This was Adams’s bread and butter. When he wasn’t tending to the oil rigs or manning the deck of a trawler himself, he ran a profitable sideline in salvage in the town of Filey, usually retrieving lost fishing gear or untangling ships’ propellers—but sometimes, more lucratively, going down to strip the old copper boilers and bronze fittings from the dozens of World War I–era wrecks that were strewn around the bottom of the bay, bringing them up to sell for scrap. The Kaiser’s U-boats had been particularly active along this stretch of the Yorkshire coast, and as Adams swam down into the silty gloom that day, following the lines of the tangled net, he assumed Cox must have caught it on some of their old handiwork. Instead, groping in the darkness, he felt the huge wooden beams of a much, much older ship and made out a long section of wooden hull, half buried in silt, stretching into the blackness.
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.
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."
Chasing down illustrious old shipwrecks for fun and profit has become a glamorous, high-stakes game these days, a buccaneering mix of leading-edge technology and hard-nosed business. Odyssey Marine Exploration, a publicly listed treasure salvage company based in Tampa, Florida, saw its share price leap 81 percent last May when it announced that its divers had recovered 17 tons of rare coins (later valued at some $500 million) from an unnamed 400-year-old wreck allegedly found off the tip of Land’s End, in England. Another ship, the Notre Dame de Deliverance, which was lost off Key West, Florida, in 1755 and found in 2003, is now the subject of a bitter legal dispute. The 64-gun French vessel was carrying (among other treasures) nearly a thousand pounds of gold bullion, 15,000 gold coins, a million silver coins, and six chests of jewels, worth an estimated $3 billion today.
But big finds are getting rarer all the time. Sweeping advances in technology in recent years have meant that most of the world’s A-list shipwrecks, from the Titanic on down, have already been found and struck from the list. And as with unclimbed peaks and uncrossed deserts, each fresh conquest means there’s one less for the next dreamer who comes along. That’s what makes the Bonhomme Richard so special. For a wreck hunter who wants to bag one of the truly big ones—one swathed in the kind of household-name glory that money simply can’t buy—this may be the last bite of the cherry.
In their search for the BHR, the two American teams have each chalked out their own prime target areas, located, depending on who you’re talking to, between 12 and 30 miles out to sea. The precise grid coordinates are, of course, a jealously guarded secret. The rivalry between the two teams is a courteous one—underwater archaeology is a small world where everyone knows everyone else, and friendships exist between the camps—but it is a rivalry nevertheless. Cussler’s group is known to be working out of Captain Cook’s old home port of Whitby, about 30 miles up the coast from Filey, but where they go once they vanish over the horizon is eyes-only proprietary information. OTF is even harder to track, operating out of a southern port but keeping to sea day and night to maximize expensive ship time.
Adams, who is as cagey as anybody else, can afford to be a little more relaxed: He is the recognized licensee of the mystery wreck in Filey Bay, and the site is protected under English law. This past dive season, he invited me to come out on the bay with him. So I caught a northbound train out of London’s King’s Cross station as far as Leeds and from there changed twice more, onto smaller branch line trains that rattled through the pretty, rural Yorkshire countryside and finally deposited me at the quaint old Victorian railway station in Filey.
To understand how a ship carrying no treasure became one of the most sought after vessels in the sea, you must first understand the ship’s history. That tale starts in 1779 when a 32-year-old Scottish-born seaman named John Paul was offered a commission by the newly formed Continental Navy, having scored some impressive victories against the seemingly invincible Royal Navy. His brief: Raid and harass English shipping; bring the war into British waters; and provide the French with whatever encouragement they needed to enter the war on the American side.
The French, for their part, were only too happy to bleed their old enemy by donating a ship to the American cause—a former merchant vessel from the French East Indies trade that had been refitted as a 42-gun warship. Louis XVI turned it over to the Americans in February 1779, and in August of that year it set sail from Lorient on its mission around Britain, having by then been renamed Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman, inventor, and publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanack.
