Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Did You Find It?"

Whenever I return from an expedition, the question I am most frequently asked is "Did you find it?"  My most frequently given answer is “I don’t know.”  Wreck hunting is a multi-phased approach, where you have a particular technology to complete a certain phase of the survey. For example, a sonar survey is Phase One, and on a French Navy minehunter it produces images like this:

Can we tell anything definitive from this image? Not really. We need to gather much more information about it with additional technologies.
Another kind of sonar produces an image like this:

Is it a wreck or rocks?  It's a group of rocks. The two are often so similar that we can’t tell them apart, which brings us to the next phase: target classification. This is done with either a ROV, Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) or in some fortunate instances, divers.  This image was taken with a ROV:

Again, is it a piece of a wreck or a rock? If we had divers investigate this object, could they determine its identity?  There are no guarantees. This image is actually of a concretion, which is a conglomeration of iron objects that become attached to one another when they are in seawater for a long time. We know this only because we used a magnetometer to detect any metal in the object and it gave off a healthy magnetic signature. That can be another phase, but is ideally combined into with a Phase One sonar investigation. When we finally are able to collect enough definitive evidence about a wreck site, we may be able to say we are onto something.  Until then, we proceed with surveying just in case this wreck is not the one we're after.

Every technological asset we are offered is an expensive gift, and takes a whole team of people to run it, plus a vessel to support the whole operation. Try convincing a Navy to mobilize a ship and crew with a number of specific technologies on board, and you have the makings of a huge challenge. We shoot for the moon, but are grateful for whatever is offered and available. The saying “Beggars can’t be choosers” is applicable here, and there is a constant trade-off between what is needed and what is available.  So we maximize the resources we have on each mission, and appreciate them.  

So did we find it? I don't know. We may have found it as the wreck site we discovered in 2012, but until we have the right equipment to repeatedly investigate that site and prove its identity, we will keep plugging away. This most recent mission was a Phase One and Phase Two approach, with sonar for target acquisition, and a ROV for a very quick investigation of a single target.  Phase Three would be to put divers down on any new sonar targets, including our priority wreck site.  Stay tuned for that, it just may happen!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Onward and Downward

The Sagittaire is equipped with two underwater robots with cameras, or Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs).

They are excellent tools for investigating objects on the seabed if the visibility is good. In the early afternoon, we launch one of them and navigate to our favorite unidentified shipwreck site that was discovered by the French Navy in a 2012 survey. The objective for this dive is to see if the sands have shifted, either burying or unburying parts of the wreck, especially the wooden timbers that lay partially exposed on the seabed:

The ROV is not equipped with a manipulator arm, so we can look, but cannot touch.  For about half an hour, we inspect various (and mostly unidentifiable, except for the large anchor) encrusted objects through the eyes of the ROV.  Then it’s bad news from the Operations team – there is a problem with the ROV’s cable, so the crew recovers it and launches the second one in its place. Within a few minutes, that one gets water in its camera, is hauled back onto the ship, and then both ROVs are pronounced dead. Rumors of a black cat on board begin to circulate. Anyone who works at sea will tell you that equipment breaks more often out here than on land. No one knows why. Maybe the sea gods just aren’t happy with our intrusion into their realm.

Since diving was cut short, we proceed to use the hull-mounted sonar to survey a new area adjacent to the wreck site and search for more potential targets. Until we can prove it, we have to operate under the assumption that the wreck site may not be the remains of the Bonhomme Richard, and we proceed with surveying operations since we have some tremendous assets available to do it.  Besides, we never know what we may discover unintentionally!  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How's the Food?

Today dawned bright and beautiful, with calming seas and crisp air, which somehow erased the unpleasant events of the previous night. I woke up to blaring music coming from the ship’s public address system at 7:45, which was the usual wake-up call for the crew.  I stayed out of the way while my three roommates readied themselves ready for work, and then I made my way up to the wardroom for breakfast.

