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Historic Tall Ship Wavertree Restored to Sailing Condition

One vessel looms above the barges and other commercial vessels undergoing repairs at the Caddell shipyard on the north shore of Staten Island.

Even with her upper masts still lying on the dock, the spars of the Wavertree tower above the yard and surrounding industrial neighborhood. The vessel is in Staten Island because 116 years after she traveled under her own power the tall ship is being restored to sailing condition by South Street Seaport Museum.

After 15 months at Caddell Dry Dock And Repair Co., the 131-year-old three-masted full-rigged ship is scheduled to return to lower Manhattan by the end of September. She will take the place of the museum’s other tall ship, Peking, which is being given to the German government for restoration before becoming a museum display in Hamburg.

“This is a restoration project unlike any other,” said Capt. Jonathan Boulware, the museum’s executive director, during one of his weekly visits to the shipyard to check on progress. “It’s a $13 million-city-funded project.”

“It started out as a stabilization but we turned this into something much larger,” he continued. “We have taken the ship completely apart – rigging down, masts out, the poop deck off. We’ve replaced the main deck, the ‘tween deck, reballasted the ship. There’s nothing in the ship that will not have been touched. Typically restoration projects happen incrementally. No ship is ever done but this gives us a baseline for the preservation and operation of the ship for many decades to come. That kind of fresh start for the historic ship like this is what’s really remarkable and unprecedented.”

The project began with Wavertree spending five months in a floating dry dock so workers could clean, inspect and paint the iron hull.

“We went in assuming we were going to have to replace 10 huge plates 20 feet long and 4 ½ feet high,” Boulware said. “We didn’t replace any of them.

We were able to repair what was there.” The unexpected excellent condition of the hull plates and some additional funding from the city allowed other work to be added to the project. That included replacement of the wooden poop deck and overhauling additional rigging.

During an early July visit, the rigging crew was reinstalling components of the foremast and mainmast on the 325-foot vessel with the help of a floating crane as well as a dockside crane, which was purchased just for the project, said Steven Kalil, Caddell’s president. As the masts go up, the wire standing rigging is reattached to support the masts and horizontal yards to which the sails are attached.

“The rigging project is massive,” said Boulware, who has been a captain on coastal schooners and sailed on square-riggers such as HMS Rose. “We’ve re-serviced miles of wire. We’re doing a great blend of modern materials with traditional technology that will allow the rigging and the preservation of the wire to last for generations.”

The galvanized standing rigging wire dates from the 1970s and is still in excellent condition despite spotty maintenance over the years. “It’s incredible,” he said. And it’s important to the project because that kind of high-quality wire can no longer be obtained.

The re-servicing involves stripping all three protective coating layers off the wire and replacing them. First there is worming, filling the grooves in the twisted wiring with string to make the wire more round. Then comes parceling, covering the wire and string with tar-saturated burlap. Finally, there is serving, tightly winding twine around the outside and covering it with tar to provide resistance to chafing and ultraviolet light.

While all of the ship’s original wire had already been replaced over the years, Boulware said some of the rigging components are original including the fore lower mast and the mizzen lower mast.

A steel main deck has been installed to replace the rotten wooden deck. Boulware said that represents a historic compromise but “we get a watertight ship,” the most important factor in preserving a historic vessel. “You’ve got to keep the water out, even moisture,” he said.

So another part of the project that’s also a historic compromise is cutting holes in the decks to install grates to improve ventilation. Large exhaust fans will remove moisture from belowdecks. Boulware said wood planking could be placed over the steel main deck in the future if funding was available. “We’ve done this in a way that’s reversible,” he said. None of the deck supporting system was altered so the steel deck could be removed in the future if desired.

On the weather deck, where the original steering wheel will be reinstalled, a replacement Douglas fir deck has been laid down with the planking caulked traditionally using cotton and oakum driven by hand with a mallet and caulking iron and then hot pitch poured on top of that.

“The original ‘tween deck was removed from the ship when she was converted to a sand barge in South America,” Boulware said. That missing wood deck has now been replaced by a new steel deck. “For the entire time that the ship has been at the museum since the 1970s, she’s been a big open canoe in the middle. Now for the first time in 70 years she’s got a continuous ‘tween deck.”

Bulkheads that had been added in the hold for grain storage more than a century ago have been removed, reopening the full cargo area. “Nobody alive has seen this view until this project made it possible,” Boulware said.

