A SAILOR who fought a legal battle with customs officers over a floating off-licence is beginning a new venture hunting for treasure under the sea.

Phil Berriman attracted the wrath of customs officials when, in August 2004, he moored his schooner, the Rich Harvest, 13 miles off the coast of Hartlepool and began selling cheap alcohol and cigarettes.

The goods were seized and destroyed, a decision Mr Berriman challenged through the courts, leading to a fouryear battle which only ended when a High Court judge eventually ruled the seizure was lawful.

The 53-year-old, who is originally from Thornaby, near Stockton, now lives off the coast of Gibraltar with his partner, Nicola Short.

Mr Berriman hit on the idea of hiring out the Rich Harvest for sailing trips around the Mediterranean to hunt for treasure after he began attempting to salvage anchors left behind by ships, which can cost several hundred thousand pounds.

The 72ft sailing ship – which can sleep 12 people and has a dining area seating 20 guests – is undergoing a refit ahead of the April launch.

In order to map the sea bed, it is now equipped with a multi-beam sonar system – said to be 90 times faster than conventional sonar and which can spot the difference in materials up to 200 metres deep – and a satellite compass system.

A team of professional divers are also available for the treasure hunting trips which will cost £12,000 for a week’s sailing.

Mr Berriman, who also claims to have invented a new anti-mosquito wipe while on his travels, said any items found could potentially be bought by museums or sold for scrap.

However, he said the project would respect local salvage laws, which varied from country to country.

He said: “It’s a unique opportunity for corporate or private customers.

“It is a chance to become a real treasure hunter.

“We are not just taking people for the money, we are looking for like-minded people who will get into the project.

“It’s possible we could be searching for something in particular that’s been researched in advance, but there are thousands of ships that were lost before records were kept.”

Mr Berriman said regardless of the success of the venture he did not intend to return to the North-East.

He said: “The reason I left is because of the hassle I was getting.

“We are enjoying the lives that we now have out here and we have no intention of going back.”