OF ALL the fights over ancient shipwrecks, perhaps none has been as bitter or as tangled as a dispute currently being waged over the remains of a tiny ship that lies less than 50 feet beneath the azure surface of the Caribbean Sea near Molasses Reef, just south of the Bahamas.

Since its discovery in 1977, two groups of treasure hunters and an internationally known archeological institute have fought for control of the mystery shipwreck. So far, that fight has pitted friends against each other, raised threats of a $100 million lawsuit and led to an armed confrontation at sea. There also has been a mysterious explosion at the shipwreck site.

The reason for all the turmoil is that archeologists believe the shipwreck may date back to the 1500s or possibly before, making it the oldest Spanish shipwreck ever recovered in the Americas. Treasure hunters claim it is something more. They believe it is the Pinta, one of three ships used by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage to the New World.

"I'm 100 percent sure it's the Pinta based on the research and the experience I've had during 25 years at sea," says Olin Frick, one of two Florida treasure hunters credited with discovering the shipwreck.

"I don't know why they have to do this inject the Pinta claim ," counters Dr. Eugene Lyon, a Florida researcher hired by the National Geographic Society to investigate the wreck. "What they have is a very real and valuable old wreck. Why claim it is the Pinta?"

Of Columbus' three ships, the Pinta is the only one to have vanished from history. The Santa Maria sank off the north coast of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) during the 1492 voyage. The Nina, which carried Columbus home, made at least two more trips to the New World with Columbus before being retired. But the fate of the Pinta always has been a mystery, a sore point with historians since it was from the Pinta's decks that one Rodrigo de Triana first sighted the New World the morning of Oct. 12, 1492.

The possibility that the Pinta has been found has excited fortune hunters and archeologists. If the shipwreck is the explorer ship, it might be more valuable than any Spanish galleon laden with gold dubloons and precious jewels. Frick and his fortune-seeking partner, John Gasque, hoped to earn millions by putting the Pinta on exhibit, marketing Pinta T-shirts and a "Raise the Pinta" video game and by selling exclusive movie and book rights.

Archeologists see the discovery of the ancient shipwreck as a major scientific coup that opens a window to the era when Spanish explorers first entered the Americas. The oldest Spanish shipwrecks found to date in the Americas sank in 1554, leaving a 62-year gap between them and the Columbus voyage.

Even if the shipwreck is not the Pinta, its discovery still is of major importance because archeologists believe its small size -- less than 75 feet long -- means it could be a Spanish caravel, and most of what's known about caravels today is based on artists' conceptions.

Like this country's early space capsules, the caravels were small, no-nonsense ships constructed for exploring -- unlike the 16th-century Spanish galleons that became the space shuttles of the New World.

Columbus' logs show that the Pinta was a caravel -- one of the clues that Frick and Gasque cite in a mountain of documents they have gathered during the past five years to prove the mystery wreck is the Pinta. Hoisting the Cannon

Frick is a tough-talking sea captain who has spent 25 of his 50 years searching for sunken treasure. He funds his expeditions by running a marine salvage operation out of Miami. His partner Gasque, 34, has been a treasure hunter since he was 17 years old and found a Spanish cannon during a dive off the coast of Jamaica.

The pair had been diving along Molasses Reef, off the coast of the British crown colony of the Turks and Caicos Islands, for several hours without success when they found the shipwreck, Gasque said. The area, which is south of the Bahamas, is known as a classic ship trap -- a large, nearly invisible configuration of reefs and shoals resting near the once heavily trafficked Old Bahama Channel. Historians believe up to 800 Spanish, French and British ships have sunk in the area, many after being chased there by pirates.

When he first spotted the shipwreck, Gasque thought the orange-and-green-encrusted rubble was simply scraps of discarded metal. He attached a cable to one long, black object shaped like an X and signaled Frick to hoist it aboard their ship, the Seaker. "I thought it was some old pipe," Gasque says, but when the X was split open, the treasure hunters discovered two cannon--unlike any either had ever seen. Nor had they ever seen a cannonball like the one Gasque recovered during a later dive. It was made of lead.

Using Florida libraries, the treasure hunters identified the cannon as a type used on Spanish ships outfitted before 1500. They also learned that lead cannonballs were replaced by iron shot in the late 1400s. "We knew we had ourselves a very old ship," Frick said.

In need of funds, the treasure hunters contacted the National Geographic Society, which, in turn, hired Dr. Lyon who specializes in research at Spain's Archives of the Indies in Seville.

