top of page

Lake Ontario Shipwreck - Dagger Board Schooner

Found by:  Dan Scoville, Jim Kennard

Location:  Off 30 Mile Point

Rochester, New York - A rare dagger-board schooner has been discovered in very deep water off the southern shore of Lake Ontario near Oak Orchard, New York.  Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville, shipwreck enthusiasts, located the schooner using deep towed side scan sonar equipment.  Sailing vessels of this type were in use on the lakes for only a short period of time beginning in the very early 1800’s.  This ship is the only dagger-board schooner known to have been found in the Great Lakes.
The Dagger-Board Schooner
The dagger-board schooner was typically a shallow draft ship having one or more wood panels that could be extended through the keel to increase its effectiveness while under way in the open water.  The sole purpose of dagger-boards was to prevent the schooner from being pushed sideways when sailing windward or with the wind coming from one side (abeam) of the vessel.  A single dagger-board was a panel of wood perhaps 1 to 2 inches in thickness with a width of 4 to 5 feet surrounded by a narrow watertight enclosure.  The dagger-board would be pushed squarely down though the bottom of the vessel to increase her draught while sailing and hauled up by separate tackles at either end.  The ability to raise the dagger-boards when entering a shallow harbor was a great advantage.  The boat could load and unload personnel and cargo in all sorts of locations that would not otherwise be accessible with a larger sailing craft.  The term “dagger-board” was also referred to as drop-keel, slip-keel, sliding-keel, barn-door, or center-plate.

Development of the Dagger-Board Sailing Vessel
The invention of the dagger-board or drop keel is generally credited to British Captain John Schank in 1774, however, the early use of the dagger-board in sailing craft prior to the 1800’s can actually be traced back to China and possibly South America.  Captain Schank proposed and then adapted the dagger-board concept for use in the cutter Trial built in Portsmouth England for the British Admiralty in 1790.  This ship turned out to be a great success as the Trial was able to out sail most of the smaller cutters even though she was a much larger vessel.  In the next few years, the British followed up by building a ship-sloop, two classes of gun-brigs, and 16 brigs utilizing the dagger-board concept.  Depending on the ship design, multiple dagger-boards were utilized to compensate for the shifting of the vessel’s center of gravity as the sails moved fore-and-aft.  Ten years after the British Admiralty built the Trial further interest in ships with dagger-boards was put on hold due to the problem of making the enclosure for the dagger-boards water tight.  
Dagger-Board Sailing Vessels on the Great Lakes
As recounted by Captain James Van Cleve in his memoirs, the first vessel on the Great Lakes to utilize dagger-boards was a skiff brought to Oswego from Niagara around 1806.  In September 1813, Major-General James Wilkinson wrote in a letter to the US Secretary of War “….Before I left Sackett’s Harbor, I ordered a dozen slip keeled boats to carry 50 men and row 30 oars to be armed with a light cannon in their bow.”  References can also be found in the 1813 transport dispatches of Buffalo army officers of the use of slip-keel (dagger-board) sailing vessels.  From 1817 to 1820 sailing vessels on Lake Erie greatly increased in numbers, though not in size.  These ships varied from 18 to 65 tons burden, and most of them utilized dagger-boards.  Each creek, river and port along the coast from Buffalo to the Vermillion River had its representative vessel.  It is thought that by 1819, one or more ship builders in York (Toronto) were producing ships that utilized dagger-boards.  The pivoted center-board was patented in 1811 and during the next several years larger ships would employ this method of extending the functionality of the keel.  By 1820 the dagger-board design gave way to that of the pivoted centerboard.  It is reasonable to assume that many of the early dagger-board schooners, initially military vessels, were later used for the commercial transport of people and goods on both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

Discovery of the Shipwreck
The dagger-board schooner was unexpectedly discovered in the fall of 2008 while Kennard and Scoville were conducting a deep water survey in Lake Ontario off Oak Orchard, New York.  On the very last survey run of the season, the faint image of something protruding from the bottom showed up at the very edge of the display screen.  Another run was made to obtain a better image and position of the object.  Two weeks later, when the lake was calm and the winds were light, they returned and deployed a remote operated vehicle (designed and built by Scoville) with lights and multiple cameras to explore the shipwreck.

