Peking Ship at South Street Seaport

Last November, I read a long New York Times piece about the return of the Peking to its country of origin, Germany. The square-rigged sailing ship at South Street Seaport was slated to leave sometime in 2016. Cash-strapped South Street Seaport Museum staff feared that their ship, which had stood tall at Pier 16 for four decades, had to be scrapped after she weathered damage from Hurricane Sandy, but the German government saved the day, allocating 30 million euros for a journey to return the Peking to their protection.

Last week, the Seaport Museum posted on social media that these were the final days to step aboard one of the last great merchant windjammers. No way was I going to miss this farewell, even if I took a familiar friend for granted: I remembered from some fold in my brain that in her heyday she had an acre of canvas, with 32 sails.

I was a tiny school-aged kid when I first met the 323-foot, 3100-ton four-masted “square-rigger” or “barque” Peking, possibly even on her first day in Manhattan, which was November 22, 1975. I lived (and still live) downtown by the East River, and my always-enthusiastic mother was, to her great pride, among the first concerned local citizens to send in a check for the Seaport revival after a museum was established in 1967. It’s safe to say by the mid-1970s my brother and I were dragged to every event there with the words, “You’ll appreciate it later.”

All the years blur now that I’m a mom myself, but in my memory the many field trips a few blocks south from my apartment always ended in Pete Seeger leading kids in gloomy sea chanteys. So maybe it’s simply wishful thinking that I recall the helicopters and the firefighter plumes welcoming the Peking as she arrived down the East River.

According to a November 23, 1975 New York Times report, “tankers, ferryboats and tugboats sounded their horns as she passed by. Helicopters clattered overhead, and at 9:45 am, a fireboat sent plumes of spray flying in the wind. At dockside, about 150 onlookers cheered as the ship eased into her berth, while the band played Anchors Aweigh.” Angier Biddle Duke, New York City’s Commissioner of Public Affairs and Civic Events, welcomed the ship to Gotham and presented the magnanimous Aron with a medallion from good old Mayor Abraham Beame.

The German shipbuilders Blohm + Voss fabricated the black-hulled Peking in 1911 for shipping firm F. Laeisz. Truth be told, the man for whom the famous European shipping company is named after was not much of a sailor; Ferdinand Laeisz started the firm in 1824 as a hat business with significant trade in South America. His descendants changed the course of their family fortunes by focusing on shipping. F. Laeisz is still going strong back in Germany, and in their long history they have owned 86 sailing vessels, 66 with names beginning with a “P”. (Sailing enthusiasts nostalgically refer to their famous earlier romantic sailing ships as the Flying P-Liners.)

It was not long after the Peking was built that steam-powered vessels conquered the oceans. But even into the 1920s, the Peking mostly transported the stinky cargo of sodium nitrates – bird droppings used as precious fertilizer – between South America and Europe. With the rise of the chemical fertilizers there was a collapse of the nitrate trade, and then the Peking’s main cargo was bananas. She was docked in Chile at the outbreak of World War I, and was awarded to Italy as a war reparation – but she was sold back to the company at the end of the war, when she resumed her regular routes around Cape Horn.

By this time, the great sailing vessels’ worth had lessened in importance after the establishment of the Panama Canal in 1914, a faster route which avoided the treacherous cape. During the end of the Great Depression the Peking became a British training ship and a floating boarding school for boys at Lower Upnor in Medway, Kent, where she was renamed the Arethusa, as all the training ships there have been named by tradition. (The pupils slept in hammocks below deck.)

Destined for the scrapyard by the mid 1970s, she was purchased at the last minute by an affluent coffee and metals trader named Jack R. Aron who had read about the ship’s doomed fate. This 66-year-old former Navy lieutenant envisioned a good home back in New York; he had also read the Seaport that had just lost a celebrated tall ship that had been docked for two years at Pier 16: the 335-foot four-masted Moshulu. The story goes that South Street Seaport had disastrous negotiations with Los Angeles restaurateur David Tallicet of American Specialty Restaurants Corporation, and he angrily moved his loaned ship to Philadelphia. The Moshulu is currently a floating restaurant in Penn’s Landing, and for fellow literary nerds, Moshulu was documented in legendary travel writer Eric Newby’s books, 1956’s The Last Grain Race, and 1999’s Learning the Ropes: An Apprentice in the Last of the Windjammers.

