NJ’s Official Tall Ship Gets a Makeover to Keep Her Legendary Legacy Afloat

The AJ Meerwald claims the rare distinction of still sailing the same waters in which she made her maiden voyage in 1928. Photo courtesy of Bayshore Center at Bivalve

One of New Jersey’s unsung treasures is a gracious 92-year-old lady named AJ Meerwald.

She measures 115 feet overall, weighs 57 tons, and is New Jersey’s only official tall ship, claiming the rare distinction of still plying the same waters in which she made her maiden voyage in 1928. The restored oyster dredge schooner , crafted in South Jersey from oak planks laid over oak frames, is now a floating classroom, revealing the secrets of the sea to the thousands of people who set sail each season.

The Meerwald inspires admiration even in places like Maine, where wooden boats cost “a dime a dozen” and the boat is currently undergoing a complete renovation, said Brian Keenan, executive director of the Bayshore Center in Bivalve, the home port of the Meerwald.

“I was in Maine checking out the restoration when a local resident told me that the Meerwald is the most important wooden boat on the east coast,” Keenan recalled. “This is one of the few boats that is an original – not a replica – and still working in the same waters as almost 100 years ago. It made me proud to be a part of this boat and to live in New Jersey.”

Once on board, passengers can try their hand at sailing, help raise the sails and guide the boat. Photo courtesy of Bayshore Center at Bivalve

The Meerwald was one of hundreds of schooners built along the Bayshore in South Jersey before the decline of the shipbuilding industry, which coincided with the Great Depression. Through public and private efforts, it was preserved and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

Sailing aboard the Meerwald is as educational as it is enjoyable. Passengers can try their hand at sailing, help raise the sails and guide the boat. They learn about New Jersey’s historic and still vibrant oyster industry, how sailors used the constellations to navigate the waters, and to sing sea shanties – traditional folk songs sailors used to entertain themselves on long voyages.

“All of our sails have an educational component,” Keenan said. “We talk about the history of the boat. We teach people to sail. We talk about the human impact on the environment. This is our mission.”

The $1.4 million renovation currently underway will replace just about everything above the waterline.

“After having nearly 100,000 passengers on the boat, she’s become a bit tattered,” Keenan said. “She will have a new engine, a new generator, a new rig, new sails, so she is available to sail for the next 30 years.”

Although it was a difficult decision to send the Meerwald out of state for restoration, Keenan said the shortage of people working on wooden boats, known as shipwrights, made it necessary both economically and logistically.

“Finding that talent pool, the lumber and the necessary facilities was a challenge,” Keenan explained. “It made economic sense to do it in Maine.”

Sailing aboard the Meerwald is as educational as it is enjoyable for people of all ages. Photo courtesy of Bayshore Center at Bivalve

For Paul Thomas, volunteering as a deckhand aboard the Meerwald is a magical experience.

“It’s a great opportunity to be on the water,” said the Haddon Heights resident. “The boat, I guess you can say, is a museum piece. It’s a pleasure to be part of the crew.”

Thomas enjoys interacting with passengers and helping them understand the mysteries of the nautical world.

“I love the educational aspect of it,” he said. “I love the passengers. They come from all walks of life. I work with them and talk to them. It was a very interesting experience.”

While the boat’s home port is Bivalve, located on the scenic Maurice River in Cumberland County, it visits various ports around the state during the sailing season, which typically runs from May through October.

Two-hour tours cost between $25 and $60, depending on the time of day and year. Individuals, groups and schools can book tours and charters. This year, the Meerwald will likely leave Point Pleasant Beach, Raritan Bay and Atlantic City, in addition to its home port.

To visit bayshorecenter.org/our-ship for more information, to book a tour and make a donation to help nurture this Jersey treasure.

Nancy Parello writes frequently for NJ Advance Media/Jersey’s Best. A former state reporter, she previously worked for the Associated Press and The Record.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.

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