The RMS Republic © Joseph M. Cocozza
It was way back in the summer of 1987. A group of maritime salvors headed by Capt. Martin Bayerle had finally got the salvage rights and the venture capital needed to begin the salvage of the RMS Republic. I was a video engineer and Jersey shipwreck diver. When I was hired on to work on a documentary of the salvage, I knew it was the job of a lifetime.
The RMS Republic has all the elements that make a good shipwreck story: tragic irony, political intrigue, historical significance and of the wreck and of course….. GOLD. The Republic was a 570 foot Steamship of the White Star Shipping Line. On Jan 23, 1909 she collided with the Italian steamship Florida. The Republic was the first ship ever to use a Radiotelegraph to broadcast a distress signal. Due the radio distress message, the US Revenue Cutter Service was able to come to the rescue, resulting in a minimal loss of life. But the ship’s injuries were fatal and she slipped beneath the sea. She now lies in 250 of water about 45 miles off of Falmouth MA. But what distinguishes the Republic from the thousands of similar North East shipwrecks is the lore and legend of US Gold Eagle coins. The story of the Republic's gold is somewhat apocryphal, and like most legends they have a basis in fact and history.
Ten years before, Bayerle heard of the legend that RMS Republic’s gold. Some legends said the missing gold was to for the Navy’s Great White, which had just circumnavigated the globe and was now stationed at Gibraltar. Other rumors said it was to help earthquake victims in Italy. Researching these rumors it was found that they did not hold water. But a new hypothesis emerged. As Bayerle did an extensive study of NY financial records of the period (especially the gold markets). It was discovered that a French Banking consortium had withdrawn 3 million in US Gold Eagle coins from two US Banks (Goldman Sachs and CITIBANK), days before the Republic was to sail for Europe.
To put this all into perspective a brief history lesson follows:
It was 1909, Europe was entwined in a complex set of alliances, economic dependencies and hostilities between old rivals . France was allied with Czarist Russia. The Russians were at odds with Austria-Hungary and Austria-Hungary was allied with Germany who was antagonistic to France. Germany’s Von Schieflin plan kept the peace by establishing a balance of terror. Europe was a powderkeg; this was the eve of World War One.
The French government, in an effort to help prop up the economically abysmal Czarist Empire, convinced French Bankers to sell “Russian Bonds”. The French public was persuaded that these Russian bonds were a low risk, high yield investment. (NOT)
The Bank of France purchased US Gold Eagle coins to back the Russian Bonds. We all now what happened to the Czar on that October day in 1916. The Russian bonds went bust. One of those shipments of US Gold Eagles was supposedly on board the Republic when she sank.
At the time of the sinking, the Gold Eagles were valued at three million dollars. At the time of the original salvage they would have been valued at 900 million (But today the coins would be valued at over 1.5 billion.) So who (besides a group of intrepid underwater salvors) who else could lay claim to this let shipwreck and her gold.
-Many French families lost their fortunes due to the collapse of the Russian Bonds- that sting is still felt today. Decedents of the French who lost money might be able to make a claim for the gold.
- The present Russian government could lay claim to gold.
-It was being shipped on board a British flagged vessel so the British government would be interested in making a claim.
-The gold was delivered from the US Mint, so presumably the US government could stake an interest.
-Last but not least- some pointy head archaeologist might claim that Gold Eagles are a “historic treasure” and try to confiscate the coins for their own ends.
In lieu of all this, Bayerle’s company, Sub Ocean Salvors International, had done the painstaking research and had gone to the admiralty courts to secure salvage rights to the Republic. Sub Ocean Salvors International purchased and outfitted an research/salvage ship. The ship was the SS Inspector, (formerly the Oil Endeavor) was purchased for $2 million. At 280 ft and she was equipped with a 40 ton crane, duPlus submersible, saturation diving system, dynamic positioning and four point mooring systems. She was equipped to support 6 saturation divers engaged in commercial salvage and deep diving operations.
The video production company that I worked for, was hired by Sub Ocean Salvors to produce a series of promotional videos to attract investors in the salvage project. It was the 1980’s, the days of Ronald Regan and “I want my MTV”. I was heading back out to sea. I was part of the video crew going out to document the progress of the salvage operation, if the Gold Eagles were found, it would be a major media event and documentary.
