Finder of wreck aims for gold

Friday, January 06, 2006

In an early morning mist off Nantucket in January 1909, the RMS Republic, on its way from New York City to ports in the Mediterranean, was fatally struck broadside by the Italian liner, the SS Florida.

Some 39 hours later, after 1,500 of its passengers were transferred to another ship, the Republic finally went to the bottom. The luxury liner was the largest in the White Star fleet until the ill-fated Titanic took to the seas three years later.

Collisions at sea were not uncommon in that era, and with the small loss of life - total of six deaths - the Republic might not have been remembered for the last century were it not for the question of what the immense liner may have taken with it to the ocean floor.

The rumor has persisted that there were five tons of freshly minted American gold eagle coins on board, with a value at the time of $3 million.

Today, such a cache of gold might be worth $1.6 billion to as much as $10 billion, which is why Martin Bayerle, who discovered the wreck in 1981, has dedicated much of his adult life to recovering the gold, if it is indeed buried with the shipwreck. This past summer, a federal district court in Boston gave him the sole salvage rights to the Republic.

"There is a high probability the cargo is in there," asserts Bayerle, who resides in New York City but heads Martha's Vineyard Scuba Headquarters Inc., which will do the salvage work.

He is attempting to raise $20 million to lift the wreck in pieces to the surface. It sits in 270 feet of water about 50 miles south of Nantucket.

"We have some investors who have committed and others who have expressed a strong interest. Right now, we're still focusing on the research, which is the most important part. Does the gold really exist? Although we have circumstantial evidence, it doesn't prove conclusively that the gold is there," he said.

From his research, Bayerle believes the ship was secretly carrying five tons of American gold eagle coins that were intended to support the czar of Russia as he fought a revolt. He also believes the U.S. government did not want its support of him made public, so the gold was being transported in secret. He finds partial evidence for these convictions in the reports from passengers of gold on board and what he says are suspicious ship records concerning cargo, including entries for barrels of ham.

"Gold bars are normally shipped in barrels. If you look at the half barrels of ham, each weighs 160 pounds, which is exactly the weight of a barrel of gold bars. You don't ship 90 pounds of ham in a 70 pound container, so there is something going on there," he said.

However, others say that Bayerle's claims are preposterous and are only being made to lure investors and their money.

"The scary part is that you're going to find some elderly couple with some savings who will want to be involved in something like this," said Paul M. Lawton, a naval historian and Brockton lawyer.

"My opinion, and it's not an uneducated opinion because I've been researching this and other cases like it for two decades, is that you will have a greater likelihood of recovering gold eagle coins from under the seat of your car than from this wreck," he said.

Lawton, who has taught courses in naval history at Massasoit Community College, said that if there were five tons of gold on board, why was it left there by the ships that reached the Republic well before it went down?

"There were two revenue cutters that got there before it sank. They had the time to off-load the crew and survivors and they actually started to repair the ship, putting canvas patches on the side," Lawton said.

"A royal mail steamer also arrived and they removed some 3,000 bags of mail during the period of time the ships were standing by. All this took place supposedly with this valuable cargo of gold on board? It doesn't make sense," he said.

However, Bayerle says there was no need to remove the gold as it was thought the Republic was unsinkable and could be successfully towed back to port. It was during the attempt to tow it back to New York that it went down in rough seas.

Bayerle said the rumors began to circulate that the Republic was carrying a rich cargo immediately after the ship went down and that they have persisted. On Bayerle's Web site devoted to the sinking of the Republic - - he offers many examples of the rumor in early newspaper articles and letters, including a quote from a 1930 letter he said is contained in the National Archives. It is from a Capt. Chiswell of the Coast Guard.

"Unofficial information at the time suggested that the Republic may have had on board $3,000,000 in American Gold Eagles. The facts, however, are not known to this office."

However, Lawton said the rumors about a gold shipment on the Republic gained particular momentum from a couple of "poorly researched books about shipwrecks in American waters written in the late 1950s and early '60s."

"If you read them, it might seem that every ship that went down was carrying gold and silver. Curiously, though, there was an SS Republic that actually was carrying American eagle coins that went down off the Georgia Coast in the 1880s. My belief is that faulty research actually transposed facts from one to the other," he said.

Bayerle is formulating a method to bring whatever went down with the ship to the surface, perhaps beginning the work in the summer of 2007. The timetable will depend on whether he attracts enough money from investors.

Instead of diving on the ship, he plans to lift it in sections to the surface, using a method called cabling. Special cutting cables will slice up the ship, which collapsed on itself after it sank, pancaking the decks. Other cables will be slung under the sections so they can be brought to the surface in a computer-controlled process.

"That way, you get a perfect lift so it is brought up exactly as it lay on the bottom, in intact condition. By raising the whole ship in this way, we know we will get everything," Bayerle said.

2006 The Republican
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