Search is heating up for Bonhomme Richard

Mystic - The Ocean Technology Foundation will launch its fifth expedition later this summer to search for the wreck of John Paul Jones' Revolutionary War ship the Bonhomme Richard in the North Sea.

The two-week expedition may provide the best chance yet to find the famed ship off the northeast coast of England as the U.S. and French navies are providing state-of-the-art sonar systems, an oceanographic survey ship, a mine hunter, underwater vehicles and divers.

"This is the latest and greatest equipment," Jack Ringelberg, president of the foundation, said Monday.

Previous expeditions have eliminated a 400-square-mile area where the ship was thought to be while additional historic data and information about how it may have drifted before it sank have refined the search area.

And unlike past expeditions, which either surveyed possible wreck sites or explored targets, this venture will have the capacity to do both. The exact dates of the trip were not released.

Project Manager Melissa Ryan said Monday this is the best attempt to locate the wreck since 2008, when on its last voyage the Groton-based U.S. Navy nuclear research submarine NR-1 explored many of the wrecks that sonar had previously located. The NR-1 found that they were more modern vessels.

This has led researchers to conclude that the wreck will likely not be in one piece but possibly spread across the ocean bottom - and maybe underneath it. Special sonar equipment on the upcoming expedition can penetrate the ocean bottom.

"The Bonhomme Richard is like a proverbial needle in a haystack," Ryan said. "But the good news is that the haystack is considerably smaller than it was five years ago when our surveying began."

Ringelberg said the ship was thought to be carrying a large load of iron ballast that could help in locating and identifying the wreck. The foundation also knows the foundry markings of the ship's cannons.

Accompanying the searchers this time will be four midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy who took an online course Ryan taught about searching for historic shipwrecks using the Bonhomme Richard as an example.

The four will now be able to work as part of the team looking for the ship of one of the country's greatest naval heroes, whose remains are contained in a sarcophagus in the Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis, Md.

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 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, where people on land witnessed the battle.

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 to locate possible sites of its final resting place, which is thought to be in 150 to 180 feet of water and within site of the coast.

If the team finds evidence of the wreck, Ryan said, it will perform a detailed archaeological study. A decision about what artifacts to recover and preserve would be up to the U.S. Navy. Ringelberg said he would like to see a traveling exhibit of artifacts if the ship can be found. Of note is that the converted merchant ship was owned at the time by the French government, which was letting Jones use it.

At first, Ryan said, failure to find the famed ship was frustrating. But she said she has learned the effort has a much broader scope in serving not only an educational purpose but in helping the foundation forge partnerships among groups that have never worked together.

"Do I want to find it?" Ryan asked. "Of course I do. But if it was easy to find, someone would have already found it."

Because no money, jewels or other treasure is thought to be aboard the Bonhomme Richard, Ringelberg said its primary value lies in its historic significance.

"The value," Ryan said, "is recovering a piece of history and sharing it with the American people."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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