Search for the Bonhomme Richard

It may be the best chance yet to find the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones’ Revolutionary War ship.

During last month’s expedition in the North Sea, the Mystic-based Ocean Technology Foundation, with help from the U.S. Navy, found a debris field of manmade, cylindrically shaped objects scattered along a ridge on the ocean bottom, according to Melissa Ryan, the organization’s project manager.

It is thought that one of the main signs of the ship’s final resting place will be the iron ballast it carried. The location of the objects is within the area where computer models predict the ship will be.

Ryan said the discovery was made with sonar, but bad weather prevented the French navy from getting to the site with an underwater vehicle equipped with cameras that could capture images of the debris field.

The Ocean Technology Foundation, with possible help from the U.S. and French navies, plans to return next summer to inspect the site along with 35 others that were identified during the Sept. 10-20 expedition aboard the USNS Henson, a 328-foot-long oceanographic survey vessel.

“In five expeditions over five years, this is the one we’re most excited about,” said Ryan, adding that this year’s search covered 63 square miles of ocean and it was on the last day that the cylindrical objects were spotted. Bad weather prevented the ship from using a magnetometer to inspect the objects, she said.

While waiting another year to determine if they have indeed found the Bonhomme Richard would seem frustrating, Ryan said it was exciting.

“We’re getting used to the waiting,” she said. “It gives us time for the excitement to build and garner more support.”

The North Sea’s notoriously bad weather limits work to the summer and fall.

Accompanying the team on last month’s expedition were four midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy who were enrolled in Ryan’s online historic shipwreck course that uses the Bonhomme Richard as an example. Jones’ remains are contained in a sarcophagus in the Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis, Md.

Ryan said the midshipmen were invaluable in helping the team evaluate the large amount of data it was receiving, operating the sonar, helping retrieve equipment from the ocean and performing other tasks. She said she hopes another group of midshipmen will be part of next year’s expedition.

Over the past five years, searchers have methodically eliminated possible wreck sites and they now think their best chance to find the ship is by locating the debris field.

If it can find the debris field, the foundation also knows the foundry markings of the ship’s cannons.

The Bonhomme Richard sank in September 1779 after a battle with the HMS Serapis. It was during the battle 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 is alleged to have shouted to the captain of the British vessel.

The crew of the Bonhomme Richard eventually captured the Serapis after a bloody, three-hour battle, but the Bonhomme Richard sank off Flamborough Head, on the Yorkshire coast of England, where those on land witnessed the battle.

To help pinpoint its location, the foundation has analyzed eyewitness accounts of the battle, ships’ logs, information on tides, winds and weather, battle damage and computer models of how the ship would have drifted before it sank.

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