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The great ship Wavertree returns

Capt. Jonathan Boulware, executive director of the South Street Seaport Museum in lower Manhattan, has two memories that loom large when he contemplates his tenure.

Wavertree at her South Street Seaport berth, pre-refit.

One is Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “It was haunting,” he says. “It was one of our darkest hours.” It was also right when the museum had managed an against-the-odds comeback from the 2008 recession and the 9/11 attacks on the nearby World Trade Center, which had made downtown New York City a living hell.

As Sandy approached, three days from landfall, Boulware and his staff watched and waited for storm models to firm up. A small army of 60 volunteers trucked in extra mooring lines and secured the seaport’s vessels nearby at Pier 16, home to the Wavertree, Peking and Ambrose, among others. “We focused on the fleet and used a Pythagorean theory applied to the tension,” Boulware says. “Wavertree needed some slack without getting too wild in her berth.”

They sandbagged the front of the museum outside on the sidewalk at 12 Fulton St., stacking them three high. “That was downright comical,” he says. “It was laughably inadequate. No quantity of sandbags would have stopped that storm surge.”

Boulware and two staffers stayed in the museum overnight as Sandy made landfall. They weren’t there to prevent damage, he says, but as first responders to assess the post-hurricane wreckage. 

Then it happened. “It was that particular cocktail of wind forces and tidal surge,” Boulware says. Inside the museum’s front lobby, he could hear a rushing coming from the basement. Lower Manhattan was flooding. Boulware and his staffers went up to the roof and looked out. “One minute the streets were dry, the next they were wet.”

The surge came on land with a startling ferocity, he says. Water roiled through the streets, moving parked cars and rolling two dozen greenheart logs, as heavy as steel girders, off Pier 16 and blocks away. There wasn’t much wind or rain, but the storm surge was 14 feet; the flood level reached 6½ feet inside the museum.

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The water was gone as quickly as it had arrived. The flooding happened so fast that the pressure forced receding waters to burst out of nearby first-floor store windows as it sought an exit to drain. Clothing, wine bottles, tables and chairs were everywhere.

That moment haunts Boulware. The fleet was fine, and the museum’s priceless collection of 26,000 maritime artifacts had been moved safely to the second floor, but the pier and museum suffered a reported $22 million in damage. Boulware says the figure was higher. Since then, the museum has received $4 million from New York City, $11.6 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $4.8 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. Most everything has been fixed except for the elevator, which is still out of commission.

The other memory, still fresh in his mind from a bluebird Saturday this past September, is the return of the Wavertree, the museum’s flagship, after a $13 million restoration.

Wavertree is representative of the sailing cargo ships that built New York City.

That day, Boulware drove to Staten Island’s Caddell Dry Dock and Repair Co. to tour the ship and do some final preparations. He was worried that the ensign he’d purchased for Wavertree was too large and possibly unsafe to fly. There was some discussion. He was resolved to set the ensign even though the masts were still wet with tar. 

“I set it, and the breeze caught, and it started to fly,” he says. “It was that moment she came alive. She had a proper flag where it belonged.”

Boulware then hustled back to Pier 16 to wait for Wavertree’s arrival. He was standing, surrounded by festivities, on the pier when the great iron ship came home. “It was magnificent,” he says. “It was a debutante moment.”

With the help of three tugs, the windjammer returned to her home berth after a 16-month restoration that included extensive hull repairs, the replacement of two of the ship’s decks and the return of a “tween deck” that was part of her original configuration. The completion of a massive rigging restoration returns the vessel to the condition she was in when she last sailed, in 1910.

The 131-year-old Wavertree, constructed of riveted wrought iron, is typical of the sailing cargo ships that in the latter half of the 19th century lined New York’s South Street by the dozens, creating a forest of masts from the Battery to the Brooklyn Bridge. New York City’s Department of Design and Construction managed the restoration, and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs funded it with support from the mayor’s office, the city council and the Manhattan borough president’s office.

Special guests and esteemed dignitaries met Wavertree’s return.

“In New York’s earliest days, the waterfront teemed with tall ships bringing people from all over the globe to the shores of our city,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio during the festivities. “With the return of the Wavertree, we are proud to welcome back a living piece of that maritime heritage.” 

South Street Seaport’s Jonathan Boulware has focused the museum’s resources on saving Wavertree.

He added: “Thanks to this one-of-a-kind restoration project, there’s no better place to explore the many ways people, goods and ideas have arrived in New York across the ages.”

Wavertree was built in Southampton, England, in 1885, and plied the world’s oceans, carrying various cargo. In 1910, after 25 years of sailing, she was caught in a Cape Horn storm that toppled her masts and ended her career as a cargo ship, according to the museum. She was salvaged and used as a floating warehouse and then as a sand barge in South America, where the waterfront workers referred to her as el gran velero (the great sailing ship). In 1968, the museum stepped in, and she was towed to New York to become the iconic centerpiece of the museum’s waterfront. 

“No city in the U.S. has ever undertaken a comparable, municipally funded restoration of a sailing ship,” Boulware says. “Wavertree is the very type of ship that made New York New York. Wavertree is our city’s ship, and we’re thrilled to welcome her back to the museum, back to the Street of Ships.”

?Wavertree and New York City saved the museum, Boulware says.? “She was rusty when she left. She was a hulk. She was tired.” When she came came back, she was fully dressed and rigged all the way to the royal yards for the first time since 1910. The ensign was flying.

“She looked smart, like a proper ship,” he says. “Wavertree really is a ship saved by a city, and we are a museum saved by a ship. She’s a powerful symbol.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue.