Hook, Line, and Sinker
On the moonless night of June 15, 1942, the S.S. Port Nicholson steamed through rough waters east of Cape Cod, its lights blacked out. The British freighter, packed with materials valuable to the war effort, was traveling in the center of an 11-ship convoy. During the year, there had been hundreds of sinkings by Nazi U-boats along the coast, so a squadron of heavily armed military escorts, including a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and a British destroyer, surrounded the vessels as they headed for New York.
At 10:25 p.m., an explosion ripped through the Port Nicholson’s starboard side. Half-clothed sailors fell from their bunks and fled to the deck. A second torpedo struck. Seawater flooded the engine room, where a mechanic now lay dead. An engineer, trapped on a grating, called out for help just before the rushing water rose and drowned him.
“Is she going down?” the captain asked as he reached the bridge. An officer said she was. The crew of 85 and three passengers headed for the lifeboats. Two Canadian ships rescued them as the attacking Nazi submarine U-87 escaped in the dark.
The Port Nicholson was tenacious. At daybreak she was still afloat, so the captain and chief officer went back to try to save her. But soon after they boarded again, the bulkheads popped and the 481-foot ship rose up on end. Horrified onlookers from the escort ships watched as it sank under the waves, dragging the captain, chief officer, and two seamen down with it. A cloud of black fog rose from the froth as the smokestack’s soot hit seawater.
When the 86 survivors landed in Boston, they told the tale of a sneak attack on the high seas and of a captain and chief officer who, as the Boston Globe reported, “lived up to the highest traditions of the seas in their heroic but fruitless efforts to save a vital freighter.”
Sixty-six years later, in 2008, the Port Nicholson rested on its side against the ocean floor, 700 feet below the sea, with a 40-foot torpedo hole in its hull. Tangled fishing nets snagged on it here and there. Barnacles obscured its name on the bow. And 150 miles away, in the charming town of Gorham, Maine, Greg Brooks was telling his neighbors that the ship could make them all rich.
Brooks was a treasure hunter. He’d spent years combing the Atlantic Ocean off Haiti and the Florida Keys looking for shipwrecks loaded with Spanish doubloons, pirate booty, silver bars, and gold bullion. Brooks’s hair was sandy white, his eyes ocean blue. He looked weathered and salty, like he’d spent a lot of time at sea. He radiated the rugged confidence of an old captain, and his treasure stories were as enticing as mermaids’ songs.
Now Brooks had set his sights on the murky ocean waters off Massachusetts. He told potential investors he was about to salvage billions of dollars’ worth of Russian platinum lost inside the Port Nicholson when it was sunk en route to New York from Halifax. It would be easy. Brooks talked about potential returns as high as 100 to 1 and “was throwing out the word ‘guaranteed,’” claims Gorham resident Gary Auger. “He sold it like we were going to be multimillionaires within a year.”
Auger, a manager at a Portland staffing agency, made the biggest investment of his life—nearly $42,000—in Brooks’s company, Sea Hunters. He says Brooks showed potential investors pictures of gold and said he’d recover some, just like treasure hunters have from other ships. He says Brooks bragged about his experience with previous deep-sea salvages, including a wreck near the Florida Keys called the Notre Dame de la Deliverance. He also touted his Massachusetts-based researcher of more than 10 years, a Framingham man named Ed Michaud, as one of the best deep-sea salvage researchers in the world. “He used to always say that we didn’t have the best equipment,” says Rocky Myers, a Gorham High School gym teacher who gave Brooks just over $10,000, “but we had the best lawyers and the best researchers.”
In Gorham, a town of 16,000 just outside of Portland with a tiny historic district, word of mouth spreads fast and reputation counts for a lot. Important for Brooks, the enterprise enjoyed the backing of one of Gorham’s most respected citizens: John Hardy Sr., a La-Z-Boy store owner and generous philanthropist who was Brooks’s landlord and only partner in Sea Hunters. Many people in Gorham trusted Brooks because Hardy vouched for him. One early meeting about Brooks’s venture took place after-hours at Hardy’s store in nearby Scarborough, with potential investors standing among the La-Z-Boys to hear the pitch.
Brooks and Hardy raised a total of $5 million in 2008 and 2009 to salvage the Port Nicholson—much of it from small, middle-class investors in southern Maine, some from deeper-pocketed speculators in New York City. Auger claims he knows 100 people who invested: “It seems like half of Gorham, Maine, is involved in this,” he told me.
Brooks spent $2 million on a 30-year-old, 200-foot offshore supply vessel from Louisiana and rechristened it the MV Sea Hunter. He outfitted it with a $400,000 remote-controlled robot sub for deep-ocean searches. Brooks told the Portland Press Herald that the Port Nicholson held the world’s richest sunken treasure: worth $3 billion to $5 billion. “We’ll be the biggest stimulus package Maine has ever seen,” he bragged. “I’m going to make sure no kid in Maine goes hungry again.”
The Sea Hunter first sailed to the Port Nicholson in July 2009. But by the end of the season, Brooks had no treasure. The next summer, Brooks went out again. Still nothing. After a third summer with no returns, investors were growing concerned. Brooks blamed bad weather, rough currents, lost anchors, and equipment failures. “It seemed like every time he was just about to get it,” Auger says, “all of a sudden, he needed more money.”
If investors were getting antsy, Brooks was doggedly optimistic. In January 2012 he put out another press release, headlined “$3B WWII Shipwreck Located in Boston Harbor’s Back Yard.” Brooks claimed that some boxes he’d spotted next to the Port Nicholson looked like the “bullion boxes” that held 465 gold bars on the shipwreck HMS Edinburgh, salvaged in 1981. “All we have left to do is get the right equipment to bring up the bars we have seen,” Brooks said in the press release. He just needed new investors. “Who wouldn’t want to be a treasure hunter?” he asked. “It is every kid’s dream to be a treasure hunter and some adults dream of it too!”
