“Pearson wanted to finish off the American. As the Serapis slid out from under the Bonhomme Richard’s lee, Pearson ordered the helmsman to head up, to cross the American’s bow and rake her again. But at that moment, Pearson’s luck ran out. The light wind died altogether; the Serapis hung without steerage way, just off the Bonhomme Richard’s starboard bow. Now Jones saw his chance. Feeling a gentle puff from the dying southerly, he ordered the sailing master, Samuel Stacy [A true-blooded Yankee,” according to Fanning], to “lay the enemy’s ship on board.” In the next breathe, he ordered the officers to muster the boarding party. Seamen and marines were handed cutlasses, pikes, and pistols and assembled in the ship’s waist and on the forecastle. The helmsman was barely able to steer the sluggish ship in the feeble breeze, but the Bonhomme Richard drifted toward the stern of the Serapis. The bowsprit of the American ship gently nudged into the rigging of the British ship’s mizzenmast. “Well done my lads, we’ve got her now!” cried Jones., full of the savage joy that seized him at moments of maximum peril. The sailors hurled grappling hooks across to the Serapis, catching them in the rigging and hooking on to the bulwarks. British seamen and redcoats, armed with axes, just as quickly began cutting them away while Royal Marines peppered musket fire at the small knot of Americans trying to climb out onto the bowsprit. It was no use. A bowsprit is a precarious bridge; the boarding party was on a virtual suicide mission. Jones called it off, and the men drew back; the lines to the grappling hooks were hacked off. The Bonhomme Richard backed its sails and the two ships drew apart. Pearson wanted to resume hammering his foe, so he ordered his topsails backed to check the Serapis and bring the two ships parallel again. The heavy guns of the Serapis flashed out and another several hundredweight of iron ripped through the Bonhomme Richard’s aging planks. At some badly mauled gun stations, the decks were wet with blood. Jones was truly up against it now. The Bonhomme Richard was barely sailing. Jones needed to make a last attempt to gain the upper hand.”
Excerpted from “John Paul Jones”, author, Evan Thomas. Publisher SIMON & SCHUSTER, Rockefeller Center, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY. 10020.