A ship model of Bonhomme Richard is on display at the crypt of Capt. John Paul Jones, which is below the Naval Academy Chapel. (Alison Harbaugh | The Annapolis Capital)
Four Naval Academy midshipmen and a professor, along with Navy scientists, head to the North Sea on Wednesday to search for the remains of Capt. John Paul Jones' ship, Bonhomme Richard.
This search for one of the most famous ships of the American Revolution will combine oceanography, historical analysis and naval engineering and employ cutting-edge technology. A multibeam sonar, for example, will give researchers three-dimensional pictures of objects on the ocean floor, and a gradiometer, a mine-sweeping tool, can detect objects buried under sediment.
If the researchers on this two-week expedition find the remains of Jones' ship, which sank while taking the fight to Great Britain's shores 231 years ago, they will have solved one of history's great mysteries.
Jones, commonly called the father of the U.S. Navy, was a master at sailing in directions no one expected, which saved him time and again from the British Navy. But his nautical skills have made it difficult for historians to determine where he went after the battle and where his wooden ship sank.
In the battle of Sept. 23, 1779, fought off the northeastern coast of England, Bonhomme Richard and the more heavily armed HMS Serapis pounded each other with cannons at point-blank range for about four hours.
This is the battle where Jones answered the British demand to surrender along the lines of, "I have not yet begun to fight!"
"Both ships looked like Swiss cheese," said Peter Guth, the Naval Academy oceanography professor leading the midshipmen on the expedition.
After the battle, the Bonhomme Richard, which had been a gift to the Continental Navy from France, limped along for 36 hours before it sank. By then, Jones was aboard the Serapis, which had surrendered to him.
"There is three-quarters of a day we don't know which direction they were sailing... or how fast they were going," Guth said.
This will be the Navy's fifth attempt at finding Bonhomme Richard. Guth said the ship is believed to be in an area of about 900 nautical square miles where the water is less than 200 feet deep.
Because the water is not terribly deep, he said, fishing nets likely have snagged parts of the hull and rigging during the past two centuries, scattering the pieces across the ocean floor.
The expedition, Guth said, "is the sum of all the things I teach."
Researchers looking for Bonhomme Richard will be aboard the 329-foot survey ship Henson. Expedition members are coming not only from the Naval Academy and the Naval History and Heritage Command, but also U.S. Naval Forces Europe, the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, the Naval Oceanographic Office, the Office of Naval Research and the Ocean Technology Foundation.
There will also be a contingent from the Royal British Navy and a French Navy minesweeper, replete with divers who will investigate any promising findings.
John Paul Jones, a Scotsman by birth, died in Paris in 1792. His body was exhumed in 1905 and brought to the Naval Academy. It was later placed in a crypt below the Naval Academy Chapel.