Thursday, June 07, 2007


Search for John Paul Jones' ship resurfaces

By Joe Wojtas
June 07, 2007

GROTON, Conn. -- The Ocean Technology Foundation plans to return to the North Sea in August to prove that one of the wrecks it found last summer is the Bonhomme Richard sailed by John Paul Jones.

It was in September 1779, as the cannonballs from the H.M.S. Serapis turned the Bonhomme Richard into a burning hulk, that Jones heard one of his crewman try to surrender.

It was then that Jones is said to have uttered one of the most famous lines in U.S. history.

"I have not yet begun to fight!" he yelled to the British captain.

The crew of the Bonhomme Richard eventually captured the Serapis after a bloody, three-hour battle, but the Bonhomme Richard sank off Flamborough Head in northeast England.

Last week Melissa Ryan, the project manager for the foundation, outlined what it hopes to accomplish during four days in August when it will use a remotely operated vehicle to find evidence that one of the five sites it located last summer is that of the 151-foot Bonhomme Richard.

"We're cautiously optimistic," she said. "One of them is in the right place and looks like what might be left of a buried, wooden ship that sank 228 years ago."

That wreck will be the first one the expedition visits during its around-the-clock search aboard the research vessel Oceanus, based at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod.

Using the vehicle's video and still cameras and a mechanical arm that can retrieve artifacts, the team hopes to find evidence that one of the wrecks is the Bonhomme Richard. While much of the wood likely would have rotted away by now, metal items would have survived.

Ryan said such items include iron ballast that the ship was known to have been carrying as well as cannons, cooking utensils, china and knives. One of the promising sites the expedition found last summer using sonar and a magnetometer appears to contain a large amount of iron ballast.

Ryan said one way to begin to amass a circumstantial case for one of the wrecks is to find a drinking mug, which sailors used to carve their initials into. If one was found, those initials could be matched with the list of crewmen known to have been aboard the ship at the time of the battle.

Half the men aboard the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis died in the battle. One of those who survived was midshipman Nathaniel Fanning of Stonington.

The wreck sites are in 150 to 180 feet of water within 25 miles of the English coast, where people watched the battle from the cliffs on Flamborough Head.

Ryan said one of the wreck sites was previously undiscovered while the other four had been charted but there is no information about them.

Ryan said the foundation plans to return to the North Sea in future years until it can positively identify the Bonhomme Richard, do a detailed archaeological study of the wreck, and retrieve and preserve artifacts.

"This is not just looking for a shipwreck. There's much more to it than that," she said.

In addition to the U.S. Navy, the British and French governments also have an interest in the ship. The French loaned the ship to the United States and were never paid for it. Ryan said the foundation has already met with the French ambassador to the United States.

The cost of this summer's expedition is estimated at $350,000, and the foundation still needs to raise another $75,000. The Navy's Supervisor of Salvage and Office of Naval Research are providing the ROV and paying for the cost of using the Oceanus.

"Everything is coming together. We've had some nice support," Ryan said.

While there have been other efforts to find the ship, the one by the foundation is considered to have incorporated the most extensive research.

The nonprofit organization, which is head by Jack Ringelberg of Stonington and based at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus, first created an hour-by-hour timeline of the battle. It used eyewitness accounts of the battle; information from ship's logs, such as wind direction, weather and battle damage assessments; the tides at the time; and sightings of the ship's position during the 36 hours it drifted after the battle.

The foundation then built a three-dimensional model based on the Bonhomme Richard's plans to help determine how the damaged hull would have drifted. The group then worked with a Rhode Island firm that came up with computer models to determine the direction of the drift. It is the same method the Coast Guard uses to track oil spills and lost ships.

Charts of wrecks that have been identified further reduced the search area where the five targets were located this summer.

"We know a whole lot about where it sank," Ryan said.

If the foundation can identify the wreck this summer it would come on the 100th anniversary of Jones' body being returned to the United States from France, where he had died and was buried.

Jones is now buried in a crypt at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.


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