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WHOI Ship Hunts for Revolutionary War Wreck

A research vessel joins the search for John Paul Jones's famous ship

Source: Oceanus Magazine

One of the fiercest battles of the Revolutionary War raged off the coast of Flamborough Head, England, on Sept. 23, 1779, pitting the American ship Bonhomme Richard against the British HMS Serapis. After almost three and a half hours of combat, the American captain, John Paul Jones, uttered his famous phrase: “I have not yet begun to fight!” He emerged victorious, capturing Serapis in English waters.

But the Bonhomme Richard, burned battling Serapis, sank in the North Sea. More than two centuries later, the wreck’s location remains a mystery, which crew members on the WHOI-operated research vessel Oceanus helped try to solve in July 2007.

On an expedition funded by the Office of Naval Research, the 13-member Oceanus crew sailed off the coast of England for three days of exploration with members of the Groton, Conn.-based Ocean Technology Foundation, as well as three archeologists and a war historian.

“We were all pretty jazzed about the opportunity. How often do you get to be a part of something so historic?” said Oceanus Capt. Diego Mello, who was on his first shipwreck-finding trip—and also his maiden voyage through the English Channel into the storm-tossed North Sea.

Melissa Ryan, co-chief scientist with the Ocean Technology Foundation, called the Oceanus crew “true professionals who rose to the task despite some rather grim weather conditions.”

A good man is hard to find

To begin the search, researchers used five black-and-white sonar images taken during an initial survey by the Ocean Technology Foundation in 2006. Each image provided a hazy outline of seafloor wreckage that researchers determined might be the Bonhomme Richard. (Jones had named the vessel after Benjamin Franklin, the American Commissioner in Paris at the time, whose Poor Richard's Almanac had been published in France under the title Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.)

To fine-tune their search, they also used eyewitness accounts of the battle, the ship’s log, court testimony at the time, damage assessments and information about the wind, weather, and tide, and computer models used by the Coast Guard to find lost ships.

The compilation narrowed the search to five potential wreck sites, all situated within four nautical miles of each other.

Over three days, researchers began ruling out candidates. Almost immediately, researchers deemed one site too close to shore, Ryan said. To search the other sites, the researchers used Seaeye Falcon, a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that roams the seafloor, sending real-time images to researchers via a cable to the ship.

A second site turned out to be a sunken cargo of large stones. Two others sites were indeed shipwrecks, but Ryan said the vessels were too modern to be the Bonhomme Richard.

A fifth site remains intriguing, Ryan said.

“Whatever is underneath is buried in a large mound of sand that was impossible for the ROV to see beneath,” she said.

Don't give up the ship

Ryan said she hopes to hear in February about receiving a grant to return in summer 2008. If they find the wreck, it will fall under the jurisdiction of the Naval Historical Center, which supervises operations at any sunken warship.

“There will be archeological mapping, inventorying of artifacts before we would even attempt to do any salvage work,” Ryan said.

Before the expedition, Capt. Mello spent hours reading about the 1779 battle, the sunken ship, and its design and operation. A few times during the trip, he said he joined researchers as they watched the ROV scour the seafloor, then relay images of the various objects it found. He expressed some disappointment in not finding the wreck.

“We hoped a cannon would pop up—even just a cannonball, some artifact from the battle,” he said.

While there are no immediate plans to continue the search using Oceanus, he remains hopeful that the wreck will be located.

“John Paul Jones didn’t give up,” he said. “Neither should we.”

Funding for the project came from the Office of Naval Research as well as from public and private sources.

Originally published: January 29, 2008