The Ghost Ship of Filey Bay
It was supposed to have been a straightforward salvage job, or at least as straightforward as these sorts of things are in the difficult, moody waters of the North Sea. A trawlerman known as “Killer” Cox had snagged his net on something in about eighty feet of water in Yorkshire’s Filey Bay and with nets costing upwards of a thousand pounds a throw, he was naturally anxious to get it back. So he looked up one of his neighbours in town, John Adams, who, he knew, worked as a commercial diver on the offshore oil platforms up in Scotland and he asked him if he’d go down and free it up for him. Adams said sure.
This kind of work was bread and butter stuff for Adams. When he wasn’t working the oil rigs in Scotland or manning the deck of a trawler himself, during the off-season winter months, he ran a profitable sideline in salvage there in Filey, usually retrieving lost fishing gear or untangling ships’ propellers but sometimes, more adventurously, going down and stripping 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 and selling them for scrap. The Kaiser’s U-boats had been particularly active along that 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 snagged it on some more of their old handiwork. Instead, he was astonished to see the huge wooden beams of a much, much older ship materialising in the glow of his flashlight, and a long section of wooden hull, half buried in silt, stretching into the darkness.
Adams grew up in these waters. Yet in all his years of diving in the bay he’d never come across anything like it, or heard of anyone who had. “They are virtually all steel wrecks out there, ninety percent of them at least, and mostly from the First World War. You might see the occasional broken-up fishing cobble, but nothing like this. This thing was huge.”
As he cast his flashlight beams over the timbers, marvelling at their size and age and strangeness, it dawned on him, in one of those Eureka moments, that he just might be looking at the fabled lost ship of John Paul Jones, the legendary American naval hero of “I have not yet begun to fight fame”. His ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was known to have sunk somewhere along this coast, shot full of holes and glory after its ferocious battle with HMS Serapis, off Flamborough Heads in 1779. But the wreck had never been found. Abandoned and cast adrift after the fighting, the smouldering hulk bobbed around in the North Sea, at the mercy of the winds and tides, for at least another thirty-six hours before it finally succumbed, leaving posterity with an enormous search area and in a sea notorious for keeping its secrets. Over the years the famous, and famously elusive, old warship had achieved an almost mythical status amongst the wreck diving community: the Holy Grail of long lost shipwrecks.
Now it looked like the drinks were on John. A jubilant Adams broke the surface and called out: “Hey, I think we might have just found the Bonhomme Richard!”
That was in 1975. As Adams was to learn over the coming months and 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, essentially, is a large chunk of broken hull that looks to be about the right age and shape. Intrigued by the mystery ship at the bottom of the bay, he has returned to it at every opportunity since, sifting through fine black silt on the bottom, looking for clues. It is no task for the faint of heart. Deep-water diving in Filey Bay is about as risky a proposition as anyone could hope to find – 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,” he 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 he hasn’t been able to visit the wreck at all. But he hasn’t given up. Now 62, a grandfather and working these days as a bricklayer, he is once again taking two weeks off work in the middle of July – the heart of Yorkshire’s short diving season – to dive some more on the wreck and hopefully lay the old mystery to rest, not so much to satisfy his own curiosity anymore but with the idea of doing something for the town. Fishing has played out and cheap flights to Spain’s Costa del Sol have all but killed off the traditional English seaside holiday and so the hope among the people of Filey is that if Adams can nail down the Bonhomme Richardit could form the nucleus of local museum to lure visitors and money back to their charming, but fading, little seaside town. They’ve formed the Filey Bay Initiative, with Adams at the helm, posting websites and raising money to help pay for some of the costly gear Adams and his divers need to conduct proper underwater archaeology.
But Adams and the people of Filey aren’t the only ones with big dreams of finding the Bonhomme Richard. Not by a long chalk. For the past couple of summers two big-budget American teams have been trolling the shelf off Flamborough Heads with huge survey vessels bristling with state-of-the-art remote sensing gear and a raft of high-priced underwater talent in a spare-no-expense hunt to find John Paul Jones’ lost ship.
