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Will the North Sea give up America's most prized naval treasure?

The Americans will be taking to the high seas off the Yorkshire coast this summer in search of their nautical "Holy Grail". Martin Hickes reports on an expensive obsession.

THIS August, a flotilla of American scientists will mount a 175,000 expedition off Flamborough Head in search of a wreck, more than 200 years after it sank.

Two US teams will plunge into the North Sea in search of the flagship of a Scottish captain, known to the Brits as little more than a pirate, but to the Americans as a hero of the American Revolution and the "Father of the American Navy".

They are hoping to discover the legendary USS Bonhomme Richard, which sank in 1779 following a swashbuckling sea battle with the British Navy some 25 miles off the Yorkshire coast.

One expedition, led by the Connecticut-based Ocean Technology Foundation, believe they came tantalisingly close last year to identifying the ship – captained by the Scottish fugitive John Paul Jones – and hope this time round to pinpoint the wreck using the latest undersea technology.

British enthusiasts themselves have, for years, been trying to identify the whereabouts of the Bonhomme Richard, which is held in the United States with as much regard as the British have for HMS Victory.

The story dates back to the Battle of Flamborough Head, on September 23, 1779, at the height of the American War of Independence.

Under Jones's command, the Bonhomme Richard destroyed the superior British frigate HMS Serapis, but not before the American ship had been holed beneath the water line.

With his ship burning and sinking, and its flag or ensign shot away, Jones was asked by the British commander if the American ship had surrendered or "struck her colours".

Jones replied defiantly: "I have not yet begun to fight", a phrase which is now legend in America.

According to the history books, Jones then rammed the Serapis with his crippled ship, while marksmen in the rigging cleared the British ship's decks, before boarding and capturing the enemy vessel after a blistering three-hour battle.

It was one of the British Navy's most humiliating defeats during a crucial period of revolutionary history.

Jones himself was later honoured by the French, who had originally loaned the Bonhomme Richard to the United States as a symbol of revolutionary fraternity. He died in Paris and his body was later repatriated to the US with full military honours.

Melissa Ryan, from the US-based Ocean Technology Foundation (OTF), is co-ordinator of the expedition off the Yorkshire coast.

Although the exact location is still unknown, she is hopeful the latest expedition will finally identify the "phantom" ship.

The OTF will use a remote controlled vehicle to find evidence that one of the five sites it located last summer is that of the 151-foot craft.

Ms Ryan says: "We're cautiously optimistic. One of the wrecks is in the right place and looks like what might be left of a buried, wooden ship that sank 228 years ago."

It is this wreck which will be the first the expedition visits during its around-the-clock search.

Using the vehicle's video cameras and a mechanical arm that can retrieve artifacts, the team hopes to find evidence positively pinpointing the Bonhomme Richard.

Ms Ryan says: "We will probably have to put a lot of separate clues together to determine the wreck's identity. For example, we might find a cannon which would be marked with the manufacturer's information, and then we might locate a button from a crewman's uniform and be able to trace it to what they wore during the late 1700s.

"It will be the sum of the clues that will tell us if we've found the BHR."

Even if X doesn't mark the spot this year, Ms Ryan says the foundation plans to return to the North Sea in future years, until it can positively identify the Bonhomme Richard.

"This is not just looking for a shipwreck. There's much more to it than that," she says.

"The project has a strong educational component for students and the public, which increases awareness and appreciation for America's proud maritime heritage.

"Jones gave the American people a hero when they needed one and showed the world that the young continental navy was a force to be reckoned with."

The battle was a major turning point in the war, because it convinced France to loan the US more resources to maintain its fight against the British.

"Regardless of his nationality, it is Jones's spirit, courage and tenacity that has really left an imprint on our naval forces for the past few centuries.

"I don't think the word 'surrender' was part of his vocabulary and he serves as an example and inspiration for our Navy today."

The US archaeological team has received help from the UK Hydrographic Office and English Heritage.

But a rival British team, from Filey, have been exploring another possible wreck since 1975 and maintain the "real" Bonhomme Richard lies much closer to the shore.

They claim it was originally discovered in 1975 by local diver John Adams, while recovering a fouled trawl net.

In 2002, a detailed report by an American underwater archaeologist concluded that there was a strong possibility of this wreck being the actual Bonhomme Richard.

To complicate matters further, it appears that a second US team will be heading for the North Sea this summer with its own agenda.

But if the Americans do find the wreck, will they be taking it home?

"At this point it's hard to say. We have to take things one step at a time. We will not be conducting any major salvage operation this year, as that is a whole different phase of archaeology," Ms Ryan says.

Jones's last act of defiance might be to keep his flagship hidden. Although it's unlikely the Americans will give up until the sea finally surrenders its historic secret.

 
 
 

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