Astrolabe, Uncategorized

Cold Case

The loss of the US Navy Schooner Onkahye, 1848.

By Dr. Donald H. Keith, Chairman, TCI National Museum, and Dr. James W. Hunter

“Near Nine O Clock on Wednesday night the Vessel Struck and from the grating of her Keel . . . I concluded . . . that She Had run up and Lodged on Rocks her entire Length . . . [I] Believed the vessel would go to pieces before morning and never Expected myself to See the Light of another day.”

These are the words of Elija Hise, written while waiting in the survivor’s camp on Providenciales, June 24, 1848. The wreck he survived—in spite of his expectations to the contrary—was the US Navy schooner Onkahye. Its loss ended the career of what was then widely recognized as the most cutting-edge yacht built in America, but is now largely forgotten. There are many shipwrecks in the waters of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Not all of them are so interesting that they warrant a search, let alone excavation and recovery. But Onkahye is on the Museum’s “A List” of important shipwrecks. No, it was not carrying precious metals, bronze cannons, or works of art. Its “treasure” is the place it holds in the history of fast American-built sailing yachts.

Genesis of the American sailing yacht

Onkahye was the genesis of the American sailing yacht.

The backstory begins in 1839 in Williamsburg, NY, where engineer Robert L. Stevens was designing and testing a series of small boat models to verify his theories about the sailing performance of a radical new hull design combining the best attributes of both centerboard and keel type yachts. Satisfied with his findings, he commissioned the construction of a single-decked yacht with 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. Christened OnKaHyE (an Oneida Indian term meaning “dancing feather”), 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. The hull’s maximum beam and draft dimensions were placed slightly aft of the midpoint of the waterline length.

Cross section of Onkahye’s innovative hull design

Onkahye’s most unusual design feature was the shape of its midsection, which had a shallow, wide-mouthed wine glass cross-section rather than the bowl shape commonly seen in traditional ship design. This allowed Stevens to experiment with a large centerboard and, according to early reports, both iron and lead outside ballast on the keel (another innovation). Stevens also introduced the sliding-gear sail hoist and sail slides familiar to yachtsmen today.

The design was unorthodox by the standards of the day and according to America’s most famous naval historian Charles Chapelle, Onkahye was the genesis of the American sailing yacht. By all accounts the ship was fast and in a Boston newspaper article about a cruise to the West Indies in 1842, Stevens stated: “Enquire her character of anyone that ever crossed her path in water of any color, rough or smooth, in any wind or weather. Under no circumstances, on the Atlantic or elsewhere . . . was she ever beaten, [running] either before or by the wind. In a voyage to Santa Cruz she fell in with vessels of all sorts, and none had the slightest chance with her.” (Boston Globe 1844).

Onkahye was built in 1839–1840 before the United States had a single yacht club and yachting as an organized sport existed in America. Perhaps this cruise and the success of Onkahye’s radical design is what led Robert’s brother, John Cox Stevens, to become a founding member of the New York Yacht Club in 1844, ushering in the first such club in the United States. In any case, ten years later John formed a syndicate to build a yacht and race it in England with the intention of showing off US shipbuilding skill — and making money! Christened America upon its launch, the schooner rigged vessel was taken to England for the great industrial exhibition of 1851 where its victory in a race around the Isle of Wight led to the creation of the America’s Cup.

Onkahye Joins the Navy

After three years of sea trials, various modifications, and the 1842 cruise to the West Indies, Stevens sold Onkahye to the US Navy in 1843. Why would the Navy want a yacht? The answer may be in how the yacht was used. Between 1843 and 1845 it was modified, armed with cannon, and deployed for anti-slavery and anti-piracy patrols in the Caribbean and off the coast of South America. It was also used as a mail packet and dispatch ship between Virginia, Texas and, on its last voyage, to Panama to take US diplomats on urgent State business. These missions required a speedy and nimble ship to chase down pirates or slavers and quickly deliver people and secret documents. By all contemporary accounts, Onkahye was a fast ship and, therefore, well-suited for these duties.

On June 21, 1848, while sailing from New York to Chagres, Panama, Onkahye was shipwrecked on one of the fringe reefs that border the Turks & Caicos Islands. In addition to its regular complement of officers and men, the schooner accommodated 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 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. Onkahye’s mission being very time-sensitive, Lt. Otway H. Berryman, Master and Commander, decided to make a daring night approach to the Caicos Pass.

Onkahye’s loss: bravado, negligence or unfortunate accident?

If Onkahye wrecked today, a team of forensic investigators would be dispatched to examine the site and interview witnesses. Lacking that ability in 1848, the US Navy convened a Court of Inquiry to determine if negligence or inattention to duty was involved. In August 1848 a detailed statement of the wreck event was taken from Henry S. Newcomb, Acting Master of Onkahye on its last voyage. By carefully examining Newcomb’s statement we can deconstruct the wreck event and decide for ourselves the answer to this important question.

