US Schooner Onkahye

History of the US Schooner Onkahye

(Onkahye was originally spelled Oncahye. The name is derived from an Oneida Indian term that means “Dancing Feather”)

Construction of the schooner Onkahyebegan in late 1839 in Williamsburg, New York, at a shipyard opposite the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Robert Livingston Stevens, an engineer and son of Colonel John Stevens—a celebrated engineer and contributor to the early development of steamships—designed the vessel.

Robert L. Stevens

Small boat design was a hobby of the younger Stevens, who sought to develop a hybrid vessel that combined the best sailing attributes of both centerboard and keel type yachts. Onkahye was the first manifestation of Stevens’ concept.

Shipbuilder William Capes began construction of the schooner after a series of sailing model experiments verified Stevens’ theories regarding the hull’s anticipated performance. At least one archival source states that Stevens’ brother John assisted with the construction of the vessel.

Cross section view of the US Schooner Onkahye

Onkahye’s hull design was unorthodox by contemporary standards. Naval historian Howard Chapelle considered Onkahye the “[genesis of] the evolution of the American sailing yacht…insofar as this vessel was a distinct departure from the then accepted hull form for fast sailing craft.” 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. Onkahye’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. In terms of outward appearance, Onkahye was a square-sterned yacht with a billet head and no galleries.

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. According to Chapelle, this “gave a hull with a very thick fin, high hollow garboards and topsides flaring strongly outward above the waterline.”

Onkahye was launched in 1840, and proved to be very fast and stiff during sailing trials. Initially, the schooner was slow in stays; however, alterations to the rig significantly improved its ability to tack. Offshore cruises revealed that Onkahye was seaworthy, but tended to roll very hard in large swells. On at least one occasion, both of the schooner’s masts were rolled out and lost in heavy seas. The damaged and dismasted vessel was towed back into port, repaired, and later successfully competed against two notably fast nineteenth-century sailing craft (the brig Exit and pilot boat Jacob Bell).

The warship U.S.S. Onkahye (1843-1848) patrolled in the West Indies against pirates and slavers. This painting was originally published on the Marshall Islands 37¢ U.S.S. Onkahye stamp issued July 18, 2002. Painting by Charles Lundgren 1911 – 1988

Stevens experimented with a variety of innovative ideas on Onkahye, including the use of external ballast, sail slides and mast tracks (the latter items were precursors to those currently in use aboard modern sailboats). He also increased the number of centerboards from one to two. In 1843, Stevens and his brothers (and co-owners), Edwin and John, sold Onkahye to the United States Navy. The Navy removed the schooner’s centerboards and replaced them with bilge—or sister—keels on either side of the shoe; changed the rig to accommodate square sails on the topmasts; strengthened the decks; and installed armament consisting of two cannons of undetermined type and caliber. Onkahye was also outfitted with a number of heavy boats and other cumbersome equipment, which severely impaired its sailing ability.

Initially, Onkahye appears to have been employed with the United States Coast Survey. It later participated in anti-piracy and anti-slavery patrols in the Caribbean Sea and off the coast of South America between 1843 and 1845. The schooner also operated as a mail packet and dispatch vessel between Norfolk, Virginia and Port Aransas, Texas during the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848).

On 21 June 1848, while sailing from New York to Chagres, Panama, Onkahye was shipwrecked on one of the fringe reefs that border the Turks and Caicos Islands. In addition to its regular complement of officers and men, the schooner accommodated Mr. John Appleton, the United States Chargé d’ Affaires to the Republic of Bolivia, his clerk James S. Dodge, and three other civilian passengers. Foremost among Mr. Appleton’s varied diplomatic duties was the delivery of news of the impending termination of hostilities between the United States and Mexico to the U.S. Consulate in Callao, Peru.

Interestingly, his presence aboard Onkahye may also have inadvertently led to its loss. According to testimony provided by various deponents at the Court of Inquiry into the actions of Onkahye’s commander Lt. O.H. Berryman, the vessel’s crew was ordered to sail through the Caicos Passage at night to ensure Appleton arrived in Chagres by 26 June. Berryman’s haste to deliver Appleton was motivated by the latter’s desire to arrive in Chagres before the scheduled departure of a steam packet to Callao on 28 June.

Northwest Point Reefs. Captain Barryman may have mistaken False Cut for the Caicos Passage turn.

According to Onkahye’s Acting Master, Henry S. Newcomb, the crew sighted the island of North Caicos at 5:40 PM on the evening of 21 June. For the next two hours, land was observed off the port bow and beam; at 7:30 PM, Newcomb noted “the end of the Island bore S[outh] by E[ast].” Approximately one hour and fifteen minutes later, lookouts aloft observed breakers off Onkahye’s port bow. Although the schooner’s helm was put “hard up” to avoid grounding, it “struck, thumped over a reef, and struck again.”

In the immediate wake of the wrecking event, Onkahye’s crew took soundings of the surrounding seabed, revealing water depths ranging from 9 feet to 3 fathoms (18 feet). The crew also made several attempts to force their vessel off the reef, first with sail power and later by utilizing the schooner’s complement of anchors to warp it into deeper water. During the latter process, the Stream anchor—which had been deployed in deep water immediately off Onkahye’s starboard quarter—was lost. As the night wore on, high seas and strong currents drove the wreck further onto the reef. Faced with the realization that little remained to do for his stricken craft, Lt. Berryman ordered the schooner’s mainmast cut down to prevent it breaking through the hull as the wreck pounded against the rocks.

At dawn the next day, Acting Master Newcomb observed land extending from the west to southeast of the wreck’s location. Passenger Elijah Hise noted the reef upon which Onkahye had come to grief was located between three and five miles from shore. Based on these and other geographic descriptions related in the Court of Inquiry, Onkahye most likely ran aground on a fringe reef bordering the eastern shore of the Northwest Point of Providenciales. Over the course of the day, the schooner’s civilian passengers were transported to a temporary camp on nearby “Providence Caicos” (Providenciales), while the crew engaged in the removal of everything of value from the vessel. At the same time, the starboard bower anchor was deployed to the northeast of the wreck in another unsuccessful attempt to warp Onkahye’s battered hull off the rocks. The following morning an officer and a handful of sailors were ordered to Turk’s Island (Grand Turk) in one of the schooner’s boats to obtain help and charter a vessel to transport Onkahye’s passengers and crew back to the United States.

Two days later, on 25 June 1848, Onkahye was finally abandoned. Subsequently, the brig New Orleans arrived at Providenciales to pick up the wreck’s survivors. Acting Master Newcomb noted that, at the time of abandonment, the schooner was “lying on her Starboard bilge, her bottom stove in on that side, the water above the birth deck and nothing remaining in her, but a few water casks which had been hoisted on deck.” Onkahye had served in the United States Navy for nearly five years and was almost ten years old when claimed by the sea.