Search for wrecks: L.I. Sound and beyond - Soundings Online

Search for wrecks: L.I. Sound and beyond

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The Ocean Technology Foundation, based at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton, Conn., is planning an expedition this summer to search for the remains of Bonhomme Richard, the American Revolution frigate captained by American naval hero John Paul Jones.

The Ocean Technology Foundation, based at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton, Conn., is planning an expedition this summer to search for the remains of Bonhomme Richard, the American Revolution frigate captained by American naval hero John Paul Jones.

Read the other story in this package: Group to map the wrecks of L.I. Sound

Bonhomme Richard sank in England’s North Sea in 1779 following her battle with the HMS Serapis.

“This was one of the most important men on one of the most important ships in one of the most important battles of the Revolution,” says OTF president Capt. Jack Ringelberg, a retired U.S. Navy captain. “We have the best and brightest team working on this — more experts than we know what to do with. It’s this bullet-proof team that we believe will lead us to discovering the remains.”

One member of that team is Peter Reaveley, a former radar fighter controller with the British Royal Air Force, who has studied John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard for 35 years. Reaveley says he has compiled more than 30 eyewitness accounts of the battle, collected historical weather, wind and tidal data, and has determined the damage most likely inflicted on Bonhomme Richard during the battle.

“When I moved to America in 1970, I came to know Paul Jones the pirate as Capt. John Paul Jones, the father of the U.S. Navy,” Reaveley, who is 71, says. “I started doing some research and it rapidly became apparent to me that the biographies written about Jones were written by writers who knew little about the battle with Serapis. They seemed to know even less still about sailing square-rigged ships, like the Bonhomme Richard, at night in light breeze, like the night of the battle.”

Using Reaveley’s research, OTF members developed a computer model of the Bonhomme Richard to simulate how she might have drifted after the battle with Serapis and to pinpoint an area where they believe the wreckage lies. “We’re not going into this blind,” says Ringelberg, who is 66. “We have a refined search area. And when we get out there, we’ll do an expanding search.”

The OTF team and its partners hope to lease a 45-foot catamaran research vessel and head out for 40 days in July and August to conduct surveys of the ocean floor. They will use a magnetometer, which can detect metal ballast under water, and side-scan sonar, which identifies irregularities on the ocean bottom. “We believe the Bonhomme Richard had about 250 tons of iron ballast,” says project manager Melissa Ryan. “That alone should enable us to distinguish what we think is the wreck we’re looking for from other ones. We hope to verify that something is in fact down there and to come back to see what’s there.”

If the team is successful this summer, foundation members plan to return in summer 2007 with a dive team and a remotely operated vehicle to verify the identity of the wreckage. “It’s possible that a significant portion of the ship has been submerged in sediment, the wood being oxygen-starved and preserved. That means the bottom frames might be intact, which is exciting,” says Ringelberg, also noting that England, France and the United States have expressed interest in artifacts found from the ship.

On Feb. 4, 1779, King Louis XVI of France loaned the Continental Navy a 152-foot, 40-gun frigate called Duc de Durae. Its new captain, John Paul Jones, renamed the boat the Bonhomme Richard and, on Sept. 23, 1779, encountered a British convoy of 41 ships off Flamborough Head, in northeast England. Jones engaged the 44-gun H.M.S Serapis in a bloody 3-1/2-hour battle in which Jones shouted the now legendary words: “I have not yet begun to fight!” Although the Bonhomme Richard was on fire and taking on water, Jones won the battle and took control of Serapis. Thirty-six hours later the ailing Bonhomme Richard sank into the North Sea.

Over the last 30 years a number of searches have been launched to find the remains of the Bonhomme Richard, beginning with a joint U.S./U.K. expedition in 1976, Reaveley says. Novelist Clive Cussler also headed up several searches — in 1979, 1980, during the late 1990s and in 2005. “An expedition like this is an interesting combination of archeology, history, science and technology,” says Ringelberg. “I hope people will get pretty excited about it.”

In addition to the expedition, OTF is planning to develop an interactive component to the project by which teachers, students and the public can share the experience online. “We’ll devise lesson plans exploring the significance of the battle, exploring the Bonhomme Richard itself and exploring the technology used in the project,” says Ryan, who is 36. “It will all be available on a Web site we create.”

Plans are also under way for an online webcast that will allow people to log on to see the OTF crew at work and to ask them questions.

In all Ringelberg expects the expedition to cost $1.5 million. So far, the non-profit foundation has raised $150,000. “When I think about what we’re doing I get excited, and then I get a little paranoid,” says Ringelberg. “The sponsors are beginning to come in, though, which is good. Money is going to be an issue but I think with a project like this, of this importance, I think everything will work out for the best. I look forward to seeing all this research and work pay off.”

For information log onto www.oceantechnology.org.