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November 2010

Where is Bonhomme Richard?
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USNS Henson leads the charge to find John Paul Jones' iconic ship

By Kim Dixon, SEALOGEUR Public Affairs

Painting by Percy Moran
John Paul Jones bids goodbye to his victorious ship, USS Bonhomme Richard. Painting by Percy Moran
"They did not abandon her 'til after nine o'clock; the water was then up to the lower deck, and a little after ten I saw, with inexpressible grief, the last glimpse of the Bon Homme [sic] Richard."

So wrote the determined godfather of the U.S. Navy, John Paul Jones, on Sept. 25, 1779, two days after his historic victory against the British Royal navy's HMS Serapis, when his Continental Navy ship Bonhomme Richard sank into the depths of the North Sea off England. For more than two centuries Jones' famous phrase, "I have not yet begun to fight," has continued to inspire members of the U.S. Navy, as well as U.S. merchant mariners who have supported the United States' defense around the world. Today Bonhomme Richard and the legendary leader whose memory it invokes are at the forefront again as Military Sealift Command oceanographic survey ship USNS Henson undertakes a new search for the celebrated ship.

For 10 days beginning Sept. 10, Henson, which is operated by MSC for the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, was tasked from a routine deployment to the European theater of operations - under U.S. 6th Fleet - to serve as the primary platform for a survey team hoping to narrow the 100 square miles of seabed in the North Sea off the coast of Flamborough Head, England, where Bonhomme Richard is thought to have sunk to its watery grave.

"Throughout their years of active service, the Navy's MSC oceanographic ships have sailed hundreds of thousands of nautical miles collecting critical oceanographic and hydrographic data," said Rear Adm. Jonathan W. White, commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command. "I consider it an honor that our cutting-edge naval ocean survey technology now will be used to forge a connection with this historic ship and its commander, U.S. Navy hero, John Paul Jones."

USNS Henson
Henson is a platform for the Ocean Technology Foundation's search for John Paul Jones' historic ship, USS Bonhomme Richard, which sank in 1779. U.S. Navy photo

The crew of Henson, U.S. merchant mariners who work for a private company under contract to MSC, expressed their enthusiasm for the opportunity to participate in the search.

"Finding the wreck could provide insight into the lives of Capt. Jones, his crew, and their battle with the Serapis, and perhaps even some new discoveries about the events of the time," said Henson's Third Officer Barnaby Bosanquet. "I watch television shows about this type of mission when I'm home, so I'm feeling quite lucky to have been involved."

A ship commits to a watery grave

From all accounts, the battle on Sept. 23, 1779, was a ferocious one, almost impossible to comprehend in the modern age of naval warfare.

"'and I made both ships fast together in that situation, which, by the action of the wind on the enemy's sails, forced her stern close to the Bon Homme Richard's [sic] bow, so that the ships lay square alongside of each other, the yards being all entangled, and the cannon of each ship touching the opponent's," wrote Jones.

Serapis was struck by gunfire in more than 10 different locations, but as dismal as its situation was, Bonhomme Richard fared much worse on that day.

"With respect to the situation of the Bon Homme Richard [sic], the rudder was cut entirely off, the stern frame, and transoms were almost entirely cut away, and the timbers by the lower deck, especially from the mainmast towards the stern, being greatly decayed with age, were mangled beyond my power of description, and a person must have been an eye witness to form a just idea of the tremendous scene of carnage, wreck, and ruin, which every where appeared," wrote Jones. "Humanity cannot but recoil from the prospect of such finished horror, and lament that war should be capable of producing such fatal consequences'"

Despite the dire state of Bonhomme Richard, Jones' counterpart, Royal navy Capt. Richard Pearson, surrendered before he realized the condition of his opponent. Jones and his crew transferred to his newly-won prize Serapis, as Bonhomme Richard, a victor in the battle considered a turning point in the American Revolutionary War, was broken and rudderless.

"Being retired Navy, the historical significance and achievement in finding Bonhomme Richard is beyond words," said Henson's civilian Medical Department Representative Mark Pearson. "It is a part of our past and set the course for the Navy as we know it today."

The search begins

Five years ago, the Ocean Technology Foundation, a non-profit undersea research and education service organization, also called OTF, spearheaded an annual project to search for the remains of Bonhomme Richard with support from various commands within the U.S. Navy.

The first question was where to start looking. The location of the Battle of Flamborough Head was well-documented. Indications are that both ships were badly damaged and drifting, with Bonhomme Richard sinking more than a day after the battle. However, information on the crew's actions during this history-making battle does not paint a complete picture.

To fill in gaps, OTF Bonhomme Richard Project historian, Peter Reaveley, spent more than 35 years collecting and analyzing historical data about the battle, using eyewitness accounts, weather and tidal information from that time, and crew actions and ships' logs.

With the available information in hand, U.S. Naval Academy faculty members created a computer program that integrated the weather and tidal information with crew actions and last-known ship positions to try to determine where the ship ultimately sank.

"We believe the ship to be in an area where the water is less than 200 feet deep," said Dr. Peter Guth, an oceanography professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who led a group of four midshipmen on this year's expedition. "While being in water that shallow can make the search easier because more assets are available to conduct the search, it does also increase the likelihood that the remains have been scattered across the ocean floor by commercial fishing nets operating in the area [during] the past 200 years."

Civilian mariners aboard USNS Henson recover and secure the ship's Klein 5000.
Civilian mariners aboard Military Sealift Command oceanographic survey ship USNS Henson recover and secure the ship's Klein 5000, a device towed to collect side-scan sonar imagery. U.S. Navy photo by Rebecca Burke

When OTF was created in 2006, 550 square miles fit the criteria. Each subsequent expedition has narrowed the search, with 450 square miles surveyed and 100 square miles - roughly the size of Washington, D.C., - remaining before Henson assisted in surveying 63 more square miles.

