GIS

In Search of the Bonhomme Richard (Tech Trends Feature)

1 Feb, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

Maritime archeologists use underwater mapping to find historic wreckage.


Hundreds of locals flocked to the rocky cliffs of Flamborough Head on September 23, 1779, as dusk fell along the shoreline of Bridlington, Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Defying the North Sea's gusting winds, they watched the bitter battle between Bonhomme Richard, an American frigate under the command of John Paul Jones (figure 1), and HMS Serapis, a double-decked, 44-gun British vessel. For nearly four hours, the loggerheaded ships fired volleys into each other at point-blank range, killing nearly half of the crew on both sides. Eventually, Jones emerged victorious. His ship, however, paid the ultimate price. Splintered and in flames, it drifted seaward for the next 36 hours. On the morning of Saturday, September 25, it sank to the bottom of the sea.

 In this article
In this article

In the summer of 2006—more than two centuries after the legendary battle—the OTF (Ocean Technology Foundation), the Naval Historical Center and JMS Naval Architects and Salvage Engineers assembled an expedition team and returned to the battle's site. Their quest involved locating the final resting place of Jones' ship. Along with an assortment of sonar equipment and magnetometers, they brought Peter Reaveley, who has spent the past 35 years scrutinizing the journals, eyewitness accounts and surviving ship logs to reconstruct the events at Flamborough Head (figure 2). The seabed around the area is a graveyard, littered with the remains of ships and aircraft that sunk throughout the ages. Even with Reaveley's encyclopedic knowledge, identifying the Bonhomme Richard wouldn't be easy. So the team combined Reaveley's expertise with sophisticated oceanographic mapping technologies from ASA (Applied Science Associates).

Figure 1. A model of the Bonhomme Richard created in Rhino-ceros, a NURBS modeling program from Robert McNeel & Associates. Image courtesy of the Ocean Technology Foundation.
Figure 1. A model of the Bonhomme Richard created in Rhino-ceros, a NURBS modeling program from Robert McNeel & Associates. Image courtesy of the Ocean Technology Foundation.

The Holy Grail

Jones, who uttered the immortal words "I have not yet begun to fight," is considered the father of the American Navy. Despite the loss of Bonhomme Richard, Jones' subsequent capture of the HMS Serapis was a devastating blow to British confidence. It was one of the decisive moments in the American Revolution. Over the years, the site of Jones' ship has become a subject of fascination and speculation for naval historians—legitimate or otherwise—and adventurers. Many have attempted to locate the ship, among them novelist Clive Cussler, who has financed and led a series of well-publicized voyages. It has become "the Holy Grail of maritime archeology," in the words of Melissa Ryan of the OTF, an undersea research and education organization.

Figure 2. Artist Dean Mosher's recreation of the battle off Flamborough Head, where Bonhomme Richard was lost.
Figure 2. Artist Dean Mosher's recreation of the battle off Flamborough Head, where Bonhomme Richard was lost.

Ryan, who serves as the current expedition's project manager, said, "About two or three years ago, Peter [Reaveley] contacted us. Up to that point, no one had thought about a coordinated effort between Peter's research and the Naval Historical Center's ongoing work, and to back it up with science. So the OTF took on the job." She and her teammates are optimistic they will succeed where Cussler failed.

The GIS Arsenal

The customized drift-modeling application used by the team is a hybrid system built with select features from ASA's search-and-rescue software SARMAP and its oil-spill prediction software OILMAP (figure 3). Designed to identify probable search areas for missing waterborne vessels or accident sites, SARMAP seems an ideal application for shipwreck hunters. The software comes with a drift-behavior database based on the latest U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue standards for a variety of objects. It plots out search areas based on the search-planning principles established in the National Search and Rescue Manual. To calculate the position of the search target, it compensates for the surrounding winds and currents. For the Bonhomme Richard expedition, these input parameters are of tremendous value. Reaveley did most of the legwork to extract them from historical archives, ship logs and journals.

