History of OHPRI

OHPRI stern

If you saw the sails of SSV Oliver Hazard Perry appear over the horizon, you might easily believe she was a vessel from over two hundred years ago. Named after the Rhode Island naval hero of the War of 1812, Perry has the profile of the great ships of the early 19th century. But upon closer examination, her construction reveals that she is not a relic, but a modern, state-of-the-art learning machine.

Rhode Island’s new sail training vessel was never meant to be a replica. In fact, Bart Dunbar, chairman of OHPRI’s Board of Directors, says the idea to name her after Commodore Perry originated only after the organization had located a hull—a replica of HMS Detroit that had been under construction in Amherstburg, Ontario, until their project ran out of money. It was then that Dunbar and the other founders discovered the hull’s “incredibly unique” connection to Rhode Island history: Detroit was one of the vessels Perry captured in his famous victory on Lake Erie in 1813. 

“The name was chosen to highlight our determination that the ship would be a Rhode Island maritime symbol,” says Perry Lewis, vice chairman of OHPRI. “As the state’s most prominent naval hero, Commodore Perry was the ideal figure for us, especially as the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie was going to be in a few years.” This historical connection to Perry—of whom Lewis is a direct descendant—has proved crucial for publicity and fundraising. “When word of OHP spread,” he continues, “we began to attract interest from all sorts of historical groups and associations. Descendants of Commodore Perry, members of groups like the First Families of Rhode Island and numerous other groups began to contact us with interest.”

But while the link to 1812 has been forged “mentally and verbally,” Dunbar says OHPRI’s leaders decided against striving for historical accuracy in the ship’s design. They found it far preferable not to be tied down to any particular vessel or time period, or criticized for using 21st-century conveniences and technology. Instead, the organization will be able to cater to the diverse educational needs of universities and schools. Educators will be able to use the ship to teach about a variety of historical eras and themes, as well as other subjects.


“History is just one of the many things that we will teach aboard,” he says. “Oceanography, environmental science, math, art and music, as well as experiential education, are also so important.”