The ballast was also redone. “We took out some very hodgepodge poured concrete blocks that was sitting on top of the framing of the ship,” Boulware said. It meant there was very poor access to the bottom of the hull for maintenance. The blocks were replaced with a special concrete slurry that never fully hardens and can be washed away with high pressure hoses and pumped out if necessary. “Now we can see everything and inspect everything,” Boulware said.

The original wrought iron water tank remains in the hold for display purposes. Holes in it will be patched.

Kalil said the shipyard works on a tall ship about once a decade. Previous customers include the Coast Guard barque Eagle, HMS Rose as well as Wavertree and Peking. As a departure from repairing barges, tugs and other commercial vessels “we enjoy it,” he said. “It’s exciting. It’s a nice change of pace from the usual grind.”

The yard had to bring in riggers, shipwrights and caulkers for the project because they are not normally needed to work on modern commercial vessels.

Chief rigger Jamie White, who hails from Galveston, Texas, was master rigger on Balclutha in San Francisco, Mosholu in Philadelphia and Elissa in Galveston. “The most difficult part is taking apart something and putting it back together again and making sure that people remember to label things,” he said. His crew fluctuates between nine and 10 riggers. Part of the work has been fabricating 16 spars from laminated timber.

In a Quonset hut down the dock from the ship, riggers are repairing some of the more than three miles of wire standing rigging removed from the ship. One of them is Frank Hanavan, an artist from Jersey City who has been working on Wavertree on and off since 2001 as a volunteer. He was hired full-time for this project. On this day he was overhauling the thick mizzen topmast stay. He had removed and was replacing the old serving, parceling and worming. Ultraviolet radiation had dried it out and it was peeling off because the standing rigging had not been given periodic coatings of new tar.

“It’s a great opportunity for me because it’s a ship I love,” he said, adding that he has made a model of Wavertree, made paintings of it and even dressed up as the vessel for Halloween one year. “It’s something I never thought I would see happen. Despite our best efforts, it it was decaying and corroding.”

Some final re-rigging work will have to be done after Wavertree returns to South Street. The museum will also have to complete the reconstruction of the foc’scle crew’s quarters that once held bunk beds to accommodate 35 sailors as a site for overnight student programming. The galley also needs to be rebuilt.

Once all the restoration is done, South Street will have to undertake constant maintenance to prevent the ship from sliding back into disrepair. “A ship… is never done. You finish one project and go back to the beginning and start over again,” Boulware said.

“She will sail again”

“We’ve been very, very careful to make choices that will permit her to sail in the future,” Boulware said. “She will sail again.”

“The plans for sailing her at this point are not very well developed,” Boulware said. “What we anticipate at some point in the coming years is that we will work to get her into Lower New York Bay and set some sails as part of keeping the artifact alive and as part of keeping the skills alive,” he said.

Wavertree was built by Oswald Mordaunt & Company in Southampton, England, in 1885. She had been commissioned by R.W. Leyland & Company of Liverpool but Chadwick & Pritchard of Liverpool purchased her before she was launched on December 10, 1885. The new owners named her Southgate. In 1888 she was repurchased by R.W. Leyland and Co. and renamed Wavertree for the Wavertree district of Liverpool.

South Street Seaport owns her original bell, which is inscribed Southgate.

Wavertree initially sailed to carry jute used to make rope and burlap bags between current day Bangladesh and Scotland. After almost two years, she entered the tramp trades, taking whatever cargoes were available in Europe, the east and west coasts of America, South America, India and Australia. Wavertree circumnavigated nearly 30 times with cargoes of coal, kerosene, cotton, tea, coffee, molasses and timber. She made one known call to New York, arriving Jan. 14, 1895, with a load of nitrate from Chile and departing March 21 for Calcutta.

In December 1910, Wavertree was dismasted off Cape Horn and limped into the Falkland Islands. Rather than replace the rig, her owners sold the hull for use as a floating warehouse in Punta Arenas, Chile. Next came conversion into a sand barge at Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1947, and a renaming to Don Ariano N. She was discovered there by Karl Kortum, director of the San Francisco Maritime Museum and founder of the National Maritime Historical Society, in 1966.

The following year she was acquired by South Street Seaport Museum. Wavertree was moved to the Arsenal Naval Buenos Aires for restoration and in 1969 the ship was towed to New York. The vessel was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 13, 1978.

In the years after arriving at South Street, the ship began to fall into disrepair. The National Maritime Historical Society offered to help save the ship, and between 1980 and 1984 raised nearly $1 million. That paid for re-decking the ship, and cleaning and painting her. Museum staff and volunteers then completed the ship’s original rig.

