SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, CANARY ISLANDS -- No one heard the splash.

A moment earlier, billionaire British publisher Robert Maxwell had been on the deck near the stern of his yacht in the restless early morning hours.

The temperature had dropped to about 59 degrees as the 180-foot craft cruised the Atlantic off the Canary Islands at 14 knots.

Suffering from a cold and perhaps lightheaded from the anti-nausea drug Dramamine he had taken, Maxwell stood near the steel cable that was the only barrier between the deck and the sea.

And then he fell.

Or he jumped.

Whichever it was, none of the 11 crew members said they were aware Maxwell had tumbled from the boat.

Nearly six hours later on Nov. 5, searchers in helicopters found Maxwell's body washing on the waves 25 miles southwest of Spain's Grand Canary Island.

Larger than life, Maxwell, 68, also was striking in death -- floating naked on the surface of the Atlantic with his arms outstretched and his face to the sky.

It was the end of the search, the end of an astonishing life story and the beginning of a mystery that may never be resolved.

An investigation and autopsy by Spanish authorities left major questions unanswered about the death of the tycoon who had arrived in Britain as Jan Ludwig Hoch, a Czechoslovak orphan of the Holocaust. While the judge in charge of the investigation ruled out foul play, the autopsy could only give what it called the probable cause of death -- a combination of coronary artery disease and an accidental plunge into the Atlantic.

But other possible reasons for Maxwell's fall -- by which pathologist Carlos Lopez de Lamela said the autopsy team meant suicide -- couldn't be disregarded completely, the autopsy report said.

The cause of death is key to whether Maxwell's two publicly held companies can collect on a $35 million accidental death policy.

At the same time that pathologists were searching for answers about Maxwell's death, investigators on both sides of the Atlantic were trying to sort out what happened to the assets of the financial empire built by the man known as "Cap'n Bob".

Eulogized when laid to rest in Israel's Mount of Olives cemetery as "a man cast in a heroic mold," Maxwell's last major accomplishment may have been to keep a financial house of cards from falling before it did -- selling stock that already was pledged as collateral on loans and dipping into the pensions of the companies he owned for still more money.

Six days before he died, Maxwell had sailed away on his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, seeking solitude, and perhaps solace as well. His corporate empire, which included the Daily Mirror, Britain's second-largest newspaper, the New York Daily News and the book publisher MacMillan Inc., was flying apart. The previous weeks had been filled with frantic efforts at damage control.

Adept as he was at keeping a critical press at bay by filing libel suits, Maxwell recently had been the subject of a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary suggesting that his business was collapsing. And there were allegations by American author Seymour Hersh in his book "The Samson Option," linking Maxwell and the Daily Mirror's foreign editor to Israel's intelligence agency.

Clearly, time and money were running out. Since spring, the value of Maxwell's publicly traded companies, Mirror Group Newspapers PLC and Maxwell Communication Corp., had been declining. With no turnaround in sight, Maxwell was in default on some of his $1.6 billion in loans and bankers who had taken the stock as collateral were asking for more security.

To prop up his collateral, investigators said, Maxwell had secretly tapped into the pension funds and other assets of his companies to buy his own shares. The day he left Britain, Goldman Sachs & Co. sold 2.2 million shares of Maxwell Communication Corp. -- a move expected to further depress the price of that company's stock.

On top of his other, growing problems, Maxwell had a nagging cold.

The trip that ended with his death started at 6:30 a.m. Oct. 31 in classic Maxwell fashion. At that hour, the publisher flew by private helicopter to Luton airport, a regional airport just outside of London, where he boarded his private Gulfstream jet. At 10:50 a.m. he arrived in Gibraltar, where his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, was waiting.

The first port of call was Funchal, Madeira. Then, on Nov. 4, the Lady Ghislaine docked at Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and that night Maxwell went ashore. Taxi driver Arturo Hernandez Trujillo picked up Maxwell shortly after 8 p.m. at the yacht, whose Spanish-speaking chef directed Hernandez to take the publisher to a good restaurant. A big man at slightly more than six feet tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds, Maxwell got into the front of Hernandez's Toyota Camry and pushed back the seat as far as it would go, but still his knees pressed against the dashboard.

The first stop was the San Andres restaurant, where Maxwell looked around, shook his head and left, directing Hernandez to take him instead to a good hotel. Hernandez delivered Maxwell to the Hotel Mencey, a five-star establishment set on a hillside in the residential part of the small port city. At the restaurant there he ate codfish cooked with clams and mushrooms and ordered three beers, the last of which he left unfinished.

