Actually, she was a dirty dog,'' says Jakob Isbrandtsen, laughing. He's talking about the Wavertree, a 2931/2-foot, 3,200-deadweight-ton, three-masted iron frigate that he and a group of volunteers are lovingly restoring at New York's South Street Seaport Museum on the tip of Manhattan. Isbrandtsen, whose family have been shipowners for seven generations, isn't being particularly unkind when he describes the Wavertree that way; he's just being blunt and businesslike, which is really the most appropriate way to speak of her.

Isbrandtsen has no illusions about a romantic past for the Wavertree. This is a failed business venture that was being outrun by steamships, lost its mainmast in a storm in 1911, was bought for a little more than you'd pay for scrap by the Seaport in 1968 - and left a hulk for 13 more years. But it is Isbrandtsen's no-nonsense attitude that has finally gotten the restoration of the Wavertree under way. And his finesse as both a trader and manager is keeping volunteers hard at work and donations of everything from nuts and bolts to cash flowing into her battered hold.

Her very grubbiness is part of the reason he has devoted every Saturday morning to working on the Wavertree for the last 21/2 years. He has been known to spend his evenings sewing canvas hatch covers. Isbrandtsen's gruff exterior doesn't go very deep. In the preface to ''Wavertree: An Ocean Wanderer'' by A. G. Spiers, he writes, gallantly, that even when she was a sand barge in Argentina, people still referred to her as el gran velero - ''the great sailing ship.'' That she was a great sailing ship, and that she somehow survived, means a lot to Isbrandtsen. His great-grandfather Crilles was sailing in those times, and, in fact, was ''cut down'' - run over - by a steamship on his way into New York Harbor. Crilles went down with the ship.

''Their ships were nothing like this,'' he says. ''They were just old wooden ships, hardly able to get out of their own way. They had all those that nobody else could sail.''

That old-fashioned, free-market capitalist pride in starting with whatever you can lay your hands on and taking on the world - to literally sink or swim by your own wit, daring, and skill - is, fittingly, the spirit that motivates the restoration of this ship.

Fitting, because the Wavertree was also ''cut down'' by steamships, in a way. A link between two eras, she was made of iron in imitation of the modern boats of her time, but with wood-boat technology. To compete with the steamships she had huge, square-rigged sails, ''the most awkward, workmaking, man-killing rig a big Cape Horner could have,'' says marine historian Alan Villiers. She wasn't winning the competition. When she lost her mainmast, there wasn't enough money to repair her, so she ended up as a sand barge.

Isbrandtsen's sympathy for Wavertree is contagious. The 1983 crew of the ship is, of course, a different assortment from the 21 seamen who used to sail her around Cape Horn in howling storms, climb the masts in rolling seas, wrestle with frozen canvas sails in high winds, and live on sea biscuits full of weevils. But there is a certain die-hard similarity between them and the 20 or so volunteers who pitch in faithfully Saturdays or Wednesday nights now that she's sitting at a pier off South Street.

They showed up at 8 a.m. the Saturday after the worst blizzard since 1947 hit New York. The streets hadn't been plowed yet, but the volunteers were shoveling pathways along the deck to get down to the real work: sanding the bulkheads, rebuilding wooden hatches, and painting a mast. Furthermore, they didn't act as if they were making a heroic effort. It was definitely business as usual in the aft cabins.

As the electric heater and the heat gun that melts old paint off woodwork hummed away and kept them cozy, this enthusiastic band worked efficiently, quietly, and for the most part independently. They stopped for a brief, stand-up lunch, and knocked off after a nine-hour day. This is grueling, nail-splitting, elbow-reddening work, not the quiet envelope-licking that is the usual lot of many volunteers, but they throw themselves into it. Though they all call the ship ''her,'' many of them aren't even particularly nautical. But they will do anything, it seems, to make the Wavertree again become the proud and dirty dog she once was.

Neal Flaherty, an insurance claims adjuster, has been on the Wavertree twice weekly since this venture began. ''There was no deck here at that time,'' he recalls. ''We spent the first Saturday taking all the bricks (used as ballast) from one side, throwing them to the other. We'd scrape down sand bins and paint them with fish oil; the next week we came back, took 'em all, put 'em on that side, scraped it down and painted thatm.''

