PORTLAND, Maine — The only thing between a team of Portland explorers and nearly $3 billion in sunken treasure is about 700 feet of water.
Sub Sea Research LLC has located off the coast of Cape Cod the shipwreck of the Port Nicholson, a British freighter secretly carrying 71 tons of platinum when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1942.
“This is the richest shipwreck that’s ever been found, bar none,” Greg Brooks, co-founder of Sub Sea Research told the Bangor Daily News Tuesday. “We think toward the end of February, if we get some good weather, we’ll get some of that cargo up on the deck. And once you get some of that on the deck, everything changes.”
Each ingot — sort of like a narrow brick — of platinum is now worth roughly $600,000, Brooks said, and there are about 4,600 ingots littering the sea floor in and around the Port Nicholson.
With some upgrades to Sub Sea Research’s underwater vehicle to allow it to lift the heavy metal, Brooks hopes he’s just weeks away from holding one of the precious pieces in his hands.
But the voyage to recovering the historic treasure has not always been smooth sailing.
Brooks said his crew was searching for shipwrecks off the coast of Haiti several years ago when one of his team’s researchers — looking into World War II wrecks — began to suspect there was more to the story of the Port Nicholson, whose cargo was never made public and whose sinking disappeared quietly into the crowded records of wartime casualties.
Old witness statements about the Port Nicholson, en route from the United Kingdom to New York City by way of Halifax and Boston, didn’t add up. The Port Nicholson and four sister freighters had an unusually large number of military escort ships — six, compared to the era standard of one Navy vessel for every convoy of 10 commercial ships.
Brooks said his team interviewed surviving crew members from other ships in the group that contained the Port Nicholson, and confirmed stories that the freighter remained afloat for more than a day after being torpedoed. Sources told Brooks’ researchers that the Port Nicholson’s captain and four others went back aboard on the second day, but instead of descending to the nearly 500-foot-long vessel’s engine room to look into ways to pump out the water the small party checked nervously on the cargo hold.
“Now why would you go in the cargo hold?” Brooks posed. “Normally, when you’re shipping valuable cargo like that, just like today with gold, very few people know what’s on board. Just the captain and a few officers might be told.”
The Sub Sea Research team then found more government documents indicating there may have been a secret treasure on the ship when it finally succumbed to the breaches in its hull and was pulled to its watery grave.
A U.S. Treasury ledger from the time showed that the federal government was awaiting a shipment of 1.7 million ounces of platinum that never arrived. Brooks said he and his team connected the dots to arrive at the conclusion that the mysterious Port Nicholson was carrying a payment from the U.S.S.R. to America for war supplies.
“That was the smoking gun,” Brooks recalled. “I was searching off the coast of Haiti and all around the world for my fame and fortune, and here it was in my backyard off the coast of New England.”
Suspecting that the shipwreck of the Port Nicholson might be accompanied by billions of dollars worth of platinum was only a step. Finding the sunken ship and confirming their suspicions proved to be even more difficult.
Navy records of the incident provided only an approximation of where the freighter went under water — about 50 miles off the coast of Cape Cod — and searching the sea floor through cameras fixed to a remotely controlled underwater vehicle is slow, expensive and tedious work, Brooks said.
“At the end of 2008, I was ready to give up,” Brooks said. “We’d spent a lot of money and we hadn’t found anything outside of little fishing vessels and other junk. About two or three days before I was ready to pack it in, we found a wreck. It was the right size and shape.”
Helping confirm the freighter’s identity was the discovery nearby of the sunken passenger steamship Cherokee, which was also torpedoed during the June 1942 stealth attack by Germany’s U-87.
Sub Sea Research then went through the lengthy process of claiming the shipwreck and its associated loot. The group filed an admiralty claim in Portland and was named custodian of the wreck by the U.S. Marshal Service, Brooks said. In early 2009, the treasure hunters fulfilled their obligation to buy legal notices in newspapers across the country announcing that they’d found the Port Nicholson and offering a 30-day window for anyone with a legitimate claim to the ship to step forward.
Nobody did. The Soviets later fulfilled their debt obligation to the United States, Brooks said, and of course decades later the U.S.S.R. dissolved, “So they no longer have a claim to it.”
But later in the year, Brooks’ team was dealt another setback as its underwater research vehicle flooded and broke down. It took weeks to get the machine fixed up enough to do further exploring of the wreck, and it wasn’t until 2010 and 2011 that the crew was able to discover and categorize the crates carrying the platinum bars.
“We had a $6 million budget, and that’s been buying our ship and operating for a couple of years,” Brooks said. “That’s pretty much gone. We’ve worked on a shoestring budget. People might not realize it costs us $10,000 just to get out to the site in fuel. And that’s not payroll, food, operational expenses, dockage and insurance.”
Brooks said his team is now on schedule to upgrade its underwater vehicle, strengthening its grabbing arms to allow it to lift the platinum boxes and bring them to the surface. He said they hope to bring the treasure to the surface next month.
And after the members of Sub Sea Research have nearly $3 billion in their possession? Well, Brooks said that the Port Nicholson wasn’t the only vessel they became suspicious of during their research of World War II era shipwrecks.
“We have a list of 726 sites that may be valuable,” Brook said. “What I’d like to do is get a couple of other ships and go after them. They’re out there and they’re waiting. All it takes is money.”