Some big names are involved. Best-selling novelist and undersea adventurer Clive Cussler is leading one of the search teams, the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA), which he funds 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 spokesman for the NUMA group. “For a great storyteller 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 Richardsearch NUMA have chartered a 138-foot survey vessel equipped with the latest in side-scan sonar and magnetometers – updated versions of the sophisticated remote sensing gear they used with such spectacular success to locate the wreck of the Confederate submarine Hunley in 1995, despite it’s being buried under several meters of silt at the bottom of Charleston Bay. If there is anything left of the Bonhomme Richardstill down there to find, they expect to find it. Unless, of course, their equally well-endowed rivals, the Connecticut-based Ocean Technology Foundation, find it first.
OTF, a non-profit group, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing sophisticated drift-modelling software specially designed to trace the final movements of Jones’ ship after it was abandoned and set adrift. In an expedition funded by the Office of Naval research, they chartered a hundred-foot survey vessel, the Oceanus, and it 13 –member crew and are using a remote operated vehicle, the Seaeye Falcon, to investigate five potentially interesting deep-water targets they have identified from their previous season’s work. “Jones was as great a hero to the Americans as 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 cutting edge technology and good old-fashioned Boy’s Ownadventure. And hard-nosed business. Odyssey Marine Exploration, a publicly listed treasure salvage company based in Tampa, Florida, saw its share price leap 81 per cent in May last year when it announced that it’s divers had recovered seventeen tonnes of rare colonial coins, worth up to $500 million, from an unnamed 400 year-old wreck allegedly found off the tip of Land’s End, in England. It was a nice fillip for the company, whose share price had been in the doldrums after the hoopla subsided from its discovery of $50 million worth of gold pieces from the sunken paddle-steamer SS Republic, lost in a hurricane off Savannah Georgia, in 1865.
But even these hoards pale beside the loot that was aboard the Notre Dame de Deliverance, lost in a hurricane of Key West, Florida in 1755 and found in 2003 and now the subject of a bitter international 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 – making it the richest prize ship ever lost, and found. And there is still much more out there waiting to be found. The United Nations estimates there are three million shipwrecks scattered around the world’s oceans, most worthless, some containing treasure worth billions and a rare, precious few that are swathed in the kind of historic household name glory money just can’t buy.
And these are getting rarer all the time. Sweeping advances in technology in recent years have meant that by now most of the world’s A-list shipwrecks, from the Titanicon down, have already been found and crossed off the list. And as it was with unclimbed peaks and uncrossed deserts, each fresh conquest means there’s one less for the next dreamer who comes along. And that’s what makes the Bonhomme Richard so special. For a wreck hunter who wants to bag one of the truly big ones, this is probably the last bite of the cherry.
Jones makes for pretty good copy. In 1779, the newly fledged American Navy offered a special commission to a thirty-two year-old John Paul, a Scots-born seaman who had scored some impressive victories against the seemingly invincible Royal Navy. His brief: raid and harass English shipping, bring the war into British waters and, hopefully provide the French with whatever encouragement they needed to enter the war on the American side.
For their part the French 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 for refitting in February 1779 and in August of that year it set sail from L’Orient on its mission around Britain, having by then been renamed Bonhomme Richardin honour of Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman, inventor and publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Captain Paul, its new commander, was a tough, uncompromising naval officer in what history would come to think of as the Captain Bligh mould; ‘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 while on a voyage to Tobago died of his injuries. This wasn’t the first time something like that had happened on one of his ships either, and rather than hang around and see what a maritime court might have to say about it, 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. And after scoring some swift, and morale boosting, victories over the Royal Navy, he was given command of theBonhomme Richard.
Late afternoon on Thursday, 23 September of 1779 found him in the waters off Flamborough Heads, leading a squadron of five ships – Bonhomme Richard, Pallas, Alliance, Vengeance and Le Cerf – and lying in wait for a large merchant fleet that had sailed from nearby Scarborough. He’d had a busy month, capturing sixteen vessels already, and the Royal Navy, knowing 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 Serapisand 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 seeking to join the fleet, but Pearson, aboard the Serapis, was highly suspicious of these newcomers and interposed his ship, and the Countess of Scarborough between Jones and his would-be prey. At this point many of the merchantmen grew skittish and turned back for Scarborough.
