Adams grew up diving these waters. Yet he’d never come across anything like this, or heard of anyone who had. “They are virtually all steel wrecks out there, 90 percent of them at least. You might see the occasional broken-up fishing vessel, but nothing like this. This thing was huge.”
As he ran his hand over the timbers, marveling at their size and age and strangeness, it dawned on him that he just might be touching the lost vessel of John Paul Jones. Jones’s ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was known to have sunk somewhere along this coast, shot full of holes after a ferocious battle with H.M.S. Serapis in 1779, a fight Jones had won by sheer force of character, scorning surrender with the words “I have not yet begun to fight!” His ship, however, had never been found. Abandoned and cast adrift after the contest, the smoldering hulk had bobbed around in the North Sea, at the mercy of the winds and tides, for 36 hours before it finally succumbed, leaving posterity with an enormous search area in a sea notorious for keeping its secrets. Over the years the old warship achieved an almost mythical status among the diving community: the holy grail of long-lost shipwrecks.
And so it remains. Adams made that initial discovery back in 1975. As he would learn over the coming months, years, and countless dives, finding a wreck and pinning a name to it are two very different things, particularly if the wreck you claim to have found is as famous as the Bonhomme Richard, and all you have to prove it is a large chunk of broken hull that looks to be about the right age and shape. Still, intrigued by the mystery ship at the bottom of the bay, Adams has spent every opportunity since researching historic accounts and learning the ins and outs of carbon dating, dendrochronology, and 18th-century shipbuilding. With a small team of family and friends—now called the Filey Underwater Research Unit—he puts to sea in an old clinker-built fishing coble and returns to the site to sift through the fine black silt on the bottom, looking for clues.
It is no task for the faint of heart. Deepwater diving in Filey Bay is a perilous proposition—the currents are strong and treacherous, the tidal changes swift and complex, the water is bitterly cold, and visibility is often down to zero. “Sometimes you get down there and it’s all you can do just to read the dial on your dive computer,” Adams says. Other times you can’t dive at all. The fickle Yorkshire weather can be cold and blustery even in summer, with squalls that stir up the water so much that diving would be dangerous and pointless. And as for winter, forget it. There have been whole years when Adams hasn’t been able to visit the wreck at all. But he hasn’t given up. Now 62, a grandfather and working as a bricklayer, he takes two weeks off in the middle of each July—the heart of Yorkshire’s short diving season—to search the wreck and hopefully lay the old mystery to rest.