The Story of Onkabye and Gimcrack.

The following information is conveyed from the History of American Sailing Ships, a book published in 1935.

This is a rather common book on the west coast of the US, in spite of its age, for folks who are studying sailboat design. The story of Onkabye and Gimcrack is found in Chapter 7 of the book.

Onkabye (or Oncabye) is thought to be the start of the evolution of American Sailing Yachts. The name means ‘dancing feather’; Gimcrack in the 1840s was slang for ‘useless thing’.

Onkabye, as her name implies, was a radical departure from the heavy keel-pilot schooners used for the sport of yachting in the New York and Boston areas. She was a 90 foot internally ballasted center boarder. She was very fast, stiff, and smart, and to be used only for pleasure purposes, racing in particular.

Onkabye, didn’t last long as a pleasure boat. In about 3 years the US Navy made an offer and the experiments that the owner was conducting regarding external ballast tacked onto the side of the hull and rolling in heavy seas, stopped. Rigged for war, Onkabye was a slow sailboat, very sensitive to the extra weight. She was lost 5 years later on a reef. Because of Onkabye, a very big distinction between the hull forms of a commercial Naval sailing vessel and a yacht was made by 1935.

Soon after the Navy purchased Onkabye, her owners built Gimcrack. This 52 footer had a fixed fin of between 12 and 15 feet long. Gimcrack was quickly recognized as a failed experiment.

The owners of both boats when launched were the Stevens, sons of Colonel John Stevens, the engineer so responsible for steamships. They were considered hobby sailboat designers and “apparently desired to prove that a centerboard vessel could be designed that would combine the advantages of both the keel and centerboard types and thus demonstrate the arguments of the supporters of the centerboard.”

Interestingly, those supporters would later found the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) in the cabin of Gimcrack, the useless thing, on the afternoon of July 30, 1844. “Because of the shoal anchorage of the New York Yacht Club at Weehawken, later at ‘the foot of Cort Street’ on the Brooklyn shore and on the Jersey side from Commnipaw to Kill van Kull, the shallow centerboard yacht was most popular with NYYC boat owners.”

Gimcrack placed third in the first NYYC regatta which was considered a failure for what was meant to be the flagship of the new club. Maria, Americas first true racing sailboat, was her successor. Maria was recognized as faster than America the vessel which started the Americas cup. Maria’s boards were off the centerline.


“When Leontes, in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tail, confesses his inability to be decisive with the metaphore ‘I am a feather for each wind that blows’ he does so with regret and self-admonition. We think the metaphor works equally well for sailors…”

Carolyn & Bob Mehaffy
Northwest Yachting February 2OO5 pg 62

The inability to be decisive in sailing yacht design then is as today. Supporters of the deep keel were concentrated in Boston, with its deep water anchorage, back in the days of Gimcrack and Onkabye. And today sailors argue the merits of centerboards and fixed deep keels just as then with New York Yacht Club members still favoring center boarders such as the Swan 45.

The bottom line is that the notion that Naval Architects do power and not sail boats and that a power boat designer is only a hobbyist if doing a sail boat is traced to day one of the evolution of the American sailing yacht. The separation between sailors and powerboaters, rag baggers and stink pots, was orchestrated right there. See Olin Stephens for more.

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