Wavertree’s main mast rises 155 feet from the deck and 184 feet from the waterline. Her sail area is approximately 31,500 square feet divided among 26 sails originally: 4 head-sails, 15 square-sails, 1 spanker and 6 stay-sails.

When Wavertree returns to the South Street Seaport Museum in September after an $11-million restoration, she will occupy the berth that was the home to the barque Peking for 41 years.

Peking will be moved to Staten Island in late August or early September to be prepared for her voyage on a dock ship back to where she was built in Hamburg, Germany. There she will be restored to begin a new life as the centerpiece of a new maritime museum.

After the Manhattan museum decided it could not afford to maintain two tall ships, the German government in November allocated €30 million to bring Peking home and restore her. She will be a dockside attraction at a new €120-million German Port Museum.

Boulware, who is advising the German government as it develops its plans for Peking, said a Staten Island shipyard will prepare the ship for the transatlantic voyage but it has not been selected yet. But it’s likely to be Caddell Dry Dock and Repair Co., which is not only rebuilding Wavertree but has worked on Peking in the past.

The trip to Germany “will probably be sometime after hurricane season in late fall,” Boulware said. “Her upper masts and rigging will be brought down. That’s all very much in the planning process.”

The decision to give the ship away to Germany was not made lightly and has saddened South Street officials and American maritime preservationists. But Boulware sees the transfer as a win-win for his museum, Germany and both Peking and Wavertree.

“It’s a choice between having one in good shape and two in bad and deteriorating shape,” he said. “We’ve got 48 years of institutional history that shows that one big square-rigger is possible; two is not. It’s simply too many tons, too many miles of deck seams, too many miles of rigging, too many square feet of varnish and paint for a museum to withstand. What we know from our history is that two ships together of that size tend to slide backward together, but one we’ll be able to maintain.”

Boulware added that “our role as a museum is preserving artifacts, narratives and even skills that relate to the history of New York. Peking doesn’t actually have a New York history.

He continued that “Wavertree is exactly the kind of ship that you would have seen at South Street on every single day of the week in the 19th century. She called at New York in her career. She is the prototypical tramp sailing ship that carried cargoes all over the world. She carried all of the cargoes that were instrumental in building New York, everything from jute to coal to tea to molasses, you name it.”

With just a totally restored Wavertree at the pier, he said, “enthusiasm for a ship that actually looks great is easier to generate.” And volunteer help and financial support will follow the enthusiasm.

Peking was built at the famed Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg in 1911. The steel-hull four-masted barque is one of the famous “Flying P Liners” of F. Laeisz Lines. She was employed in the nitrate trade, making voyages from Europe to the west coast of South America with general cargo and returning with guano for making fertilizer and explosives.

Peking was in Valparaiso, Chile, when World War I erupted and was awarded to Italy in reparations. She was sold back to the Laeisz brothers in 1923 and continued in the nitrate trade until steamship traffic through the Panama Canal made her no longer economically viable.

Peking gained renown from Irving Johnson’s film “Around Cape Horn,” which recorded her 1929 passage around the southern tip of South America in hurricane-strength seas.

In 1932, she was renamed Arethusa II and became a school for boys in England with the students sleeping on hammocks below deck. During World War II she served in the Royal Navy as HMS Peking.

By the 1970s, the vessel appeared headed for the scrapyard until Jack R. Aron, a Navy lieutenant commander during World War II and a wealthy coffee and gold trader, bought her in 1974 in a joint venture of the J. Aron Charitable Foundations Inc. and the seaport museum. The ship was towed to South Street in 1975.

While trying to restore and maintain Peking and Wavertree was always a heavy lift for the museum, its finances became more strained in recent years. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, strangled the tourism traffic to lower Manhattan and the Seaport. Superstorm Sandy flooded the museum.

Until the German government stepped up, there were fears that Peking might be scrapped.

Besides Peking, four of the original Flying-P Liners survive. Pommern is a museum ship in Mariehamn, Finland. Passat was purchased in 1959 by the Baltic Sea municipality of Lübeck and is now a youth hostel and museum ship in the German federal state of Schleswig-Holstein. Padua, renamed Kruzenshtern, is still sailing as Russian training vessel.

The Flying-P ships came in a variety of sizes but were mostly four-masted barques 377 feet long with masts that reached 170 feet. That design was favored by shipmasters and crews because it was easy to handle. They carried 44,132 square feet of sail.

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