''This is the interesting question about Neal,'' says another Niel, Niel Isbrandtsen, Jakob's daughter. She's a vice-president at Chase Manhattan Bank and also works on the Wavertree. ''Ask him why he came back the second Saturday.''

''I really don't know why,'' he admits. ''I liked the people. . . . Once we finished the sand bins we started scraping down the hull of the ship and, really , the work was lousy. . . . There's a motto here, 'Long hours, dirty work, no pay.' That basically sums it up here. You put in the time and the progress is very slow. Slowly you put a lot into it. It becomes your ship. The friends that you develop here also are more than that; they're your shipmates.''

If the volunteers are shipmates, Jakob Isbrandtsen is their captain. Bill Shepard, a microwave engineer at Grumman Aerospace Corporation on Long Island, volunteered with his son in the early days of the restoration. When he took a look at the hulk that was the Wavertree, he said he knew exactly what kind of workers they needed: ''bilge rats.'' ''I didn't think we could do it,'' he recalls. ''But Jakob Isbrandtsen is the kind of man who doesn't see anything that can't be done. He says 'do it,' and you do it. He kept things moving.''

Susan Flaherty, Neal's wife, says: ''Jakob gives you what you're physically able to do. I was surprised at what I physically did.'' Even more surprising is the fact that the volunteers don't think of Isbrandtsen as a slave driver, though she suspects he'd like them to. Her husband, she noticed, has started using Isbrandtsenisms around the house: ''Vacation's over,'' and ''Well, it ain't gonna get done just lookin' at it.''

Isbrandtsen goes about the restoration with the same wheeling, dealing shrewdness, the same delight in good work, bargains, and things of the sea that he had as president of Isbrandtsen Company, the family shipping business, which has since been sold. (He is now consultant of H. & J. Isbrandtsen Ltd., a smaller shipping business.)

Having once ordered six freighters at a time, he is now shopping for 19 th-century marine parts, commanding a crew of blue-jeaned young people with full-time jobs elsewhere, and conferring with old-time confederates like John Bowles, once chief engineer for Isbrandtsen Company, now chief inspector at Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine and volunteer engineer of the Wavertree. Isbrandtsen says: ''There's the same detail in this as on the big boats. The detail is either going into it or it isn't.''

While Isbrandtsen is in charge, it is.

''He's really the glue that binds the whole crew together,'' says Neal Flaherty. ''No matter what, you've gotta show up on time, because you know he's there.'' He also credits Isbrandtsen's enthusiasm, ''and what he teaches you about the ship and working on it. . . . I've learned to do things that I never knew how to do - and I won't say the first couple of efforts were that great. But you're given an opportunity to learn something, and you're given the kind of direction that helps. . . . Once he knows you can handle the job, you're off on your own, so you're given a kind of responsibility to get a job done.''

We are standing in the area known as '''tweendecks,'' on a platform in the vast dim hold of the ship that could take 3,200 tons of coal to fuel the steamships that were making her extinct. We can hear Isbrandtsen, down in the stern, yelling at someone. ''See?'' says Neal. ''Effective management. Delegation, but there's still control. It's fun.''

Mr. Isbrandtsen, asked what his secret is, says simply: ''Push 'em just far enough. I try, here, to put them to a job and then take them off when I can see it starts to become a drag. Then I take them away to do something else. A couple of times I think I blew it. They haven't been back.'' A stocky figure clad in overalls bearing the name ''Wavertree Pete'' - a joke gift from his son - Isbrandtsen has a thick thatch of blondish hair and twinkling eyes. He is standing in the former captain's cabin, pausing for just a few minutes while sandpaper and hammers clamor around him and occasionally yelling instructions at his volunteers.

He gets there early Saturday mornings. ''I open it up in the morning. I open up the shop and then see how many come. Some days 20 come, some days few come. Mostly the hard core comes pretty regularly and faithfully. I think they're developing some great skills. You have some people here who never had a hammer in their hand. There's one lad here who's a warehouseman. He's become one of our better carpenters. And he goes at his own speed. . . .

''An old ship like this has its own meaning, and an individual meaning to individual people. Each has his own, and takes out of it something that he wants.''

Isbrandtsen has a gift for matching individuals to meanings. More specifically, to contributions they can make. He turns all kinds of people into volunteers. ''We have located, for instance, a man in Stamford, Connecticut, who runs a surplus yard,'' he says, ''and we get all our bolts and fastenings from him by the pound rather than by the piece. So that a bronze bolt or a brass bolt that might cost originally $5 apiece, we get for 50 cents. By now we've talked him into taking an interest, so he gives us everything we want. It's taken a little bit of time, and now he's also sent his son down here to be a welder. . . .''

