After the ECHO ran the story in the January edition reporting the discovery of the shipwreck of Bonhomme Richard in Filey Bay, there has been a great deal of interest generated from the article. Writer Richard Ashmore follows up the story.
British satellite historians claim to have discovered the true location of an iconic American revolutionary ship which defeated the Royal Navy off the Yorkshire coast.
The famous vessel, the USS Bonhomme Richard, was the first US ship to beat the Royal Navy in British waters before she sank on September 24, 1779.
US revolutionary captain John Paul Jones had sailed the 20-gun converted former French ship along the English coast pillaging merchant vessels in the North Sea.
But on September 23, 1779, the 50-gun HMS Serapis engaged the Bonhomme Richard off Flamborough Head close to Filey.
Within sight of the cliffs of Flamborough Head the two vessels were locked in a vicious firefight. Realising he was outgunned captain Jones lashed his ship to HMS Serapis in the hope of overcoming her greater firepower with his greater crew numbers.
Both ships sustained horrific damage in the fight, each losing nearly half their crew, but despite staring defeat in the face cpt John Paul Jones refused to surrender.
He eventually won the battle after reportedly responding to his British counterpart who asked if he was surrendering with the immortal line ‘I have not yet begun to fight’.
Although Captain Jones went on the sail another day, the Bonhomme Richard was not so lucky and her flaming body sank beneath the waves.
The battle is seen by many historians as a pivotal moment in US naval history and of the War of Independence and saw captain John Paul Jones established for many as ‘the Father of the American Navy’.
But despite being relatively close to the coast, and even US Navy attempts to recover the wreck, no definitive location has been recorded for her final resting place.
Now a British specialist satellite firm Merlin Burrows claim to have found the ship which is arguably the most important wreck in US naval history, and which could be worth millions in tourism.
Maritime historian Tim Akers, 60, from Merlin Burrows, based in Harrogate, North Yorks, has pioneered satellite radar techniques to track down the buried past.
HM Coastguard Receiver of Wreck – which receives reports of new wrecks – has now written to Merlin Burrows to confirm receipt of the find.
Tim, along with business partner CEO Bruce Blackburn, believes they have discovered the precise location of the wreck. Dives have already recovered timbers which they claim show evidence of the fire the ship succumbed to.
For now, the site is registered, Merlin Burrows said the location is near Filey, and if correct, it could have amazing implications for tourism and interest in the local area.
Tim said the Bonhomme Richard was the equivalent to the HMS Victory in importance to US history. “I had long thought this wreck was the remains of the Bonhomme Richard (BHR) but many marked down the site as belonging to the HMS Nautilus, a ship which sank in 1799. After researching the Nautilus and her loss, I found it could not be her because the description of her loss differed from this location. On our very first dive we knew we had found the BHR. From the finds and identifiable evidence, combined with the descriptions of the battle and both ships logs, we are convinced this is indeed the famous ship.”
Previous diving expeditions on the Filey coast hunting for the BHR had discovered a wrecked wooden warship, but it has never been confirmed as the Bonhomme.
Tim added: “There are only two wooden warship wrecks in the bay, one is the HMS Nautilus, the other is the BHR. The Nautilus broke up in a storm with no loss of life and the Royal Navy stripped the wreck of everything. Our wreck is littered with objects which can be identified in relation to the battle and burning. Our underwater filming clearly shows the burst guns, multiple artefacts and cannon balls.”
Ship stern decoration, ships bells, a figure head of a rampant lion and rigging are also all visible.
“It’s difficult to give the wreck a monetary value, how do you put a price on the HMS Victory for example, if something like a canon or the lion head were recovered you are probably talking over a million each.”
Tim said the firm had only recovered what they could by hand in accordance with regulations.
He continued: “We have to date recovered identifiable wooden timbers, mast sections and planks with extensive burning evidence.
“Unfortunately, I believe researchers of the area were getting confused over the 36-hour duration after the battle leading them to believe the wreck was further out from the shore.
“I also believe efforts to find the BHR might have been hampered because the currents off Flamborough Head move north counter to the outer sea currents, which move south, so the wreck was actually taken north not south.
“The ships in the battle had no wind beneath the cliffs and were becalmed, locked together in their death struggle.”
Tim said the ship would still be owned by the US Navy and that its discovery after all these years could have a significant benefit to the local area.
He said: “The local community could benefit profoundly from this discovery bringing in tourism and investment to an area already known for its beauty but with little employment prospects.
“Every American child is taught the history of John Paul Jones so it could become a site of significant historical pilgrimage.”
Tim said Merlin Burrows was working with the local community and had been in contact with American authorities. At present a protection order is being sought for the site to prevent looting.