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Copyright © 1987 Times Publishing Company

St. Petersburg Times

September 13, 1987, Sunday, City Edition


LENGTH: 1293 words

HEADLINE: Salvagers find trinkets, not treasure



TAMPA - Last weekend, the 280-foot salvage vessel SOSI Inspector and its crew of 23 divers chugged into a Rhode Island port, quietly ending a three-month treasure hunt off the New England coast.

The $ 2-million expedition, which set sail in June amid great fanfare and hope, recovered an assortment of artifacts from the sunken luxury liner RMS Republic - mostly china, ashtrays, pots, pans and thousands of bottles of well-aged wine and champagne.

But the big prize, a fabled cache of gold coins worth millions, if not billions, remained buried somewhere beneath the kelp-encrusted steamer. Or it may not be there at all.

Count Dr. Robert Polackwich, a wealthy Tampa cancer specialist and chairman of the salvage operation, among those who believe 75 wooden crates containing American Gold Eagle coins dated 1901 still sit on the Atlantic Ocean floor, 260 feet deep, some 60 miles south of Nantucket, Mass. "I think so," said Polackwich, 40. "Everybody who's researched it thinks so."

For Polackwich and the 60 investors who paid $ 25,000 each to share in the gold, the answer to a 78-year-old mystery will have to wait a while longer.

"It's over for this year," he said. "If we were to go back, we would approach it with different technology."

Polackwich, who rounded up the investors, most of them from Tampa, said the project was a success even though the lost treasure remains lost. Christie's, the famed London auction house, has agreed to sell the wine and other artifacts and has appraised their value in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

As for the investors, they at least broke even, said Polackwich.

"If I'm right about that, basically everyone had a day at the races where they came with $ 40 and left with $ 40," he said.

But Polackwich believes the Republic operation will pay larger dividends in the future.

"If the Republic was not a dramatically successful financial adventure, we at least established ourselves in the salvage business," he said. "We have learned an enormous amount of information over the past several months about the salvage of ships in general and the fantastic potential of this business."

In about two weeks, Polackwich's salvage vessel, the Inspector, will begin another operation, this time off Florida's East Coast. He will not reveal where or even what he is after.

But he said his newly formed Deep Ocean Retrieval Technologies Inc. will search for modern shipwrecks (after 1900), concentrating on vessels carrying documented metal cargoes that sank in international waters.

How many are there? Polackwich said the number is almost countless.

"It's unbelieveable," Polackwich said. "If I said not thousands, but tens of thousands, I wouldn't be lying to you."

Polackwich, a graduate of Yale medical school, has no nautical experience. He lives with his wife, Stephanie, and their two children in the exclusive Avila development in Northwest Hillsborough. He plays golf and tennis and breeds Arabian horses.

Polackwich is neither a diver nor a sailor. But the adventure of an oceanic treasure hunt was too enticing to pass up.

"It's the adventure that led me to do all this," he said. "It's what many of us would like to do - look for ships lost at sea."

Diving for Dollars

At dawn on Jan. 23, 1909, the 600-foot Republic collided in fog with an Italian vessel, the SS Florida. The Republic, owned by J.P. Morgan's White Star Shipping Co., carried 484 passengers and almost as many crew. The Florida held 650 immigrants bound from Europe to New York.

The Republic capsized and sank, but not before most of the passengers and crew were taken off. Remarkably, only six people died in the accident.

In 1981, Martin Bayerle, a New York deep-sea diver, discovered the shipwreck. Based on research by himself and others, Bayerle believed that gold coins were secretly stashed aboard the Republic as a loan from France to the Russian czar. No official records show the coins being put on the ship.

Bayerle secured salvage rights to the ship in 1983. He tried once to salvage the remains but gave up because of improper equipment.

Meanwhile, Bayerle teamed up with Polackwich's brother-in-law, Robert Stevens, a marine architect who reconstructed blueprints of the Republic. During a visit to Tampa in January this year, Stevens got Polackwich interested in the project.

Polackwich formed Sub-Ocean Salvors International as a limited partnership to conduct the operation. He persuaded fellow doctors, professionals, friends and others in Tampa to invest $ 25,000 each.

Within three weeks, according to Michael Gerber, the chief financial officer, Polackwich had raised $ 2-million.

"He just became enthralled with the idea of being in the treasure-hunting business," said Gerber, a Tampa financial consultant.

More than half of the money paid for the Inspector, a bare-bones vessel that was later outfitted with sophisticated underwater surveillance equipment. The group then hired a team of 23 Canadian divers to conduct the deep-water search.

As Polackwich explained, the depth of the wreck required a technique known as saturation diving. At that depth, conventional diving would allow searchers to spend only a couple of minutes at the bottom because decompression could take as long as six hours.

Saturation diving enables searchers to spend about six hours on the bottom. They also avoid decompressing with each dive. They live in a special area aboard the ship where the pressure is kept the same as that at the ocean bottom. A diving bell that maintains the pressure takes the divers from the ship to the bottom and back.

Under those conditions, the divers would work for up to 35 days, alternating shifts.

All the while, a miniature, one-person submarine monitored the searchers' efforts with spotlights and television cameras.

During the entire operation, Polackwich spent only a few days on the ship, watching the divers on a television monitor.

The salvage effort, costing up to $ 20,000 a day, ended up finding bits and pieces. Divers found crystal perfume decanters, some women's clothing and a 1903 nickel. They also recovered china, ashtrays, a vase and thousands of bottles of wine, most of it bottled in Europe before this century.

But they couldn't find the gold.

Polackwich said many of the decks have collapsed, leaving only 18-inch openings where once there was a 10-foot gap.

"It's like a giant junk pile," he said.

Gerber also believes the gold is down there still. "It probably fell through to the sea bed," he said. "It's probably sitting in 20 feet of gunk."

Getting to the treasure probably would mean raising the 600-foot-long ship, which is resting on its starboard side, Gerber explained.

Will Polackwich go back after it?

"Possibly," he said.

GRAPHIC: BLACK AND WHITE PHOTO, Charles Ledford; BLACK AND WHITE MAP; BLACK AND WHITE PHOTO; Dr. Robert Polackwich of Tampa; site of sunken vessel off Nantucket Island; RMS Republic which sank at dawn on January 23, 1909 off the New England. coast

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