Portland treasure hunter faces new challenges, makes another push to salvage record $3 billion shipwreck bounty
PORTLAND, Maine — More than a year after Portland-based treasure hunter Greg Brooks announced he was on the verge of salvaging $3 billion in precious metals from the shipwreck of the World War II-era British freighter Port Nicholson, his team remains a frustrating distance from holding that bounty.
“We know that this stuff is on board and it’s frustrating not to be able to go down and just grab it,” Brooks told the Bangor Daily News Wednesday. “It’s right there. It’s 650 feet to 700 feet under us.”
Over the past 14 months, Brooks and his Sub Sea Research LLC have seen at least two proposed partnerships fizzle with underwater robotics makers — whose equipment is necessary to break into the sunken ship’s steel hull and, if there is platinum and gold inside, bring the heavy weight to the surface.
Additionally, Brooks said, he’s facing renewed enthusiasm for claiming ownership by the British government, which he believes aims to strip him of his rights to what would be a record shipwreck treasure.
It hasn’t all been bad news, however.
Along the way, the Maine captain said his team has uncovered additional evidence proving the legitimacy of his claims that the Port Nicholson was carrying a top secret shipment of precious metals, and he now believes a new agreement with the high-profile machinists at the Waterboro-based Howe & Howe Technologies will provide him with robotic equipment capable of finishing the job.
Co-owners Mike and Geoff Howe shot into the public view with their now-famous Ripsaw unmanned U.S. Army tank and a 2010 reality show on the Discovery Channel, and have stayed in the limelight with prominent appearances of their gear in Hollywood blockbusters, including this spring’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”
Brooks, who said a year ago he’d already emptied a $6 million budget for the project and acknowledged Wednesday he has lost “a lot of [additional] money” on the two failed robotics deals prior to bringing Howe & Howe on board, now said he needs a last big investor.
Without a cushion for profit, he said, the proposed Howe & Howe remotely controlled underwater robot will cost $1.8 million. He said Howe & Howe is willing to accept its profit “on the back end,” after the metals are salvaged, but will at least need enough to buy materials and engineer the device up front.
“We’ve got it designed,” Brooks said. “Now we’re trying to find someone who wants to buy it for us.”
The proposed device has been titled the Lamprey, and would propel itself through the water like most so-called ROVs — remotely operated underwater vehicles — but would also be able to crawl across the seabed and lift as much as 500 pounds with two robotic arms.
Brooks said previous ROVs, mostly designed for recording video or sometimes doing light underwater hull repairs, didn’t work for the Port Nicholson salvage. After learning Sub Sea Research’s own ROVs couldn’t break through the hull or lift the heavy weight necessary to bring up the metals, Brooks said the group reached out to subcontractors for help.
But one asked for too much money, he said, and another potential partner discovered its equipment was just as ill-suited for the job after 15 days at sea with the Sub Sea Research team.
Howe & Howe is offering to build a robot designed specifically for the Port Nicholson job, Brooks said.
“Rather than buying an existing ROV and then going through the process of retrofitting it with the correct tools, we have the freedom to place components where we need,” said Josh Spaulding, an engineer at Howe & Howe Technologies, in a statement. “We can spec the correct components to meet our system requirements and we avoid the aggravation of trying to integrate with a system that wasn’t meant to perform the required tasks.”
One task Sub Sea Research can do with its current ROVs, Brooks said, is continue evaluating the wreck site. With its smallest such piece of equipment, an 18- by 12-inch device, the captain said his team was able to sneak a camera into an opening in the otherwise debris-blocked cargo hold for a better look.
“It got down in and we saw what we believed was a strong box,” he said. “I can’t say definitively there were precious metals [in the box], but what we can saw is that there was no corrosion. They were very straight lines and smooth edges in there. When you get down that deep you can’t see a lot of colors [in the video], so it’s difficult to make out materials, but they appeared to be the right shape and size.”
Brooks and his underwater vehicles are seeking to capture hard visual evidence of platinum or gold ingots, sort of like narrow bricks. His team has long believed that the 500-foot Port Nicholson, which was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Cape Cod during World War II in 1942, was secretly carrying the metals as a payment from the Soviet Union to the U.S. for war supplies.
In addition to a slew of circumstantial evidence — that the Port Nicholson had an unusually large six-ship Navy escort and that, at the time, the U.S. Treasury Department was awaiting a payment of 1.7 million ounces of platinum that never arrived — Brooks said his research team last year uncovered additional declassified British government documents stating that 741 platinum bars and 4,889 gold bullion bars were aboard the ship.
“We have three smoking gun documents saying there was bullion on board,” he said.
Brooks said the Soviet Union later fulfilled its obligation to the United States, then decades later, of course, dissolved as a centralized government. As a result, the captain said, neither entity is claiming ownership of the bounty, although he said he fielded a call from Russian officials two weeks ago asking whether Sub Sea Research found anything in the wreck “with Russian writing on it.”
The British government, however, has maintained a legal stake in the future of the Port Nicholson and, potentially, whatever cargo is lying with it.
“The British government is hanging on, monitoring everything,” Brooks said. “Last year they filed a claim, saying that’s their ship and anything on that ship was theirs. … It’s become the most overlitigated case in shipwreck history.”
Timothy Shusta, a Tampa, Fla.-based attorney representing the United Kingdom in the case, suggested British officials are not being unreasonably aggressive in their approach to the Port Nicholson wreck.
“Under the law of salvage, you’re not presumed to have abandoned your vessel just because it’s sitting on the bottom of the ocean,” Shusta told the BDN Wednesday. “The British government is the owner of the vessel, and procedurally, we’re required to file what’s called a verified statement of right or interest, but after that, realistically, there’s not much to claim until something has been salvaged.”
Shusta said his clients are taking a “wait-and-see” approach to the salvage operations.
“Their position has been all along that our records do not show any precious cargo on the vessel,” he said. “If the salvor salvages something that can then be investigated in terms of ownership claims, then we’ll take a look at that.”
Brooks said he feels the British wouldn’t be as interested if they didn’t really believe there was precious cargo at stake.
“Why are they legally maneuvering this much if they don’t believe there’s anything on it?” he said.
Like the Port Nicholson is alleged to have been doing, the HMS Edinburgh was carrying Soviet metals in war payments when it was sunk in 1942 in the waters off North Russia. In that case, the salvage group, Jessop Marine, was reportedly only awarded 10 percent of the approximately $65 million worth in gold salvaged during the 1980s.
At the time, however, the USSR was still active, and claimed two-thirds of the treasure as its rightful property.
In another more recent case, Odyssey Marine Exploration out of Tampa was ordered in 2012 by an American circuit court to return $500 million in gold and silver coins to the Spanish government after finding the bounty in the undersea wreck of a Spanish frigate sunk off the coast of Portugal in 1804.
None of those past cases are exactly analogous to the case of the Port Nicholson, however, and Brooks remains steadfastly optimistic 2013 will be the year his team pulls as much as $3 billion in platinum and gold up from the freighter’s wreck — and is awarded legal authority to keep it.
“I have my moments,” he admitted. “We have a lot of armchair quarterbacks out there who say, ‘Geez, it’s just 650 feet of water, it’s right under your boat, why don’t you just go down and get it?’ But when you’re out there in the currents and weather, and you’re underfunded like we always have been, it’s not so easy.”