All Aboard the A.J. Meerwald

Pulled from the muck in a South Jersey river, the Meerwald–the state's official tall ship–now doubles as a classroom and cruise boat.

The schooner A.J. Meerwald sails the Delaware Bay off its home port in Bivalve.
The schooner A.J. Meerwald sails the Delaware Bay off its home port in Bivalve.
Photo by Matt Rainey

It is a late-summer evening, not yet dark, in the harbor waters off Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

“Haul away,” says Jesse Briggs, standing at the helm of the A.J. Meerwald, the official tall ship of New Jersey. Briggs, 58, is the vessel’s captain.

On this night, the Meerwald, a former oyster schooner lovingly restored and reborn 20 years ago as a combination environmental classroom, summer camp, training ship and ceremonial representative of New Jersey in maritime events, is taking six paying customers on a sunset outing.

The ship leaves the dock under the thrumming power of a diesel engine. A hint of wind picks up. At Briggs’s command, the crew begins raising the sails. Manila lines—ropes thick as a child’s arm—uncoil and snake upward from the planked deck. Passengers have moved to the starboard side to avoid getting clocked by the sail’s boom, which can bang around like an unlatched gate.

Briggs gives a command to lower the centerboard. The ship—115 feet long, with a rig height of 70 feet—requires 6 feet of clearance with the centerboard raised, 12 feet when it is down.

Slowly, the heavy white canvas sheets rise. Briggs cuts the power on the diesel engine. The thrumming gives way to an intense silence. Then the mainsail flaps noisily and fills. The reef nettles, short pieces of cord attached to the sails to secure excess fabric, wiggle uncertainly, then hold steady.

The boom has stiffened now. It has become a lever. Held tight, it allows the wind’s force to be turned into energy to propel the ship.

“Hold the line,” calls Briggs. Passengers are encouraged to join the effort. It all comes naturally to Briggs, the son of a seafaring family. “I grew up around tugboats,” he says. “My brothers are captains too.”

The mainsail is up; next up is the foresail, then the jib.  Some 3,500 square feet of sail area are now fully filled out. Smiles of delight break out on deck. We are sailing.

The Meerwald, a two-masted schooner whose home port is the Bivalve section of the Delaware Bay town of Port Norris in Cumberland County, has become a familiar sight in the Atlantic waters off New Jersey. This summer, its planned ports of call include Jersey City, Perth Amboy, Barnegat Light, Atlantic City and Cape May.

Briggs sets his course. Around a bend, the Statue of Liberty comes into view. With the Meerwald doing about 8 knots, the park recedes. Sea smells mix with fuel fumes.
The harbor is bustling.  A baby-blue tug pushes a barge piled with garbage and scrap metal, headed toward Elizabeth Port. An orange Staten Island Ferry churns its way to Lower Manhattan. Off the stern, a raucous trio of Jet-Skiers appears, calling to each other and laughing. Dinner-cruise boats appear as the Manhattan skyline looms closer.

Briggs keeps watch on it all as he recounts the ship’s history. He first set eyes on the Meerwald in 1996, shortly after meeting Meghan Wren, the woman who is now his wife, at a maritime conference. Wren was looking for a captain for the Meerwald. Briggs, who lived in Virginia at the time, took the job. (He left after one season for other job opportunities, but returned as captain in 2001.)

Wren, a lifelong South Jersey resident, had gained years of experience working on boats. She grew up an athlete and competitive swimmer with a taste for adventure. At age 20, she left her studies at the University of Pennsylvania and started on a cross-country drive with her dog. Reaching Galveston, Texas, she stopped to visit some childhood friends. It was there that she learned about the tall ship Elissa, an 1877 bark.

On impulse, she signed on as a volunteer with the Elissa. “It was a summer that changed my life,” Wren, now 51, says during an interview at the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, the non-profit center she cofounded in 1988. The goal: Restore a tall ship and create an educational center to support it.

When Wren joined the crew of the Elissa, the ship was bound for New York Harbor. It was to be one of dozens of tall ships parading up the Hudson River in Operation Sail, a 1986 spectacle to mark the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.

It was an epic event with ships from all over the world; a blimp race; a speech by President Ronald Reagan; concerts by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and Placido Domingo; and a July 4th fireworks display.

