Expedition continues search for 220-year-old shipwreck

This 1960 oil painting by Anton Otto Fischer depicts the legendary battle between the Bonhomme Richard and the British warship Serapis.


By GEOFF ZIEZULEWICZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 30, 2011

NAPLES, Italy — With his ship ablaze and much of his crew dead, John Paul Jones had the chance to surrender to the British on Sept. 23, 1779. Instead, Jones, dubbed the father of the U.S. Navy, is said to have declared: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

After the British surrendered, Jones’ men tried to save his Bonhomme Richard, but it sank in the North Sea.

Now, more than 220 years later, a team of scientists, Navy enthusiasts and archaeologists is trying to find its remains.

“Bonhomme Richard would be one of the most important archaeological discoveries in U.S. naval history,” said Alexis Catsambis, manager of the Naval History and Heritage Command’s underwater archaeology branch. “Discovery would bring with it knowledge of the historic battle, life aboard a ship of the Continental navy, and information about the construction and armament of the ship itself.”

Led by the Ocean Technology Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to undersea research and education, the annual expeditions are slowly ruling out chunks of the sea floor as they look for the ship’s iron ballasts, cannons and other bits that would not have deteriorated over the centuries.

Last summer, the Navy supplied the salvage ship USNS Grasp to aid in the expedition.

Onboard the Grasp during the 27-day expedition were members of Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 2.

“Coming out here and actually diving in the ocean in a real-world situation was very unique,” Chief Warrant Officer Raymond Miller said, adding that most of the crew’s dives consist of shallower water training in Maryland’s Patuxent River.

Once researchers onboard saw something worth investigating, Miller and his team members would be lowered into the murky depths to check it out, sometimes finding only rocks with coral.

“With the data they have, there’s an element of guesswork,” he said. “They’re ruling it out little by little.”

Painstaking work

Detecting shipwrecks like the Bonhomme Richard is not normally a difficult task but it is time-consuming, according to Grasp Chief Mate Tom Sellers, the ship’s second-in-command.

“You’re trying to find a 200-year-old shipwreck, which was made predominantly out of wooden timber … in a harsh environment, deep water and very little to begin with,” he said.

The mission began in 2005, when historical researcher Peter Reaveley came to the Ocean Technology Foundation with a mountainous trove of data on the Bonhomme Richard but with no way to act on it, according to Melissa Ryan, the project’s manager for the foundation.

Ryan said the team was able to narrow down the search zone to a 700-square-mile patch of sea floor.

Researchers took more than 30 years of research by Reaveley, including eyewitness accounts of the battle, information on weather, winds, visibility and tides from Sept. 23, 1779, to Sept. 25, 1779, and vessel specifications.

Professor Peter Guth of the U.S. Naval Academy then developed a computer model to simulate how the Bonhomme Richard might have drifted before it sank, Ryan said.

The fact that the vessel drifted for 36 hours meant that there were no eyewitness accounts regarding exactly where it went down, she said.

Still, Ryan said, “a burned-up, beat-up, sinking ship” will only travel so far. “There has to be a plausible limit for how many miles she could go.”

Each exhibition since 2007 has tried to scan 50 square miles of the sea floor, she said, “if we’re lucky.”

“When you have a big chunk of ocean you want to search, it is a multi-year operation,” Ryan said.

It’s unclear how long the search will take.

“Three years ago, I would have said three years,” said Ryan, a marine biologist. “It might take a year or two [more] before we run out of places to plausibly look.”

The Bonhomme Richard was on loan from the French monarchy when it sank, Ryan said, and there have been some French expeditions recently as well to recover the vessel.

“It was loaned to us by the French, but we never repaid them,” she said. “They believe they have claim to it as well.”

While the U.S. and France haven’t discussed what they’ll do when the remains are found, Ryan said she thinks something can be worked out.

“There would be enough artifacts to share,” she said.

Diving right in

The presence of the Grasp this year was a big help, Ryan said.

Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 2 gave researchers a dive option in addition to the sonar and magnetometer tools used to detect something out of the ordinary.

For Miller and the other divers, searching for the Bonhomme Richard offered a rare chance to go deeper than 190 feet and do mixed-gas dives, where sailors breathe a helium-oxygen blend to prevent nitrogen narcosis.

It was dark and cold on the North Sea’s floor, Miller said, and divers used special gear connected to a machine on the ship that pumped hot water into their suits.

Divers also had to deal with currents as strong as 2 knots, he said.

“The current was so strong it pushed me on top of the other diver who was on the stage with me,” Miller said. “It was like somebody behind me, just pushing me.”

While it’s unclear whether the Navy will offer a ship for the next expedition, Miller and Sellers both said it was great to help find the remains of the ship helmed by the father of the sea service.

“It’s inspirational,” Sellers said. “It’s something we’ve rallied around our entire history.”


Twitter: @Stripes_GeoffZ

Navy Diver 1st Class Travis Bourne, assigned to Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 2, checks the standby diver for leaks during diving operations aboard the USNS Grasp this summer. MDSU-2 and Navy archeologists, scientists, and historians were in the North Sea conducting diving operations verifying the sites of suspected shipwrecks. The researchers hoped to find USS Bonhomme Richard, the historic ship commanded by John Paul Jones.