CHATHAM, Mass. (AP) _ The hundreds of silver coins, pieces of gold and silver bars stashed in a bank vault here more than equal the lifetime's work of many treasure hunters.

But it's just a fraction of the pirate's booty that Barry Clifford believes is still buried in the sea bottom off Cape Cod where pirate Samuel ''Black'' Bellamy's flagship, the Whydah, sank in a storm 269 years ago.

''We're probably going to hit the big stuff this year,'' he said recently, estimating the Spanish pieces of eight and other coins already taken from the wreck are worth more than $12 million.

The Whydah, an English slave ship, was on its maiden voyage from Africa in 1716 when it was seized by Bellamy in the Caribbean. Bellamy went on to plunder dozens of other ships before the galleon went down in 1717 in a violent storm off Cape Cod.

An Indian guide and a shipwright who had been taken prisoner by Bellamy were the only survivors among the estimated 180 to 210 crew members and prisoners aboard the Whydah.

The shipwright, along with seven men who survived the wreck of a sister pirate ship in the storm, were tried in Boston, where musty court records show six were hanged for piracy, according to Arthur T. Vanderbilt II, who has written a history of the Whydah.

The Whydah and its wealth became a legend.

''When I was a boy living on the Cape I heard about Bellamy and the Whydah,'' recalled Clifford, 40, a professional shipwreck salvor. He discovered what he thought was the Whydah in November 1982, using powerful metal detectors and historical records as a guide to the site some 700 yards off shore in Wellfleet.

At a depth of 30 feet and under more than 10 feet of shifting sand, Clifford and his divers found seven cannons, navigational instruments, pottery and other items in addition to the coins and bars of precious metals.

Many were skeptical that Clifford had found the pirate galleon until October 1985 when he found a ship's bell inscribed ''The Whydah Gally 1716.'' The Whydah's wreckage fans out over a 100,000-square-foot area, he said.

The survivors of the shipwreck testified in the Boston trial that the ship carried 30,000 pounds of silver, 10,000 pounds of gold and 20 tons of ivory and jewels. Clifford said estimates of the total value of the treasure range up to $400 million.

Much of the treasure will eventually be sold, Clifford said. In the meantime, his company, Maritime Explorations, has raised $4 million through a limited partnership to help pay for the salvage, which could take years.

Clifford has been embroiled in a legal tangle with Massachusetts over who owns the treasure.

Under state law, officials can supervise the salvaging of any wreck within the three-mile off-shore zone under state jurisdiction. The law also entitles the state to one-quarter of the profits from any salvage operation.

Clifford is challenging the law in court.

He says his ultimate goal is to set up a museum to display the Whydah's remains and to provide what he believes is a less distorted history of piracy.

''The pirates were only villains to the shipping industry,'' said Clifford, a former high school history teacher.

Pirates, he contends, actually were the emancipators of many sailors who were impressed into service on sometimes trumped-up charges of being vagrants or drunks.

Pirate society, he said, emphasized equally sharing the loot from ships' raids. It also emphasized democracy: Pirate captains were elected by their crew and decisions were made by a majority vote, he said.