Captain John Paul Jones, its new commander, was a tough, uncompromising naval officer in what history would come to think of as the Captain William Bligh mold. "Jones," the surname by which we know him today, was the unimaginative alias he’d adopted to evade British law after a sailor he’d flogged on a voyage to Tobago died of his injuries. Rather than hang around and see what a maritime court might have to say about the incident, he scampered off to Virginia and, as John Paul Jones, became a planter, looking after the estate of his late brother. He was there when the rebellion broke out, and, having little love for the English, he offered his services to the Americans. After scoring some swift, morale-boosting victories over the Royal Navy, he was given command of the Bonhomme Richard.
Late afternoon on Thursday, September 23, 1779, found Jones in the waters off Flamborough Head, leading a squadron of four ships—Bonhomme Richard, Pallas, Alliance, and Vengeance—and lying in wait for a large merchant fleet that had sailed from nearby Scarborough. He’d had a busy month, capturing 16 vessels already, and the Royal Navy, suspecting he was in the area (and regarding him as no better than a pirate, albeit a formidable one), assigned two warships to protect the merchant fleet—the 44-gun Serapis and the 22-gun Countess of Scarborough—under the command of Captain Richard Pearson.
The ships sighted each other at about five o’clock, in the fading light of an autumn afternoon. Jones attempted to pass himself off as just another English merchantman looking to join the fleet, but Pearson, aboard the Serapis, was highly suspicious of the newcomers and interposed his ship, along with the Countess of Scarborough, between Jones and his would-be prey.
For the next several hours, as the sun set and darkness fell around them, the two commanders maneuvered beneath the cliffs in a deadly game of cat and mouse, each seeking an advantage. Up on the headlands, meanwhile, a crowd gathered, eager to watch the Royal Navy hand out a first-rate thrashing to the upstart American rebels who’d been badgering British shipping and pillaging the coast.
Finally, at about seven o’clock, in the light of the full moon, the battle was joined. Things began poorly for Jones, to put it mildly. Not only was he at the receiving end of two devastating broadsides from the heavily armed Serapis—massive body blows that killed or maimed scores of his men—but two of his own cannons burst in the opening salvo, adding to the carnage. Worse, one of his own ships, the ironically named Alliance, sailed by and gave him a broadside, holding the Bonhomme Richard below the waterline and blasting away its rudder. When Jones desperately signaled it to cease fire, the Alliance let loose again, and again, and again. (Later, when Jones emerged victorious, the captain claimed it was an accident, an early example of "friendly fire.")
But the Alliance was only a sideshow to the main event: the blazing firefight between the Bonhomme Richard and H.M.S. Serapis, with the two ships cannonading into each other at point-blank range, so close that the gunners’ ramrods were bumping into the other ship’s side. Pearson had maneuvered Serapis into the better position and was raking the Bonhomme Richard with his full battery of guns. By 9:30 the American’s ship was listing badly, holed, and ablaze. Noticing that it was no longer flying a flag—it had been shot away, along with the mast—Pearson called over to Jones to ask if he’d struck his colors and received the American’s now famous reply.
Keeping his head while his men lost theirs, Jones managed to wrest his ship free of Serapis, swing it around to where he could bear down with all his remaining cannon, and then renewed the fight, lashing the ships together this time so Serapis couldn’t re-maneuver and escape the pummeling. He sent snipers aloft with rockets, mortars, and grenades to clear the decks of the Royal Navy frigate, and a boarding party quickly overwhelmed the Serapis crew—to the stunned disbelief of the spectators on the cliff top.
It was a resounding victory, and a stinging slap in the face to the Royal Navy, which had lost a major warship in its own waters. But there was no saving the Bonhomme Richard. After trying valiantly to keep the ship afloat, Jones watched from the deck of the captured Serapis as it drifted away. And while he went on to a hero’s grave at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, revered as the Father of the U.S. Navy, his gallant ship remains officially unaccounted for, 229 years later.
