Search for Bonhomme Richard (first attempt)
I became hooked on this one after reading a paragraph out of Peter Throckmorton’s book, “Diving for Treasure.” He wrote that a Sidney Wignall of Wales, Britain, ‘found what is almost certainly the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard.’ This was news to me, so I contacted my publisher in London who tracked down Wignall.
We began corresponding. His side scan survey off Flamborough Head, where it was supposed the Richard sank after her epic battle with the British frigate Serapis, showed three shipwrecks which he swore had to include Jones’ ship.
We then began planning a salvage dive. Talk about putting a 427 AC Cobra engine in the trunk. For two rain-filled weeks I stood like a dummy and watched Wignall make every mistake in the book. No wreck had even been identified yet and we had two tons of dive equipment, including a decompression tank. Our expedition ship was a real winner too. A decrepit old minesweeper that went down with all hands in the North Sea a few months after we chartered her. She was called the Keltic Lord, but certainly didn’t look like one.
The British crew were decent guys, but operated in slow motion. My renowned speech occurred when one of the ship’s crew helped the shore crew on board one morning from a dingy in a four foot sea. They gave an assist to everyone but me. I was left in the boat struggling with briefcase, camera equipment and an armload of nautical charts. Properly ignored, I somehow flopped over the railing with assorted bruises and a barrage of four letter words. It wasn’t the first time. I generally received less respect than Rodney Dangerfield.
I assembled the entire team in the galley and held up my right hand, telling them that no matter the calamity, typhoon, tidal wave, underwater volcanic eruption or fire, their first duty was to protect that hand. The sea of blank, uncomprehending faces was invigorating. The bait was thrown out and one of them had to ask.
“What’s so special about your hand?”
With my finest fox-like look I replied. “Because that’s the hand that writes the checks.”
The point was made, and I received the proper respect due my wallet thereafter.
Marty Klein and Gary Kosak showed up with their Klein side scan and we commenced to search. Of the three wrecks, one looked vaguely promising from the recorder readings. Gary and two Brits dove on the wreck and reported it as an iron ship that we later identified as the Charing Cross, a freighter that was torpedoed in World War I. The other two ships from Wignall’s first survey were the Commonwealth and the Chicago, both freighters sunk by WWI U boats.
So much for NUMA’s first shipwreck expedition. I think I can honestly say it was an unqualified disaster.
One of the divers brought up and presented me with a copper faucet from a sink inside one of the wrecks.
It is the only artifact I’ve ever kept. And why not? That has to be the most expensive faucet in the world. If you doubt me, I can still show you the bills from the expedition.
That damned faucet is all I have to show for $80,000.
Search for Bonhomme Richard (first attempt)
Undaunted or either crazy, I returned again to search for Jones’ ship in June of 1979. This time, profiting from the previous year’s gullibility, I worked with Eric Berryman who had a score of connections and put together a terrific team of people.
Colonel Walter Schob and Wayne Gronquist handled the day-to-day logistics. Peter Throckmorton was on hand as our in-house marine archaeology expert. Bill Shea from Brandeis University operated the magnetometer. All the above became good friends and trustees of NUMA.
Manny and Margaret Thompson of Bridlington gave enormously of their time and support. Elaine Friedman stood in as chef. Ed LaCoursiere from Klein & Associates ably watched over the side scan sonar while Willie Williams ran the mini-ranger navigation unit.
The big prize, though, was Jimmy Flett our Scot skipper. A man couldn’t ask for a finer friend. Along with Jimmy came the Arvor II, a bonny boat built in Buckie, Scotland.
Karen Getsla-Auman was our resident psychic. The journalists who accompanied the expedition were Timothy Foote, Jan Golab and Jean Jordan, all warm, fascinating people.
The research on the Richard came from Mr. Norman Rubin and Mr. Peter Reavely, leading experts on the battle and the ship. Rubin projected the rate of sinking and estimated the condition of the ship after two hundred years on the sea bottom. Reavely supplied valuable historic data gathered in England and spent a few days with us during the expedition.
Armed with proper research and a solid crew, we conducted a far more efficient operation than the previous year. This was also the first year we carried the NUMA Eureka flag. We also flew the Explorers Club flag.
The big problem we faced on the hunt was that the Richard did not sink immediately after the battle that ended at approximately 11:00 P.M., Thursday evening, on the 23rd of September, 1779. She went down 36 hours later around 11:00 A.M., on Saturday, September 25th.
Jones, with all his writings on the battle never suggested a direction nor a vague location of the sinking. Descriptions by him and two crew members merely described how she slipped under the waves with no hint of an approximate distance from shore.
It was supposed Jones’ small fleet along with his prizes, the British Countess of Scarborough and the battered Serapis, whose mainmast and mizzen were shot away, drifted for a day and half while the crews made repairs and the Americans desperately tried to save the Richard. This, of course, was a logical assumption.
Sometime in the nineteen fifties a fisherman pulled up the remains of a French musket thought to have been used by a French marine on board the Richard. This occurred six miles from shore. He also stated a wreck was in the general area. Reavely was convinced this had to be our lost ship.
