The Search For John Paul Jone's Lost Ship





The Battle of Flamborough Head, as it came to be called, entered sailing history as one of the most epic single-ship actions ever, and made Jones a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. The Bonhomme Richard and its opponent, the HMS Serapis, each lost half its crew in a battle so improbably fearsome it would seem lifted from a Patrick O'Brian novel. For more than an hour, the two ships fought hull-to-hull, firing and on fire at the same time. Bound together by grappling hooks and fallen masts, the ships were so close that the Jones' crew could hack at the long ramrods British gunners wielded to reload their cannon.

Eventually the Serapis' heavier guns inflicted so much damage that their cannon balls began to fly straight through Jones' ship, touching nothing. When two of his junior officers tried to surrender, believing their captain dead and their ship lost, an enraged Jones leveled a pistol at one and pulled the trigger. Then, when the gun misfired, he threw it at the fleeing pair, breaking one's skull.

Now an attempt is underway to literally resurrect Jones' ship 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. Already sinking under its still fighting crew, it went down the next day, abandoned by Jones in favor of the captured Serapis.

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.

In Ringelberg's opinion, recovering whatever remains of the wreck would be a greater discovery than the Titanic. ``The Titanic was a commercial vessel that got hit by an iceberg. Sure it got a lot of publicity,'' he said. ``But the analogy here [with the Richard] is, whatever you think of Iraq, we took the war to the enemy. The reason for being there was to attack the enemy in their own towns. The English didn't know whether there was another 100 ships behind him.''

Jones' orders were to terrorize the English. After a first foray in 1778 in a smaller ship, the 20-gun Ranger, the English press painted Jones as a pirate. The British public, skeptical of the war, feared that his raids in the summer of 1779 were in reprisal for British attacks that July on the Connecticut towns of Fairfield and Norwalk.

Jones, then 32, was once described by President John Adams as ``the most ambitious and intriguing officer in the American Navy'' and also ``leprous with vanity.'' The son of a master gardener on a Scottish estate, originally named John Paul, he had gone to sea at 13. He crossed the Atlantic on merchant ships and slave ships before getting his own command. In late 1773, after killing a rebellious crew member, he fled to America, changed his name to John Paul Jones, and cultivated himself as a gentleman. He began seeking a Navy commission soon after the battles of Lexington and Concord, hoping for glory.

His mission aboard the Bonhomme Richard was two-fold. He was to lead a small squadron harassing the Irish and English coasts and act as a diversion for a planned invasion of England by a combined French and Spanish fleet. But epidemics of smallpox and typhus aborted the invasion, so Jones continued his raids on his own.

He captured merchant ships and on Sept. 14 launched an assault on Leith, the main port of Edinburgh, only to be repelled by a sudden gale. On the 23rd, he sighted a vast convoy carrying naval supplies from Scandinavia guarded by just two British ships, the 44-gun Serapis and the smaller Countess of Scarborough. At 5 p.m. he ordered his crews to prepare for battle.

One ship in his squadron chased the Countess of Scarborough. But the others -- including the largest, a 36-gun American frigate, the Alliance, commanded by a French officer -- did not follow the Bonhomme Richard toward the Serapis.

The Richard was a converted merchantman. It had a larger crew than the Serapis, including about 100 Americans released in a prisoner exchange, and it carried almost as many cannon. But the heaviest were six old guns carried below the main deck. On the second broadside, fired about 7:15 p.m., at least one of the heavy guns burst. The explosion ripped a gaping hole in the Richard's starboard side and Jones ordered the remaining big cannon abandoned.

At 7:30 the Serapis, with a better-trained crew, crossed the Richard's stern, firing three broadsides that killed 22 marines. Already the Richard was leaking below the waterline. At 8 p.m. a light wind died to almost nothing, and the two ships collided when the Serapis tried to cross the Richard's bow for another raking broadside. The ships separated, then collided again.

This time Jones lashed them fast together, the Serapis' bow grinding against the Richard's stern. As the battle progressed, marksmen in the Richard's mast tops drove the English off their exposed main deck. But the Serapis gun crews protected below deck continued to batter the Richard, so that by 9 p.m. the Richard had only three small cannon left.