In the early morning of June 1987, we boarded a fishing boat out of Falmouth Massachusetts. The boat was shuttling us to the SOSI Inspector. The Canadian Saturation Diving crew, was already working 24/7 searching through the wreckage beneath the waves. Because of the depth they were not breathing air but HELIOX. I knew the basic theory behind saturation diving. (As a kid, I had studied the Navy’s SEALAB and Cousteau’s CONSHELF projects)
Every novice diver understands the basics of diluent gas absorption. (in the case of this expedition the diluent gas was helium) As you dive deeper and longer you absorb more gas into your tissues. Your computer or deco tables calculate this and if you exceed your no stop limits, they tell you how much time you must take surfacing to off gas the diluent that is absorbed in your tissues.
Obviously the longer you stay down the longer the decompression. But the concept behind saturation diving is thus: At certain point your body’s diluent’s gas level reaches equilibrium with the surrounding pressure. At this point your tissues are saturated, which means that they are absorbing no more of the diluent gas. Stay an additional hour and your decompression time will not increase; stay an extra week, the decompression time will be the same.
Sat diving is more efficient because it allows divers to work for extended periods of time without having to repeatedly go through staged decompression. Divers will work and live in a pressurized environment for 30 days, at the end of their duty cycle they will do one long decompression (over twenty four hours), and another dive crew would replace them.
They way this extended diving is accomplished is through the use of a Saturation Tank. A Sat Tank looks like a very large recompression chamber. On the SS Inspector the Sat tank was located inside the ship. it was pressurized to an equivalent depth of 250fsw. Like a tiny space capsule the divers would live, sleep, eat and work inside the chamber.
In a nearby control room, called the Saturation Van, a technician monitored: pressure, temperature, gas and CO2 levels. At one end of the Sat Tank was a hatch, that hatch would mate to a diving bell (or PTC). Two divers would climb into the bell. The hatch would then be secured and the bell would be moved into position over the moon pool. The moon pool reminded me of that old TV show- Voyage to the Bottom of The Sea. It was a hole in the center of the ship through which the diving bell would descend to the wreck below. Once the diving bell descended to the wreck, the diver would open the hatch and enter the black murky depths. It is at this point when the diving supervisor would take over. The dive supervisor was located in the control van. Each diver had a black and white helmet camera as well as a microphone to the surface. Relaying sound and pictures. The dive supervisor had charts, drawings and side scan sonar print outs of the wreck. Methodically the divers would search inch by inch for the elusive gold. Along the way other artifacts would be recovered
But it was the gold, that potential for immense riches (for which the divers had a share) that inspired everyone. But that gold was hard to find. One of the Dive Supervisors told us in an interview: “Imagine you take a 50 story skyscraper. Lay it on its side, shake it up, put it on the ocean floor where its is cold and black. Now divers have to go inside this massive building and have to locate a specific small closet and recover a suitcase.” That was the challenge.
The divers did have help from a one-man submersible called a DuPlus Mini Sub. The Mini Sub operated tethered to the surface. The driver operated the sub from the prone position. The sub had a black and white camera, two claw arms and a bank of UW lights. The sub’s primary mission was to reconnoiter new sections of the wreck before the divers. The video crew had another job for it. We had already taken a helmet cam feed from the divers and where recording that to tape , but we would need to get some underwater footage of the divers in action, preferably in color. So we turned the mini sub into an underwater camera platform.
The sub already has a video feed, but the camera is a low rez, black and white, vidicon. At the time SONY broadcast had just come out with an inexpensive (for the Broadcast market ) 3 CCD camera, the DXC-3000. So I removed the camera chassis and the sub crew was able to fashion and underwater housing.
The sub had an extensive array of UW lights that could illuminate large portions of the wreck. We could now direct the sub to shoot live color video of the operation from underwater. On the surface, we taped interviews with the crew. The crew was a mixed bag and each had there own reasons for being there. The Captain, the Chief Engineer and the Able Seaman where all from Denmark. The diving supervisors, divers and support personnel where all Canadians. The three-man mini sub crew was former British Navy. The leader of the mini sub crew was a former Royal Navy Diver who had participated in the Falklands War. He inferred that his demolition team had entered the Falkland Islands before the British Army.
One night about 1am, I got pulled out of my bunk. The divers have attached the ships crane to the Republics anchor. As the camera crew reaches the afterdeck-we saw the full ships crew prepared to recover this major artifact.