Lyon won't say what he told the Geographic, but Gasque and Frick, who have a copy of Lyon's report, claim his research showed that only one Spanish explorer, Vicente Yanez Pinzon, could have been in the Caribbean between the Columbus voyage and 1500.

Pinzon had been captain of the Nina, and his brother, Martin, had been captain of the Pinta, during the first Columbus voyage. During that expedition, Martin Pinzon had several heated disagreements with Columbus, and on two occasions, the Pinta left the other ships to do a bit of unauthorized exploring.

During a severe storm on the return voyage, Martin Pinzon lost track of Columbus. Hoping to receive credit for discovery of the New World, Pinzon raced his caravel home, arriving before Columbus, but he was rebuffed when he asked for an immediate audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He died in 1493, reportedly jealous of the attention Columbus had received.

Vicente Pinzon returned to Spain with Columbus and received permission to launch his own expedition in 1499. He left Spain with four ships, but lost two of them during a storm in June 1500 near a place the survivors called the "shoals of Barbura." Lyon's report said the two lost ships were never identified -- a conclusion that neither Frick nor Gasque believed. "The Spaniards kept very good records," Frick said. "We just had to find the right report." The treasure hunters believed the Pinta had been on the journey because it was owned by the Pinzon family.

Even if a ship named the Pinta did make the voyage, Lyon explained in an interview, there is no proof that it is the same Pinta that sailed to the New World in 1492. Spanish ships often had the same names, Lyon said.

After reading Lyon's report, William Graves, a senior editor at the National Geographic Society, said he decided to ask Frick and Gasque to propose an excavation budget. Graves was unconvinced about the Pinta claim, but he still was interested because Lyon said the ship was old.

"Their budget was just too much," Graves explained, "and we did not like the way they wanted to go about excavating it, so we decided not to join up with them."

Gasque and Frick decided to research the shipwreck on their own. They contacted Mendel Peterson, who lives in McLean and is a former director of underwater archeology at the Smithsonian Institution, and asked him to estimate the age of the ship.

In an interview, Peterson said he told Frick and Gasque that "the suspicions that this is Pinzon's wreck are very well-founded. I have found nothing to the contrary that it is the ship which sank in 1500 . . . "

Frick and Gasque then hired their own researcher, Charlotte Kuzma, who lives in Birmingham, Mich. The treasure hunters had met Kuzma, who is a substitute high school Spanish teacher, while she was vacationing in the Turks and Caicos Islands. She had translated several Spanish documents for them there and the treasure hunters decided to send her to the archives in Seville to do more research on the Pinzon trip.

Kuzma said she found a loose tax record during her trip to the archives that identified the two ships that sank on Pinzon's voyage. One was called the Frailia and the other was the Pinta, she said. The archives do not allow documents to be copied by machines, she said, so the only copy she has is one she wrote in long-hand that describes the Pinta and its cargo. Kuzma theorizes the record was misplaced because Pinzon was involved in a long tax dispute with Spanish authorities after he returned, resulting in two different sets of records.

"We were 99 percent sure, at that point," said Frick. They had proof that the Pinta was on the Pinzon journey, he explained, and they also knew that the ship at the wreck site had been on the Pinzon voyage, but there still was no direct proof that the mystery ship was the Pinta. "Then we found two important clues," Frick said.

"When our ship is anchored directly over the wreck site, you can see the seven islands of the Turks and Caicos," Frick explained. "I don't think there is another place like this in the Caribbean." Frick claims the seven islands are the "shoals of Barbura" mentioned in the logs of the shipwreck survivors. He also said that the survivors reported being anchored near a reef when their ship sank.

But where was the other ship, the Frailia, that also reportedly sank on the Pinzon voyage? After several months of searching, Frick and Gasque said they found the smaller shipwreck close to their first find.

"I knew that we had the Pinta," said Frick.

On Sept. 11, 1980, the pair signed an exclusive contract with John Clifford Strong, the British governor of the Turks and Caicos, that restricted the shipwreck area from other divers. The contract said the islands would get 30 percent of all profits from the mystery wreck.

Frick and Gasque began contacting potential investors. "The Pinta didn't carry any treasure," Frick said, "so the only way we could make any money on this thing was by marketing it, selling T-shirts, movie rights, that sort of thing and putting the Pinta on national display." A Dallas businessman loaned the treasure hunters his 180-foot vessel, the Juniper, for the salvage expedition, they said.

