Ralph, Irving & Peking
“Well I found that ship in Hamburg, her name it was Peking”
I do not recall the first time I saw the majestic ship Peking, which has been berthed at the South Street Seaport in New York City since the late 1970’s. I may have seen it on some school or family outing at that time, but it was when cousins opened a shop at the revitalized Seaport around 1983 that I started going there on a regular basis. My mom was doing the books for the shop, and at one point my sisters were working there as well, so there were numerous opportunities to leave the suburbs and go to downtown Manhattan to walk the cobblestone streets around Schermerhorn Row, get some ice cream and visit some stores, all the while surrounded by the pungent smells of the nearby Fulton Fish Market. More than anything though, I remember that even as a teenager, no visit to the Seaport would be complete without crossing over South Street and under the FDR Drive and heading over to the piers. Then, as now, directly in front of you on the pier is the Ambrose Light Ship, its bright red hull and Fresnal lens on top of its mast drawing you over to look. Off to the right, behind a large obstruction is The Wavertree, a fine old sailing ship in its own right originally from England. The obstruction to the Wavertree, dwarfing it in height, length, and just about every other category is of course the Peking, whose black hull and enormous masts take up almost the entire length of the pier. Whether it was in 1983 or today in 2013 every visitor to that part of Manhattan turns their head to gaze at this wonder of a bygone era. So it has stayed moored at the Seaport, year after year in the same spot, through rain and snow, brutal summer days, and even hurricanes, much like the conditions it no doubt experienced in its years as a working vessel since being built in Hamburg, Germany in 1911.
“An acre of sail was up aloft, some seventeen stories tall”
Over the years since I started going to the Seaport I began learning more about the Peking’s history. The first thing that became obvious to me was, why a sailing ship in 1911? The Titanic’s maiden voyage was in 1912, which despite its demise, was certainly of its era, technology wise. But this four-masted barque built in that same era was a bit of a mystery to me. Of course the museum had the answer. The Peking and her sister ships (the so called Flying P-Liners) were used primarily in the nitrate trade on routes the new fangled steam powered ships had difficulty covering. Of these there was no route more perilous than a trip around Cape Horn. So it was on that route she spent much of her early life, with a slight interruption during World War I, when she was given to the Italians in war reparations, before they in turn sold her back to the original owners to continue the nitrate trade. Around this time in the story, a man named Irving Johnson came to serve aboard the Peking. Johnson, a Massachusetts farm boy who dreamed of the sea made a film about his 1929 voyage on board the Peking, ‘Around Cape Horn.’ When her life as a commercial vessel was over, she was purchased by the Royal Navy as a training ship and renamed Arethusa II, and then Pekin.
By 1986 I was in college in Massachusetts, but would often come into the city during school breaks or in the summer. Inevitably, one of my favorite places to come was the Seaport, and looking back, I think a big part of that was getting yet another glimpse of the Peking. I will not say I was obsessed with it or maritime history in general, but I think there was a quest to understand more about transportation together with history on my part. Add to that a chance encounter with a certain English folk rock band in 1987 found me delving into music, and in particular folk music of Ireland and Britain. Fast forward now to the 90’s and now working, I began developing an even greater appreciation of art and history by going to museums as often as I could, reading constantly and getting deeper into folk music which I found was giving me insight in unexpected ways. Suddenly for me worlds were colliding-history books I was reading came alive in traditional ballads, and perspective and context were suddenly easier to understand for me as a result. The history books told you the end result; the music told you the reality. I began reading the great seafaring works of Patrick O’Brian, the accounts of the great explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen along with listening to folk music, which of course has always had one foot set firmly in telling stories, be they real life or fantasy. It was exciting discovering commonality between what had been very disparate ideas to me before.
“Thirty-Two sails on a heaving ship, hauling us around the wild Cape Horn”
Still, the Peking sat there at the Seaport. Never forgotten, and as the 90’s passed into the 2000’s I picked up another new passion-photography. The Nikon N80 35mm film camera served me well over the years, and still happily resides in the camera bag along with my new Nikon digital. So I began carrying the camera with me everywhere. Not just for vacations, but all over the city, in all sorts of weather. It was no surprise to me when I began assembling this blog that one of my most frequent NYC photo subjects over the years has been the Seaport, and especially the Peking.
So why am I writing this now, what is the link? I already know the Peking history, but what does taking pictures of something I have enjoyed for years mean? How does a picture make the Peking live for me and go beyond being an inanimate object? The answer came just a few years ago when one of my favorite songwriters, Ralph McTell, wrote a fantastic song called Around The Wild Cape Horn. It relates the story of Irving Johnson, and suddenly an idea began stirring in my mind. When I take photographs I do not do a lot of thinking about the subject matter. Obviously I recognize there is something worthwhile there to take, or the lighting is interesting and will enhance the object, but I seldom think about the object itself until I look at the finished result. When it came to taking pictures of the Peking over the years, it was an attempt to get a clever angle of the rigging, or of light reflecting off the water or any of the other standard photography tricks one looks to utilize. When I began looking at the photos I have taken of the great ship since hearing Around The Wild Cape Horn, I realized I was now looking at something that went beyond capturing the perfect image. Instead I realized the pictures I had were coming to life in the song itself, and I began imagining the journey of Irving Johnson and all the other sailors who served aboard her through the years. Now there was actually a soundtrack for the photos themselves. Obviously it is not lost on me that Johnson’s own film serves the same purpose, but that was made by someone else. Now I could sit viewing my own photographs, not as static objects you see at a gallery or a museum, but having a life by way of the song.
“Sail close to the hardest wind, and treat all risks with scorn”
When I see the pictures included on this blog now I do not see a century old ship moored to a modern pier surrounded by skyscrapers, sitting mere feet from a highway. Instead I see men hoisting sails seventeen stories above the ocean. I see the figurehead on the bow, charging its way forward through bright skies and calm seas one moment, then carving a path through storm tossed seas the next. I see 5000 tons of cargo loaded below, kept dry at all cost by men working shifts of four hours on, and four hours off. I hear the creaks and groans of the ship as she strains to maintain course. I imagine what it must have been (and frankly what it still is) like to approach the treacherous waters of Cape Horn, the one place on earth where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet, with the Cape on one side and hundreds of miles of open sea to Antarctica on the other. No easy life, and one that the romanticism of sailing the seas fails to prepare one for. Ralph McTell’s lyrics convey all this to great effect-
“Mountain waves, like avalanches crashed upon the decks,
The screaming winds snapped ropes and spars, and tried to
have us wrecked, but she rose and fell through the foam and
the swell, her sails were ripped and torn
Eight thousand tons tossed like a cork, on the way around the
wild Cape Horn”
“She had us sort of hypnotized, no time to catch our breath”
Ralph McTell has been considered one of the best songwriters for over 40 years, and one of my own favorites for over 20 of those. His songs can be both deeply personal and touching without bordering on the saccharine or trite. He is also a terrific acoustic guitar player. In addition to his own songs, he has a love of blues and ragtime music, which he has showcased on a few albums. He has done children’s music, done an album based around the life of Dylan Thomas, but he has also written many “epic” historically based songs over the years which I think are amongst his best work. One of these is of course, Around The Wild Cape Horn. As a song it manages to draw you in immediately; the opening chords have a comforting feel to them, as if one has heard them before, before Ralph sings quite simply, “I was born a land bound farm boy, and in New England raised.” Direct and to the point it summarizes the salient facts almost as if Johnson had been right there with Ralph McTell writing it. Ironically, at one point one of Ralph’s uncles actually served aboard the Peking when she was renamed as the Arethusa! I am a sucker for this type of song I must add. Not because it is a nautical themed song, or a biographical song, but for the way that musically it enhances the lyrics. Like the best traditional music it is a story song and in fact could easily pass for one. A running joke for Ralph is that his publisher has all sorts of problems tracking down all the songs like From Clare To Here which Ralph wrote but which get erroneously attributed as ‘traditional’. The link below comes from a version performed at Ralph’s 60th Birthday celebration a few years ago, where it took its place among the best and most well known songs of his long career. Ralph’s dedicated core of fans seems to feel the same way.
Here are a few final thoughts to share. First is that for anyone interested, the Irving Johnson film is well worth seeing, and is available to purchase. Second is that Ralph McTell is an artist worth investigating if you are unfamiliar with his work. It is hard for me to express how consistently thought provoking and touching his work has been for me since first I heard him. His name became familiar to me when I became a fan of the great English Folk Rock band, Fairport Convention, who over the years have shared many a stage together, and have covered many of his songs, including Around The Wild Cape Horn. In fact, in 2011 when I finally made it to Fairport’s Cropredy Festival for the first time (long overdue) Ralph joined them onstage for two songs, one of which was, you guessed it…..Around The Wild Cape Horn. So included here as well is a version by Fairport, who play it slightly faster, but still maintain the feel of Ralph’s version. Being fans of both I have yet to be able to claim preference for one version over another, so I present both to you. I am sure as I continue this blog that both names will come up again, but for now, for my own photographs of the mighty ship Peking, Ralph McTell’s song provides the soundtrack of this photo.
I wish I could report otherwise, but the state of one of my favorite places in New York since my teens has not been good in recent years. The museum, which includes the ships, had struggled in the early part of this decade, bringing it almost to extinction, which included a plan for selling off most of the ships in the collection including the Peking, with a plan to return it to the city of Hamburg. The Museum Of The City Of New York announced plans to take over, which sounded promising, but the devastation to that part of lower Manhattan following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 has sounded another death knell for the area. Redevelopment is happening, but sadly not of the kind reserved for old ships and preserving history it seems. I was just down there a few nights ago to visit a newly reopened pub, closed for a year as a result of Sandy, and though I applaud the efforts to keep the Seaport going, it felt like a ghost town. By comparison, on a trip to Halifax this summer I visited the excellent Maritime Museum of The Atlantic, which was thriving and vibrant. I could not help but feel a sense of sadness at the difference. No offense to the great city of Halifax Nova Scotia, or to any Haligonian, but the contrast of a small Atlantic city having a maritime museum far superior and better than New York was unsettling to me. I hope the Seaport comes back to life again some day and generations of people can relive what it was like for sailors of old and for men like Irving Johnson.
Lyrics by Ralph McTell
All Photos by Robert P Doyle