Wednesday, November 02, 2005


US bid to raise historic wreck


Times Online
By Gayle Ritchie
October 30, 2005

A TEAM of naval historians is to launch an expedition to locate and raise a 200-year-old warship, which was involved in one of the Royal Navy’s most humiliating defeats, from the bed of the North Sea.

The joint British-American operation aims to salvage the remains of the Bonhomme Richard, America’s first naval flagship, which sank off the east Yorkshire coast in 1779 following the battle of Flamborough Head.

The ship, regarded as a holy grail of maritime archeology, is believed to contain an important cache of valuable historical artefacts including cannons and French ironwork.

The vessel was skippered by John Paul Jones, the Scottish-born founder of the American navy who, after conducting a series of daring sea raids against merchant ships around the British coast, engaged the 50-gun Royal Navy frigate HMS Serapis.

The frigate and a smaller escort, the Countess of Scarborough, ambushed Jones, who refused to surrender. After a four-hour battle that left 49 British seamen dead, his crew boarded the Serapis and took prisoner its commander, Sir Richard Pearson. From there they watched the Bonhomme Richard sink. The victory made Jones a national hero in America, where he is the classroom equivalent of Lord Nelson, and in France, where he was made a chevalier of honour by King Louis XVI.

The expedition to locate the vessel next summer is a collaboration between English Heritage, the Naval Historical Centre in Washington, the Ocean Technology Foundation in Cincinnati and researchers from the University of New Hampshire.

The team plans to use sonar and magnetic sensors to identify the wreck by detecting the large amount of iron ballast believed to have been carried by the ship. A remote-controlled submarine and divers would then be used to pinpoint its precise location.

If successful the team will then apply to the British government for permission to raise the wreck. In 2002 Lady Blackstone, then arts minister, issued a protection order after learning that an American diving team was about to attempt to raise artefacts from the 40-gun converted French East Indiaman. It was believed that the wreck had attracted the attentions of salvors and there were concerns that it might have been stripped.

For the wreck to be raised, the American government would also have to be consulted as would the government of France which had loaned the ship to America during the war of independence following the intervention of Benjamin Franklin, America’s envoy in France.The total cost of the project is estimated at £800,000.

“Historically, I think this is bigger than the Titanic,” said John Ringelberg, a retired US navy captain and president of the Ocean Technology Foundation. “The more I read about it, this is the stuff that expeditions are made of.”

Mark Wertheimer, head of the curator branch at the Naval Historical Centre, said: “Given the age of the ship, it’s unlikely it will be intact and it will be fascinating to see what fittings still exist.”

Jones, the son of a gardener, was born in Kirkbean, Dumfriesshire, in 1747. He deserted from the Royal Navy after being charged with murder and fled to America. He became notorious in Britain for his daring raids on Scotland and England from French ports.


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