Tungsten work lights are illuminating the blackness of the ocean plane accompanied by the noise and activity of men operating heavy machinery. Our camera focused on the heavy wire cable that pierces into the blackness of the Atlantic. Then we see it- the anchor breaches the surface. It’s an old style anchor, the type that's familiar to every non-seaman. The crew swung the anchor and it clomped on the deck. The anchor is a major artifact- it along with bottles of wine, china, portholes etc; is to be auctioned off at Christies. The salvage operation needs more capital if it is to continue operating till the end of the summer. But the crew is only interested in finding the gold now. If they don’t find the gold this summer and the salvage is resumed next year; most of the crew would not be able to return. They would lose all their shares to the gold. So as far as the divers were concerned, it was a waste of time salvaging bottles of wine and silverware. They wanted to go for the gold.
When at sea, after about a couple weeks you kind of settle into a routine. The documentary crew was me (as the video engineer) and a cameraman. We videotaped: crew interviews and deck operations. We also worked a 12 hours shifts in the control van, ready to record video at the moment the gold was discovered.
We needed something to break the monotype. It was a late afternoon, I was hanging out on the bridge with the Captain; we were eating pie and swapping sea stories. The captain focused about a hundred yards off the port beam. He smiled and said.
“Two gray whales- they are feeding, do you want to film them.” The answer is YES. The cameraman and myself quickly got the camera package together. We ran to the aft deck where the seamen were readying the zodiac for launching. The cameraman, the captain and myself scrambled down the Jacobs ladder to zodiac. And we were off.
The Captain explained to us that gray whales feed in mated pairs. That one whale will run ever tightening circles around a school of krill. As the school condensed the other whale swims up through the center- eating as it goes. The only unfortunate thing is that we are quickly approaching twilight. And you can’t shoot video in the dark. The motor of the zodiac slowed down to a putt. We were now bobbing in a sea of deep royal blue. Only twenty feet ahead, a spouter. The cameraman says he got it, then twenty feet off our starboard- a tale breaches the surface, its amazing, this huge creature is mere feet from us. We are in the open ocean on a three-meter rubber raft. With one swat from that massive tail we would be pancakes.
For the next few minutes we communed with our warm blooded cousins- but by the then the sun had set and we were maybe three hundred yards away from the ship. During the next two weeks there was some false alarms but no Gold Eagles. In four weeks we had shot every conceivable video possible. On the surface or with the mini sub underwater. It was decided that the video crew was to go home. If the Gold Eagles they would have back on the ship in 24 hours.
The fishing boat shuttled us back to Falmouth Massachusetts. In the four weeks that transpired the only gold we got was our golden tans. As we drove back to New York we all thought that the gold would found within the week and we would be called back to shoot it. But, the crew of the Inspector worked well into September but the Gold Eagle coins eluded them. The project ended that summer and no gold was ever found.
POST SCRIPT: The summer of 1997:
In 1997, ten years after I wrote this article, I was on a dive trip to the Texas Tower with Captain Janet Besser. Janet gave me her perspective of the Republic. Back in 1981 Martin Bayerle had chartered the RV Wahoo to do the initial search for the Republic. Janet recalled that after days of searching via sonar, they combed the area and got not real hits. When from the wheelhouse she spotted a large red bumper buoy free floating. “Those things are expensive,” So she veered the Wahoo’s course so as to come close, so her crew could pick up the buoy. Then out of nowhere, they got a ht on the fish finder. The commercial diver who hired to do the dive could not, so she geared up, went down, amazing viz, came up on the bow and snapped one shot with a Nikonos 5. At that pressure, the lever jammed and she was only able to get one pic but that was all that was needed.
Fast forward another 10 years. It is 2007, and I am producing the #1 tech diving Podcast POD DIVER RADIO. I am covering the Shipwrecks Symposium, at the New Jersey Historical Divers Assoc. Martin Bayerle, was giving a presentation at NJHDA , and I got interview him. He told me of his new plans to raise the Republic. You can listen to the Podcast interview here. And find out what he intends to do. http://traffic.libsyn.com/poddiver/PD073.mp3
Martin Bayerle still has plans for the Republic, with any luck, I will be on his next expedition where he finally finds the gold.