The Salvage of History

Our Man on the Pier reminds us again that there’s a ship still overdue. Even worse, she is long overdue for remembering.

Like some time bend, two ends of US Navy history are about to make contact. Hopefully. The final mission of the NR-1, before she is decommissioned this year, will be to ID the remains of the Bonhomme Richard (BHR). For those who don’t know (shame on me until a few years ago) she was the warship John Paul Jones became most known for the battle cry, “I’ve not yet begun to fight.” Those in the know recognize that vessel as the once very real testament to the greatest single-ship engagement of the American revolutionary war. A testament to her suddenly larger than life sailors and their cause. Just an ordinary converted cargo ship and crew committed to doing whatever they could against impossible odds. Ordinary, until that day.

Battle From Flamborough Head, Dean Mosher

Even with the most difficult of modern salvage efforts, you usually know where the ship is. It’s just hard to get to it. Or get to it in time. This one is the opposite. One other very important thing we do know about the BHR: There is no way to find it without a very serious regard for history.

Our company, among a team of others, has been trying to find the BHR for a few years now. It hasn’t been easy. Our historian has been searching for 30 plus years. Collected stacks of eyewitness accounts, ship drawings, books, charts… Eyewitness accounts? That’s right. Real people who witnessed the battle from the cliffs of Flamborough Head, England. Or they were on the warships themselves, or heard about it, or heard from someone who heard about it. You would be surprised what has survived.

Flash forward again, we also developed a customized drift model simulator. A computer program to mimic the physical effects that acted on the BHR in the 36 hours she remained afloat after the battle. Tide, current, wind, weather. Because the laws of physics haven’t changed. We have confidence in the location of the battle, but a dead ship adrift for 36 hours on the North Sea is an awfully long time in an awfully big place.

A custom computer program was developed to perform dozens of physical simulations of the drifting Bonhomme Richard.

You see, the crew did everything they could to repair the worst of the damage and keep up with the flooding until her very last moments afloat. Ultimately no different than any ship today, she was still a ship and still no match for what Mother Nature can throw at them. It was rough seas that crossed her gunnels in the end and overwhelmed the crew’s efforts. It happened then, it happens now.

Why are we trying to find the Bonhomme Richard and what do we hope to find? For more info on what we are doing, click here. In the meantime, I read this recently which comes to mind again,

“…trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.”

By Professional Mariner Staff