Jones was at one of them, directing fire at the Serapis' main mast, when his carpenter and gunner's mate, who'd seen the devastation below deck, tried to strike the Richard's flag, lowering it to signal surrender. Jones turned from his cannon to stop them. Soon after he heard the Serapis' captain shout if he wanted to give up the battle.

Decades later, one of Jones' lieutenants would tell a biographer that his captain replied, ``I have not yet begun to fight.'' But what he probably said was something like, ``I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike.'' In his own report, written several days later, Jones only said he ``answered in the most determined negative'' and that the battle then resumed with ``double fury.''

It continued for another hour, growing more incredible. Twice the Alliance appeared out of nowhere to fire broadsides of grapeshot -- at both ships. Somebody released English prisoners trapped deep inside the sinking Richard to save them from drowning. Instead of joining the fight, the prisoners, who had been taken in earlier actions, manned the Richard's pumps to keep it afloat.

The end came suddenly, around 10:15, when a sailor crawled out on one of the Richard's yardarms with a bucket of grenades. He began dropping them toward a half-open hatch on the Serapis. One bounced through and a series of explosions followed. The grenade ignited powder cartridges piled near the English cannon, setting off a flash fire. At almost the same time, the Serapis' splintered main mast toppled.

After trying to save the Bonhomme Richard, Jones escaped on the re-rigged Serapis, eluding British pursuers on his way to a neutral port in Holland. He'd always sought glory and he got it. King Louis XVI gave him a sword to commemorate his victory, and he became the toast of Paris, where in the fashion of the time, he had many mistresses. Thomas Jefferson would keep a bust of Jones alongside those of Franklin, Lafayette and Washington.

But the rest of his life was mostly frustration. The Revolution ended before he saw any more real action, and the new nation had no money for a navy. In 1788, he was loaned to Catherine the Great of Russia to lead her Black Sea fleet in a war against Turks. He won a decisive victory, but left Russia in disgrace after being caught, or entrapped, in a sex scandal involving a young prostitute.

He died alone in Paris in July 1792, where his body, preserved in alcohol, was buried in a lead-lined coffin. More than a century later, in 1905, the coffin was dug up and sent to the U.S. in great pomp and circumstance. President Teddy Roosevelt, an advocate of naval power, presided at Jones' reburial beneath the U.S. Navel Academy Chapel. ``Every officer should know by heart the deeds of John Paul Jones,'' Roosevelt said.

Jones, still known as the father of the U.S. Navy, was already immortal. Herman Melville in one of his later novels placed his fictional hero, Israel Potter, aboard the Bonhomme Richard at the Battle of Flamborough Head and wrote these words:

``Intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in externals but savage at heart, America is, or may yet be, the Paul Jones of nations.''

As of last week, this summer's search was showing promise. Ringelberg, back in Groton, said the data gathered was creating an ``underwater mosaic'' that will be analyzed over the winter.

``We got two targets we made additional passes over,'' he said. ``These are `new wrecks,' for want of a better word, that no one's found before.''

Melissa Ryan, the Ocean Technology Foundation's project director, reported from England that the North Sea the first week was extraordinarily calm. The search vessel had been able to cover as many as 10 square kilometers a day.

``We start in a corner and work back and forth. It's like mowing your lawn in stages, so you get overlap,'' she said.

The magnetometers give continuous readings analogous to a heart-beat line and the side scan sonar is so sensitive it makes small ridges in the sand look like mountains. A bulge in the sea bed with a strong magnetic field could be the Bonhomme Richard. Besides cannon, it carried tons of iron ballast.

A biologist, Ryan was spending a lot of time on land, lecturing local groups and briefing reporters. Last week she was entertaining a History Channel crew, and expecting the search to extend to the middle of the month.

``The only thing I knew when I started was [John Paul Jones] said, `I have not yet begun to fight.' I didn't know what the Bonhomme Richard was. I didn't know why he said it,'' Ryan said.



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