VICTORIA, Seychelles (AP) _ It's a story that has circulated here for years: a French pirate loots a Portuguese ship, scampering away with a jewel-studded gold cross and thousands of other gems.

Years later, as he mounts the gallows to be hanged, the buccaneer throws a bag of coded documents to the crowd and challenges them to find the loot.

The pirates and the jewels may smack of fiction, but a 40-year-old history teacher believes not only the story is genuine but claims to know roughly where the bounty is hidden.

Like is father before him, John Cruise-Wilkins is convinced the jewel-studded cross and other treasures are near his home in Bel Ombre, a fishing village on the north coast of Mahe, the main island in the Seychelles archipelago.

And the government is on the verge of agreeing to let him resume the hunt that his late father, Reginald Cruise-Wilkins, began along the north coast of the island half a century ago.

The treasure, which originally belonged to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Goa _ then a Portuguese colony on the west coast of India _ is believed to be worth $160 million.

But John Cruise-Wilkins said that while the hunt may bring to mind Hollywood swashbucklers, the piracy of the early 1700s was far more sophisticated _ and so is his search.

``It's a battle of wits with a man who lived more than 200 years ago,'' Cruise-Wilkins said in a telephone interview from his Bel Ombre.

``And it's a personal battle when the public thinks you are crazy to go on a search for an ancient treasure.''

In 1949, Reginald Cruise-Wilkins, a British soldier stationed in Kenya, was shown strange markings on rocks near Bel Ombre during a visit to the Seychelles, a string of islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of eastern Africa.

He believed he had come across the site where French pirate Olivier Le Vasseur, better know as La Buse (The Buzzard), had hidden the loot he had stolen off the Portuguese vessel Vierge du Cap in the Indian Ocean in 1720.

The treasure included the Fiery Cross of Goa, a golden cross studded with precious stones that ``took three men to carry,'' and thousands of diamonds and other gems, said John Cruise-Wilkins.

La Buse was captured in 1730 and sentenced to death by French authorities on the island of Bourbon, now Reunion. Then, before his execution, he made his now-legendary bequest of documents to spectators.

Reginald Cruise-Wilkins bought what he believed to be the same documents from a woman who had been investigating the treasure since 1923.

Decoding references to astronomy, astrology, and mythology _ what Cruise-Wilkins called ``the celestial sea of Greek constellations'' _ his father concluded that the key to finding the treasure was somehow connected to the 12 labors the gods of Greek mythology assigned to Hercules.

The elder man spent his remaining 28 years searching in vain for the treasure.

In 1988, Cruise-Wilkins took up his father's hunt with the backing of American Robert Graf, who worked at a U.S. Navy satellite tracking station on the island.

But the two had ``a difference of opinion'' over how to conduct the search, and lacking funds, Cruise-Wilkins pulled out in 1993.

Graf gave up the search in March.

Now, Cruise-Wilkins has decided to once again walk in his father's footsteps.

``It's not only a treasure of gold, it's a treasure of knowledge, figuring out how these pirates thought,'' Cruise-Wilkins said. ``My father said the pirates re-educated him through all kinds of research work. It's the same for me.''

Cruise-Wilkins believes La Buse hid the treasure in the granite sea bed off Bel Ombre, using ropes, pulleys, horses and more than 200 men.

Hoping to sign a deal with the government by November, he has begun exploratory excavations to determine where to dig in the site he has mapped out.

By then, he hopes to have raised $50,000 to $60,000 for the work _ approximately a quarter of what he believes he needs in order to find the treasure before the 21st century.