Maybe you are asking yourself, why go to all this trouble? After all, the ship wrecked 165 years ago. Broadly speaking, archaeologists love a mystery. If it involves a shipwreck so much the better—particularly if that shipwreck has historical significance. Because Onkahye was never decommissioned, it is still property of the US Navy. It is also important to a little-known period in the history of the Turks & Caicos Islands. For these and other reasons, Onkahye is important to the Turks & Caicos National Museum and Ships of Discovery, its maritime archaeological partner. Working together, we are trying to solve this mystery, determine the cause and perhaps in so doing, find this important site.

Forensic deconstruction, 165 years later

Let’s place ourselves in the role of forensic investigators and examine Newcomb’s statements.

Newman: I was acting Master of the Schooner Onkahye at the time she was wrecked on the 21st of last June. We made the North Caicos Island ahead at 5.40 P.M. bearing S.W. by S. thus verifying our chronometer for which we had just taken an observation.

Forensic Analysis: Onkahye is sailing south from New York well offshore heading for the Caicos Passage. June 21 is very close to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Apparent sunset is at 6:35 PM, so there is a lot of daylight left. North Caicos is the first land sighted and identified on a relative bearing of 214 degrees.

Newman’s bearings are based on the 32 point system of navigation rather than the modern 360 degree system (see figure at right). There are four cardinal directions, four intercardinal directions, eight intermediate directions, and sixteen by-points. Thus each quadrant of the compass is divided into eight “points,” of 11 1/4 degrees each. Therefore, SW by S = 213 3/4 degrees. The reference to a chronometer is important. Latitude can be determined by taking solar or celestial observations, but reliable longitude determinations require the use of a time-keeping device.

* * * * * *

Onkahye’s intended course and actual course to enter the Caicos Passage

Newman: We kept away half a point, and stationed a look out at the foremast head with orders to look out for breakers, whitewater or Shoals. From 6 to 7 the land was in sight on the Weather bow and beam. Soon after 7 the N.W. end of the Island bore by compass S. by W. distant about five miles.

Forensic Analysis: The course is adjusted slightly more to the West (starboard) to 219 degrees. Half a point is about 5 1/2 degrees. From the top of the foremast, 20 feet above the sea, a lookout can see even low-lying land 10 miles distant, but the sun is low on the horizon and could be interfering with their vision. For about an hour land is seen on the port side and ahead. All this is as it should be, although it is getting late and darkness is falling.

With the wind behind him, the navigator is lining Onkahye up for the approach to the dangerous Caicos Passage by first sighting the Caicos Islands and keeping them off to port about five miles distant to avoid the shallow reef extending out from Providenciales’ Northwest Point. It is desirable to enter the pass from its windward (east) side to keep land in sight and avoid the island of Mayaguana guarding the west side of the pass. The Weather bow and beam refers to the windward side. Assuming the wind is easterly, as would be normal this time of year, it would be the port (left) side. So land is visible ahead and off to the port side. After 7:00 the lookout sights what was assumed to be Providenciales’ Northwest Point about five miles away on a bearing of 191 degrees.

* * * * * *

Newman: At 6 we steered S.W. by W. and at 7.30 the end of the Island bore S. by E. At 8 O’ Clock we bent both cables with a range of ten fathoms on each.

Forensic Analysis: The sun has already set. Twilight is setting in. At 6:00 the course is corrected even further to the west to 237 degrees, steering farther away from land. An hour and a half later Northwest Point bears 169 degrees. If the course is still 237 degrees that puts the “end of the Island” behind them! Clearly, the Master believes the ship has passed Northwest Point and is entering the Caicos Passage, but half an hour later in full darkness the crew makes ready the port and starboard bower anchors with 60 feet of cable on each. Readying the anchors in this way seems to indicate the crew is preparing for trouble. The moon rises at 8:38.

* * * * *

Newman: At 8.45 discovered from aloft white water on the Weather bow, put the helm hard up, the Vessel struck, thumped over a reef, and Struck again.

Forensic Analysis: A little less than an hour later, in full darkness, with little advance warning, the lookout sights breakers on the port (windward) side. The Master tries to steer away downwind but it is too late. The vessel hits a reef and the seas carry it hard aground.

* * * * * *

Newman: [we] lowered and furled all sails, sounded 9 feet water forward, 12 feet aft, swinging partly round hoisted the Jib and the Square Sail aback to pay her off, discovered that the current was setting to Windward very rapidly past the Vessel and carrying her bodily upon the reef.

Forensic Analysis: All sails were taken in to reduce the effect of the wind driving the vessel further onto the reef. Depth soundings revealed only 9 feet of water at the bow and 12 feet at the stern. The vessel needs 12 feet to float, so it is well and truly grounded but pivoting on the reef as the current drives the hull in one direction and the wind pushes in the opposite direction.

* * * * * *

Newman: [we] sent boats to sound around the Vessel, found in different directions from 9 feet to 2 and 3 fathoms, on the Starboard Quarter where the water was deepest, carried out the Stream anchor and hove it taut, got the Starboard anchor ready to be carried out in one of the boats, to be hauled out by the Stream anchor.

