A Submersible Robot Dives for Steamship Gold
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
Published: November 16, 2004
JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Nov. 12 - When the 250-foot Odyssey Explorer docked here this week to unload a trove of gold coins and valuable artifacts from the wreck of the Republic, a 19th-century steamer, the Explorer's deck was a blur of activity, bristling with the modern technology now necessary for the recovery of sunken treasure.
A seven-ton submersible robot held pride of place. Its flexible arm was equipped with tiny suction cups made of soft flexible plastic for carefully picking up rare coins that can fetch up to half a million dollars each. The robot is one example of the sophistication and technological precision of this salvage effort, which leaders say surpasses any previous shipwreck salvage.
Among the treasures brought to land this trip were coins, ceramic pots, 600 glass bottles and some samples of technology from another time - a telescope and the ship's barometer, which probably fell rapidly as the storm grew in strength.
The recovery has not always been smooth. When the robot gingerly picked up its first gold coin, it fumbled, dropping it back onto the seabed instead of into the impromptu holding tank, an old chamber pot.
One year and more than 52,000 coins later, the team has set new records in deep recovery. From the disintegrating hulk of the sidewheel steamer that sank in 1865 about 100 miles off Georgia while battling a hurricane, the robot has plucked gold and silver coins valued at more than $75 million. And it is pursuing billions more in lost treasure.
"We've gotten really good at picking up coins," said Greg Stemm, director of operations for Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. of Tampa, Fla.
On Wednesday, PBS will broadcast a National Geographic Special called "Civil War Gold'' on the recovery that shows exactly how good Mr. Stemm's team is.
The Republic lies a third of a mile down in the strong currents of the Gulf Stream. The main wreckage lies scattered over an area nearly the size of a football field, making its discovery and recovery a challenge.
Finding it took special sonar. Photographing it for archaeological surveys and artifact collection took powerful lights and cameras. Mapping the position of each artifact took precision gear linked to a network of sonic beacons set up around the wreck. And lifting 52,000 coins and 12,000 artifacts - the haul so far - took the precise control of a tethered robot nearly the size of a tank, its arms dexterous enough to thread a needle.
"It's all about computers and digital technology," Mr. Stemm said. "It adds a whole lot of archaeological capability to the operation."
"We're doing it to an extreme that nobody else has taken it to," said Tom Dettweiler, the project's manager and a deep-sea veteran who helped discover the Titanic's resting place.
Clad in dark blue overalls, James Andrade, a supervisor of robot operations with a weight lifter's build, showed off a high-tech control room crammed with panels and video monitors. At sea, the recovery work can go around the clock, day and night, tedious despite the high stakes.
"Most important," he said, "we have satellite radio and an espresso machine."
The Republic sailed from New York on Oct. 18, 1865, bound for New Orleans with families, businessmen and a diverse cargo of trade goods meant to help the shattered South recover from the Civil War, its passengers brimming with optimism and a sense of opportunity.
The storm hit off Georgia. For two days, the steamship fought wind and wave. Then the engine failed. The crew and passengers threw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. But the pumps failed and seawater poured in.
Most people made it into lifeboats and a raft. Of 59 passengers and crew, 42 survived. But the cargo of money - $400,000 in coins, as described in newspapers of the day, including The New York Times - went down with the ship.
Mr. Stemm and his partner, John C. Morris, began looking for the Republic in the early 1990's. Nothing came of the periodic hunt until July 2003, when, some 100 miles southeast of Savannah, they picked up a tantalizing image on sonar screen. Within a month, the team had positively identified the decomposing wreck by retrieving the ship's bell.
Experts estimated the current value of its lost coins at up to $150 million. Odyssey, a public company, hopes to make a profit mainly by selling coins and setting up shipwreck museums and exhibits.
Late last year, team members flew the tethered robot about 15 feet above the wreckage, taking more than 4,600 digital still photographs and turning them into a detailed photo mosaic.
"We can zoom in on domino stones and see the dots," Gerhard Seiffert, the team's data manager, said as he demonstrated the technique at a computer, zooming in on an old domino made of wood and ivory.
Rare coins have a high priority since their sale promises to repay the recovery's high cost. But at first, the team had no idea how to gather them up carefully and expeditiously when even the slightest scratch could greatly reduce their value. Much testing ensued.
The tiny suction cups proved safe and efficient. More troublesome was finding the right holding devices for transporting coins to the surface, despite Mr. Stemm's extensive hunt for solutions. Plastic colanders and ice cube trays proved unworkable.
Finally, the team hit on large kitchen pots lined with carpet, fitted with wide funnels and filled with a dense vegetable oil that kept the coins snug and secure. By January, the team was tucking away an average of 1,700 coins a day, one every 50 seconds.
"Once we got the hang of the arm" coin recovery became fast and easy, said Mr. Andrade, the supervisor of robot operations.
The finds include Double Eagles ($20), Eagles ($10), half dollars and quarter dollars - in total more than 100 different kinds of gold coins dated between 1838 and 1865. The company says it recovered at least a dozen of the finest-known examples of United States gold coins from the period.
Hauls of artifacts included a shipment of leather shoe soles, school supplies, keys, patent medicines, fabrics, jars of food, tons of coal, religious artifacts, chamber pots and thousands of bottles, many empty and some filled with peaches, berries, pepper sauce and pickles.
In January the company, confident that the salvage would be financially successful, reached an agreement to buy all rights to the Republic from the Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company, which had paid a claim on the lost paddlewheel steamer and become its default owner. The sale price was $1.6 million.
This spring, the trail of coins suddenly vanished after the Odyssey team had recovered less than a quarter of their reported $400,000 face value. Mr. Dettweiler, the project manager, said the team turned to pulsing the seabed with a powerful device that worked like magnetic resonance imaging to excite metal objects into emitting magnetic signals.
It found copper hull sheathing that showed where the Republic had struck bottom during its fall, but no coins. The team now assumes they lie hidden in the ship's extensive debris field. The 21 gold and silver coins that came in last week are strays.
Alexandra Elliott, an Odyssey spokeswoman, said the company had so far made $9.6 million in Republic sales. On Wednesday, the company plans to open a Web site (accessible via www.shipwreck.net) for selling Republic artifacts, including coins and a selection of bottles priced from $550 to $1,150.
Project officials said they were upgrading the robot with new arms and other gear and planned tests of the equipment back at the Republic site while doing rounds of new recoveries.
After that, the Odyssey Explorer is to sail to the Mediterranean for the next project - a deep wreck thought to be the Sussex, a British warship that sank in 1694. In partnership with the British government, Odyssey plans to haul up a cargo of coins that experts say may fetch as much as $4 billion.http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/16/science/...2&th&oref=login