- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Bonhomme Richard sank after North Sea victory

Navy historians are joining with a nonprofit group to try to find Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones’ ship, the Bonhomme Richard, which sank in the North Sea in 1779 after confronting and conquering British forces.

“If it was easy to be found, it would have been found years ago,” said Peter Reaveley, an authority on the battle between the American frigate and the British warship HMS Serapis.

Although Jones won the battle and captured the Serapis, the Bonhomme Richard was badly damaged in the 3-hour battle on Sept. 23, 1779, and sank about 36 hours later during a storm in about 180 feet of water off England’s Yorkshire coast.

The battle is considered to be the most significant confrontation between the Royal Navy and American warships during the Revolutionary War. Jones’ bravado added to the confrontation’s fame. He has gone down in history books as responding to an offer that he surrender: “I have not yet begun to fight.”

The defeat in British home waters by a country that until then had no naval tradition was a deep embarrassment to the Royal Navy, which viewed Jones as a pirate. It also stung the Admiralty that Jones was born in Scotland. Three decades before the American Revolution, the British brutally suppressed a Scottish rebellion, outlawing Highland clans and cultural symbols such as Scottish plaids.

The French celebrated Jones’ victory, which convinced the French court of the wisdom of the decision to back the Americans in what was regarded at the time as an unlikely fight against the mighty British crown.

Mr. Reaveley said several American and British expeditions have sought to find the wreckage of the 154-foot-long ship in recent years, without success. Mr. Reaveley, a retired Miami International Airport official, has spent 35 years trying to narrow down the area of the sea to be searched by piecing together the 18th-century tide patterns and weather conditions and collecting contemporary accounts of the battle.

Mr. Reaveley, who was born in England, said his hope is to retrieve one of the 42 guns from the ship that could be placed alongside Jones’ memorial at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. “You need a goal in your life,” he said.

The Naval Historical Center said it is joining with the nonprofit Ocean Technology Foundation in the expedition, which is scheduled to get under way next summer. Also collaborating in the search are researchers from the University of New Hampshire and English Heritage, the organization responsible for historic preservation projects in the United Kingdom.

John Ringelberg, a retired U.S. Navy captain and president of the nonprofit, said he doubts much is left of the wooden ship after two centuries on the ocean floor. The Bonhomme Richard was a former merchant ship rebuilt in France and outfitted as a frigate. Benjamin Franklin, the American envoy in France, arranged for the French to loan it to the Colonies after the Revolutionary War began.

“Historically, I think this is bigger than the Titanic,” Capt. Ringelberg said. “The more I read about it, this is the stuff that expeditions are made of.”

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