Friday, July 22, 2005


Billions in gold? Former dive shop owner to salvage RMS Republic


by David Irland
20 July 2005

RMS Republic.

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass -- Ninety-six years ago, in January fog, a very large ship went down about 50 miles off Nantucket. Norman Gardiner, John Farrington, William "Dougie" Campbell, and at least one other Vineyard man were among the crew of divers when the wreck of the RMS Republic, 570 feet long and older White Star Line sister of the notorious Titanic, was discovered in 1981. She lay in more than 200 feet of water, six miles from the official coordinates made public by British and American authorities just after she sank.

The RMS (for "Royal Mail Ship") Republic was notable for many reasons but most spectacularly for the amount of gold she purportedly had stashed in her second-class deck, emptied of passengers perhaps for that purpose. Anywhere between $1 and $15 billion worth in today's money went to the bottom with the Republic after she was struck by the Italian liner Florida, according to Martin Bayerle, 54, of New York, the impassioned human engine behind the search, discovery, and rescue efforts that have stretched over the last 25 years.

Last week, Mr. Bayerle again made news with the decision handed down by US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner granting him world salvage rights to the RMS Republic, thus clearing the way for Mr. Bayerle's total commitment to the recovery project.

On the day the Republic was found, John Farrington, 54, and Dougie Campbell, now dead, his diving partner, were among the first crews to go down. According to Mr. Farrington, they dove to a level at which disorientation sets in, around 180 feet.

Mr. Farrington a certified "hard-hat" and salvage diver at the time, said the expedition was "on a shoestring. Really we were just trying to locate it. I can't tell you how far down we went after 180, whether it was 10, 20, 30 feet more. I think we found parts of the ship around 220, 230. We had to have lights that deep."

He describes the ship that may eventually dwarf every other treasure find in the world as "a big hunk of red rusted material" in the dark before him. "We had the two tanks and then a bail out tank. We didn't have much margin for error." The "bail out" tank, Mr. Farrington said, is a small tank of air divers carry to help them out of a jam.

"We were young, and it was exciting," said Mr. Farrington. "It was the lure of gold."

In the summer of 2006, when the salvage effort starts in earnest, Mr. Gardiner will once again be part of Mr. Bayerle's crew, though his new job description will be videographer, whereas in 1981 he was signed on because he "fit the billet," he said. "I was a certified diver and could cook."

Mr. Gardiner, who retired from his Coast Guard diver's job many years ago, was stationed on Martha's Vineyard, in Menemsha, in the early 1960s.

Islanders may remember Mr. Bayerle's MV Scuba Headquarters, Inc. located in the building that now houses galleries and a restaurant across from the Black Dog Tavern. At the time, in the mid-70s, the storefront was "more of a headquarters than a dive shop," Mr. Bayerle said. Part of the original backing team included Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi, who wrote checks imprinted with "Black Ball Production Company." And one of the crew's initial meetings was held at James Taylor's house, according to Mr. Bayerle. "He wasn't there, but a friend of his said, come on over, so that's where we met."

MV Scuba HQ, Inc. closed in 1981 after Mr. Bayerle's initial research on the Republic paid off, at which time he began to concentrate his energy on the wreck that he and his team had found after years of homework and two-and-a-half days of searching.

The partial, highly debatable list of the Republic's theoretical cargo reads:

. 5 tons of newly minted American Gold Eagle coins valued at $3 million in 1909.

. 15 tons of gold bars.

. A Navy payroll with estimated current value around $70 million.

. Several tons of silver, as well as passengers' jewelry.

Mr. Bayerle told The Times that his company is now looking around for a vessel larger than the one being currently employed, according to Mr. Bayerle, "something large enough to accommodate the recovery effort we're mounting, which will involve a 3D map of the entire search area." The inexhaustibly knowledgeable Mr. Bayerle said the composition of a 3D map involves "three or four pingers [sonar devices] on the bottom combined with a towed sonar array used with GPS to map exact coordinates," resulting in an exact map of the topography of the area. The murkiness of the Atlantic, the depth of water and the wreck size make photography impractical.

The project now is waiting out the mandatory 180-day advance notice period to allow the Coast Guard to broadcast a notice to mariners that a salvage effort will be taking place in a major shipping lane, effectively closing off this summer to any recovery efforts.

The sinking of the RMS Republic is shrouded in unanswered questions, such as why no formal inquiry into the sinking was held and why the second class deck area was methodically emptied of passengers, according to White Star Line records.

SOURCE - Martha's Vineyard Times


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