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As Spain calls them pirates, salvage company hopes to find HMS Victory's gold

TAMPA

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Mark Gordon sat beside the phone on a Sunday night, waiting for the world to call. He had a crib sheet beside him labeled "Frequently Asked Questions," and he was ready to tell how his company had located a long-lost British warship likely packed with Dutch merchant gold.

The phone didn't ring much. The world was watching the Super Bowl.

Mark Gordon is president of one of the world's most unpredictable companies, Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Explorations. Its deep-sea robot once brought up a 140-year-old bottle of gooseberries from the ocean bottom. It once retrieved 17 tons of silver coins. It once brought up a single rare coin worth $1 million. It once resurrected a bottle of "Chemical Hair Invigorator." It once uncovered a human skull.

Odyssey has been sitting on its latest find since last fall. Near the end of the Atlantic shipwreck hunting season, it fetched from the English Channel a 4-ton bronze cannon that bore the royal crest of King George II. It confirmed that Odyssey had found Britain's mightiest wooden warship — the HMS Victory. This was the ship lost with all 900 hands in a 1744 storm. Odyssey had also found, beneath a cannon, a skull.

Its robot did not find Victory's stash of gold bullion, now worth perhaps $1 billion. But research indicates it's down there.

The Spanish government has called Gordon and his company a gang of pirates. Somewhere in Central Florida, Odyssey has a vault full of treasure that the Spaniards claim is theirs. Spain treats them as pirates, twice intercepting their ships on the high seas at gunpoint.

Gordon prefers to be called a "commercial marine archaeologist," but the pirate insult doesn't bother him anymore.

"I've started to embrace it. You know, it's Gasparilla."

All this started in 1994 when two shipwreck explorer pals, John Morris and Gregory Stemm, formed Odyssey, the only publicly traded company of its kind. Their idea was to apply Wall Street financing and advanced technology to the murky, arcane, rum-and-gold-chain world of shipwreck exploration. It sounded like a good idea, but Odyssey languished for a decade without finding much of monetary value.

Then in 2003, it found the wreck of the Republic, a sidewheel steamer that sank off Georgia in 1865. The ship was a virtual Wal-Mart of its day, packed with relief supplies for Civil War-ravaged New Orleans. Cargo included ceramic figurines of angels, bottled beer, slate boards for children to practice penmanship, pepper sauce, peach brandy and harmonicas. Somewhere in the pile of goods was also more than 50,000 gold and silver coins.

Odyssey sought out the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co., which had insured the Republic back in 1865. It paid Atlantic $1.4 million for rights of salvage. It thereby gained title to the coins, thought to be worth $75 million. It sold about half of them. Shipwreck exploration looked fun and sort of easy.

• • •

By then, Spain had taken notice of Odyssey.

Spain had been complaining for years about another wreck site, near Gibraltar, that the company had reserved for exploration. It was believed to be the 1694 grave of the British warship HMS Sussex — and 10 tons of gold cargo.

Odyssey cut a deal with Britain to salvage the treasure. The company would pay the millions in upfront costs. The company then would collect 80 percent of the first $45 million of appraised value of any recovered artifacts. The share would scale down for subsequent millions. Once past a half-billion dollars, Odyssey would get 40 percent.

But Spain protested that the wreck, British or not, lay within its territorial waters.

Back at Odyssey, Gordon dismissed the claim: "Spain is still p----- over losing Gibraltar."

Things got tense. Odyssey worried the wreck site wasn't safe. The Sussex recovery was put on hold.

• • •

Soon after, Spain got really mad.

Combing the seas off Portugal, an Odyssey search ship came across another potential target. A robot was sent down.

Its first video images looked like a bust. No shipwreck anywhere. No anchors or ship debris. All the robot could see was rocks, strewn over an expanse the size of six football fields.

But as the robot got closer, the rocks seemed to glitter. They weren't rocks at all. They were masses of mostly silver coins, embedded in mud.

The robot's pilot yelled, "Holy crap!"

The crew hauled up more than 500,000 coins.

They eventually loaded the coins into 550 white plastic buckets and steamed to Gibraltar, where a 757 jetliner waited. They filled the plane's cargo hold to overflowing with more than 17 tons. They lay more buckets in the passenger seats, strapped in with the seat belts. They flew home to Tampa. They stashed the coins in a room-sized vault in a proverbial "undisclosed location" somewhere in Central Florida.

Gordon swears the vault is not in Tampa. There's a small safe at the company's conservation lab. "All it has in it," says John Opperman, director of archeology, research and conservation, "is our lunch."

Back on the high seas, Spain intercepted two Odyssey ships and arrested one of the captains, but it was too late.

Odyssey has code-named the site "Black Swan." The company says it can't definitively identify what ship the coins came from, or how. One theory is that a desperate captain on a sinking ship threw the booty overboard.

Spain insists it's the cargo of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a frigate sunk by the British in 1804. It claims the cargo as a historic national treasure, and it wants it back.

But for the last two years, the treasure has remained in the secret vault.

In the meantime, Peru has stewed over how Spanish conquistadors looted Inca gold as far back as the 16th century. It, too, demands a share of the treasure.

• • •

Now comes the good ship Victory.

Who's going to want a piece of it?

Odyssey is negotiating with the British for the same type of salvage agreement it got for the Sussex. Gordon praises the British as "rational, reasonable people."

It's been more than a week.

Spain hasn't issued a peep of protest.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

. ON TV

Treasure Quest

The exploits of Odyssey's shipwreck explorers are the subject of an 11-part Discovery Channel documentary series called Treasure Quest. The next episode airs at 10 p.m. Thursday.

As Spain calls them pirates, salvage company hopes to find HMS Victory's gold 02/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2009 3:39pm]
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