Filey is one of those small, quiet, pleasantly old-fashioned English seaside towns that somehow managed to come through the 20th century still looking very much like its old holiday-by-the-sea postcards. There’s the classic bandstand on the waterfront, the row of wooden beach huts, the stacks of blue-and-white-striped canvas deck chairs available for hire at £2 a session, and stalls selling whelks and cockles. What little bustle there is exists at the working end of the beach, where Filey’s small fleet of fishing cobles are dragged in and out of the tide by tractor and where a knot of rugged-looking fisherman is milling around the boats.
I find John Adams there among them. The ruddy, sturdily built sexagenarian is loading a mound of scuba gear, packed lunches, knapsacks, and notebooks into the Margaret, the fishing coble he has borrowed from mates. He’s a quiet man, soft-spoken, and like most of the locals here, he is leery of outsiders. A touch of humor in his eyes, though, suggests a willingness to open up and be friendly, and before long he is pointing out to me the classic lines of a Yorkshire fishing coble, a boat you don’t see used much anymore except in small villages like this one (the Margaret features on one of the town’s postcards). "These are the direct descendants of the old Viking ships," Adams says, patting its peeling white gunwale, "with the clinker hulls and high prows, shallow draft so you can run them in close, and twin keels, like runners, for when you want to drag them up the beach. Except putting in an engine and getting rid of the sails, the design hasn’t changed in a thousand years. No need. They had it right the first time."
Soon the rest of the team arrives, including Adams’s three sons, Gary, Neil, and Richard—big strapping men who grew up around their father’s lifelong pursuit of the Bonhomme Richard and for the past 15 years or so have joined him in his quest. Experienced sport divers, now with wives and kids of their own, they have juggled their jobs and lives around weekend dives and this two-week window of opportunity every July. They are a close family, full of respect for the old man, and make it plain they want to see their father vindicated, proven right.
Also there that day, and throughout the team’s season, is Peter Pritchard, a professional underwater archaeologist assigned by English Heritage to oversee the work being carried out on the site. Even if the wreck turns out not to be the Bonhomme Richard, it is still a one-of-a-kind historic relic.
Dave Conlin, an underwater archaeologist with the U.S. National Park Service, is the last unofficial team member to arrive, his presence in Yorkshire a tacit vote of confidence in Adams and the work he and his sons have put in on the wreck so far. The Park Service has a mandate to preserve items of national significance anywhere in the world, and when it got wind of the wreck in Filey Bay, it sent Conlin over in the summer of 2002—after a series of discoveries by Adams—to check it out. He came away so intrigued by what he saw on the bottom of Filey that even after the Park Service suspended official overseas travel by its personnel due to budget cuts, he has been returning to Yorkshire on his own time to help the Filey team try to prove its find.
"I have the utmost respect for what John’s been trying to do all these years," says Conlin. "And he’s been doing it in some of the most difficult diving conditions I’ve ever encountered—it’s dark and dangerous, visibility’s poor, the currents strong, it’s . . . well, let’s just say it’s what we in the business call a ‘sporty’ dive."
As the team finishes loading the boat, a loudly sputtering tractor arrives carrying Michael Farline, aka "Pip," who is acting as harbormaster that morning, ready to drag the Margaret down the shingle beach and launch her into the tide. His feisty little dog rides in his lap, wearing a life vest. I recognize them both from a photograph I’d just seen in the fisherman’s hangout café only a few strides away. It was tacked to the bulletin board—Pip and his dog posed beside the carcass of an enormous shark they’d caught in the bay. It was dated just a week earlier. I’d heard all about the dangers of diving on the wreck, or I thought I had—the deep water, the currents and tides, the poor visibility, and the risks of getting tangled in something and staying down for keeps, but 12-foot sharks were a possibility I hadn’t considered. I ask Adams about it. He just laughs. "Come on, hop aboard, let’s go."
The two American teams know all about Adams and his find, but both dismiss the Filey Bay wreck as a candidate for the Bonhomme Richard. They say it lies too close to where the battle took place; in the 36 hours the ship was adrift, the winds and tides would have carried it farther than five miles and out to sea, not into Filey Bay—a theory they can demonstrate with some highly sophisticated computer simulations.
