By nineteenth-century standards, Onkahye’s hull design was unorthodox, particularly for a naval vessel. Based on information gleaned from Onkahye’s enrollment with the State of New York, the single-decked yacht had an overall length of 96 feet, waterline length of 92 feet, beam of 24 feet, 2 inches, and a depth of hold of 10 feet, 9 inches when the centerboard was up and the vessel was in sailing trim. It displaced 211 tons. The vessel’s uniquely innovative hull attributes included a deep forefoot, slightly rockered keel, perpendicular ends on the rabbet line, and a large centerboard. Additionally, the hull’s largest beam and draft dimensions were placed slightly abaft the center of the waterline length. Perhaps the most unusual design characteristic displayed by Onkahye was the shape of its midsection. The keel structure was formed from U-shaped futtocks, was extremely thick, and gave the appearance of being attached to the hull of a shallow-drafted vessel.
Sail Plan and Lines Drawing of the US Schooner Onkahye
Onkahye’s designer and owner, Robert L. Stevens, used his vessel as a test bed for a variety of innovative ideas, including the use of external ballast, sail slides and mast tracks. He also increased the number of centerboards from one to two. Following Onkahye’s sale to the U.S. Navy in 1843, its centerboards were removed and replaced with bilge—or sister—keels on either side of the shoe. In addition, the rig was changed to accommodate square sails on the topmasts, the decks were strengthened, and two cannons of undetermined type and caliber were installed as armament. If elements of Onkahye’s hull still survive, it may be possible to discern one or more of the schooner’s unique design attributes and later modifications. The keel structure, in particular, would be a noticeable feature that would distinguish Onkahye from contemporary shipwrecks.
Like Chippewa, Onkahye almost certainly grounded on a shallow fringe reef off the eastern shore of the North West Point of Providenciales. In fact, Court of Inquiry records reveal notable similarities between both shipwrecks. For example, both vessels struck a reef that suddenly appeared off the port bow, were carried over the first reef, and finally grounded on a second line of coral and rock not far from the site of initial impact. In the immediate wake of the wrecking event, Onkahye’s crew took soundings of the surrounding seabed, revealing water depths ranging from 9 to 18 feet. As occurred with Chippewa, Onkahye’s crew made several attempts to force their vessel off the reef by utilizing the schooner’s complement of anchors to warp it into deeper water.
During this process, the Stream anchor—which had been deployed in deep water immediately off Onkahye’s starboard quarter—was lost. Eyewitness accounts of the wreck’s distance from shore range between 3 and 5 miles, suggesting Onkahye struck the same area of fringe reef between False Cut and Wheeland Cut that claimed Chippewa.
As night wore on, and high seas and strong currents forced the wreck further onto the reef, the schooner’s commander, Lt. O.H. Berryman, ordered its mainmast cut away to prevent it breaking through the hull as the wreck pounded against the rocks. Eventually, Onkahye—like Chippewa 32 years previously—heeled over on its starboard side and bilged. According to contemporary reports, everything of value was recovered from the wreck; however, small diagnostic artifacts such uniform buttons, coins, and ceramic and glass fragments may still be present at the site. Large items, such as the schooner’s stream anchor, cannon, and starboard bower anchor (which was deployed northeast of the wreck in a last-ditch attempt to warp it off the reef) may also still be present, if they were not removed by contemporary or modern salvage activities.
Strong winds and high seas made it impossible to follow up on the promising leads provided by the remotes sensing of this area. We still have Onkahye on the list of shipwrecks to locate and share with the people of the Turks & Caicos Islands.