A silver lining under the sea

UNDERWATER RICHES: Silver ingots at the site of the SS Gairsoppawreckage.

UNDERWATER RICHES: Silver ingots at the site of the SS Gairsoppawreckage.  


Britain has recovered tonnes of silver from the wreckage of SS Gairsoppa, sunk by a German U-boat in 1941 while carrying the bullion from India

It doesn’t glisten, but it does have a story to tell.

Forty-eight tonnes of silver bullion that spent more than 70 years at the bottom of the North Atlantic have been hauled to the surface and returned to its rightful owner, the British government, according to the company that recovered it. And much more will be on its way soon.

The silver was recovered from the SS Gairsoppa, which was carrying the riches to England from India in 1941 when a Nazi torpedo struck. The ship went down about 300 miles southwest of Ireland in waters 2.9 miles deep — lower than the resting place of the Titanic.

On Wednesday, a maritime recovery company, Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Florida, said it had succeeded in removing about 43 per cent of the insured silver aboard the rusting hulk and 20 per cent of the total silver that its research indicates might be on board. The company said it planned to return quickly to the site for another round of recovery.

Greg Stemm, the chief executive of Odyssey, said it was the heaviest and deepest cargo of precious metal ever lifted from a shipwreck. The haul, he said, demonstrates that marine technologies have improved to the point that no sunken ship is too deep and no cargo too large for retrieval.

“People have been worried about the technology,” Mr. Stemm said in an interview. “This shows that we have it under control. We can pick up large amounts of silver.”

Mike Penning, a Minister at the British Department for Transport (a successor to the Ministry of War Transport), which hired Odyssey, said in a statement that he welcomed the company’s “hard work in the salvage operation” and its successful “recovery of the valuable cargo.”

Riches found in the deep sea often lie undisturbed because lifting them is too difficult. In 1995, treasure hunters located a lost submarine carrying two tonnes of gold. It remains on the bottom.

But Odyssey is under contract to the British government, which took possession of the recovered silver on Wednesday. A total of 1,203 silver bars were loaded onto three large trucks at Bristol, England, and taken to an undisclosed location for secure storage and processing.

Mr. Stemm said the old bars exhibited none of the shimmering patina usually associated with fresh silver. “It’s been underwater so long, it could be mistaken for iron,” he said.

Odyssey invested its own money in finding the ship and will split the profits, the company getting 80 per cent of the silver’s value and the British government 20 per cent. The company which is listed on the Nasdaq exchange and announced the silver’s recovery before trading began Wednesday disclosed the shipwreck’s discovery last fall.

At Wednesday’s market value, the 1.4 million troy ounces of silver (48 tonnes) recovered so far would fetch about $38 million.

Odyssey says the Gairsoppa held up to 240 tonnes of silver, which could fetch as much as $190 million at today’s rates.

The technologies now speeding such endeavours include new generations of tethered robots, lights and claws that can withstand the crushing pressures of the deep, as well as powerful computers that coordinate the distant but delicate action.

Mr. Stemm said that one of the less conspicuous advances centred on the composition of the long cables lowered from the recovery ship to the assembly point on the bottom next to a rusting shipwreck. Long steel cables, he noted, can break under their own immense weight. His company now uses a kind of plastic cable called Dyneema that is as strong as steel but weightless in seawater.

The Gairsoppa, a vessel of the British Indian Steam Navigation Co., was named for a spectacular waterfall near India’s western coast. In December 1940, it sailed from Calcutta, now called Kolkata, laden with tea, iron and tonnes of silver. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, the ship joined a military convoy headed to the British Isles and the contested waters of the North Atlantic.

The steamship, 412 feet long, had 83 crewmen and two gunners on board, according to Lloyd’s of London, which compiles information about cargos lost in war.

High winds and a heavy swell forced the Gairsoppa to slow.

As the weather deteriorated, the captain judged that the wallowing ship had insufficient coal to make it to Liverpool and broke from the convoy for Galway, in western Ireland.

On February 17, 1941, a German U-boat attacked. A single torpedo ripped through the Gairsoppa’s hull and exploded, causing the forward mast to topple and the antenna to snap, cutting off the ship from the world. The U-boat opened fire as the Gairsoppa sank.

All 85 men died save one the second officer, who survived 13 days in a lifeboat.

In recent years, the famous cargo began to beckon as technological strides made it easier to find lost vessels. At least one company tried, and failed, to find the shipwreck.

In early 2010, Odyssey won an exclusive contract from Britain’s Department for Transport to salvage the silver. Last summer, it hired a Russian ship and performed a preliminary survey in international waters, finding what it considered solid clues.

Later, the company took its main ship, the Odyssey Explorer, to investigate the area. Its tethered robot took three and a half hours to descend 2.9 miles through dark waters to the muddy seabed. Then came a eureka moment, when the robot found a gaping hole where the torpedo had struck.

The project’s success so far has elated Odyssey about the possibilities for other shipwrecks.

“There are billions of dollars worth of cargos that have been considered unrecoverable,” Mr. Stemm said. “This opens up the entire ocean floor.” — New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 9:52:33 PM |

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