Exploring the Shipwrecked Schooner
The shipwreck was found upright and in remarkable condition considering that it had plunged over 500 feet to its final resting place on the bottom.  The remote operated vehicle (ROV) landed in the area on the ship where the cabin would have been located.  Only a few posts could be seen that would have held up the cabin structure. This area was devoid of any items such a stove, furniture, or other materials.  A rail wraps around the starboard and port side of this area where the cabin roof wou8uld have extended to either side of the ship and would have also served as an upper deck.  At the stern are the remains of the tiller box between two small windows about 20 inches square.  The stern rail (taff-rail) has a scroll work feature that is very artistically pleasing in its design.  Moving ahead toward the bow, the ship’s pump came into view on the port side of the deck just forward of the area where the cabin would have been located.  A few feet in front of the former entrance to the cabin is the stub of the main mast that can be seen protruding above the deck.  Just forward of this mast stub is the opening for one of the two ship holds, measuring approximately 5 feet in length by 3 ½ feet wide.  Between this hold and the forward hold appear to be two partitions that are in line with each other.  Each partition was 1 to 2 inches wide by about 4 ½ feet in length, and rises up from the deck 3 ½ feet.  Not until further research was conducted did we come to understand that we were looking at dagger-boards that had been forced up into that position by the ship resting on the bottom of the lake. Next to and on the starboard side of the dagger-boards and a few inches away can be seen a long round object covered with quagga mussels that stretches just beyond the length of the two dagger-boards.  Further viewing of the underwater video showed a rounded notch in the lip of both holds nearest to each dagger-board.  We believe that this object may have been placed over the top of the dagger-boards and secured within the notches of each hold to prevent them from riding up above the deck when in use in open water.  Just beyond the forward hold was the stub of the foremast.  Both the stubs of the main and foremast look as if they had been cut off approximately 1 foot above the deck.  The bowsprit can be seen exiting the deck only a few feet from the foremast and extends for 12 feet past the tip of the bow.  Next to the port side of the shipwreck and adjacent to the forward hold there appears to be a cover like object about the same length as the hold.  It has not yet been clearly determined if this is a cover for a hold or something else.  There were no anchors, winch, block and tackles, or dead-eyes to be found on the shipwreck.  The schooner was built without side rails or enclosures (bulwarks) on either side of the main deck, a characteristic of vessels built during the very early 1800’s.  The length of the dagger-board schooner measured 55 feet and has a width (beam) of 15 feet.  These measurements were made by high resolution scanning sonar that was mounted on the ROV.  Shipwreck team artist, Chip Stevens has created a sketch to show what the dagger-board schooner may have looked like based on the video imagery obtained by the remote operated vehicle.

Origin of the Schooner – Canadian?
The name of the schooner is unknown as there has been no documented account found thus far of the sinking of a vessel of this type in Lake Ontario.  It appears from the video survey of the shipwreck that the dagger-board schooner had been stripped of all usable items such as anchors, iron fittings, cabin with contents, and tiller.  It is highly unlikely that this ship would have been transported many miles out into the middle of the lake to be scuttled.  A possible scenario may be that the dagger-board schooner was in the process of being converted to a barge or other sailing craft by its owners.  Perhaps it broke free from its moorings in the ice or during a violent storm and was carried far out into the lake before it eventually sank.  Considering the ship’s location and the typical prevailing north-west winds on Lake Ontario it is very possible that this ship came from the York (Toronto) area in the early 1800’s.  The ship eventually sank probably due to a weak section below the starboard stern window which can be seen missing, as shown on the underwater video of the shipwreck.

Information on Dagger-Board Schooner Requested
Up to now very little information is known about dagger-board schooners on the Great Lakes.  During the past several months the shipwreck exploration team made inquiries to a number of Great Lakes maritime historians in an attempt to learn more about this uniquely designed schooner.  Each source provided a few pieces of information from their archives that contributed to a greater understanding of this type of ship.  The books of Howard Chapelle on American sailing ships, published between 1935 to the 1960’s give brief mention of the dagger-board sailing vessels utilized by the British Admiralty, US Navy, and for commercial transport.  We believe that much more can be learned about dagger-board schooners.  The discoverers are requesting that anyone with knowledge or drawings of dagger-board sailing vessels contact them though their website:
Shipwreck Discovery Team
Jim Kennard has been diving and exploring the lakes in the northeast since 1970. He found over 200 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, NY Finger Lakes and in the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers over the past 35 years. Using his background as an electrical engineer, he built the side scan sonar system that located these shipwrecks. In 1983 he discovered a unique horse powered ferryboat in Lake Champlain.  National Geographic featured the ferryboat in their October 1989 issue.  Several other of his shipwreck discoveries have been reported in various publications including Skin Diver, Inland Seas, Wreck Diver, and Sea Technology.

Dan Scoville is an experienced cave and "technical" diver who utilizes custom gas mixtures of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen to dive to depths of over 300 feet. In 2005, Dan led the development of an Underwater Remote Operated Vehicle with a team of college seniors from the Rochester Institute of Technology.  Since then he has used his ROV to explore shipwrecks in Lake Ontario and to locate the bodies of three hunters from a lost Seabee Republic aircraft in Lac Simon, Quebec.  He was the project manager and electrical engineer for the Remote Operated Vehicle product line at HydroAcoustics Inc and has just recently joined an oil services company outside of New York State.

Roland (Chip) Stevens is a retired architect and working artist whose artwork is well known in the Rochester area and has been accepted into numerous national exhibitions.  A sailor for many years, Stevens has a love of the sea, as reflected in his seascape watercolor paintings.  He has created paintings of the some of the recently discovered Lake Ontario shipwrecks that have appeared in various news stories and national publications.
Contact information:
Jim Kennard       Email:
Dan Scoville       Email:

Rare Shipwreck Discoveries in Lake Ontario
The dagger-board schooner is one of the older ships discovered in Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes.  In May 2008, Kennard and Scoville also located another very significant shipwreck, the British warship HMS Ontario which was lost in 1780.  The Ontario is the oldest shipwreck ever found in the Great Lakes and the only British warship of this period still in existence in the world.  There are estimated to have been over 4700 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes with approximately 550 occurring on Lake Ontario.  Many of these ships were wrecked in a harbor or were driven on-shore where they were pounded to pieces.  Approximately 230 ships have actually been lost in the lake and there have only been a few notable shipwreck discoveries off the southern shore of Lake Ontario. The lake depths often exceed several hundred feet just a few miles out from the southern shoreline.  Shipwrecks that are located in these depths are beyond the range of recreational divers and require costly search and support ship equipment to find them
bottom of page