Portland-based treasure hunter Greg Brooks has burned through at least $8 million of investor money in his hunt for a supposed fortune in platinum, gold and jewels on a sunken World War II freighter 50 miles northeast of Provincetown, Mass.
But now he is considering ending his hunt and selling off expedition assets, including the main salvage vessel.
According to his own records and status reports filed in court, Brooks spent fewer than 80 days at sea in his first five years attempting to salvage treasure from the S.S. Port Nicholson, which sank after being torpedoed by a German submarine. He gained wide publicity but now appears to be quietly giving up, despite insisting there are billions on board the ship, according to documents filed in a court case contesting ownership of the freighter’s contents.
Brooks did not respond to phone messages requesting an interview but sent an email that pending litigation prohibited him from answering any questions and designating his chief engineer, Brian Ryder, as company spokesman.
In a phone interview Thursday from the company’s main salvage ship Sea Hunter, docked in East Boston, Ryder said Brooks has secured more funds and would be headed back out to the Port Nicholson when the weather improves.
In trip reports and interviews over the past two years, Brooks has said that his company, Sea Hunters, is literally one trip away from recovering a portion or all of the $3 billion in treasure from the freighter — although his estimates in media reports have soared as high as $6 billion.
Meanwhile, representatives of the British government, which insists it owns the vessel and whatever it contains, continue to say official documents show nothing on board beyond rusted automobile parts, military supplies and ballast.
Their dispute with Brooks is now in U.S. District Court in Portland. Another lawsuit against the company has been filed in a Maine court by a company that supplied one of the remotely operated vehicles, seeking payment for the equipment rental and technicians, Ryder said.
On Friday, Brooks’ company filed an inventory in U.S. District Court in Portland of items that have been retrieved from the Nicholson. The objects — including a waterlogged compass, a busted compass housing, a brass fire extinguisher and a brick — are so low in value they are not worth haggling over, attorneys for the British government said.
“It’s a pitiful take,” said Michael Kaplan, a Portland attorney for the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for transport.
“They left a few things off the list, like the jewels, gold, platinum and silver,” he added dryly.
Brooks raised more than $10 million from investors for the Nicholson project, according to his own statements and documents filed with the court. But in a May 13 letter to investors included with court filings, he told investors that he needs another $3 million to finish the job. He went on to say the company is out of money and will use any leftover cash to sell the 221-foot Sea Hunter and equipment, and “wrap things up.”
“We will try to hold on to the arrest [exclusive salvaging rights] of the wreck until proper funding is realized, but may lose it because of this shut down but we have little choice,” he wrote.
Ryder contends that scenario has changed. The company’s vessels are for sale, but they plan to buy others to replace them, he said.
At least one investor is convinced Brooks is a cheat.
Denny Denham of Portland said he invested six figures in an earlier Brooks project: the 2002 search for Notre Dame de la Deliverance, a 166-foot French vessel that allegedly sank off Florida in the 18th century. Brooks and his staff historian Edward Michaud claimed the ship contained $2 billion to $4 billion in gold.
Brooks quietly abandoned that project a couple of years later because he said the Spanish government ultimately would lay claim to the vessel and gold. Denham’s investment was then rolled over into the Nicholson project.
“I don’t think he’s a few dollars shy of a big break. I don’t think there’s anything out there,” Denham said about the Nicholson project.
At one poin tDenham went down to Florida to check up on the Notre Dame expedition progress and thought the effort seemed OK. One thing did bother him.
“There was always some reason they couldn’t go out. Bad weather,” he said. “… They gradually drifted away from it [the Notre Dame project] and then it was out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”
Like other investors in the Notre Dame, Denham’s share was converted into a stake in the Port Nicholson.
“I wouldn’t put two nickels into it. I wouldn’t even put two nickels together to take him to court because nothing from nothing gets nothing,” Denham said.
At times, Brooks has bordered on the grandiose, claiming in an interview with the Portland Press Herald that not another Maine child would ever go hungry again if he found the treasure. He also offered to build a museum and aquarium in Portland to house what he found on the Nicholson.
