Of late, the South Street Seaport Museum has felt like a parent suffering through empty-nest syndrome, or at least “empty-dock syndrome.” During the summer, one of its children, the four-masted sailing vessel Peking, left for good, on its way to a new home in Hamburg’s German Port Museum. The other beloved child, the full-rigged ship Wavertree, has been away since May, 2015, for a $13-million refit at a shipyard in Staten Island.
That absence will end on Saturday, September 24, when Wavertree’s triumphal homecoming will be accompanied by much maritime fanfare, including fireboats spraying water, a bell-ringing, flag raising, live music, and educational activities for kids.
On hand to help celebrate will be City Council member Margaret Chin and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, both of whom allocated funding to help pay for Wavertree’s rehabilitation.
The 1885 ship has a fascinating history. Built in Southampton, England, she circled the Earth four times in her career, carrying a wide variety of cargoes. The ship called on New York in 1896, no doubt one of hundreds like her berthed in the City at that time. In 1910, after thirty-five years of sailing, she was caught in a Cape Horn storm that tore down her masts and ended her career as a cargo ship. She was salvaged and used as a floating warehouse and then a sand barge in South America, where the waterfront workers referred to her as “el gran Valero” (the great sailing ship), because even without her masts she was obviously a great windjammer. She was saved by the Seaport Museum in 1968 and towed to New York to become the iconic centerpiece of the “Street of Ships” at South Street.
The 130-year-old Wavertree, built of riveted wrought iron, is an archetype of the sailing cargo ships of the latter half of the 19th century that during the “Age of Sail” lined South Street by the dozens, creating a forest of masts from the Battery to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Restoration work took place at the Caddell Dry Dock in Staten Island, where five months out of the water were spent on extensive hull repairs; along with replacement of two of the ship’s decks and a massive rigging restoration, the project will return the vessel to the condition she was in when she last sailed in 1910.
The South Street Seaport Museum describes this as the most ambitious ship preservation project of its type in a generation, and the largest project of its kind ever undertaken by an American museum. The restoration has addressed critical long-term preservation issues for Wavertree. Stabilization work included the replacement of twenty massive steel plates below the waterline, a new ballast system, as well as up-to-date electrical and lighting equipment. A new, state-of-the-art cathodic protection system will effectively insulate the hull from corrosion. Once Wavertree returns, the Seaport Museum plans to re-rig her as an operational sailing vessel.
At 279 feet long, Wavertree is the reigning grand dame of the harbor. The vessel was christened for an eponymous district in Liverpool, England (home of her first owner), which appears to derive its name from two Old English words: “waefre” and “treow.” Together, they mean “wavering tree,” which linguists believe is a reference to the groves of aspen that were once plentiful in the hills surrounding that city.