This is a bit outside our usual purview, but I was quite blown away by this amazing documentary film shot by a young trainee on his first major voyage, from Hamburg to Chile on the famous four masted barque “Peking”. Irving Johnson, who went on to become a noted captain, set out to prepare himself for the rigors of sea and joined the crew of the Peking with a film camera in hand. Shortly after they left Hamburg, they encountered “The Storm of the Century” that sunk some 60 vessels. And then they hit another massive storm near Cape Horn, where two crew members were washed overboard (“Nobody talked about that afterwards”).
Johnson narrates his film, which gives an unparalleled insight as to what life was like on a tall masted sailing ship, encountering storms as well as just the daily routine, including handling some 135 ropes and all those giant sails. I can’t recommend it enough.
The Peking was built in 1911, a four masted steel-hulled cargo ship, one of the last of the kind. She was specifically designed specifically for the nitrate trade, hauling sodium nitrate, used for making fertilizer, gunpowder and other products, from Chile back to Germany.
She was taken by Italy after WW1 as reparations, but her owners bought her back in 1923, and continued sailing until 1932, when the synthesis of ammonia increasingly made sodium nitrate less valuable. In 132 she was sold for a pittance to an English charity, which used to to house orphan children and train some of them to be future sailors, allowing them to climb the rigging and such.
In 1974, the Peking was sold to New York’s South Street Seaport, where she was docked alongside the Wavetree, another tall masted ship. But the Peking did not get the renovation that she needed there, and her condition deteriorated to the point where she was at risk of being scrapped.
Instead she was donated to Hamburg in 2012, after Germany committed large sums for a total renovation and her future preservation. That was completed in 2020, and that’s how she looks now, at Hamburg’s Port Musuem.