Friday, September 23, 2011

September 23, 1779

Her name was Duc de Duras, and she was a nondescript wooden cargo ship. The French East India Company built her in 1765 for far East trading, and if that had been the extent of her life she'd be long forgotten by now.

For a little over 10 years, she led an uneventful life as a merchant ship, sailing back and forth between France and the Orient. But she was destined for a place in history.

In the late 1770's war was raging between England and her American colonies. King Louis XVI of France was more than happy to join the colonists against his old enemy in Britain. He bought the Duc de Duras, converted her to a warship, and turned her over to the fledgling American navy.

She was renamed, and began her new life as the Bonhomme Richard, under the command of John Paul Jones.

Her story is known to most American schoolchildren. 232 years ago today an American and British squadron met in a remarkably vicious battle off Flamborough Head, England. Although other ships were involved, the main action was between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis. Initially the Serapis was winning, and at one point the British asked if Jones had surrendered. His immortal reply was "I have not yet begun to fight!"

On a bloody evening which saw almost half the crews of both ships killed, the Serapis eventually surrendered after a pitched battle and boarding action. The Bonhomme Richard, however, was so badly damaged that she was abandoned, and Jones had to make Serapis* his flagship. The Bonhomme Richard drifted away, sinking sometime the next day.

The Bonhomme Richard, to this day, remains one of the few holy grails of lost ships. As underwater technology has improved more famous ones are found. Titanic. Bismarck. Scharnhorst. Yorktown. Yamato. Ark Royal. Portland. All within the last 25 years.

But the Bonhomme Richard, like the Santa Maria, stubbornly remains hidden. Several well-funded, high-tech expeditions have searched the area where it's thought she sank. They use computers to predict 1779 drift patterns. Side scan sonar to image the seabed. They send down cameras and divers to investigate targets- and still have nothing.

But the answer may have already been found, by an English salvage diver named John Adams.

In Filey Bay, England, there's a mysterious wooden shipwreck. Adams discovered it in 1975 while recovering a fishing net, and year in & out since then has worked to identify it. But poor visibility, a limited diving season, and money have kept the ship a mystery. How it got there also remains unknown, as there's no record of a large wooden ship sinking in the bay.

And yet:

The wreck is a large wooden ship, built in the mid-18th century. Radiocarbon dating of a length of rope gave a likelihood of it being within 10 years of 1767.

The rough design of the wreck matches that used by France for trading ships sailing to the far East.

Worm damage to the hull shows that it spent time in oriental waters- Like the Duc de Duras.

The wreck, although broken into several pieces, is roughly the same total length as the Bonhomme Richard.

The wreck has extensive fire damage. As did the Bonhomme Richard from the battle.

There is no record of a large wooden ship - other than the Bonhomme Richard - sinking in that area.

All the computer models say the Bonhomme Richard drifted out to the North Sea and sank several miles off the coast. And maybe she did, and has yet to be found.

Or maybe the computers are wrong. And the ghost ship in Filey Bay is one of the most famous in history.

*The Americans turned the Serapis over to the French, who used her as a privateer. She was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1781 off Madagascar. Her remains were found by divers in 1999.


Single Female Doc said...

I knew Led Zep had been going a few years but had no idea their guitarist was THAT old :-P

Thanks again for the history lesson, Ibee. Appreciated.

Marni said...

I always love your maritime history lessons!

Rick said...

Non sibi sed patriae.

Anonymous said...

As a former "Navy brat" JPJ and the BHR are well-known to me. Thanks for reminding us all about it!
I think our favorite Yak herder is an historian at heart. Or brain. Or whatever.

ERP said...

It's interesting and most people don't know that he was basically a fugative who killed a crew member and then fled to the US just before for the war.

Eileen said...

It's not far from Flamborough to Filey Bay - my daughter is a paramedic a bit further up the coast at Whitby. It really isn't beyonds the bounds of what ordinary people would expect - tide and winds could have sent it in that direction surely?

Yes - I enjoy your historical interludes. Have you read the Aubrey/Maturan novels by Patrick O'Brian? All about a British Navy captain set in the late 18th/early 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars. Brilliant and addictive - I've nearly got to the end :-( . All very accurate technical detail - the time scale is a bit fudged to make so many books but that doesn't matter.

bobbie said...

I love a good mystery! TFS ~

Grace said...

I too enjoy your maritime history lessons!

Anonymous said...

@Single Female Doc- actually, John Paul Jones was their bassist. Though I think Jimmy Page actually dates back to the time of the Druids.

newsouthzach said...

I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast -- for I intend to go in harm's way!

Anonymous said...

hornblower is better than aubrey both historically and especially nautically. o'brien has his ships do things that are simply physically impossible.

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