This year's collaboration included the most extensive support from the U.S. Navy to date, including the use of a variety of high-technology undersea search tools such as Henson's Klein 5000 towed side-scan sonar; the Naval Oceanographic Office's unmanned underwater vehicle REMUS 600 with side-scan and multi-beam sonar; and the Office of Naval Research's unmanned underwater vehicle REMUS 600 equipped with buried mine identification technology used for locating mines buried in the ocean bottom.

Henson's crew joined forces with various members of the project's survey team - including oceanographers from the Naval Oceanographic Office, faculty and midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy, representatives from the Office of Naval Research and the Naval History and Heritage Command, members of the Bonhomme Richard Search project team from OTF and personnel from the British Royal navy and the French navy. This diverse team assembled in Portsmouth, England, with its related equipment, to meet Henson during its port visit there.

"The normal routine was to launch the REMUS off the stern early in the day," said civilian mariner Capt. Greg Gillotte, master of Henson. "The survey team would have us go to a certain point where they wanted to launch the REMUS. We would put the ship into position to launch. Then after the run, we'd have to maneuver the ship alongside close enough to fire a grappling hook with a line that would catch the float line that was released on REMUS. We'd grapple the line, and then pull it onto the ship."

The REMUS 600 is a fully independent underwater vehicle that is not connected to the ship. Operators program the desired underwater-survey pattern into the vehicle's computer before putting the vehicle into the water, where it can operate in depths of up to 1,968 feet for 18 to 20 hours on batteries. When that time has elapsed, the vehicle brings itself to the surface, and the survey team on the ship recovers it. The recorded computer imagery is then played back and analyzed.

USNS Henson recovers an autonomous underwater vehicle
Oceanographer Kevin Dial of the Naval Oceanographic Office rinses an autonomous underwater vehicle after recovering it from the North Sea onto Henson. U.S. Navy photo by Rebecca Burke

Henson's towed side-scan sonar, the Klein 5000, which is capable of working to depths of 656 feet with the ship operating at speeds of two to 10 knots, operated with the REMUS. The Klein provided a live picture of near-photographic quality back to Henson. Keeping both systems in the water simultaneously doubled the area that the survey team was able to cover during the search. That increased the workload for Henson and its crew.

"We were often working around the clock," said Gillotte. "We might have to retrieve the fish [REMUS] at two a.m., and then turn around at six a.m. and put the Klein in to tow. Plus, if the Klein was in the water, and it was time to bring in the REMUS, we had to recover the Klein first. While the NAVOCEANO team launches and retrieves the REMUS, my crew does all the operations on deck when we're using the Klein."

Mission challenges aside, Henson found itself at the mercy of what has been the bane of many mariners' existence: the North Sea in late summer. Operating during days that saw 25- to 30-knot winds with gusts more than 40 knots, and 10- to 12-foot seas, Henson's 328-foot length and 58-foot beam became valuable commodities to the experts on board.

"It was a luxury to have Henson as our working platform," said Melissa Ryan, Bonhomme Richard search-project manager for OTF. "[The ship] was extremely stable and allowed us to work continuously, even in high seas. We have had expeditions in the past using much smaller vessels where we have lost half of our time at sea due to the weather. As an oceanographic survey ship, the Henson was perfectly suited to the mission of searching for the Bonhomme Richard. Its [Henson's] crew gave 100 percent to ensure that the mission was a success."

And the findings are ...

Three interested countries. Ten days at sea. More than 63 square miles searched. Twenty-four Henson civilian mariners. Twenty-nine oceanographers, historians, underwater archeologists, researchers and midshipmen. Just what mysteries did these virtual denizens of the deep uncover?

"This year's search was very successful in that we [have now] surveyed 90 percent of our [total] survey area," said Ryan. In addition, the survey team identified several hundred targets under the sea within the 63 square miles searched.

However, more than 200 years spent at the bottom of the North Sea is not likely to have been kind to a wooden ship that entered the battle already a bit long in the tooth at 14 years of age. From Jones' own description, the ship was in pieces long before she slowly settled in her final resting spot. Is it realistic to assume there is something left to find?

"There's not a shipwreck out there that can't be found," said Dr. Robert Neyland, director of underwater archaeology at the Naval History and Heritage Command. "Researchers have studied every known book, drawing and model of Bonhomme Richard. When the ship was built in 1765 as a French merchant ship, there was a scarcity of wooden knees - right-angled timbers used to connect parts of a wooden ship together - so boat builders used iron knees to support the deck."

"Another unique element of Bonhomme Richard is that she was carrying 250 tons of iron ballast, during a time when most ships used rock ballast," said Neyland. The ship's 40 iron guns and large one-ton bower anchors could also stand out from other sea-bed debris.

The intersection of an experienced survey team, high-technology equipment, a crew of seasoned mariners on Henson, and knowledge of what historic artifacts they are looking for provided more positive results for this year's survey team than ever.

"We located more than 30 sites we deemed worthy of further investigation," said Ryan. "One site in particular looks very promising, and we will be excited to get a close-up look at it with a remotely operated vehicle on a future expedition." The search participants are coordinating to determine what the next step will be.

"To be part of a mission that could bring history back to life - to be able to see how time has preserved, or deteriorated, the Bonhomme Richard - to see what secrets, if any, might be waiting to be discovered - that's what was significant to me about this expedition," said Copeland.