But finding other investors was difficult, in part, Gasque and Frick said, because of a well-publicized and embarrassing court case in Florida. A rival group of treasure hunters, Treasure Salvos, alleged that Frick and Gasque had trespassed on the site of the 1622 Spanish galleon Atocha, which carried one of the richest treasures ever discovered on a sunken ship. Because the Atocha was found in international waters, Frick and Gasque contended that they had a right to excavate it, but Treasure Salvos, which originally discovered the ship, obtained a temporary court injunction to keep Frick and Gasque away from the site while the courts decided another question -- whether the state of Florida was entitled to a percent of the cut.

At a court hearing on June 2, 1978, Judge W. Mehrtens found Gasque and Frick in contempt of court for violating that injunction. He called them "two modern-day pirates" -- a description that has haunted the men, Frick said, and discouraged investors for the "Pinta project."

The treasure hunters decided to go public in hopes of attracting investors, Frick said. On Oct. 13, 1980, the Miami Herald printed a story that quoted Frick and Gasque saying they had found the Pinta.

One of the persons who read that story was Sumner Gerard, a former U.S. ambassador to Jamaica who lives in Miami and also happens to be on the board of directors of the Institute of Nautical Archeology (INA) in College Station, Tex.

Gerard had met Frick and Gasque earlier when he docked his boat near their ships. The three had become friends, and Gasque and Frick had told Gerard about the old shipwreck, but the pair had never called it the Pinta, Gerard said.

Gerard said he became outraged when he read the newspaper story. He didn't believe the shipwreck was the Pinta, but he did believe it was historically valuable and, he said, he was afraid that it might be damaged.

Gerard said he telephoned Gasque to complain. He then telephoned Dr. George Bass, the founder of INA, and urged him to "save" the shipwreck. Bass apparently didn't need much persuasion. Letting treasure hunters salvage old shipwrecks, Bass said in an interview, is like allowing someone to sell "Mount Vernon brick by brick for souvenirs."

Gerard said he also decided to call Gov. Strong, whom he had met while serving as the U.S. ambassador to Jamaica. During their conversation, Gerard said, he urged Strong to reconsider his contract with the treasure hunters and to have the shipwreck examined by archeologists.

Two weeks after the newspaper story was published, the islands flew in Colin Martin, an archeologist from the Institute of Maritime Archeology at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, to examine the wreck. In his report, Martin said that the shipwreck had been carrying so many cannon--possibly as many as 16--that if it weren't the Pinta, it might have been one of the first pirate ships in the area.

In his Nov. 14. report, Martin urged Strong to make a "bold and enlightened move to preserve . . . an important cultural heritage by" allowing archeologists rather than "selfish motivated treasure hunters" to excavate it. He suggested that INA, which is affiliated with Texas A&M University, be hired to work with Gasque and Frick.

Twelve days later, Strong signed a special order that gave INA permission to send a diving crew into the area that had been restricted to everyone but Frick and Gasque for three days to examine and photograph the shipwreck. Because Frick and Gasque already had a valid contract, INA said, it did not take any further steps in regard to the shipwreck.

At about this same time, Frick and Gasque were turning for help to Roger Miklos, owner of Nomad Treasure Seekers in South Laguna, Calif. A curly-haired adventurer who wears a silver piece-of-eight dangling from his neck, Miklos had met Frick and Gasque in the late 1970s when he rented one of their boats. Frick and Gasque asked Miklos to help them raise $400,000 for their expedition. In return, Miklos would get a cut of the profit.

It took Miklos nearly a year to raise the money, but by the fall of 1981, Miklos said he had raised the necessary funds. The three treasure hunters, however, disagreed upon the amount of percentage Miklos would get, and he quit the group, hired a California archeological company and launched his own expedition.

Still in need of funds, Frick and Gasque turned to another money-raiser, Luba Medina of Washington, D.C., whom they had met through mutual friends. Medina said she began raising money by offering potential investors exclusive movie rights, book rights. She also offered one-half of 1 percent shares in the shipwreck for $50,000 each. She also arranged national television interviews for Gasque and Frick shortly before Columbus Day 1981.

"Once the ship is raised and reconstructed, we hope to send it on a national tour similar to the King Tut Treasures of Tutankhamen exhibit that attracted millions of people," she said. "Imagine being able to see one of the very ships that Columbus used to discover America."

Within weeks, Medina says, she had raised enough money to launch an expedition on Thanksgiving Day 1981, complete with a special Roman Catholic mass at Key West.

What she didn't know at the time, she says, was that island officials already were in the midst of talking to Miklos and INA about excavating the shipwreck.

To this day, all three parties contend they have the exclusive right to salvage the shipwreck.

Frick says he and Gasque never have received notification that their contract has been terminated.