They need a new deckhouse, or crew's quarters. Isbrandtsen has gathered contributors for that project with panache. The actual house will be built at cost, thanks to the father of two volunteers who happens to be president of Scottsdale Machine, Foundry, & Construction Company. The crew will then rivet it together, having been taught by another Isbrandtsen acquaintance who has agreed to give them a lesson.

''The challenge here is to see how cheap we can do it,'' Isbrandtsen says. So far, their costs are running 50 percent below what they figured they'd have to pay. ''If you're not under a time pressure, it's amazing what you can find.'' The combination of the Wavertree's appeal and Isbrandtsen's shrewd trading is hard to beat.

Ship inspector John Bowles worked for Hans Isbrantsen, Jakob's father, starting in 1938. In a telephone interview Mr. Bowles said of Jakob: ''He is quite an astute individual from the practical aspects of it. When he sent me out to do work, he gave me the freedom to do the work, he didn't make a messenger out of me.'' It paid off. Bowles wrote a 50-page specification of work to be done on the Wavertree, complete with drawings. He says he enjoys the work so much he doesn't count it as work.

Then there's money.

''We can't just live on the volunteers, we've gotta have some cash in here,'' says Isbrandtsen. ''That cash has gotta come from people who can afford the cash and who can find here a similar fascination or attachment. Personal interest. That is one of the tricks, here, try to find the right thing for the right person.'' He's offering, for personal attachment, the fact that in 1897 a cabin boy fell off the yards and drowned. An advertisement in Sea History, the Seaport's magazine, asks for contributions for a memorial for him and other cabin boys who spent time up in the bow. ''We're hoping someone'll get a little emotional about it and spring for the cost of the figurehead,'' he says.

There's a dinner dance on board May 24 to watch the Brooklyn Bridge centennial light show and fireworks and to raise more money. The ship is practically in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, so it's an attractive vantage point. ''They don't come on board unless they drop a fair amount of money in the barrel, eh?'' says Isbrandtsen. ''So we should raise at least $5,000 from that evening. That will buy us a lot of the hardware, particularly for these (captain's) quarters. It will buy us other pieces that we can't just bum elsewhere.''

There have been grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as private donations raised by the Ship Trust of the National Maritime Historical Society. When a local museum has trouble paying for the restoration of a ship, the Ship Trust makes it its business to ''make stone soup,'' as NMHS president Peter Stanford puts it, by raising money from foundations and individuals. The Ship Trust has raised around $500,000 for the Wavertree. Stanford started the South Street Seaport Museum in 1966 with his wife, Norma. It was he who recruited Isbrandtsen to be chairman of the museum, and in 1981, recruited him to take on the Wavertree. ''Jakob never gives up on things,'' he says. ''He enjoys doing that thing with his bare hands. If it weren't for Jakob, I couldn't raise money.''

Isbrandtsen says donors, like him, enjoy a bargain. ''I think we can make a case, here, where the dollar that is given away isn't all going into administration, and consequently, they're getting more for it.'' He has a low opinion of administrations that, as he puts it, ''set up big offices and they hire fund collectors and all of that, and that costs money. You rake in a dollar , and you find 30 or 40 cents paying a bunch of salaries, and by the time it drifts down to you, there's very little here to buy nuts and bolts.''

Isbrandtsen sticks to nuts and bolts. He says his biggest satisfaction is ''that people are interested in doing a good job.'' Which is not to say he doesn't have a great deal of sentiment invested, too.

''Right now, we're moored at one of our old piers. All of these piers, from 13 up to 16 or 17 were used by our firm [Isbrandtsen Company] in 1948,'' he says. ''Actually, I have some idea that the Flying Enterprise on its last voyage sailed from these piers.'' The Flying Enterprise was a ship that caught the public eye in December of 1951 when it settled in the water at a 60-degree angle after being hit by a huge wave in a hurricane. The captain got everyone off. He stuck with her for 12 days, hoping she could be towed in, but had to abandon her after she was hit by six more storms. The ship sank. Jakob Isbrandtsen, too, has endured shipwrecks in his career. But the Wavertree, the little ship that couldn't, won't be one of them.

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