North East Connected

Sunderland Base for Historic Warship Seabed Search

The USNS Grasp, a safeguard-class salvage ship, returned to the North Sea for a second attempt at locating the Bonhomme Richard, the flagship vessel of John Paul Jones, one of the founders of what would become the US Navy.


Regarded a naval hero in the US, Scotsman Jones was considered a traitor and pirate by the British for his American War of Independence exploits, including raids along the UK coast.

It was during one of these raids that that the Bonhomme Richard was sunk, during the Battle of Flamborough Head on September 23, 1779. Its final resting place is subject to much speculation and a number of unsuccessful efforts have been conducted to locate the wreck, presumed to be in around 180 feet of water off Flamborough Head, Yorkshire.

The USNS Grasp, which conducted an unsuccessful North Sea salvage mission in 2011, featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Mighty Ships” programme, returned to fulfil its original assignment with US Navy personnel and crew of divers – making Sunderland its base.

The crew conducted a series of surveys of the seabed and wreck, which will be examined by historians and scientists to ascertain if they have found the historic vessel.

Port of Sunderland director, Matthew Hunt, said: “It is great to be part of a project that is literally diving into the naval history of two proud maritime nations – this vessel was part of a fleet that was the scourge of the seas more than 200 years ago and despite it being sunk, the skirmish convinced the French to back the colonies in their fight for independence.

“Hopefully the USNS Grasp crew have enough evidence to finally reveal if this particular wreck, over 20 miles off the coast, is the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard.”

Surveying roughly five square miles off the coast of England, the military sealift command rescue and salvage ship is investigating locations neighbouring those searched in 2011.

USNS Grasp Master Timothy M. Kelly, said: “We had great weather and conducted a series of successful magnetometer and sonar scan surveys of the area, as well as some high quality photography of the wreck. We hope this will be enough for a conclusive yes or no as to whether or not we have found the final resting place of the Bonhomme Richard.”

The USNS Grasp’s international crew was made up of of 28 civil service mariners, or CIVMARs, four military department members and embarked divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two Company 2-6 were joined by the non-profit organisation Ocean Technology Foundation (OTF); an underwater archeologist from the Naval History and Heritage Command; a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman and a French archaeologist.

Five additional deep-sea divers also supplemented the 17 members of Company 2-6.

OTF created the Bonhomme Richard Project in 2006, reducing the North Sea to a searchable area of 550 square miles off the coast of Flamborough Head. Yearly searches before 2010 surveyed and subsequently ruled out the wreckage’s presence in a 450 square mile area.

“Port of Sunderland has been the base for many North Sea operations, but I think a crew looking for a US vessel from the War of Independence is a first,” added Matthew.

“Searching for a hundreds of years old seabed site is like hunting for a needle in a haystack, but technology reduces the odds dramatically. I hope the USNS Grasp prove successful.”

The Bonhomme Richard was sunk after a sustained battle with HMS Serapis and armed vessel Countess of Scarborough near Flamborough Head.

The Bonhomme Richard and Serapis battle cost the lives of half of both crews. Finally, another of Jones’s ships joined the fight and the British surrendered. The Bonhomme Richard, on fire and leaking badly, sank the following day, with Jones capturing the Serapis.

Sunderland was lucky to escape the attention of Jones, who had previously sailed past the town following a raid on the Scottish port of Leith. History has it that a cluster of approaching sails proved to be those of the Yankee privateer’s fleet, comprising Bonhomme Richard, was spotted and people crowded the Town Moor to watch the ships. However, it is said that Jones refrained from firing on beaches filled by what he considered to be soldiers, who were actually townsfolk wearing scarlet cloaks.

Picture caption: The USNS Grasp is escorted into Port of Sunderland by the Port’s patrol vessel “Sentinel”.

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