The tall ship Wavertree (1885) returns to her berth at the South Street Seaport Museum, Pier 16, on September 24, 2016, following an extensive restoration. This full-rigged sailing ship was one of the last large wrought iron sailing vessels ever built and is the last survivor of her kind. Her history spans four continents, numerous ports, and is a vivid reminder of the role sailing ships played in trade and commerce around the world. She is the flagship of the museum and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.
Wavertree, originally a British ship, was built at Southampton, England, for R.W. Leyland & Company in Liverpool. Steam engines were becoming increasingly popular during this time, replacing the use of sail power on many of the shorter trades routes. Also, steel was overshadowing the long-time choice of iron. Leyland had the three-masted Wavertree constructed with an iron hull. Her extreme length is 325 feet, and the length on deck is 263 feet. By comparison, an American football field is 360 feet including the end zones.
She was first put to work on the trade route from eastern India (present-day Bangladesh) to Scotland, transporting jute used to make rope and burlap bags. Within two years, she was carrying goods and supplies throughout the world. She picked up cargo wherever it was available and delivered it to its destination. This was commonly known as the “tramp trade” when a ship did not have a set schedule or did not publish her itinerary.
After sailing for 25 years, she was rounding Cape Horn when a gale dismasted her. She crept into the Falkland Islands in December 1910. As a result, this once mighty ship was sold and began a new life at Punta Arenas, Chile, where she spent 30 years as a floating warehouse. In 1947, she was sold and taken to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she was converted to a sand barge. While there, she was acquired for the South Street Seaport Museum in 1968. She was restored at the Arsenal Naval Buenos Aires and then towed to New York to her new home at the museum.
For years, she was used for overnight programs which allowed youths to get a hands-on feel for life aboard a 19th-century ship. Students learned the value of teamwork, raising sail, navigation, preparing their own meals on the ship’s wood burning stove, and sleeping in bunks like the sailors did long ago. She was also a place where volunteers worked on ship preservation, sewing and making square-rigged sails, and sail training. Marine technology students from the New York Harbor School helped with ship restoration through workshops supervised by licensed teachers and marine technology consultants.
Her years of hard work and age were taking their toll. She was in need of an extensive restoration which ended up costing approximately $13 million. Repairs included replacing metal plates below the water line, restoring the deck, and other major work. After spending 15 months at Caddell Dry Dock & Repair on Staten Island, she returns to South Street Seaport Museum where she is a shining example of history, survival, and inspiration.
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