Fox News and the Boston Globe took the bait. So did CBS, which filmed Brooks aboard the Sea Hunter, docked at the Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina, with the city skyline over his shoulder. “We’re not searching for anything!” Brooks said on the CBS Evening News on Valentine’s Day 2012. “We found $3 billion worth of platinum.”
Viewers glimpsed a heavily redacted document listing “1,707,000 oz.” of “platinum” among the Port Nicholson’s cargo. Brooks said he’d gotten it from U.S. Treasury archives and had edited it to protect his trade secrets. “What if you get out there,” the reporter asked, “and it turns out this isn’t what you think it is?”
Brooks waved his hand to show two fingers less than an inch apart and said, “I think it’s a very small chance, but there’s always that chance.” And if so, he added, “I’ll go to another one.”
Modern treasure hunters have plied the seas with sonar and remote-controlled subs for decades, and a lucky few have found treasure. In 1985 Mel Fisher discovered the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a 1622 Spanish wreck off the Florida Keys that held 959 silver bars and more than 100,000 silver coins. In 1984 Cape Cod treasure hunter Barry Clifford found a pirate ship called the Whydah that had sunk more than 260 years earlier off the coast near Wellfleet. But even a successful treasure hunter like Clifford, who hauled up thousands of silver coins from the wreck, may not be immune to sensationalizing claims. Over the past two years, Clifford has insisted that he’s found Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria off Haiti, and that he’s recovered a silver bar from Captain Kidd’s pirate ship, Adventure Galley, off Madagascar. According to UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural and scientific arm, though, neither turned out to be the case.
In 1988 Tommy Thompson found 7,700 gold coins and ingots on the SS Central America, off North Carolina. Years later, employees and investors sued him, claiming he’d jilted them out of shares of the treasure. Rather than answer the ongoing lawsuit, Thompson went into hiding. He was arrested this year in a Florida hotel room with $425,000 in cash and pleaded guilty to contempt of court. Sometimes, the treasure scam is that there’s no treasure at all. In 2010 Jay Miscovich claimed he’d found thousands of emeralds littering the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico. Three years later, Miscovich committed suicide, and a Florida jewelry-store owner testified that he’d actually sold Miscovich the gems.
Brooks and his researcher, Ed Michaud, had been teaming up on treasure hunts for almost 20 years. They made a good team: Brooks had a gift for making thrilling sales pitches, while Michaud had a talent for finding what appeared to be smoking-gun documents that had eluded other treasure hunters.
Brooks, now 64, spent 18 years installing swimming pools for a living in Portland until he discovered his current profession on a much larger body of water. He claims he got the treasure-hunting bug in 1984, when he found silver bars stuck in a coral reef off Haiti (coincidentally, the same year Clifford found the Whydah). In 1993 Brooks convinced John Hardy Sr. to invest in his undersea dreams. Brooks bought a ship and spent two years trolling for wrecks off Haiti, the Bahamas, and South Carolina, until, he says, equipment failures forced him to return home.
In 1997 Brooks scanned Maine’s Casco Bay with sonar, looking for a particular German U-boat, the U-233. He told reporters that the U-boat had shot down a U.S. Navy blimp in July 1944. But naval records show the blimp’s crew was responsible for its crash, and that the U-233 sank off Nova Scotia.
Around the same time, Michaud was peddling a similar phantom U-boat story. A mustachioed Navy vet and scuba diver with a high school education, Michaud claimed in 1993 that he’d found the U-1226, sunk by a Navy pilot in October 1944, on a shoal 4 miles off Cape Cod. The Boston Herald paid for Michaud to scan the sand with sonar, but he didn’t find the sub. War historians say there’s no record of a U-boat sinking near Cape Cod, and that the U-1226 likely sank far away in the mid-Atlantic.
The U-boat wasn’t Michaud’s first shipwreck. In the 1980s he dove for the Sindia, a wreck off New Jersey, trying and failing to salvage a rumored solid-gold Buddha statue. Information he provided about the SS Republic, a Nantucket Shoals shipwreck, became a flash point in a 1989 court case, when one side of a failed joint salvage venture claimed there was a “strong possibility” that Michaud’s documents “had been stolen from U.S. Navy records.”
The two U-boat hustlers found each other. Michaud helped Brooks search for documents about his alleged Casco Bay U-boat. And Brooks helped Michaud hunt for his elusive sub, until—according to a court filing by Michaud—Brooks’s towfish was eaten by a shark.
The fact that neither man ever found his sub didn’t stop them from teaming up again in 2002, when Brooks announced he’d found the resting place of the Notre Dame de la Deliverance, a French merchant ship, off the Florida Keys. He claimed it sank in 1755 with $2 billion to $3 billion worth of Spanish gold, silver, and jewels onboard. “It was one of the richest ships ever lost,” Brooks told Florida’s Daily Business Review. He gave the Palm Beach Post a list of booty that he said was lost on the Notre Dame, including 1,170 pounds of gold bullion in 17 chests; 15,399 gold doubloons; 1,072,000 pieces of eight in barrels; six chests of precious stones, “presumably emeralds”; and one gold-hilted sword. Brooks credited Michaud with much of the research.
Once again, nothing came of Brooks’s hunt. The alleged Notre Dame wreck wasn’t really a ship, exactly, but rather a bunch of debris scattered along the ocean floor, much of it inside a national marine sanctuary. On and off for five long years, he searched the sea floor with sonar, a magnetometer, and video cameras, but never discovered anything valuable beyond anchors and cannons. Brooks says marine sanctuary regulations made the project too costly to pursue. To make it up to his Notre Dame investors, he granted them shares in his Port Nicholson venture.