By October of 1975 the Peking arrived at Staten Island’s Mariner’s Harbor Yard of the Brewer Dry Dock for a proper refit and re-rigging until she was ready to slip into Manhattan. At the time, Aron was quoted as saying she was the largest existing sailing ship in the world. (This long forgotten New York philanthropist died in 1994 at 86.)

To honor my deceased mother’s belief in drilling history into the next generations regardless of children’s wishes, I wanted to drag my young teen daughter down to Pier 16, but lucky for her she was still away for the summer. To keep to form, I dragged a just-back-from-camp 14-year-old friend of hers to bear witness; the boy was playing Minecraft when I called his parents, and naturally he had his doubts this would be in any way fun, but his father pressed as he wanted the break. As per my mother’s tradition, my young friend and I began the adventure with mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Before boarding the ramp we signed a book; our thoughts will be sent to Germany along with other best wishes from New Yorkers. Even at 4 p.m. the August sun was strong and we squinted as we travelled the hot deck, finally poking inside what remained of the cooler interior, including the Captain’s once fancy saloon, a bunk area, and the ghostly galley. A genial squirrel stopped to have his photo taken on a mast, and then like every person ever who has boarded an old ship, we both pretended to turn the wheel.

On September 6th, the Peking will leave Pier 16 to winter at Caddell’s Dry Dock and Repair Co. on the Kill Van Kull, the tidal strait between Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey. Here she will prepare for her spring journey across the Atlantic on a heavy-lift ship, also called a dockship. There she will be the showpiece and focal point of the new museum Stiftung Hamburg Maritim; but only after an (estimated) three-year restoration. Frankly, Peking is leaving New York City in lousy shape. She sure needs those German-issued euros to shine again.

I headed with my charge for the day to a small ad hoc theater in the historic Bowne Printers to see Around Cape Horn, a vintage 37-minute documentary film using footage shot in 1929 aboard the Peking. An old salt in his mid-70s named Captain Irving Johnson shot the footage himself on a 93-day voyage around Cape Horn when he was a sprightly 23-year-old, and memorably narrates the film, legendary among ship buffs. This voyage around the tip of South America was one of the most treacherous ship passages possible. In a super-fast creaky voice Johnson lovingly explained for Mystic Seaport documentarians old-fangled devices built to navigate choppy seas. He marveled that in the middle of a Force 12 storm he had the guts to shinny up the yard to get a sweeping view of a deck buried under terrifying gusts of water.

A self-proclaimed childhood admirer of Joseph Conrad and Jack London, Captain Johnson offered gripping anecdotes about the phenomenal maritime skill of the Peking’s Captain Jürs; he well remembered his old captain’s stern rules to live by, like the strange order never to pet his dog who lived on the ship. Happily, the oceangoing dog appears in the film. Johnson vividly described the noxious vapors from their nitrate cargo. My young pal sat up in a burst of interest as young sailors not much older than himself were seemingly unfazed by what grisly fates awaited them if they did not survive the menacing waves. “Cool!” he whispered to me as water filled the screen. (Triumph! Teen interest!) Johnson died in 1991 at the age of 85 from complications of Parkinson’s, a life well-lived.

The Wavertree

The news is not all bleak for New York tall ship lovers. If all goes to plan, another fine lady called the Wavertree will arrive at Pier 16 on Saturday, September 24th to take the Peking’s place. The Wavertree is not even a stranger to our town; this three-masted fullrigger ship was built in Southampton, England in 1885 and discovered in disrepair in Chile in 1966. She was acquired in 1967 by the Seaport, and brought to New York City in 1970, and like the Peking has never been properly restored. Until now.

Thanks to unprecedented city funding, the Wavertree has undergone a $13 million dollar restoration to sailing condition, managed by the New York City Department of Design and Construction, after 15 months at Caddell’s dock. 16 new yards (horizontal spars) have been built from laminated timber as rigging and three miles of new wiring have been wound with twine. When she arrives to her new dock, she will be in the finest shape since she last sailed in 1910.

I’m planning on dragging my kid to meet her. After mint chocolate chip ice cream of course. But I’m still glad I bothered to formally say good-bye to her predecessor, the mighty Peking. As my mother knew, history matters. And witnessing history matters even more.

Next, read more about the return of the Wavertree and the current exhibit at the South Street Seaport Museum.