Forensic Analysis: In the dark, with the sea rising and the ship grinding and pounding on the reef, the crew launches its boats to take soundings. They are trying to find a path to deep water. To the rear of the vessel (no absolute direction is given) on the right side the water seems to be deeper. The stream anchor is taken aboard one of the boats, rowed out in that direction and set. Smaller, lighter, and easier to handle than the main “bower” anchors, the stream anchor is normally used to stabilize the ship when at anchor in a river or whenever needed to prevent the ship from spinning around and tangling its main anchor cables. The crew’s intention is to use the stream anchor’s cable, once set, to make it easier to carry the heavy starboard anchor out to deeper water, but that plan is abandoned when the stream anchor’s cable parts.

* * * * * *

Newman: a heavy sea setting in, the Vessel forging up still higher on the reef, parted the hawser of the Stream anchor, while hauling on it let go the Port anchor under foot.

Forensic Analysis: The sea continues to push the ship into shallower water. The sharp coral formations cut through the stream anchor’s tightly stretched cable. In desperation the crew drops the port anchor into the sea directly under the bow in the hope of preventing the ship from being driven further onto the reef.

* * * * * *

Newman: At Midnight slipped the port cable with 20 fathoms, and made sail to force her into deep water towards which she headed at that moment. Finding everything had been done that we could do, the Captain called a consultation of the Officers, the opinion of all was to remain by the Vessel and act according to circumstances at daylight, a boat to be sent to find a landing if possible, the Vessel was still free of water, the boat returned having found a landing.

Forensic Analysis: In desperation, the crew resorts to a different strategy to free the vessel, which, though battered, appears to be seaworthy. Still tethered to the port anchor, they pay out cable and try to sail the vessel into deeper water. When this fails Captain Berryman consults with his officers. The consensus is that the ship is in dire straits but watertight, so there is still hope. In case abandonment becomes necessary a boat is sent to find a safe landing place on shore.

* * * * * *

Newcomb: We unbent our Mainsail and cut away the Main Mast. At daylight land was in sight bearing from W. to S.E. Sent the passengers ashore and commenced to strip the Vessel and send everything ashore, during the next morning we carried out our Starboard Anchor to the N. and E. and attempted to heave her off but without success, all this time the Captain and myself were on deck, the day after We sent an officer to Turk’s Island to charter a Vessel to carry the officers and crew and Stores to the United States. We were occupied in getting ashore the Stores and everything we could save from the wreck until the Brig arrived in which we returned home.

Forensic Analysis: Having tried all the prescribed techniques to free a grounded vessel the exhausted crew resorts to efforts to save what is left. They remove the mainsail from its yard and cut down the main mast to prevent it from breaking the vessel’s keel and opening the hull to the sea. When sunrise comes at 5:06, land is visible on the horizon from 135 to 270 degrees. This is one of the most important clues to the location of the wreck site. If the land visible at 270 degrees was Northwest Point, the ship lies directly east of it. The crew, utterly exhausted by now, makes one last, valiant attempt to pull their vessel off the reef by carrying the starboard anchor out to the “north and east” (not a specific direction) and using the capstan to drag the ship into deeper water. This effort, too, fails. At the same time, provisions and supplies are taken ashore, as much to lighten the ship as to prepare for survival. The next day an officer and a few crewmen sail for Grand Turk with orders to charter a vessel to rescue the main party stranded on Providenciales and take them back to the USA.

The most likely wreck sites for the Onkahye


The US Navy Court of Inquiry exonerated Lt. Berryman and his officers for the loss of Onkahye. Perhaps remembering the fate of the US Navy brig Chippewa in the same place 32 years earlier, it found evidence that a treacherous current “running very strong to the S. and E.” gave Master Newcomb the impression his vessel was making better headway and was farther out to sea than it was, resulting in the grounding on “one of the outer reefs of the Caicos Passage.” Lt. Berryman stayed in the Navy, rising to the rank of Lt. Commander before his death aboard ship in 1861.

The search continues

Our failure to find Onkahye in 2008 did not dampen our enthusiasm for this project. From Newcomb’s account it appears that with limited visibility owing to growing darkness, he perceived his vessel was further north and further west than it was. The reference to sighting breakers on the weather bow just before striking the reef is somewhat puzzling. But in conjunction with the observation that Providenciales’ Northwest Point lay due west of the wreck site when morning came, an explanation begins to emerge.

Just to the east of the Northwest Reef there are two cuts through the fringing reef well offshore, False Cut and Wheeland Cut. A narrow arm of reef that extends well out to sea separates them. If a vessel mistook the northeast tips of the reefs fringing Wheeland Cut or False Cut for the end of Northwest Reef it would turn south too soon and wreck well inside the reef in either Wheeland Cut or False Cut.

Newcomb’s account is helpful, but we know we need to narrow the search area even further if we want to find Onkahye. The testimonies of other witnesses are also recorded and need similar dissection and interpretation. Some of them describe who they met on Providenciales and adventures they had on shore. Ongoing archival research will undoubtedly lead to new clues. Eventually we will make another attempt to locate this elusive but important wreck site. The search continues . . .

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