For the next two hours, as the sun set and darkness fell around them, the two commanders manoeuvred beneath the cliffs in a deadly game of cat and mouse, each seeking an advantage. While up on the headlands a crowd gathered, eager to watch the Royal Navy hand out a first rate thrashing to the upstart American rebels who’d been harassing 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 which killed or maimed scores of his men, but two of his own 18-pounders burst in the opening salvo, adding to the carnage. Adding insult to injury (and plenty of injury at that) one of his ships, the ironically named Alliance, sailed by and gave him a broadside as well, holing the Bonhomme Richardbelow the waterline and blasting away its rudder. And when Jones desperately signalled them to cease fire, the Alliancedid it again, and again, and again, its captain apparently having issues with Jones. (Later, when Jones emerged victorious, the man claimed it was an accident, an early example of ‘friendly fire’)
But the Alliance was only a sideshow to the main event: the blazing fire-fight between the Bonhomme Richardand HMS 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 manoeuvred Serapisinto the better position and was raking the Bonhomme Richardwith his full battery of guns. By nine-thirty 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 colours, and received the American’s scornful reply.
Keeping his head while those around him were losing theirs (literally and figuratively), 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 this time together so Serapiscouldn’t re-manoeuvre and escape the pummelling. 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 crew of the Serapis – to the stunned disbelief of the spectators on the cliff-top and presumably to the skipper of the Allianceas well.
It was a resounding victory, and a stinging slap in the face to the Royal Navy, who’d lost a major warship in their own home 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 Serapisas the ship slipped below the waves. And while he sailed on into glorious posterity, to finish up in 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.
Both of the American teams know all about Adams and his find – in fact, Adams himself tried to interest Cussler in the wreck several years ago, and the town of Filey has offered support to OTF – but both of them dismiss the Filey Bay wreck as a candidate for the Bonhomme Richard. It lies too close to where the battle took place; in the thirty-six hours the ship was adrift, the winds and tides at the time would have carried it further than five miles, and out to sea, not into Filey Bay. What’s more, they can demonstrate this with some highly sophisticated computer simulations.
“What we’ve done is take the same software they use to track oil spills and find people lost at sea, but modify 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 Richardand likely damage assessments and how they would have affected the drift of the ship in the water afterwards. We plugged in the reports of Jones himself, those of eyewitnesses on shore, 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 – scores of gawking on-lookers watched atop the cliffs on shore – tracing the abandoned vessels movements in the hours afterwards becomes a matter of positing a virtual Bonhomme Richardin a matrix sea and subjecting it to all the forces and vectors known to have been in play off Flamborough Heads on the 24thand 25thof 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, Clive’s son and the spokesman for the NUMA effort. “The location of (Adams’) wreck just doesn’t make sense given everything we know and all the historical accounts.”
That may be, but there is still the wreck of a large, decked, 18thcentury ship on the bottom of Filey Bay that nobody can account for. It got there somehow. Yet there is nothing in any written records or local folklore of any ship like that sinking anywhere near Filey – except for the one, that is, the Bonhomme Richard. And while Adams mightn’t be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s Jones’ flagship, over the years he has certainly teased out an intriguing circumstantial case. In shape and size and the design of its hull, the wreck appears to be an old merchant vessel of a type known as an East Indiaman, built in France, judging by certain structural details in its decking, and sometime in the mid to late 18thcentury, according to radio-carbon tests done on a length of rope associated with the wreck; the Bonhomme Richard was an East Indiaman before being converted to a warship in the months before it was turned over to Jones. It was built in France in 1767. 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 East Indies. But perhaps the most intriguing discovery is that the wreck shows signs of having been extensively damaged by fire; the Bonhomme Richard was known to have been ablaze before it sank.