Our best data, which gave us an excellent insight on the drift of the Richard was a matching drift of the Arvor II. Knowing the weather and exact changes in the tide during September of 1779, courtesy of Admiralty records, the Arvor II began drifting from the estimated battle area on comparable tides for thirty-six hours. Incredibly, weather and wind condition very nearly matched those Jones encountered. The experiment showed that the ships should have wound up at least thirteen miles northeast of Flamborough Head at the end of thirty-six hours.
We then laid our search grid accordingly, which is depicted along with the drift pattern in the accompanying diagram.
Almost 116 square miles were covered. Nearly sixteen ships were discovered, but most all were post nineteen hundred wrecks. Karen, our psychic, put us on a target which did not prove to be the Richard, but did turn out to be a sunken Russian spy trawler that had, unknown to our intelligence services, gone down in a storm. Our anchor brought up part of her rigging which was stamped with Cyrillic markings. We turned over the position to the Royal Navy, who clamped a classified lid on it. We, of course, never heard another word.
When the search was nearly over, Peter Reavely found evidence in the Hull city archives that turned my thinking to a new search area.
Report from Bridlington, September 24, 1779
‘At 9 A.M. the French (Jones) ships were seen from Flamborough Head at the ESE with the Serapis and another ship supposed the Countess of Scarborough. The Serapis has lost her mainmast, bowspirit end and mizzen topmast and otherwise shattered. At 10:00 A.M. the fleet was laying ESE from the Head distance 2 leagues.’
The 10:00 A.M. sighting is the only firm position given after the battle. The tidal flow bears it out. A British league was about three miles.
York Chronicle, September 24th, 1779
‘All Friday they were seen off Scarborough at a great distance repairing their damages, which were thought to be very considerable, and at SE by S with our two ships in tow.’
The reference to our “ships in tow” is important.
Bridlington Saturday Morning, September 25th, 1779
‘…the ships were seen hovering off Flamborough Head all yesterday. Towards evening seemed to bear away to sea. They were thought to steer about ESE but as their distance was much increased could not be exactly ascertained. It is generally thought the American ships are withdrawing to the Texel…9’oclock, an express just got in from Flamborough. The fleet collectively has disappeared. As the wind has been but to the SSE the ships tis probable, they steered about ENE.’
Jones did indeed head for the Texel despite the SSE winds. This report says the fleet bore away to sea and their distance was much increased just before sunset.
Letter Published in London by an Observer
‘He (Jones) was seen most of Friday with his fleet and the two ships taken, but in the evening stood off to sea, but as the Serapis and his own vessel were so much crippled, the other ships would be obliged to take them in tow.’
Again, ‘stood off to sea Friday evening, and ships under tow.’
There is much more information, some it conflicting, that can be gained from my original files. At this writing Peter Reavely and I do not agree. He believes the wreck lies only six miles from Filey Bay. I am convinced she’s farther out.
My theory is that Jones did not drift around until the Richard sank. I believe that around 10:00 on Friday morning after the battle, he took the ships in tow and tried to get the hell out of there before he was attacked by a larger and undamaged British fleet. This seems the logical thing to do.
If he was six miles ESE of the Head by 10 o’clock, he could easily have sailed another six or more miles by 7 o’clock in the evening, making a total of twelve miles from the Head.
(Note: We must assume land sightings were guessed in statute miles while sailing distances were measured in knots.)
Now, if Jones sailed at only one knot for the next fifteen hours, he could have been as at least twenty-five miles from shore at the time of the sinking. We know from the log of the Serapis in an entry immediately after the Richard’s sinking that the fleet was on an ESE heading, speed about one and a half knots.
The debris and ballast mound of the Bonhomme Richard lie somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five miles out to sea from Flamborough Head. I’ve marked the search area in a diagram. Unfortunately, if I’m right, we’re looking at a search grid of nearly 500 square miles since I can’t say with any degree of accuracy whether Jones’ ships were north or south of the head when the Richard sank. He should have been to the south of the head, but the winds might have kept him to the north. He was forced to beat and tack against unfriendly winds before arriving at the Texel in Holland. At least Norman Rubin agrees. He has always felt the Richard rests far off shore.
This reasoning could also be one of the reasons she hasn’t been dragged up by a fisherman’s net. The main fishing beds are closer in shore. I do have a piece of oak beam a fishing boat caught up in with her nets at thirty-two miles out, slightly north of the Head. But I’ve been unsuccessful at having the wood rings dated by experts with any accuracy.
Unless there is an expedition that can run twenty-four hours a day off and on for at least six weeks with decent weather, the only hope of the famous old ship being discovered is by a fisherman. And then, there is the danger of a Danish fish meal trawler dragging its monstrous scoop over the ballast mound, spreading and mashing it into the bottom sand.
I have advertised a reward of $20,000 to any fisherman who can lay NUMA on the wreck, but with little success. Most fishermen, if they dredge up any debris from wrecks, are not interested and simply look upon any find as a nuisance
We gave it a good shot in ’79. Everyone worked hard, and it showed at the end. I made a short, two day stab at finding the Richard again during our North Sea Expedition of ’84, using plots by two respected psychics. But we came up dry.
I would die a happy man if the Bonhomme Richard and the ship described in the next section were found by NUMA while I still breathe. But, the odds are long against me. My only small satisfaction is that we cleared the fog a bit for the next team to launch another search attempt.