The Search For John Paul Jones's Lost Ship





An attempt is underway to literally resurrect John Paul Jones' ship, the Bonhomme Richard, and its place in history. Since mid-July, an expedition launched from the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut in Groton has been searching the North Sea for the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard.

The day before he left for England, the chief organizer of the hunt, Ret. Navy Capt. John "Jack" Ringelberg, turned on his office computer and punched up a map of the approximate search location. It is off Flamborough Head in water about 200 feet deep. The map showed a grid of overlapping rectangles plotted by computer from first-hand battle reports and estimates of where the Bonhomme Richard might have drifted in the 36 hours before it sank.

"History says it should be there. The drift area says it should be there. And the weather and tides say it should be there," Ringelberg said, moving a finger from one rectangle to another. The darkened area where they intersected formed the search area.

"We're looking at 50 square miles," he said. "My hope is to end up with one to three high probability targets."

Ringelberg spoke with a kind of finger-crossed excitement. Finding a 227-year-old rotted wooden wreck beneath the rough North Sea in an area littered with centuries of wrecks isn't easy. Bottom sands shift with every storm, and the search season is limited to a few weeks. "If you're not out there in July and August, you're going to get beat to death," he said.

With luck, the instruments dragged by a slow moving search vessel - such as magnetometers that can detect iron relics, like cannon - will identify locations to explore close up next summer.

Ringelberg didn't want to give away the precise search area because he and his collaborators have competition. The adventure novelist Clive Cussler, who's augmented his writing by mounting dozens of lost ship expeditions, has been looking for Jones' ship for years. Initially, Ringelberg said, "Cussler went to the last known site of the battle and drifted for 36 hours. His last search was in an area slightly east of ours. He's already done 600 square miles."

Ringelberg took pains to emphasize the collaborative spirit of the U.S. search. His large team of partners and sponsors includes Peter Reaveley, an independent historian who once advised Cussler and is considered the world's leading authority on the Battle of Flamborough Head. Another is Robert Neyland, the director of underwater archaeology for the U.S. Navy Historical Center in Annapolis.

Ringelberg himself began his 16-year Navy career as a diver and once commanded the Navy's experimental diving team. Now a very fit 67, he came to New England in 1998 to run a high-tech naval and salvage engineering business, JMS Inc., founded by one of his former executive officers. A recent job was doing a stability analysis of the Lake George tour boat that capsized last year, drowning 20 people.

Headquartered at Avery Point, the company also operates a commercial diving school in Seattle (where Robert DeNiro and Cuba Gooding Jr. went for coaching for their roles in the movie "Men of Honor" about the Navy's first black diver), and has a non-profit arm, the Ocean Technology Foundation.

Ringelberg doubles as president of the foundation, whose mission is to foster marine studies and education. It took on the Bonhomme Richard project after Ringelberg got a call almost two years ago from an old friend, the naval muralist, Dean Mosher. Mosher was looking for technical help with a proposed movie about the Battle of Flamborough Head. But wanting to know more, Ringelberg contacted Reaveley and learned that finding the Bonhomme Richard might be possible.




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