A giant among tall ships, Seaport’s Peking reopens for select Saturdays

The South Street Seaport Museum's Peking ship has been resopned to the public for the next few Saturdays.  Downtown Express photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer.

The South Street Seaport Museum’s Peking ship has been reopened to the public for the next few Saturdays.
Downtown Express photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer.

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  The masts and rigging of the South Street Seaport Museum’s clipper ship, Peking, tower over Pier 16. No visitor to the Seaport could miss seeing this titan that stretches almost the full length of the pier. But it has been years since members of the public have been able to climb aboard.

On Saturdays through Oct. 19, the Peking will be open to visitors from noon to 4 p.m.

“We are excited to have her open to the public again,” said Jonathan Boulware, interim president of the South Street Seaport Museum. “She is a magnificent ship. She’s not the only one [of this type] in the world, but she’s the only one in the United States.”

Peking was built in Hamburg, Germany 102 years ago to transport nitrate from the west coast of South America to Europe. Even at that time, sailing ships had mostly been replaced by steamships except for long trips with heavy cargo, where the cost of fuel would have been prohibitive.

She was built for F. Laeisz, a German company that still exists. She and her sister ships, whose names all began with the letter “P” were known as the “Flying P-Liners.”

Peking’s sister ship, Passat, laid down in the same year, carried 34 sails and could go up to 18 knots an hour under sail. Even so, Passat’s maiden voyage from Hamburg to Valparaiso, Chile, took 80 days.

The Peking’s capabilities would have been very similar. She was both fast and massive.

Standing on the Peking’s after-well deck, Boulware pointed out the Peking’s rig. “It’s magnificent,” he said, “and amazing to think that these are the same masts that sailors climbed in hurricanes and freezing conditions off of Cape Horn to get bird guano back to Europe in the 1920s. It’s hard to imagine as we sit here in the comparatively placid East River that this ship was actually rolled from side to side. The space where we’re standing now – you wouldn’t be able to stand. Her decks would be awash with water above our heads. This would be a washing machine of foaming water.”

Plywood covers what would have been the original deck or one installed soon thereafter. Under that is steel, and below that are Peking’s vast holds that would have been filled with cargo.

“In the famous movie made by Irving Johnson about Peking, he said, ‘Cargo is king. If you don’t arrive with a dry cargo, you might as well stay at home,’” Boulware remarked. “That’s the story of this ship. She wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fact that she carried around 3,100 tons of cargo.”

The captain and crew might have gone on successive voyages aboard Peking that would have taken them away for years at a time. Sometimes the captains brought their families with them. The captain’s quarters on the ship were partially restored after the South Street Seaport Museum acquired the ship in 1975.

Jonathan Boulware, interim president of the South Street Seaport Museum, in the captain's cabin on the four-masted barque, Peking. (Photo: Terese Loeb Kreuzer)

Jonathan Boulware, interim president of the South Street Seaport Museum, in the captain’s cabin on the four-masted barque, Peking. (Photo: Terese Loeb Kreuzer)

The captain had a sitting room called a “saloon,” a spacious bedroom and a private bath. The saloon is paneled in mahogany and bird’s eye maple and has etched glass in the skylights. The first and second mates also had separate quarters, much smaller than the captain’s, but affording some privacy.

The crew of 21 to 30 seamen and ship boys shared accommodations and sleeping bunks in an area of the ship that is now an exhibition space. Visitors can see dramatic photographs of the ship under sail and photos of the storms that swept over the decks. Cape Horn, at the southern end of South America, is at the confluence of three oceans – the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Antarctic – and is one of the most treacherous stretches of sea on the globe. Waves can crest at 65 feet and many ships have been lost there.

The Peking successfully navigated these waters for years until trade through the Panama Canal put her out of business. In 1932, she was sold for use as a British children’s home and training school. She was repurposed during World War II to serve the Royal Navy. Finally, in 1975, her sailing days ended and the South Street Seaport Museum became her home.

“There are other examples of ships of this type built in Hamburg,” said Boulware. “One is still sailing. It’s a Russian flag sail training ship called Kruzenshtern.”

Peking’s sister ship, Passat, ended up in Travemünde in Germany, where she is a youth hostel, a museum ship and a local landmark.

Peking is not in good shape. It would take millions of dollars to repair her. Boulware said that a study of exactly how much it would cost has not been done.

“She is absolutely worth saving and she is savable,” he said. “But not by the museum. Not now.”

The Peking never actually called on New York, unlike the Seaport Museum’s other large cargo ship, the Wavertree, which exemplifies the kind of ship that would once have lined South St.

The museum has decided to put its efforts into rehabilitating the Wavertree and has been trying for years to repatriate Peking to Hamburg, where she was built. But so far, that hasn’t happened.

In the meantime, people who love this ship or who love history can use this unusual opportunity to go aboard the Peking. In addition, the museum is offering drop-in workshops on Peking’s visiting days. Woodcarver Sal Polisi will be in his shop on Water St, demonstrating his craft, while next door at Bowne & Co. Stationers, 211 Water St., Robert Warner will be offering drop-in collage workshops.

The museum is asking a suggested donation of $5, but more would be appreciated.

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7 Responses to A giant among tall ships, Seaport’s Peking reopens for select Saturdays

  1. Wonderful news … just a shame I won't be able to come back to New York to see her. Good luck with all your efforts to save her.
    Fran Taylor, Perth, Australia

  2. Peking was my home in the 1950's for more than 2 years. She was a good home and played an important part in shaping my life. She was always a great lady that instilled me with pride in having served aboard her. She deserves our collective aid to save her

    • Frank Blackstone

      Must have known Irving Johnson as he was there and filmd there voyage around the Horn at that time i beleive ..Tough sailing that big ship in a blow ..good friend Captain Jim Cotier of new Zealand saild the Soren larson around the Horn and Back a few years ago Book Homeward around the Horn he wrote is a great read ,,Do hope the Ol ship will survive the troubled political times , Im a retired Merchant Engineer with 45 yrs at sea and hate it when a historical Vesel is neglected due to dis interest and funds , while wars spend far to much …Good on Ya Mate to survive the Old Lady and revisit her ….Frank….out

  3. Talk is cheap, as are memories. What this ship needs is a large infusion of money and people willing to do the necessary work!

  4. Richard Clarke

    The peking was my home too for over two years when it was called the Arethusa. Last time I was in New York I was unable to go on board as it was raining and they said no due to health and Saftey

  5. Frank Blackstone

    Iv been aboard Her several times there in NY , She is indeed in need of work , Crying shame when Historic vessels are neglected due to Dis Interest and Funds while waging such terable wars at far greater expendature and far worse reasons ..Restoriation of these Sailing and Steam vessels is valuable to the future generations that could only read and dream of there exestance in the future .

  6. I have a large etching of the Peking, that was made when she visited Rotterdam in the 1920s. Great Ship.

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