Says Adams: “If this is not the Bonhomme Richard, I’d sure love for somebody to come along and tell me what it is.” To date, nobody has been able to prove that it is not the famous old warship, or offer any other theory to what it might be.
All the same, extraordinary claims call for extraordinary proof. Finding cannons would be a clincher, but failing that, evidence of gunports along the hull would go a long way towards convincing sceptics that this really is John Paul Jones’ famous ship. After all, East Indiamen didn’t generally go around armed to the teeth and the modifications done for Jones would have been unique. And so it is gunports that fill Adams’ waking hours, and how to find indications of them, by feel, on a broken hull in deep, black, treacherous water where the visibility is almost nil.
And while he’s doing that, the search continues on the high seas – the case still wide open. The two American teams have each chalked out their own prime search areas located, depending on who you are talking to, between twelve and thirty miles out to sea. The precise grid co-ordinates are, of course, a jealously guarded secret. The rivalry between the two teams is a courteous one – after all, marine archaeology is a small world where everyone knows everyone else and friendships exist between the camps – but it is a rivalry nevertheless. Nobody gives anything away in the cut-and-thrust world of wreck hunting, treasure or no. Cussler’s group is known to be working out of Captain Cook’s old home port of Whitby, about thirty miles up the coast from Filey, but where they go once they vanish over the horizon is an eyes-only proprietary secret known only to themselves. OTF is even more standoffish, operating out of an undisclosed southern port and keeping to sea the entire time they are operating so they will not be disturbed by media or unwanted publicity. Adams, who is as cagey as anybody else, can afford to be a little more relaxed: as the recognised salver of the mystery wreck in Filey Bay, his rights are protected under English law. He invited me to come out with him. I caught a northbound express 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.
Filey turned out to be one of those small, quiet pleasantly-old fashioned English seaside towns that has 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 seafront, 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 jellied eels, cheap-and-cheerful plastic beach toys and sticks of candy rock. As I walked down from my B&B the next day, I imagined if you came along here on a warm Saturday afternoon you’d find it bright and lively, in that pleasant small town sort of way. But at six o’clock on a mid-week morning, the promenade has a sleepy out-of-season feel. What little bustle there was, was all down at the working end of the beach, where Filey’s small fleet of fishing cobbles are dragged in and out of the tide by tractor and where a knot of rugged-looking fisherman were milling around the boats, drinking mugs of strong milky tea and eating bacon sandwiches and generally talking over the day.
One of them was John Adams. The ruddy, sturdily built 62 year-old was loading a mound of scuba gear, packed lunches, knapsacks and notebooks into the Margaret, an old clinker-built fishing cobble he has borrowed from mates on the waterfront. He’s a quiet man, soft-spoken, and like most of the locals here, he is leery of outsiders. A touch of humour 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 cobble, a kind of boat you don’t see used much any more except in small fishing villages like Filey; indeed, the Margaret features on one of the town’s postcards. “Beautiful boats, cobbles,” he says, patting its peeling white gunwale. “These are the direst descendents of the old Viking ships, 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 to put in an engine, and get rid of the sails, the design hasn’t changed in a thousand years. No need. They had it right the first time; it’s the perfect craft for these waters.”
While he is talking boats the rest of the team arrives – mainly his three sons, Gary, Neil and Richard, big strapping men who grew up around their father’s lifelong pursuit of the Bonhomme Richardand for the past fifteen years or so have joined him in his quest. Experienced sport divers, and now with wives and kids of their own, they have juggled their jobs and lives around this two week window of opportunity in July. They are a close family, full of respect for the old man and soon make it plain they want to see their father vindicated, proven right.
Also coming along that day – and throughout the team’s two-week 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 the remains of an 18thcentury East Indiaman –only the second ever found in British waters – and therefore a valuable historic relic.
Dave Conlin, a marine archaeologist with the U.S. Park Service is there as well, 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 U.S. Park Service has a mandate to preserve items of national significance anywhere in the world and when they got wind of the wreck in Filey Bay, and its potential to be the Bonhomme Richard, they sent Conlin over in the summer of 2000 to check it out.
