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The Shipwreck Chaser

Mark Gordon, Kogod ’82, ’83, leads the successful quest to find a sunken treasure deep in the North Atlantic.

As the underwater ROV nosed in closer to the sunken hull, Mark Gordon waited tensely to see what its chattering video signals would reveal.

This was it.

The moment of truth.

Would the high-tech cameras aboard the Odyssey Explorer’s remotely operated vehicle pick up the signature red-and-black hull colors of the British Indian Steam Navigation Company? Was the submarine-like ROV about to flash back the proof that Gordon and his colleagues had just discovered a shipwreck said to contain $200 million in sunken treasure?

Perched on the edge of his seat, the former American University business administration major watched the ROV hone in on the remains of the Gairsoppa—a 412-foot, steel-hulled cargo ship that had sunk in the North Atlantic after being torpedoed by a German submarine in February of 1941.

Named for a waterfall in India, the Gairsoppa had been carrying her precious cargo from Calcutta to England, when the Nazi U-boat fired the torpedo that would bring her down in over 15,000 feet of icy water.

According to her manifest, the ship had been loaded with an estimated 240 tons of silver, along with huge quantities of pig iron and tea.

Watching the video screen intently, the president and chief operating officer of Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. leaned in closer. For a moment, all he could see was a swirl of silvery bubbles.

Then the picture jumped into focus.

Suddenly, the 51-year-old Gordon was looking at a gaping hole where the German torpedo had blasted the hull.

And although they were faded in places, the colors on that battered hull told a thrilling story in red and black.

They’d done it!

Mark Gordon and his Odyssey team of about 40 shipwreck-recovery experts had pinpointed a shipwreck believed to contain the largest and deepest sunken cargo of precious metals in history.

It happened on a rainy afternoon last September, when Gordon’s team found the Gairsoppa’s long-lost skeleton about 300 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland. After years of combing through shipping records and other sources, the Odyssey crew had used their powerfully effective “deep-tow low frequency sonar system” to pinpoint a wreck that lies deeper than the Titanic.

“That was a real Eureka! moment,” says Gordon today, while remembering the euphoria that flashed through the Explorer’s “Offline Room” when the ROV delivered its exhilarating video feed.

“As a young man,” adds Gordon, “I’d dived on many shipwrecks, after being introduced to scuba diving at American U. But this was different. All at once, we had located a vessel no one had seen since its sinking.

“Of course, we also knew we’d located what may turn out to be 240 tons of silver—so there were plenty of congratulations that afternoon.”

The bottom line: After 40 days of searching the Atlantic and investing around $1 million, Gordon’s team had apparently snagged a $160 million payday. (That figure represents 80 percent of the value of the silver; the remaining 20 percent will go to the British government.)

Ask Gordon how he feels about the outcome of last September’s successful discovery, and he laughs quite happily: “Not a bad day at the office!”

Taking Scuba Diving 101 at AU

After a few pool sessions, Gordon’s class headed off to a “flooded quarry” in Haymarket, Virginia. “Boy, that first dive was cold and it was dark,” he remembers. “It was a little intimidating at first, but I loved it. And that course led me to a job at the National Diving Center in D.C., which helped me pay bills while I was working on my undergraduate degree and my MBA in finance.”

Although the scuba class was a key step in Gordon’s evolution from eager undergrad to president of the publicly traded Odyssey, he also credits Professor Emeritus Donald Brenner with teaching him “how to think about business opportunities holistically and draw up a business plan, which are crucial skills for any entrepreneur.”

Gordon honed his business and computer skills during a two-year stint at accounting giant Arthur Andersen after earning his AU MBA in 1983, but then decided to roll the dice as an entrepreneur who knew how to build finance-related IT systems for industries and government. Between 1985 and 2000, he launched four different IT-related start-ups . . . then sold the last one, the hugely successful Synergy Networks, to the Rockefeller Group in 2003.

As part of the deal, Gordon signed a five-year contract to serve as a consultant to Rockefeller. But then he got a phone call that would dramatically alter his vocation and bring him back to the underwater exploration that had been his first love. The caller was Greg Stemm, a longtime pal and fellow-entrepreneur who’d recently assembled a highly ambitious underwater salvage enterprise named Odyssey Marine Exploration. Would Gordon be interested in “wiring up their recently acquired ship” with new communications technology before it set sail on its first deep-sea treasure hunt?

