By Laura Silver
Before Godiva and Abercrombie & Fitch, there were ships. Fulton Street’s fishmongers have been replaced by real estate brokers, shoppers and bar hoppers, but the boats are still there, tethered to Piers 15 and 16, a testament to New York City’s and the globe’s maritime heritage. To step aboard one of the South Street Seaport Museum’s historic vessels is to enter a realm governed by the vagaries of wind, water and the wakes of modern vessels.
Approach the East River one block south of Fulton Street’s throng on John Street and you’re likely to be lured by the red-and-white steam stack of the Helen McAllister, a 1900 tugboat. Behind her, is the Marion M., acquired by the museum in 2000 and used as a workboat to support other members of the Seaport’s fleet, including grand dames Peking and the Wavertree, whose bowsprits seem to be tickling the underside of the FDR Drive and whose masts are reflected in mirrored office buildings across the street.
The Wavertree, a wrought iron, square-rigged sailing ship constructed in England in 1885, originally carried jute and cargo before serving as a floating warehouse and a sand barge. She’s been docked at the Seaport for nearly 30 years and recently underwent a $2.5 million restoration. According to Charles Deroko, the South Street Seaport Museum’s Director of Marine Operations, the boat is significant to New York Harbor because she “traded here in the early part of the 20th century, in Erie Basin, [Brooklyn] right across the river.” She last left port under shortened sail for Operation Sail 2000 and dropped anchor just south of Governor’s Island. Deroko is in the process of getting bids on the next phase of Wavertree’s repair, which will include structural work to the hull and pier-side work designed to modernize electrical and ventilation systems, designed to rebuild the ship so “that she can be taken out under sail.”
Its neighbor, Peking, built in Hamburg, Germany in 1911 and acquired by the Seaport in 1975, has become a lower Manhattan landmark despite her history in foreign waters. Along with other boats in the Seaport’s fleet, she welcomes more than 15,000 visitors each year and houses an antiquated but informative below-decks exhibit that showcases the first and second mates’ cabins and points out highlights of the four-masted barque’s history. According to Carol Rauscher, the Seaport Museum’s Deputy Executive Director of Development, the lion’s share of the institution’s $5 million annual budget is consecrated to maintaining the eight boats under its watch. “You’re in salt water,” said Rauscher, suggesting the need for constant upkeep. “It’s worse than a car.”
Keeping the ships in shape comes at a high price, but their presence creates experiences that defy dollar amounts and afford visitors a glimpse of time gone by. Last Saturday, Pier 16 was abuzz with dance contests and quizzes about flavors of Crystal Light’s “On the Go” packets (being distributed from a pink truck parked there). On the freshly painted upper deck of the Peking, all the hubbub about Lemonade and Peach Tea was mercifully muted. The view Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges to the north, New York Harbor to the south made it easier to imagine the heyday of sail-powered vessels, even if the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was largely eclipsed by a hulking cruise ship glued to the coast of Red Hook, Brooklyn.
On the other side of the pier, yellow water taxis darted in and out of Pier 17 and the quasi-ferocious Beast, a speedboat whose hull is painted with oversized sharpened fangs, was revving up to take another round of forewarned passengers on a daredevil jaunt designed to elicit screams and douse passengers.
But the real story of the waterfront is told by the Seaport boats, including the red-hulled Ambrose Lightship, which predates the light tower of the same name off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey and houses exhibits on lightships’ roles in large ships’ Atlantic crossings. Given to the museum in 1968, the Ambrose is a beacon for learning about local history. Its stern doubles as a hitching post for the yellow-cabined W.O. Decker, a tug boat built in nearby Newtown Creek in the 1930s, recently rebuilt by the museum’s waterfront crew. Over an 11-month period, the whole vessel was reconstructed, according to Deroko, “85 percent of the hull was rebuilt, 50 percent of the deckhouse, all in wood, using essentially the same methods of construction as when the boat was built.” Now the glistening yellow and red tug welcomes 12 passengers on weekly harbor tours and is available for hire.
This is just one of the projects brought to fruition by the two-man, one-woman full-time crew that Deroko supervises in his part-time director post, “deserves credit for keeping everything afloat.” Their work depends on the needs at hand. ”We do electrical work, some carpentry. You name it. It has to be done,” quipped Deroko, “We’re all pretty much in our mid-to late-50s on the waterfront,” he added, “If they’ve been at it as long as I have, collectively, we must have 80 to 100 years’ experience.”
It serves the fleet well. The Pioneer, an 1885 iron-hulled centerboard schooner, which Deroko said is “typical of the vessels that traded between New England and the mid-Atlantic States” in the early part of the 20th century, became part of the Seaport family in 1970, after its owner died. It now hosts an active schedule of tours for school and corporate groups and members of the public, some of whom become volunteers, sailing in the summer and helping with maintenance in the colder months.
As a member of her volunteer crew from 2001 to 2004, I learned to hoist sails, tie knots, handle lines (not ropes as I originally called them) and participate in old-fashioned communication and camaraderie. (“Haul Away,” raise a sail, is answered, “Hauling!” and “Ease the line” must be echoed by, “Easing!”) The Pioneer is equipped with a motor (useful in docking), but my favorite moments were when a captain would cut the engine and we could power though the harbor under sail.
The Lettie G. Howard, “very appropriate to lower Manhattan given the Fulton Fish Market that used to be here,” according to Deroko, is a wooden-hulled fishing schooner sold to the Seaport in 1968 and designated as a National Historic Landmark 20 years later. She is currently out at sea conducting one of its many sail training and educational excursions, training a new generation of helmsmen and women.
With the Fulton Fish Market gone, the neighborhood has lost its stench and its grimy edge, but thankfully, the seafaring traditions immortalized in Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel” still cling like barnacles, which goes to show that the waterfront is more than just a place to kick back and spend money. “It’s a formidable task dependent on the support of the public,” said Deroko by phone from the Seaport.
“We try to be vigilant as to the needs of the vessels and do what we can given our small numbers.” He’s eager for extra sets of hands. “I would urge people to see what the museum has to offer. and they should certainly come down and volunteer if they can,” but not just to lighten the load of his dedicated crew. “It’s a real piece of New York history here,” he said, after a full morning on the waterfront, “and it belongs to all of us.”
The ships at South Street Seaport Museum are docked at Pier 16, at the eastern end of Fulton Street. Hours are TuesdaySunday, 10 a.m. 6 p.m., 212-748-8786, southstreetseaportmuseum.org.