Friday, February 10, 2012

From the Age of Sail

The Wavertree.  Behind her are the buff-colored spars of the Peking.

The first bit of news is that I should have my computer back tonight or tomorrow, which means we will once more have access to our materials on the Florida Keys Challenge.
Back on board the Harvey Gamage on Sunday, 7 Oct., the wind was very light, but we got into Oyster Bay for our first anchorage outside of New York City.  Monday brought us decent wind, but it was right on the nose for our trip back to the city.  In order to catch the current at Hell’s Gate, we finally had to start the engine to save the time lost in beating to weather. 

Hell’s Gate is a narrow strait that connects the East River and Long Island Sound.  The current races through fast enough to make headway difficult for low-powered vessels, and steering even more dangerous.  Most vessels try to arrive at the strait close to slack water (when there is no current) or just after a foul current begins, as it is easier to steer against a current than with one.
As we passed through Hell’s Gate, a dozen or more cars were pulled up on the banks.  Hell’s Gate had been found to be a Mafia graveyard, and police divers had been working for days locating and pulling cars from the river bottom.  With current running at five knots, and slack water lasting just a few minutes, divers had a very short period in which to grope about in the zero-visibility water.  One car contained the body of a New York state trooper that had been handcuffed to his car before it was forced into the river.  Another still contained a skeleton.  With others, the bodies had undoubtedly been washed out of the cars by the strong current.

This will be a sudden shift in topics, but the other reason that time was critical was we had a wedding scheduled on board in the evening.  It was a very casual affair, with the bride wearing blue jeans.  The ceremony was followed by a cruise of the harbor under power as a catered dinner was served for the wedding party.

With 115-feet of painted wood, varnish, tarred rigging, greased spars, dozens of pumps, and brass that was polished daily, work never stopped.  Whenever the schooner wasn’t moving with charterers on board, the tools were pulled from beneath the cockpit and everyone got to work.  We did get a couple breaks over the next two days, however.  On Wednesday we got a chance to go into the city to see the previewing of the Citibank commercial we had done.  On Thursday, 
once the day’s work was done, we got a chance to tour a couple famous ships.

Anyone who has sailed, of course, knows of Irving Johnson and the film he did aboard the Peking as it rounded Cape Horn in 1929.  The film can still be seen, and gives a great understanding of the power of these ships under sail.  Built in 1911, this 377-ft., 3,100-ton ship worked the wheat and nitrate trade around Cape Horn until the Panama Canal was in operation.  By 1932, the much shorter route through the canal by steamships finally made it impossible for this square-rigger to compete.  She served in both World Wars, was even moored and used as a training vessel and a children’s home before being bought by the U.S.  She has been berthed at South Street Seaport as a maritime museum since 1975.  A couple of her other impressive measurements are 170-ft. spars, 16-ft. draft, and 44,132 sq.ft. of sail.
With us berthed on the opposite side of the pier from the Peking, we had constant contact with her workers.  As fellow seamen, it was inevitable that we’d be given access to her interior.  The public tour only gave access to the decks and deck houses, but we were given open access to her from stem to stern and to the very bilges.  They were doing some beautiful work on her, and the effort to maintain such a vessel has to be a constant and arduous effort.

We also had the same access to Wavertree, which was berthed alongside the Peking.  Built in 1885 in Southhampton, England, the Wavertree was one of the last large sailing ships built in wrought iron rather than steel, and at 325-ft., is the largest vessel of that material still afloat.  In 1910, she was dismasted off Cape Horn and barely survived to make it into the Falkland Islands.  She was acquired by South Street Seaport in 1968.

I made note in my log of the conversation the Gamage’s skipper and I had about how sad it was that such vessels were disappearing forever.  Since then, however, there has been a huge resurgence in preserving, sailing, and even building new large sailing ships around the world.  The American Sail Training Association (part of the International Sail Training Assoc.) now has over 200 sailing vessels from schooners to square-riggers on which people can find a berth as a volunteer crew member or paying guest.  What a great maturing opportunity for a young adult to experience life at sea as it was during the age of sail rather than spending time and money in the artificiality of some large theme park!  See

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