To people living on the north-east coast of England, it’s just one of many rotting shipwrecks. To Americans, the long-lost hulk of the 18th-century warship Bonhomme Richard is a talisman of their country’s struggle for independence. Now, thanks to some smart software, this relic of the fledgling US Navy may finally be found.

In September 1779 John Paul Jones, founder of America’s nascent Continental Navy, captained the 42-gun Bonhomme Richard in an attack on the British warship HMS Serapis off the Yorkshire coast. The American vessel was fatally damaged and later sank – but not before Jones and his crew had boarded the Serapis and captured it. “That victory convinced France to lend America more resources to fight the revolutionary war, so the Bonhomme Richard is considered the holy grail of US maritime history,” says Melissa Ryan of the Ocean Technology Foundation (OTF), a non-profit marine exploration body.

To locate the wreck, Applied Science Associates (ASA) of Rhode Island decided to merge two of its software packages: one that tracks oil spills shifted by currents under the water’s surface, and another that works out where crippled ships may have drifted in winds and tides. At the time, eyewitnesses to the sinking left clues on weather, currents and tides, says Lee Dooley of ASA. When fed into the merged tracker, the data threw up a number of possible locations for the wreck. In August this year an OTF sonar team found five wrecks in the suggested areas that will be examined by divers next summer. “And there’s one they feel really good about,” says Dooley.

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