Gordon was more than interested. “I ran straight over to Baltimore Harbor, where the ship was docked,” he recalls, “and soon I was crawling all around in blue jeans, helping to wire all of the data cabling. And I loved it. I felt like I’d gone back to what I loved most.”

Suddenly, Gordon’s unpredictable life had turned 180 degrees. While a consultant to Odyssey (and then after signing on permanently as a management exec in 2005), he would be a key figure in helping the shipwreck-salvage company score one success after another. In recent years, Odyssey has made headlines by discovering and hauling up millions of dollars’ worth of treasures from such famous shipwrecks as the Civil War-era SS Republic and the British flagship Victory (sunk in 1744). Along the way, Gordon’s hardy crew has been featured in National Geographic and in a Discovery Channel TV series Treasure Quest, which premiered in 2009.

The Quest for the Gairsoppa

When Gordon’s bold crew of treasure-explorers set out to find the Gairsoppa last summer, they were reasonably confident of success. But there were no guarantees . . . and the search would cost Odyssey tens of thousands of dollars a day.

Armed with the world’s most advanced “side-scan” sonar equipment, the Odyssey ship left Ireland in late July and steamed to an area about 300 miles off the coast, where both shipping and German military records indicated that the doomed cargo-hauler had gone down. For more than two weeks, they combed the Atlantic waters and came up with nothing.

They’d spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they had zilch to show for it.

What to do?

After a series of tense meetings, the search team decided on a bold strategy. Instead of endlessly scrutinizing the area where the German U-boat commander had reported the sinking, they’d move their operation about a dozen miles south. Their reasoning was simple: During three years of “collecting every scrap of data we could” about the wreck, the Odyssey team had come up with a vast array of “historical information about tides and currents in 1941.”

Based on that data, it seemed possible that the Gairsoppa could have drifted 10–15 miles south before hitting bottom.

It was worth a try. After quickly assembling their “secondary search grid,” they resumed operations. A few days later, they got a surprise: their sonar echoes were being interrupted, just above the ocean floor—an anomaly that meant they’d “run across a large object on the bottom.”

Bingo!

Having located what they believed was the Gairsoppa, the search crew spent a week taking pictures of it with a deepwater “camera sled.” Although they were hazy and imprecise, those images provided additional evidence.

It was time to bring in the high-tech ROV for the final proof.

And it was here that Gordon joined the high-seas expedition, last Labor Day weekend, aboard the Odyssey Explorer craft that directs the ROV. Plowing through 10–30 foot seas, he hung on through some atrocious weather that had been inspired by passing Hurricane Irene. “It was pretty rough and tumble,” Gordon recalls. “If you get seasick, you wouldn’t have wanted to be on this ride.

“The nights were the toughest part. It was difficult to sleep, because you’re literally jammed into your bunk every night.”

It took them another week to prepare the ROV.

By now, with more than $1 million in expenses to pay, Gordon was feeling just a tad stressed. “Yeah, I was feeling some pressure,” he remembers. “As president, I feel personal responsibility for the jobs of our employees. And I’m charged with appropriately managing the shareholders’ interests. So at this point, I was feeling a whole lot of responsibility.”

But then the ROV nosed up against the red-and-black hull, and Gordon and his crew understood that they’d just landed what they hope will be a $160 million payday, after the physical retrieval of the Gairsoppa’s cargo takes place next spring.

So how hard is it to find a sunken ship in the open Atlantic, at three miles deep?

To get a mental picture of the difficulty, Gordon suggests an experiment: “The next time you’re on an airplane, wait until you get to 15,000 feet and then look out the window and see what a house looks like!”

For the congenitally upbeat Gordon, who lives in Tampa with wife Sue and their two daughters, the journey from scuba-diving novice to president of the world’s most successful shipwreck exploration company has been “a thrilling journey in which I was fortunate to wind up doing for a living what I truly love.”

His advice? Live your passion. “If I have any wisdom to pass on,” says the high-spirited ocean rover, “it’s simply that you should figure out what you truly love, and then start thinking about how you might be able to live that passion each day.

“Really, I’m the luckiest guy I know. At Odyssey, our team runs the [search] operation around the clock, 24/7—and I love every minute of it!”

Click here to learn more about odyssey and Mark Gordon.