He came way so intrigued by what he saw on the bottom of Filey that even after the Park Service suspended official overseas travel by its personnel after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he has been returning to Yorkshire on his own time to help the Filey team try to prove up its find. “I am full of 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.”
A loudly sputtering tractor announces the arrival of ‘Pip’, who is acting as harbourmaster that morning, ready to drag the Margaretdown 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 hang-out 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. The date on it was just last week. I’d heard all about the dangers of diving on that wreck, or I thought I had – the deep water, the treacherous currents and fickle tides, the poor visibility and the risks of getting tangled on something and staying down for keeps, but twelve-foot sharks were a possibility I hadn’t considered. I ask Adams about it. He just laughs. “Come on, hop aboard, let’s go.”
It’s a three-mile ride out to the site. A pair of floats marks the spot where Adams’ wreck lies, the spot to which he has been returning again and again since he was a young man in his twenties. A puffin is floating on the water between them, standing sentinel. Adams cuts the engine and we drift up close.
Dry suits are broken out and the radio gear set up. Because they will be using a powered dredge on the bottom, safety regulations require the use of communications gear – a costly bit of equipment the town of Filey helped them obtain; I’d noticed the placards spruiking fund-raising Filey Bay Initiative T-shirts last night behind the bar at the Belle Vue 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 fifty 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 murky water; Pritchard is acting as dive master, bent over a book of charts and the radio unit.
My eyes, and imagination, are focused on the curl of blue plastic hose that floated on the water and then dropped 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 – eighty-four feet, give or take, depending on the state of the tides – dives have to be limited to forty minutes, including decompression time, which means each diver has only a brief period to spend actually working on the wreck itself.
Adams surfaces a 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 begins peeling off his suit.
But the gunports, if there were any down there, remained elusive. The tide turned and we headed home. As we bounced through an increasingly choppy swell back towards Filey and glimpsed the huge billowy clouds piling up over the Yorkshire dales, it didn’t look there was going to be much chance of going out tomorrow. And there wasn’t. The day dawned cold and rainy, with a dirty rough sea. “English weather,” Conlin laughed when I met 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.”
That evening there was a function in town at the Belle Vue, a big old pub overlooking the bay, where a large crowd of citizens had gathered to celebrate the new website the Filey Bay Initiative had just launched to publicise their efforts to peg the Bonhomme Richard. Much of the focus of the gala that night was on Adams and his thirty years’ dedication in exploring the wreck. He seemed pleased, in a quiet sort of way, but he took me aside, though, and in earnest tones urged me to talk to his wife, and his sons’ wives, and 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 said. “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 found Myra, Adams’ 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 exclaimed, with a laugh. “Boy, he is a brave man. I could say plenty on that score. Let’s just put it this way: we’re coming up on our 40th anniversary and for more than thirty 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 for work, drop his tools then go straight back out to dive on that wreck, and maybe not be back home again until ten or eleven 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 gathered 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, TK, who is expecting her 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. Nobody cleared the bar this year – not Adams, not Cussler, not OTF. The fickle Yorkshire weather closed in, days were lost, time grew short, jobs and responsibilities beckoned for all, and this season’s window of opportunity closed. The dark waters of the North Sea kept its secret safe for yet another year. 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 Clive Cussler’s group were able to rule out hundreds more square miles from their search area.
But nobody is giving up. “I’m quite sure we’ll be back,” says Dirk Cussler. “We’re not ready to throw in the towel after all this effort. The historical records don’t leave us a trail of breadcrumbs, so we can only make educated guesses about the impact of the tides and weather on the damaged ship and then estimate where she drifted. 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 Bay Initiative, which started out as a lone persistent diver, was recently awarded a £48,500 Heritage grant to help the team try to prove-up the mystery wreck and help call attention to their pretty town.
Sooner or later somebody is going to hit the jackpot, bag the last great shipwreck with a claim beyond doubt. 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 twelve 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, and then a mischievous light came into his eyes. “I understand there’s some great diving there.”
She shot him a look. He met it kindly, and they both shared a laugh.