I felt much better and could actually eat, and since we were waiting for the seas to lay down, I thought I would write about the fine French cuisine we were enjoying. Breakfast is very informal, with everyone helping themselves to the cereal, freshly baked bread, juice, coffee and tea that is laid out on the table.  Lunch is more formal and begins with the Commandant and his officers settling onto the wrap-around sofa in one corner of the wardroom. 

Drinks and appetizers (cashews and sausage and cheese) are served, and it is a time for making pleasant conversation before the meal.  Usually we do not discuss work, unless it’s very briefly. Topics of conversation range from food (Do you use the term “French fries” in France? No, they are “Belgium fries”) to travel, to politics, to the adventures of twenty-something males on port calls.  One of the officers says he wants to find the Bonhomme Richard very badly, because he thinks this will secure him an invitation to lunch with President Obama. Another young officer just wants to find a woman to settle down with, and his fellow crewmembers have agreed to help him with this, but no luck so far.

After about 20 minutes, it is announced that the Commandant is served, and we take our seats at the table. I know my place, which is always to the right of the Commandant, and is a place of honor.  Lunch begins with a green salad and warm brie, and always the freshly-baked aromatic French bread.  

The main course is medallions of pork with a white wine cream sauce over vegetables julienne, and I’m so glad I feel well enough to really enjoy it.  

As if all this weren’t enough food, dessert is molten chocolate lava cake drizzled with custard.

Interestingly, the food allotment for French Navy personnel is 4 euros per person per day, whereas in the US Navy, it is $7.00. It is impressive what the French can do for 4 euros. After lunch, we settle back onto the sofa for follow-up coffee or tea, but only for a few minutes until it’s time to get to work.

Dinner time sees the same routine. We are beginning ROV operations after lunch today...

Monday, March 31, 2014

To the Sea...

We leave Edinburgh at 0900 for an 18-hour transit out to the work site.  Nearly all of the crew is out on deck watching the scenery go by. Once in a while I look up and see that I am being observed by various crew members, just out of curiosity, I'm told later and I must quickly get used to being an anomaly. When the ship turns for sea, everyone goes to their stations. I chat with the Scottish harbor pilot who has come aboard to help the crew navigate out of the loch and through the channel into open water. The crew is thrilled that he has also shown them an inshore route home, which should be smoother than their transit from France to Edinburgh.

As soon as we head for open water, I am asked to accompany the Operations Officer to the bridge to review the plan. We talk about the survey and decide to first use the Remotely Operated Vehicle to take a look at our priority wreck site, then use the sonar to survey a block of seabed nearby. It’s possible that there is more of the wreck in the adjacent areas, especially since the region has been trawled.

The forecast is dicey for tonight, good for tomorrow, and then terrible for the rest of the week.  I am surprised that the French Navy would send a minehunter to transit nearly four days, stop in port for three days, then transit another 18 hours, spend 36 hours at the work site, transit two days back to England for a port call, and then finish the several-day trip home to Brest, France.  That amounts to nearly a ten day trip for a day and a half of work if the weather holds, and it is a huge risk with the amount of time and resources involved. But I am grateful for the opportunity and for the continued commitment of France to continue our joint quest.

By later in the evening, the winds pick up significantly, and our transit south is a tough one. In most ships, these seas may not have been problematic, but minehunters are meant for short trips along the coast, and not for working in the open ocean in an extreme environment like the North Sea. They are unstable and roll around even in moderate seas. Here's an image of Sagittaire:

In all the time I've spent at sea on all kinds of vessels, I have been very lucky in that I have been spared the experience of seasickness. Seamen say it can strike even the toughest sailor at any time. My luck ran out on this trip.  During a punishing bout of illness that lasted several hours, I laid down in the Officers’ Wardroom on the sofa because I literally could not make it the two decks down to where my bunk was located (image below).

