But Adams isn’t alone in the murk anymore. The past couple of summers, spurred by a boom in wreck salvage technology, two well-funded American teams have been trolling the shelf off nearby Flamborough Head with huge survey vessels bristling with state-of-the-art remote-sensing gear to find John Paul Jones’s lost ship, confident that Adams has found a different relic.
Some big names are involved. Best-selling novelist and undersea adventurer Clive Cussler is leading one of the search teams, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), which he funds mostly himself and which has compiled a formidable record over the years in tracking down famously hard-to-find shipwrecks. "The Bonhomme Richard is one of the few remaining ships of notable significance that has yet to be found,” says Dirk Cussler, Clive’s son and NUMA spokesman. "For a great storyteller like Clive, it is the tale itself that adds much of the interest: the underdog role of Jones, sailing an aged merchant ship against a faster, more modern opponent and somehow winning the day. The U.S. has a limited maritime heritage before Jones, so for us, it almost all starts with him."
For the Bonhomme Richard search, NUMA has chartered a 110-foot converted Dutch fishing trawler equipped with the latest in side-scan sonar and magnetometers—updated versions of the sophisticated remote-sensing gear that the group used with such spectacular success in 1995 to locate the wreck of the Confederate submarine Hunley, despite its being buried under several feet of silt at the bottom of South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. If there is anything left of the Bonhomme Richard, NUMA expects to find it. Unless, of course, its equally well-endowed rival, the Connecticut-based Ocean Technology Foundation (OTF), finds it first.
OTF, a nonprofit organization, has spent tens of thousands of dollars developing sophisticated drift-modeling software specially designed to trace the final movements of Jones’s ship after it was abandoned and set adrift. In an expedition partially funded by the U.S. government’s Office of Naval Research, the team has secured a 177-foot survey vessel, the Oceanus. Its 12-member crew is using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the SeaEye Falcon, to investigate five potentially interesting deepwater targets. "Jones was as great a hero to the Americans as Horatio Nelson was to the British," says Melissa Ryan, OTF’s project manager and chief scientist. "If we are able to find his ship, it would be a sensation."