More than a century after she was last propelled by the wind, the tall ship Wavertree is being restored to sailing condition by the South Street Seaport Museum.
The 131-year-old, three-masted, full-rigged ship is scheduled to return to lower Manhattan by the end of September after 15 months at the Caddell Dry Dock And Repair Co. in Staten Island.
The 325-foot vessel will take the place of the museum’s other tall ship, Peking. That vessel is being given to the German government, which approved a 30-million-euro restoration in November to make the ship the centerpiece of a new maritime museum in Hamburg. Peking was built there in 1911.
The restoration of a tall ship as big as Wavertree by a municipality “is totally unprecedented,” said Capt. Jonathan Boulware, the museum’s executive director, during a weekly visit to the shipyard. “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.”
The project began with Wavertree in a floating dry dock for five months so the iron hull could cleaned, inspected and painted.
“We went in assuming we were going to have to replace 10 huge plates 20 feet long and 4 1⁄2 feet high,” Boulware said. “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.
Currently the rigging crew is reinstalling components of the foremast and mainmast on the vessel.
“The rigging project is massive,” Boulware said. The more than 3 miles of galvanized wire that supports the masts had to be rehabilitated. 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.
On the weather deck, where the original steering wheel will be reinstalled, a replacement Douglas fir deck has been laid down using traditional methods with the planking caulked 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.
Bulkheads that had been added in the hold for grain storage more than a century ago have been removed, reopening the full cargo area.
The ballast in the hold was also redone. Loose concrete blocks were replaced with a special concrete slurry that can be washed away with high pressure hoses and pumped out if necessary.
Some final re-rigging will be done after Wavertree returns to South Street. The museum will also have to complete the reconstruction of the crew’s quarters to accommodate overnight student stays. And the galley needs to be rebuilt.
“She will sail again” in New York Harbor, Boulware said, although it will be at least several years.
Wavertree was built in Southampton, England, in 1885. She circumnavigated nearly 30 times with assorted cargoes and made one known call to New York in 1895. In December 1910, the vessel was dismasted off Cape Horn and became a floating warehouse in Chile and then a sand barge at Argentina. She was discovered there in 1966 and the following year was acquired by South Street Seaport Museum.
As for letting Peking go, Boulware said, “It’s a choice between having one in good shape and two in bad and deteriorating shape.”
“Peking doesn’t actually have a New York history,” he continued. “Wavertree does. 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.”