"What we’ve done is take the same software used to track oil spills and to find people lost at sea, but have modified it to track something that went adrift in these waters late in September 1779," says OTF’s Ryan. "We have input enormous amounts of historic data on the winds and tides as they were known to have been during the week of the battle, factored in the weather, the phase of the moon, everything known about the Bonhomme Richard and likely damage assessments, and how all of this would have affected the drift of the ship in the water. We plugged in the reports of Jones himself, those of eyewitnesses onshore, anything we could think of that might have a bearing on where the ship could have drifted."
Since the location of the battle is well known, tracing the abandoned vessel’s movements in the hours afterward becomes a matter of positing a virtual Bonhomme Richard in a matrix sea and subjecting it to all the forces and vectors known to have been in play off Flamborough Head on the 24th and 25th of September 1779. And when you run this mountain of data through a supercomputer, says Ryan, you come up with the Bonhomme Richard’s sinking a good many miles out to sea, not in Filey Bay.
Cussler’s group has done a similar analysis and come to similar conclusions: The wreck, wherever it may be, will be found well offshore. "It just seems too hard to believe that the Bonhomme Richard could have somehow drifted back into Filey Bay, and not only that but sunk within full view of town without anybody seeing it," says Dirk Cussler. "The location of (Adams’s) wreck just doesn’t make sense given everything we know and all the historical accounts."
There is in fact nothing in any written records or local folklore of a ship like the Filey wreck sinking anywhere near the coast—except for one, the Bonhomme Richard. "A ship that gets into trouble off Flamborough Head will drift into Filey every time," Adams says. "Anybody around here can tell you that. We know how the tides work. We have to. After all, it’s our livelihood, and in real life they just don’t flow the way those computer models say they do."
And while Adams might not be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s Jones’s flagship, over the years he has certainly teased out a compelling circumstantial case. In shape, size, and hull design, the wreck appears to be an old merchant vessel of a type known as an East Indiaman. Judging by certain structural details in its decking, it was built in France sometime in the mid to late 18th century. Radiocarbon tests done on a length of rope associated with the wreck get even more specific, pinpointing construction to plus or minus ten years of 1767, the year the BHR was built. What’s more, there are indications of teredo worm damage on the hull, a consequence of the ship’s having evidently sailed to the tropics at some point in its career; the Bonhomme Richard was known to have made several voyages to the Orient. But perhaps the most intriguing discovery of all is that the Filey Bay wreck shows extensive signs of fire damage.
It’s a three-mile ride out to Adams’s site. A pair of floats marks the spot where the wreck lies, and a puffin stands sentinel between them. As Adams cuts the engine and we drift up close, dry suits are broken out and the radio unit set up. Since the dive team will be using a powered dredge on the bottom, safety regulations require communications gear—a costly bit of equipment the town of Filey helped them obtain; I’d noticed the promotional placards and Filey Bay Initiative T-shirts behind the bar at a popular pub.
They waste little time getting to work. Because of the way the surging tides angle across the bay, the most productive period for diving is the 50 minutes or so of slack water on either side of the tide. That’s now. And so the day begins. There will be five people diving today, each making a single dive. Adams is the first to go down, disappearing astonishingly swiftly in the cloudy water; Pritchard is acting as dive supervisor, bent over a book of charts and the radio unit.
My eyes, and imagination, are focused on the curl of blue plastic hose that floats on the water and then drops away into the murky depths, fading out of sight less than an arm’s length below the surface. Because the wreck lies in such deep water—84 feet, give or take, depending on the state of the tides—dives have to be limited to 40 minutes, including decompression time, which means each diver has only a brief period to spend actually working on the wreck itself.
Finding cannons would be a clincher, but failing that (two centuries of storms may well have shifted the wreck), evidence of gunports along the hull would go a long way toward convincing the skeptics. And it is those elusive gunports that the Filey Bay team is focusing on this summer, groping about in the gloom, searching for the telltale openings in the structure of the hull—if they can figure out what part of the hull they’re looking at.