In February 2012, Brooks told the Cape Cod Times that his video of the Nicholson shipwreck site showed as many as 30 crates filled with platinum ingots scattered on the ocean floor.
“Once I have the [platinum ingots] on deck, all the naysayers, everybody, will sing a different tune,” he said then.
“There’s no doubt that on the next trip, he is going to come back with something,” Michaud told the Times in 2012.
But the attorneys representing the British — Kaplan and Tampa attorney Timothy Shusta — said their researchers have not found the archived documents that Michaud claims prove platinum and gold were on board the Nicholson. When they couldn’t find one of the key documents in an archive box, Michaud told them that someone else had actually discovered it and given it to him, Shusta said.
Michaud continues to contend he’s right.
“They can say what they say. I know what I know,” he said about this week.
Paul Lawton, a lawyer and military history researcher who is a longtime critic of Brooks — questions why the treasure hunter appears so willing to walk away from the Port Nicholson and billions of dollars — by far the richest shipwreck ever. Why not hire real salvagers with the experience and the equipment to do the job and take a percentage cut? He believes Brooks’ source of income is investor dollars, which will dry up once the wreck has been found to have no treasure.
Brooks is just following an established pattern, Lawton said, in raising millions from investors and then abandoning projects. Despite Brooks’ claims that he would have lost the Notre Dame’s treasure to the Spanish government, admiralty law usually awards a finder a substantial portion of any treasure, Lawton said.
At least one investor seems to still believe that there is treasure on board the Port Nicholson.
Daniel Stochel, a New York investment fund manager, who gave Brooks $600,000, recently formed his own treasure-hunting corporation, hired a Norwegian salvage company and asked a judge to initiate the steps for his company to supplant Sea Hunters as the sole salvor of the site. Stochel did not respond to calls to his home and office, but in court documents he said he planned on raising $7 million to continue the search and recover the treasure.
Brooks did not work hard enough to retrieve the Nicholson’s treasure, Stochel argues.
He blamed Brooks’ lack of deep-sea salvage experience, his old and underpowered equipment and his unwillingness to take the advice of third parties who know the salvage business. The Nicholson is in relatively shallow water, about 600 to 800 feet below, and a day’s trip from shore.
“The actions of Sea Hunters and their affiliates have been more akin to building a long-term operating company with perpetual capital raises rather than accomplishing a single project,” Stochel wrote in his Sept. 30 court filing asking the court to name him and his company, Mission Recovery, as the salvor of the wreck.
In his own court filings, Brooks says the project failed because of lack of funding and that he knew he never could raise the $50 million he felt he needed to do a first-rate job on the Nicholson. In a May 3, 2013, letter and email to investors, provided to the court by Stochel, Brooks admits his company had no experience working on sunken ships in deep offshore waters.
“We are trying to recover the richest shipwreck in the world for pennies,” he complained to investors in the letter. “Yes it would be great if it could be done for pennies, but we are finding out that it cannot.”
Brooks’ search-and-recovery vessel Sea Hunter was built in 1978 for work in support of Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, according to court documents. It has none of the essential equipment of modern salvage vessels, such as bow and stern thrusters linked to satellite positioning systems, known as dynamic positioning, that keep the ship over the site. And Brooks’ initial remotely operated vehicle couldn’t lift anything heavy or cut through the hull.
Ryder agreed the Sea Hunter was not up to the task. If Sea Hunters sells the vessel, he said, Brooks plans on buying one with dynamic positioning, which he said might cost $20 million. They are also in the process of equipping it with more robust ROVs, Ryder said.
Stochel claims to have contracted with a Norwegian salvager experienced in deep-sea projects and with WWII vessels. He told the court the firm estimated a 60- to 90-day recovery time for the Port Nicholson.
Denham believes this is the end for Brooks. While Brooks was able to quietly slip away from the Notre Dame project, there has been too much attention paid to the Port Nicholson to just drop it without repercussions.
“It appears the guy has really been on a long run and when he goes to bed at night he thinks, ‘I really can’t believe I convinced so many people for so long that there was treasure out there,’” Denham said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services