Historic Shipwrecks:  Science, History, and Engineering


About the Presenters:


Professor Peter Guth (PhD, MIT) teaches oceanography, including geology and GIS, at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis.  Dr. Guth’s publications include over 30 peer-reviewed journal papers and book chapters.  His research interests include geomorphometry from digital elevation models, algorithms using digital elevation models, and innovative uses of GIS in archaeology including the Battle of Big Hole (1877), 3D artefact distributions on the Swedish warship Vasa, and the search for the Bonhomme Richard.



Melissa Ryan is the Project Manager at the Ocean Technology Foundation, based in Mystic, CT, and was instrumental in putting this course together. She manages all aspects of the search for the Bonhomme Richard, including at-sea operations, international relations, logistics, research, education, and development efforts. She has participated in nine oceanographic research and exploration missions ranging from marine archaeological surveys to the investigation of deep-water corals, and served as Chief Scientist on four of them. Melissa also works as the Lead Program Instructor for NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, where she teaches workshops on deep ocean science to educators around the country.


Lesson Objectives:



Few ships of the Revolutionary War hold such a high degree of historic significance as Bonhomme Richard (BHR) (Figure 1).  Commanded by John Paul Jones (Figure 2), the Bonhomme Richard had been lent to the U.S. by France and was named in honor of Jones' friend Benjamin Franklin, who at that time represented America in France.  Franklin was instrumental in helping Jones to acquire a ship to go “in harm’s way” as he raided the coast of Britain. On September 23, 1779, Jones engaged the British ship HMS Serapis just off a point of land on the east coast of England called Flamborough Head. It was one of the most pivotal and ferocious battles in U.S. Naval History, and was watched by hundreds of spectators on the nearby coast.  It was during this three and a half hour fight, most of it taking place at point blank range, that Jones shouted his legendary words, “I have not yet begun to fight!” in response to the Captain of the Serapis who had asked Jones if he was surrendering. Ultimately, Jones emerged victorious and took control of Serapis.  The BHR had served him well and 36 hours later from the deck of the Serapis, Jones watched his ship disappear beneath the waters of the North Sea.  He then sailed Serapis to the Texel in Holland, escaping British capture.

Figure 1.  The Bonhomme Richard in full sail.  Image: William Gilkerson.



Figure 2. John Paul Jones.


Jones’ victory in the Battle of Flamborough Head, as it came to be known, was a turning point in the Revolutionary War.  The British Royal Navy was annoyed. The British people were horrified.  The French were absolutely delighted, and the enthusiastic reception accorded to John Paul Jones in Paris during the spring of 1780 greatly assisted Benjamin Franklin in borrowing more money and obtaining more military supplies from France. This victory for the U.S. also showed the world that the very young Continental Navy was a formidable force.  Jones gave the American people a hero when they really needed one.

The wreck of the BHR has never been found, and gaps exist in the accounts of its final hours, making its discovery very challenging.  Finding the wreck would serve to fill in this missing information, and would rekindle public appreciation and enthusiasm for this amazing event in American naval history.  It would also allow us to learn more about the construction of Revolutionary War vessels, particularly one such as the BHR, which was originally built for trade rather than warfare. Her conversion from an East Indiaman to a commerce-raider required a considerable amount of modification, which archaeological interpretation could corroborate and expand upon.  In addition, very little is known about the sailors and soldiers who made up the majority of the crew. These were a mixture of colonials, French and Irish marines, and men from several other countries as well (Figure 3.)  Archaeology offers a potential means to interpret their lives on board the BHR.

Figure 3.  Partial list of the Bonhomme Richard crew members.  The entry of "do." is the abbreviation for "ditto."   Note the large number listed as "Killed" or "wounded"; the battle between Bonhomme Richard and Serapis was uncharacteristically bloody among contemporary naval battles.



A collaborative search for the BHR began in 2005.  The Ocean Technology Foundation (OTF), a non-profit organization based in Connecticut, partnered with the Naval History and Heritage Command to launch a multi-year effort in search of the shipwreck.  The project objectives are to: 

The U.S. Naval Academy has been an integral collaborator in this project. Professor Peter Guth (Oceanography Department) has developed oceanographic modeling techniques that are heavily relied upon to help determine search areas for the expeditions.  We will discuss this computer modeling in much more detail later in the semester.

Looking for the BHR, or indeed any shipwreck, requires understanding and integrating concepts from history, science, and engineering as illustrated in Figures 4 and 5.


Figure 4.  Part of a British nautical chart of colonial waters published at the start of the American Revolution.  To read such a chart, you must understand something of the history of navigation, and the changes in printed type over time--note the lower case "s" in island for the southern island differs from the capital "S" in the northern island, and even from the other lower case "s" in the island's name.  The challenge of reading historical documents increases when they are handwritten instead of printed; we will see a handwritten logbook in a later lesson, and see how easily you will be able to interpret it.