"I’ve no doubt myself that we’re diving on the Bonhomme Richard," says Pritchard. "To my mind the weight of evidence is there. If this was any other wreck, I don’t think we’d even be having this discussion, but because this is so historically significant, a high standard of proof is required."
Adams surfaces half an hour later. The conditions are particularly difficult today. "It’s like doing archaeology by Braille," he says, after he’s climbed back on board and begun peeling off his suit.
The gunports, if there are any, remain elusive. The tide turns and we head home. As we bounce through an increasingly choppy swell back toward Filey and glimpse the huge billowy clouds piling up over the dales of Yorkshire, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be much chance of going out tomorrow. And there isn’t. The next day dawns cold and rainy, with a dirty, rough sea. "English weather," Conlin laughs when I meet him on the seafront that morning. "You just never know. When I came over here in 2005, we were able to go out only four days in two weeks."
Later that evening there’s a function in town at the Belle Vue, a grand old pub overlooking the bay, where a large crowd of citizens has gathered to celebrate the website that the Filey Bay Initiative launched to publicize its efforts. With fishing played out and cheap flights to Spain’s Costa del Sol having killed off the traditional English seaside holiday, the people of Filey hope that the Bonhomme Richard can form the nucleus of a local museum to lure visitors and money back to their town.
Much of the focus of the gala that night is on Adams and his 30 years’ dedication to exploring the wreck. He seems pleased, in a quiet sort of way, but he eventually takes me aside and in earnest tones urges me to talk to his wife and his sons’ wives to get their point of view. "They’ve been through so much, been so supportive, and frankly, it really hasn’t been fair on them," he says. "It’s been fun for us—after all, we love diving—but let’s face it, it’s also been selfish, and we couldn’t have done all this without a lot of sacrificing on their part."
I find Myra, Adams’s wife, in the crowd and explain that John told me to be sure to talk with her, get her feelings about the hunt for the Bonhomme Richard. "John said that, did he?" she exclaims, with a laugh. "Let’s just put it this way: We’re coming up on our 40th anniversary, and for more than 30 of those there’s been the Bonhomme Richard. As a wife you want to be supportive, but it’s not been easy. John’ll come home from work, drop his tools, then go straight back out to dive on that wreck, and maybe not be back home again until 10 or 11 at night. There have been so many missed dinners—it’s not so bad now, but it was hard when the kids were growing up."
The other wives gather round, eager to have a say. "This week was probably the last opportunity I could have had to go on a holiday for a long time," says Gary’s wife, Sally, who is expecting their fifth child. "Another fortnight and I won’t be able to fly anywhere and that’ll be that. . . . But what can you do? This is the diving season. And this is something they really need to do. I have to say, though, I want to see this thing settled once and for all. And soon."
But it wasn’t to be in 2007. Nobody cleared the bar—not Adams, not Cussler, not OTF. The Yorkshire weather closed in, days were lost, time grew short, jobs and responsibilities beckoned for all, and the season’s window closed.
Despite losing a lot of valuable sea time to bad weather, OTF reported on its website that it had succeeded in eliminating two of its five "targets of interest," while Cussler’s group was able to rule out 50 more square miles from its search area.
But nobody is giving up. "I’m quite sure we’ll be back," says Dirk Cussler. "Once she’s found, I’m sure we’ll all kick ourselves for not putting the pieces of the puzzle together earlier." Back in Connecticut, OTF is raising the $250,000 it needs to field another campaign, while the Filey Underwater Research Unit, which started out as a lone, persistent diver, was recently awarded a $98,000 Heritage grant to help the team try to prove the mystery wreck and call attention to the nearby town.
Sooner or later somebody is going to hit the jackpot and bag the last great shipwreck with a claim beyond doubt. When I asked Adams what he was going to do when it was all over, it was Myra who spoke up. "I’ll tell you what he’s going to do: He’s taking me on a holiday. We haven’t had a holiday in 12 years. I want to go somewhere warm and sunny. I think the Seychelles would be nice."
"I reckon that’s fair enough," Adams replied soberly. "I understand there’s some great diving there."