The smell of liver for dinner certainly didn’t help matters. The toughest part about seasickness is that there is no escape once it hits.  If I was sitting up or standing, any movement of the ship would throw my body off course, a new wave of nausea would strike, and I would swear that every bathroom was miles away. Around midnight, after a few of the longest hours of my life, the medicine I had taken kicked in and I was finally able to get some sleep. ROV operations were planned to start at 3:00 a.m., but I desperately hoped for a stay of execution, as there was no way I could have functioned under the circumstances. The sea state remained unworkable throughout the night, which was good for me, but bad for the mission.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Expedition 2014 - Of Whiskey and Men

The search for the Bonhomme Richard, ongoing for 8 years now, has grown massively since its inception.  It has become much more than a quest for the remains of an important American war ship. It is an exercise in maximizing assets; it is a test of endurance for people, ships, and equipment; allows for cultural exchange; is used for training in an extreme environment; and is a highly regarded partnership between the U.S. and France.  I write about all of the above, and not just the results of the missions, because all of these things are what makes time spent at sea so valuable and unforgettable. 

Arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland two days before heading to sea on our first expedition of the year proved to be a very wise move for me. I have a hotel room and a large bathtub to luxuriate in before taking on the seas and tiny, moving showers.  It also provides invaluable time to get to know the Commandant and officers of the French Navy’s minehunting vessel Sagitairre, who are enjoying a weekend port call.  We meet for the first time for a tour of Edinburgh Castle. 

We are pleasantly surprised that the Bonhomme Richard and John Paul Jones are mentioned in an audio recording in the prisoners’ barracks, but with Jones being a Scotsman it does make sense that he would find some honor there. These hours together are important because they make us a little more comfortable in that we are no longer unknown to one another, and hopefully some preliminary bonding can occur.  It also gives me a head start on remembering and correctly pronouncing the names of the people whose capable hands my mission is now in. There is a U.S. Navy Exchange Officer with us who is on a two-year tour with the French Navy, and is my project liaison in France.  He is an important part of the mission and as he speaks French and English, eases my transition into French Navy culture, and brings me into the conversations.

Our group of seven men and one woman opt for dinner and drinks at a local pub, and chat as best we can.  Although I am politely invited to tomorrow's pilgrimage to the whiskey distillery at 8:00 a.m. (eek!), I opt to sleep in and spend the day shopping and touring by myself, enjoying some precious alone time before boarding the ship the following morning.  And sometimes men just need to do their man things without a woman tagging along. Speaking of whiskey, this is a common sight in many of the shops.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Re-Creating the BHR?

A friend of mine in France just sent me this article that appeared in a French newspaper.  Apparently the mayor of L'Orient, France, who is also Vice-President of the tourism board, would like to build a replica of the Bonhomme Richard to serve as a tourist attraction. What fun that would be! A colleague of mine had originally pitched this idea to the US Naval Academy a few years ago, but I guess it didn't quite catch on. The BHR was built in L'Orient originally as the Duc de Duras, and then when it was loaned to the U.S., it was renamed Bonhomme Richard.  The French have already built a replica of the vessel Hermione, which will be visiting the U.S. next year. It cost 25 million euros to build it.

Here are some images of the BHR model from the article, courtesy of Ouest-France:

I am going to try to contact the mayor and lend my support.  Vive la France!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

BHR Model Arrives in France

In the April 10 post I mentioned that a model of the BHR was being transported across the Atlantic to France. It has arrived, and is now safely ensconced in a place of honor at the French Naval Academy (Ecole Navale).  A reception honoring this gift from the US Naval Academy was held on June 4 at Ecole Navale.

Here is the French version of events. Translated, it reads:
"On the occasion of Naval History Days, the opening of the model Bonhomme Richard ceremony was held Tuesday, June 4 at the French Naval Academy, under the direction Rear Admiral Philippe Hello and in the presence of U.S. Naval Attache, Captain Robert Buzzell.

Mr. Alain Boulaire, Doctor of History, prefaced this ceremony, gave a lecture entitled "A merchant ship became warship, the example of the Bonhomme Richard," particularly for the benefit of students in the first year at the Naval Academy and students of foreign naval schools present in the context of the international week."

You can read the model's descriptive plaque here.

In other news, our French Navy mission that was scheduled for early July has had to be postponed till later this fall due to the ships' military obligations. This project certainly takes a lot of patience, as it can be months or even a year until we can return to a wreck site to further investigate it.