Extract from "Coast of Maine showing entrances of Blue Hill Bay, Isle of Haut Bay, and Penobscot Bay, with Owls Head, Vinalhaven Island, Isle au Haut, and other islands."  Des Barres, Joseph F. W. 1722-1824. (Joseph Frederick Wallet) CREATED/PUBLISHED  London, 1776?  Scale ca. 1:48,500.  Library of Congress g3732c np000013




Looking for wrecks requires using geophysical search tools like magnetometers and side scan sonars.  Searchers must understand the operation of the instrument to effectively plan for its use, and to interpret the results.  Does the size and construction of the imaged wreck match the historical record of the particular ship being sought, and does it match the characteristics of the time period?


Figure 5.  Wreck of the Maxwell, near Annapolis.  Image: P. Guth.


The project team has been to sea every year since 2006, and has searched nearly 450 square miles of the North Sea, but we do not believe we have located the BHR.  (Though it may not sound like it, it’s extremely helpful to be able to say where the BHR is not.)  The expeditions have used different technologies, depending on the survey objectives and resources available. These technologies will be explored in depth throughout the course. 

Expeditions are very expensive, and it is prudent to maximize time at sea by conducting the most efficient and well-informed survey possible. There is a tremendous amount of homework to be done when searching for a specific shipwreck even before a team heads out to sea. Its history must be closely examined to try to answer questions such as:  How was it built? What was its purpose? Who was on it?  How did they navigate and record their journeys? Some of this information could provide clues to help retrace the ship’s course, and to ultimately identify the ship’s remains.  It can take many years to gather and study this information.

When preparing to go to sea, a search area must be defined beforehand.  Science can be applied to determine factors such as how a ship, in this case the BHR, moved in the water and was affected by the tides.  How far could it sail in its deteriorated condition after the battle?  In which direction would the wind drive it under certain conditions? How would the dynamic environment of the North Sea affect the remains of the BHR?

There are many engineering applications associated with marine archaeological surveys. What type of equipment is best suited to the water depth, currents, and the objectives of the expedition?  Is it a survey, a target classification mission, or an archaeological excavation? What type of ship will serve as the most appropriate working platform for the job?

Different survey platforms and equipment have been used each year, depending on the specific mission, and the resources and technologies that have been available (Figures 6 through 10).

Figure 6.  Survey Vessel Freja.    Image:  R. Neyland

Figure 7. Research Vessel Oceanus.  Image:  WHOI

Figure 8. Motor Vessel Carolyn Chouest and Submarine NR1.

Figure 9. FRN Vessel Thetis.  Image:  F. Seurot

Figure 10. USNS Henson.  Image:  U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.
Figure 11. USNS Grasp. Image:  MSC Photograph via wikipedia.
  Figure 12.  French Navy ships:
  • A793 Laplace, Hydrographic survey vessel
  • M614, Styx, Mine Countermeasures Divers Tender
  • M770 Antarès, Mine Route Survey Craft



Shipwrecks are an ideal and fascinating theme for teaching history, science, and engineering.  This course will examine these three disciplines in the context of the search for the BHR and other historic shipwrecks.   As an introduction to marine archaeological exploration, please take a look at the videos titled “The Great Explorer” (Parts 1 and 2) which aired on the television show “60 Minutes” (here for a transcript) last fall; links are probably broken, but might still be available if you poke around on the web).  The segments feature underwater explorer Dr. Robert Ballard and his search for ancient shipwrecks.  Watch the videos (or read the transcripts), keeping in mind the ways that science, history, and engineering are applied to a marine archaeology survey.  This course seeks to teach you about how history, science, and engineering all contribute to the the search for our naval heritage.

A final component of marine archaeology concerns the ethical aspects of the work.  Famous warships that have been excavated and placed in museums include the Vasa, the Mary Rose, the Monitor, and the Hunley.  The primary focus of this work is preserving the vessel and its contents, and using them for research and education.  In contrast, treasure hunters lured by gold seek monetary reward; they may use many of the same historical, scientific, and engineering techniques, but have very different results.


Boudriot, J. "John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard:  A Reconstruction of the Ship and an Account of the Battle With HMS Serapis." Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1987.

Guth, P. "Track the sinking ship: GIS and ocean modeling in the search for the Bonhomme Richard." United States Naval Academy Naval History Symposium, 2009.

Ryan, M. and John P. McGrath. "Searching for the Bonhomme Richard Using Computer Modeling and Submarine Technologies."  Marine Technology Society Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4, (Winter 2008/2009): 57-63.

Return to course syllabus

last revision 6/4/2012