After dinner he gave Hernandez a thumbs-up to signal his appreciation of the meal and asked to be driven around the city. At the waterfront cafe Olimpo, Maxwell stopped for coffee and a brandy. Fifteen minutes later they continued on their way, and Maxwell called the yacht on a walkie-talkie he carried, Hernandez said. When they reached the boat shortly after 10 p.m., Maxwell was greeted by the captain, Angus Rankin, and three crew members.

The Lady Ghislaine got underway again shortly thereafter on Maxwell's instructions, according to Julio Hernandez Claverie, an attorney for the Maxwell family. Earlier in the day, the yacht's captain had indicated to a Santa Cruz shipping company that Maxwell intended to stay in Santa Cruz for two days, but Maxwell apparently changed his mind.

The yacht sailed from Santa Cruz, on the north end of Tenerife, around the Grand Canary Island to the east. According to G. Keith Hazell, the British consul in Tenerife, crew members reported later that Maxwell seemed restless and went in and out of his cabin several times in the next hours.

The last time Maxwell was seen alive was about 4:25 a.m. Shortly afterward he called and asked that the air conditioning in his cabin be turned up, according to police reports. Twenty minutes later, at about 4:45 a.m., he called again, asking that it be turned down. At about that time, the yacht was rounding the southern part of Grand Canary Island, four or five miles offshore, heading for Los Cristianos, back on the southern coast of Tenerife.

At 9:30 a.m. the Lady Ghislaine anchored about 200 yards from the beach near Los Cristianos with no indication that anything was amiss, according to several accounts.

Rankin called Santa Cruz shipping agent Juan Hamilton twice that morning to discuss the cost of sending fuel to Los Cristianos for the yacht. Then -- around 11:30 a.m. -- Rankin called again saying that there was an emergency, Hamilton said. "He said, 'We cannot find the owner,' and said he had sent people ashore ... 'I think we've lost him overboard' -- that's what he said."

The crew had attempted to wake Maxwell at 11 a.m. for an urgent call from New York. Claverie, the Maxwell family attorney, said the police report stated that the call was from John Campi, who is vice president for promotion and public affairs for the New York Daily News. Campi denied that he called Maxwell that day, however.

When the crew discovered Maxwell missing from his stateroom, they began searching the yacht -- going over it four times in all.

"If somebody you think is there isn't there, you don't think they've been murdered or had a heart attack around the corner," said Rankin, who bristled at reports that there was a delay between the discovery that Maxwell was missing and the initial report to authorities. "There was no delay. There was no delay," he said emphatically.

Even after the onboard searches failed to turn up Maxwell, the crew couldn't discount the possibility that Maxwell might have gone swimming. "He wasn't exactly Mark Spitz," but he could have swam the distance from the yacht to the beach at Santa Cristianos, said a crew member who didn't want to be identified. The distance was roughly double the length of an Olympic-size pool, he said.

After searching the boat, the crew spotted someone swimming at a distance and took the motor launch to investigate, but it wasn't Maxwell.

Hamilton, the shipping agent, said the crew moved quickly to report Maxwell missing once their search failed to produce him. Minutes after he received the call from Rankin, Hamilton said he called marine authorities in Los Cristianos, but even as he spoke on the phone, crew members from the yacht were arriving there to make their report.

"The whole thing from our standpoint has been a farce," said Rankin, who said that the death had been followed by an incredible siege on his crew by the press. The reporters chasing the crew were "a bunch of liars" who hounded crew members' families and pretended that the crew had authorized them to talk to family members, he said.

In fact, bizarre theories of the death circulated among the reporters and others trying to sort out Maxwell's end -- at least some of them seriously propounded. There were stories that he might have been urinating or vomiting over the rail and of mysterious, unmarked yachts in the vicinity. There were dark hints that something was amiss because Maxwell traveled alone.

It wasn't unusual for Maxwell to have been alone on the boat, Rankin said, or that the crew wasn't on deck with him at the time of his death. "He was someone who was what you might call a loner on the boat. He didn't want the crew following him around," he said. "The whole reason he had the boat is that it was like a retreat."

Nor was it unusual that the crew wouldn't have heard Maxwell fall, said another crew member. The crew members who were on watch at that hour were on the bridge, which is "all double-glazed and all soundproof," he said. Even if the propellers hadn't been going and making noise, those on the bridge wouldn't have heard Maxwell hit the water, he asserted.

"We could have been hit by a whale and we wouldn't have heard it," he said.