinburgh and Andrea Doria gave up their secrets to the technology of late '70s-'80s deep sea diving.

This year's space filler is likely to be the saga of Martin Bayerle's hunt for rumored gold in the bowels of the RMS Republic, a once-proud, 583-foot White Star liner that for 78 years has lain on the ocean's bottom in international waters 55 miles southeast of Nantucket Island.

The hype campaign is supposed to kick off Sunday with a press conference planned in New York. The actual 90-day treasure hunt is due to begin about June 17. By the time it's over there may not be much left of the old hulk, but there are hopes for huge profits.

The 15,000-ton liner sank Jan. 24, 1909, hours after a collision in dense predawn fog with a 6,000-ton Italian liner, Florida. The British vessel stayed afloat long enough for rescue ships - attracted by the world's first SOS radio signal - to save all but six of those on the Republic.

Mr. Bayerle, a 35-year-old master diving instructor, says 11 years of research in four nations' archives have convinced him that 1909 rumors about Republic's carrying $ 3 million in U.S. gold eagle coins are true. He calculates that, depending on mint marks, those coins may be worth $ 140 million to $ 1.6 billion on today's numismatic market.

Mr. Bayerle scanned old newspapers, dug through dusty Treasury and shipping records and put together what he calls a convincing case for the gold. The coins were being shipped from New York to France, he says, to replace gold the French government had loaned to czarist Russia to finance military needs.

He told one writer the U.S. government had rented the Republic's entire second-class baggage hold. But details of this summer's treasure hunt are so secret "they haven't even told me where it (the gold) is," said Michael Gerber, managing director of Subocean Salvors Ltd. of Tampa, Florida and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

There are no original plans of the White Star Line's premier pre-Titanic vessel, built by Harland & Wolf in Belfast. But Robert Stevens, Subocean Salvors president and a naval architect, managed to "reconstruct" the vessel's schematic from bits and pieces of data.

As Mr. Bayerle's group is secretive about the gold's alleged location, so too Mr. Bayerle believes the British, French and U.S. governments covered up the tale of the lost gold. He says the U.S. Navy didn't mark the Republic wreck on World War II submarine warfare charts, and that it escaped being exploded to protect submarines in the heavily-used shipping lanes outside New York.

The French government hasn't acknowledged the gold, and Soviet authorities said records of any czarist loan were probably lost during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Using side-scan sonar, Mr. Bayerle found the Republic's wreck in 240 feet of water in 1981. He joined other divers on the wreck in 1983 and recovered enough artifacts to convince a federal court in Boston of the ship's identity and gain title.

The next three years might have discouraged another man, but Mr. Bayerle pressed on. In 1985 he found a partner in Wolf Sub-Ocean, Ltd. of Halifax, whose divers planned survey work that summer. Last-minute insurance problems with a support ship forced the 1985 expedition to be cancelled, even as the press was putting out stories on the venture's start-up.

Mr. Bayerle's Maritime Analysts Group Inc. encountered rivals for the Republic's supposed treasure. A bitter legal dispute with one of those groups, Marshalltown, Inc., continues before a federal judge in Boston.

Part of that dispute involves Maritime Analysts' contention that Marshalltown's Panamanian ship, Twin Drill, worked the Republic site in violation of internationally agreed navigation rules. A U.S. Coast Guard protest elicited no reply from Panama.

Marshalltown says it had to abort its Spring 1986 expedition early, because Mr. Bayerle's group promised the court it would be at the site after July 1 and failed to do so, said Leo Kailas, the New York attorney for the Liberia-based Marshalltown.

Marshalltown may try again next fall, Mr. Kailas said, if satellite navigation gear he could not describe works out.

Marshalltown recovered Republic artifacts that may be worth as much as $ 1 million, but those bottles of wine, silverware and dishes are now stored under court order, pending a Maritime Analysts' appeal of a court award to Marshalltown, Mr. Kailas said.

Mr. Bayerle's plans for a 1986 survey of the wreck were aborted after Wolf Sub-Ocean went bankrupt as Canada's offshore oil industry declined. But he found a second group of backers in some Tampa, Fla. millionaires, who may spend part of this summer shuttling to the 279-foot support ship, Inspector, moored on a four-point rig above the Republic.

"What excited them was the fact that they could become an integral part of this thing," said Mr. Gerber. He is managing director of Subocean Salvors, an ocean engineering firm set up by the limited partnership, that is financing the Republic expedition at $ 25,000 a share and plans future shipwreck hunts.

The tug, Georgina A, has been over the Republic in the outbound New York vessel traffic lane for a month, doing preliminary survey work and preserving Subocean's claim until the Inspector's arrival with 20 divers. The Inspector has lots of empty cabins for visitors and reporters expected to watch live video of the working divers over the summer.

Subocean divers will face danger and difficulties as they try to mine" into the Republic's innards (she lies on her side, her bridge broken off the mostly intact hull). The sea's done its bit on it; rivets are loose and plates are buckling," said William Flowers, Subocean's operations manager. "We work around the risk, maintaining the safest operating conditions we can."

The divers - some veterans of the 1983-84 Ocean Ranger salvage off Nova Scotia - have quite an incentive to spend days on end in the expedition's saturation diving system. While they sleep, eat and kill time in the tiny chamber that preserves their deep sea pressurization, they'll likely dream of spending the fruits of their labors, since each is forgoing full salary for a part share of the expedition's proceeds, Mr. Gerber said.

Mr. Bayerle admitted there may ultimately be no gold despite his belief. But bottles of vintage wine sought by Christie's and Sotheby's auction houses for sale perhaps at $ 10,000 per magnum, expected first edition books owned by J.P. Morgan, and ship artifacts may allow the venture's profit, he said.

"Divers won't leave much (of the hulk) behind" when they finish cutting through the net-strewn wreckage, Mr. Flowers said.

Mr. Gerber joked that the expedition would make "medallions" from pieces of the hull, while an expedition official said, "they'll do what they have to do to find the gold."

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