In 2005 Clive underwent a quintuple heart bypass, I sent an e-mail and letter expressing my best wishes for a speedy recovery and my hopes that he would be well enough to get back to Whitby in the summer if indeed there was to be another expedition? I received an e-mail confirming that initially Dirk would be in charge of resuming the search for the "Bonhomme Richard" and that if his health improves enough he was considering joining the ship later to see how they are getting along.
The same familiar "Ocean Dancer" was once again the choice of charter vessel and I was pleased to see it arrive on the 20 th of June. The original plan was to leave on the first leg later the same day and the vessel was a hive of activity as they took on supplies and equipment. I am fortunate that our house overlooks the wharf and I have a good vantage point. Later that day I saw Dirk arrive, boarding the boat with his belongings and knew the boat was likely to leave.
I tentatively called over to the wharf and was quite pleased that not only did the skipper remember me but he could recall my name. I have only had a small part to play but it was nice that someone who probably meets many Clive Cussler fans remembered me! I spoke to Dirk who told me that for the time being the prospect of a long haul flight and then the endless searching was just too much for Clive to contemplate. He did say that if something positive was located, his father would probably be on the next flight over? During my visits to the boat when it was in port I was often invited to go aboard the vessel but I declined the invitation not wishing to get in the way, I also had to consider how to safely get aboard and then back off as my mobility is somewhat restricted.
The Expedition Gets Underway
This years expedition was planned as a six week expedition with contingency plans to extend their expedition should they find their quarry. Unfortunately like the previous expeditions the final resting place of the ill fated Bonhomme Richard proved elusive as ever.
Dirk explained that they had pinpointed a number of charted seabed obstructions as well as some un chartered obstructions? The search legs are laborious and consist of towing a side scan sonar behind the dancer as it steams up and down the coast with one of the team sitting there watching the monitor for anything unusual. The sonar device works by sending electronic signals to the seabed which are then bounced back to make up a schematic of the seabed and the obstruction.
There is a set pattern to the 'search lanes' so that the seabed is adequately covered but if a uncharted obstruction is found or something positive is located then the position is marked by the person on duty. The vessel can return to that position and use the sonar again only this time zooming in on the obstruction so as to try and gain a better / clearer image of the obstruction. If the depth is within safe diving limits then divers can make a dive to ascertain more information.
The divers are experienced enough to be able to quickly rule out many obstructions fairly quickly. Dirk explained that it is quite monotonous sitting at the monitor waiting for something to appear. The image to the right is a typical side scan sonar, this one being a fairly well intact wreck, the purple lines indicating the lines used to map out the search grids. This image was one of many I received from Ralph Wilbanks (see left) the team's resident electronic specialist.
There have been many hours during the search legs when the vessel has steamed along search lanes with nothing showing at all. I have offered my services on a number of occasions and have a lot of experience in the kitchen (Galley) and can wash a mean plate, unfortunately my health is not really conducive to days at sea.
On the 12th June the now familiar green shaped charter vessel arrived in Whitby to begin this years search for the remain of the "Bonhomme Richard". It was a pleasing sight as it meant I could catch up with people I regarded as friends. Like the previous years, I truly hoped that this would be the year that Clive's team would strike lucky. The vessel was quick in taking on the necessary supplies and sailed out on the first leg of the searches that same day. Once in the area selected to begin the search the vessel began the routine of sweeping an area marked out on the chart. I have been fortunate enough to have been shown the chart by both Clive and Dirk on a number of occasions. The chart is decorated with vast areas lined to indicate where previous searches have been carried out. The weather forecast was poor for the latter part of the week and "John" the skipper of the ‘dancer‘ had announced a return to Whitby. Although the conditions within the search area seemed fine, the crew were sensible enough to know that if the skipper wanted to start a return to port that poor weather was imminent. Sure enough during the return to Whitby the conditions did indeed deteriorate and by the time the vessel arrived off Whitby there was a larger swell than expected.
The conditions at the entrance to Whitby were hazardous and the vessel's entrance was delayed by the harbour authority and as strange as it was the crew they had little option but to brave the elements. When given permission the boat came in to the upper harbour going through the swing bridge on the first available opening mooring alongside the wharf for safety. The charter vessel made a number of departures throughout June, July and August and throughout that time yet unlike previous years the searches were hampered by poor weather and this impacted enough to warrant cutting short a search leg enforcing a return to Whitby. This was balanced by spells of good weather which allowed some of the stages to be extended, thereby making up for the lost time the vessel only returning to port when supplies were running short.
The plan was for the expedition to continue through August until such time as any extension was confirmed, unfortunately the return of poor weather forced the charter vessel back to port on the 9thAugust. The weather was expected to be unsettled for the coming week and it decided at that time to terminate this years search. During this search the vessel and her crew covered vast swathes of seabed, and they had accumulated a significant amount of data. Once more a number of unidentified and chartered wrecks were found some of which were interesting enough to warrant diving.
The data was taken back to America where it was carefully scrutinised to see what it may reveal before any decision on further searches was confirmed. The location of the "Bonhomme Richard" was still proving frustratingly elusive as it has done since its loss. Ocean Dancer left Whitby bathed in evening sun bound for Hull for some dry dock work to carried out before she moves on to her next charter, only time would tell if she was to make a return in 2007. I personally hope the vessel makes a return and that with good fortune the location of the wreck site is found!
Clive announced many years ago that he would die a happy man if the Bonhomme Richard is found by NUMA while I still breathe. But, the odds are long against me. My only small satisfaction is that we cleared the fog a bit for the next team to launch another search attempt.
The last two seasons Clive has had competition to find the remains from another yet a US financed search team. Operating out of Scarborough harbour they were using a smaller vessel and operating on a daily basis returning each night to the safe confines of the harbour, which would of course mean sailing to and from the areas chosen for the search grid.
This would ultimately impact on the amount of time that was available for actually carrying out searches, although operating a different way they did have something on their side. Their area of searching was restricted to inshore waters and this would if nothing save some of the traveling time. A past member of Clive's team "Peter Reaveley" had always believed that the remains lay further inshore and this new team provided just the outlet he desired for his vast knowledge of the Bonhomme Richard transferring allegiance from Clive's team to the Ocean Technology team. Mr. Reaveley has spent more than 30 years compiling and analysing eyewitness accounts, deriving the historical weather, wind and tidal data, and determining damages inflicted on the ship in the course of the battle in a hope of narrowing the likely search areas.
The team were seeking financial support from any quarter so as to fund the search and mounted a hectic public relations exercise, giving presentations through the Yorkshire coast. The Ocean Technology team have a very different agenda to Clive and it is their wish should the vessel be found to preserve the remains as best possible whilst making it an educational feature for this part of the coast?
Operating from a smaller charter vessel and working the inshore waters they would have been at a distinct disadvantage in affected more by inclement weather. The Ocean Technology expedition finished shortly after Clive's and they also gathered a significant amount of data to be examined, but being reliant on sponsorship money they will have to evaluate the data they collected before being able to decide if it is financially viable to mount any further searches.
It seems inconceivable that the Bonhomme Richard could remain so elusive with so much of the seabed scoured, during Clive's expeditions and those of the Ocean Technology team. However, the expeditions continued ever forward, follow the link to the more recent installment of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditions.
© Colin Brittain 1999 - 2022