Miklos has documents dated Sept. 30 and Nov. 21 that show he received permission from the islands' chief minister, Norman Saunders, to claim shipwrecks in the islands' waters. Miklos contends this permission covers the mystery shipwreck.

"We were working with the black government Chief Minister Saunders ," Miklos explained in an interview. "INA was working with the British governor Strong ."

Attorneys for INA have documents that show the island government wrote Frick and Gasque a letter Aug. 17, ending their contract. The INA documents show the government invited INA on Sept. 10 to come to the islands and begin contract negotiations. INA has a telex dated Oct. 21 from the islands that says INA was given exclusive permission to excavate the shipwreck.

The race was on.

On Nov. 24, 1981--two days before Frick and Gasque planned to launch their expedition--Miklos took two ships to the mystery wreck to mark his claim. An INA ship arrived within hours. The meeting was not friendly. The Miklos team sent an employe, who was carrying a rifle, to find out what INA's representative, Donald Keith, wanted. Witnesses later told police that Keith told Miklos that he was trepassing on a restricted area. When Miklos refused to leave, Keith returned to the islands and reported him to the police. The next day, Miklos returned to the island and also went to the police station.

Miklos said the police tried to confiscate his contracts, which he had hidden.

A few hours after Miklos was released by the police, four armed policemen boarded Miklos' boats, which, Miklos said, were docked at a U.S. Air Force installation. They confiscated an anchor which they said Miklos had taken from the shipwreck and told Miklos that he had no right to be in the restricted area. That night, Miklos and his crew quietly slipped away from the islands because, he said, friends had told him that he was going to be arrested for trespassing.

Gov. Strong refused to discuss the contract dispute when contacted by a reporter. But in an interview, Saunders said that Miklos did not have permission to enter the restricted area. "We gave him a contract to search for wrecks, but it said he could not go into the restricted area," Saunders said. "Unfortunately, that's the only area that Roger was interested in."

Saunders said he and Strong asked INA to excavate the wreck after they terminated their earlier contract with Frick and Gasque. "They Frick and Gasque had not done anything," Saunders said, "so we ended that contract and asked INA to do the work. Roger never had a contract for the shipwreck."

After the Nov. 24 confrontation, Frick and Gasque canceled their expedition and told INA that they wanted to sue INA for $100 million for interfering with their contract.

Attorneys for INA have a letter, dated Nov. 19, written by the island government, which says that the Frick and Gasque contract was terminated because of nonperformance and "not due to any action on the part of your organization INA ."

Gerard said that lawsuit threat upset INA, which is a nonprofit organization. In an interview, Bass of INA said the armed confrontation at the wreck site also alarmed him because INA uses college students to help during excavations and he was afraid for their safety.

At about this same time, Miklos said that he too wanted to sue INA.

Bass said he called home his representatives on the islands and called a board of directors meeting. On Feb. 24, attorneys for INA sent the governor a letter that said the institute would refrain for 30 days from signing any formal contract to excavate the wreck so that anyone with a prior claim could file it. No one did.

A few days before that "grace period" ended, an explosion rocked the wreck site. Someone had blown a five-foot hole in the ship's ballast pile. It apparently was set by someone trying to steal artifacts, but it did little damage.

On April 3, INA signed an exclusive contract with Gov. Strong to excavate the wreck, promising the islands 100 percent of any profits from it. Within a few weeks, INA had removed five tons of artifacts from the site. In early July, INA crews returned to excavate the ship's blackened, worm-eaten, timber hull. The scientists hope to try coral dating -- a technique similar to counting tree rings -- to pinpoint the vessel's age.

Miklos, meanwhile, has complained to the State Department, the British Embassy, several congressmen, and unsuccessfully tried to get the staff of Texas Gov. Bill Clements to investigate INA's role in the shipwreck venture. State Department officials told Miklos that the dispute is a "contractual matter" that only the courts can decide. Miklos has not taken any legal action.

Frick and Gasque have dissolved their partnership. Gasque has remained in Key West, but Frick has returned to his marine salvaging business in Miami where he is trying to pay the bills that he amassed during the Pinta hunt. His big dreams, he explained, cost more than $5 million. He also has not taken any legal action.

INA refuses to speculate whether the mystery ship is the Pinta, but it does plan to search the Spanish archives in Seville for more information about Pinzon's journey, an INA official said. "We may never know," the INA representative said. "It's not likely you're going to find a bell down there with the Pinta written on it."

But Frick, who said he is bitter about the contract dispute, doesn't need any more documentation.

"I don't care what any of them archeologists say," he said. "I know what that shipwreck is--it's the greatest discovery of them all -- it's the Pinta."