Wreck of American warship which sank in 1779 discovered off Yorkshire coast

Marine historians believe they have found the site of a mystery shipwreck that has puzzled searchers for decades near Filey.
Filey coastlineFiley coastline
Filey coastline

The US Navy has spent years hunting for the resting site of the USS Bonhomme Richard - the first ship to defeat the Royal Navy in British waters.

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Now Harrogate-based historian Tim Akers has produced wood which he claims belongs to the ship after deducing that a wreck previously found off Flamborough Head had been wrongly identified and was in fact the Bonhomme Richard.

In 2006 American wreckhunters spent an entire summer on the Yorkshire coast searching for the vessel's remains, and returned to Bridlington and Scarborough for several subsequent seasons, but were unsuccessful.

The ship, captained by the US Navy's 'founding father', John Paul Jones, foundered after a battle with British ship Serapis in 1779, during the American War of Independence.

When its captain Richard Pearson asked if Jones had surrendered, Jones famously replied, "Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!"

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Although Jones won the battle and captured the Serapis, the Bonhomme Richard was badly damaged in the three-and-a-half-hour engagement and sank about 36 hours later during a storm.

American author Clive Cussler, who spent much time and money in the 1970s searching for the wreck, also sent a team to Bridlington for three seasons in the 2000s searching over a 300-square-mile area with a high-tech sonar system. The project featured in a TV programme Searching for the Bonhomme Richard.

A diver from Whitby, Carl Racey, who has himself searched for the wreck and given area search co-ordinates to the more recent Cussler expeditions, said in 2006: "It is hard to imagine how they missed it if it is there. There are two possibilities - either it is buried and it will come and go because it is in an area of sand dunes, with great big sand waves on a long rolling frequency. The other possibility is that there is some corruption of the history and it is somewhere entirely different.

"Searches in the past have been very focused on Flamborough Head and Bridlington Bay but it could be a lot nearer Scarborough."

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A discovery could have huge implications for the area's tourism trade, not least because of the huge interest in the United States.

Mr Akers, 60, used pioneering satellite radar techniques to track down the vessel.

Divers have found timber which the historian claims show evidence of burning, which would be consistent with the fire damage reported at the time.

Guns and cannon balls - both of which would be worth 'millions' today - have also been spotted on the seabed. Ship's bells, rigging and a lion figurehead are visible too.

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HM Coastguard's Receiver of Wreck must now verify the discovery for it to be officially recognised as the wreck site.

The exact location has not been revealed to prevent looting, but is thought to be near Filey.

Mr Akers believes that the wreck of another wooden warship of the era, the HMS Nautilus, was thought to lie at the site - but thinks that it is far more likely to be the Bonhomme Richard because of the fire damage.

The wreck would still be owned by the US Navy, and could become a historical pilgrimage site. A protection order for the location has been applied for.