Figure 3. By combining SARMAP, a search-and-rescue mapping application, and OILMAP, an oil-spill modeling application, Rhode Island–based technology firm Applied Science Associates created a hybrid system for modeling drifting objects.
Figure 3. By combining SARMAP, a search-and-rescue mapping application, and OILMAP, an oil-spill modeling application, Rhode Island–based technology firm Applied Science Associates created a hybrid system for modeling drifting objects.

The OILMAP modeling software offers algorithm-based tools for visualizing oil-spill behaviors such as spreading, evaporation and emulsification. Both SARMAP and OILMAP include ASA's proprietary GIS, which can be used with commercial products such as ESRI's ArcView.

Dr. Robert Neyland, head of the Naval History Center's underwater archeology branch, remarked, "When we started this project, finding the Bonhomme Richard seemed like the proverbial needle in the haystack . . . However, after our experience surveying last summer and looking at the quality of the data collected, it might be comparable to a needle in a snow ball—one that is melting away through the application of science and technology."

The Unknown

"The ship log for the Bonhomme Richard survived," Ryan explained. "Unfortunately, the entries stopped at one point." No one can fault Jones for neglecting the log; he was prob-ably preoccupied with transferring his remaining crew off the burning American frigate to the captured British ship. Still, the abruptly terminated log does create a quandary for the expedition team.

"We're fairly certain about wind conditions and tidal conditions," Ryan said, "and we have eyewitness accounts of the positions of the ships, their sails and so on." Inevitably, the eyewitness accounts have conflicting details. "What we don't know for certain is the amount of damage each ship sustained, what the Bonhomme Richard's crew was doing to save the ship, how fast they disembarked and things like that." Using historical precedence, the team made educated guesses about some of the unknown elements that might have affected the drift speed and direction of Bonhomme Richard.

According to ASA spokesperson Lee Dooley, "Due to the complexity of the battle circumstances, which consisted of a large ship taking on water and damage, sails burning and ultimately becoming fully disabled while still trying to sail over a period of 36 hours, new and additional factors were integrated by ASA's modeling software development team." The OTF's Ryan remarked, "As far as we know, no one has ever attempted to input as much historical data before."

Five Targets

Last summer, in partnership with the University of New Hampshire (Durham, New Hampshire) and several other organizations, the OTF and the Naval Historical Center produced a GIS map of sunken historic objects, underwater geologic features and sediments in the seabed near the project area. With ASA's system, they simulated Bonhomme Richard's probable drift patterns, using the site of the battle as the point of origin. They've since identified five potential sites for the ship's final resting place. They'll return for a thorough sonar sweep of the target sites and closer examination of the debris there. "The next expedition will include work with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), which is a tethered underwater camera. This will enable us to get a much closer look at the individual wreck sites," Ryan said.

After his second futile expedition, Cussler concluded, "The debris and ballast mound of the Bonhomme Richard lie somewhere between 25 and 35 miles out to sea from Flam-borough 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 . . . My only small satisfaction is that we cleared the fog a bit for the next team to launch another search attempt [www.numa.net/expeditions/bonhomme_richard_2.html]."

"When we first started this project, we did approach [Cussler] and asked about partnering, but there did not seem to be any interest in doing so," said Ryan. "We have to respect that, because he has a tremendous amount of his own resources invested in searching for the Bonhomme Richard."

The $250,000 Question

So where exactly do the rusted cannons, the splintered masts and the shattered hull of Bonhomme Richard lie? For the moment, it remains a $250,000 question—the amount OTF must raise to launch another expedition this summer in continuation of its search. "I feel we have a pretty good shot at finding it," Ryan told the New York Times ("In Search of the Bonhomme Richard," November 11, 2006). "There's one wreck down there we like a lot."

Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. As a freelance writer, he explores innovative usage of technology and its impli-cations. E-mail him at Kennethwongsf at earthlink.net.


About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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