But the hoopla wasn’t what did it for Wren. The inspiration that would lead to her one day finding a tall ship of her own came in a quiet, mid-voyage moment in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

“I still remember it, sitting on the ship’s bowsprit, the time when I started to see that having a boat be a classroom was a viable life goal,” Wren says.

Returning to New Jersey with a drive and passion that inspired others, Wren went back to school, tended bar and found work at shipyards, building on her maritime experience. At one point, she took a job on an oyster boat owned by Millville resident John Gandy. As it happened, Gandy had learned about a boat he wanted to restore, a schooner built in 1928 in the South Jersey town of Dorchester. In 1986, he bought the boat—the Clyde A. Phillips—which was rotting away at a Maryland dock. Gandy brought the boat back to Jersey and eventually gave it back its original name, the A.J. Meerwald—after the family that owned it first.

The Meerwald was built as an oyster dredge in the days when Jersey’s oyster industry was in its prime. The industry would be nearly wiped out by a disease called MSX, spread by a parasite that suddenly appeared in Delaware Bay oysters in 1957. MSX destroyed 90 percent of the Bay’s oysters in three years.

Now seen as a luxury food, in the 1920s oysters were a dietary staple, eaten several times a week. The Meerwalds were among many South Jersey families that got wealthy on the oyster trade.

“Every year,” says Briggs, “the Meerwalds took the boat on a Christmas-shopping trip to Philadelphia for a few days.” They would return with the hold full of holiday gifts.

Times changed. In the early days of World War II, the federal government commandeered the Meerwald, refitting her as a U.S. Coast Guard fireboat to patrol the Delaware.

After the Meerwalds got their ship back in 1947, they sold her to Clyde A. Phillips, who added power equipment for oyster dredging.  In the ship’s next act, Cornelius “Nicky” Campbell bought the vessel in 1959 to harvest surf clams. The boat was already retired when the oysters died off, ending up moored at the Maryland dock where Gandy found her in 1986.

Back in New Jersey, Gandy’s restoration plans suffered a major setback when a storm knocked out the pumps. The ship sank, settling for a time into the muck at the bottom of the Maurice River. Moving swiftly, Wren and Gandy teamed up with other parties and formed the nonprofit enterprise that became the driving force in rescuing and restoring the ship.

In 1992, the ship was relocated to dry land in Bivalve, an unincorporated town on the Maurice River in Port Norris, for restoration. The project had to adhere to strict government standards for historic vessels. “It took skilled people,” says Briggs, “but there were local folks who knew how to do it.”

That included shipwrights adept at shaping the lumber for its cedar decks and fir masts. The project, begun in 1994 after six years of fund-raising, took 26 months and cost between $2.5 million and $3 million, all raised through public grants and private donations.

In 1998, Governor Christine Todd Whitman designated the renamed A.J. Meerwald as the state’s official tall ship.

Wren’s fundraising success amazed many locals. “I had heard about her and thought it was strange that a young girl was trying to do what she was doing,” says Dom Capaldi, a farmer and manufacturer whose family has lived in Cumberland County for more than 100 years. “I really give her credit,” adds Capaldi, who now volunteers at the Bayshore Center. (Wren and Briggs live nearby in the community of Money Island with their son, Delbay—named for the Delaware Bay.)

Though handsomely restored, the Meerwald is not the most elegant of tall ships.

“It’s wide and steady, designed so you could spend time on it, not for speed,” Briggs says. “It was the tractor-trailer of its day. Built to carry a lot of oysters.”

Now, fitted with crew quarters, a galley, heads and storage space, the Meerwald spends her summers as a seagoing environmental classroom, a training ground for future mariners, a summer camp and a pleasure-cruise boat for tourists. She is available for charters, and passengers can book weeklong trips when the Meerwald transits among ports.

The members of the crew, mostly 20- and 30-somethings, are from all over the country. Some sign on for a summer adventure, some to teach about the environment and others to make a career of sailing tall ships.

“I’m working on getting sea time,” says crew member Erin Johnson, a 35-year-old from Chicago. “I want to get my own sailboat.”

The Meerwald takes on volunteers, but also offers paid jobs for educators (who serve as deckhands) and cooks.

At the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, Wren has overseen the creation of a complex with a museum, gift shop, restored oyster sheds, meeting rooms, and a restaurant called the Oyster Cracker Café, which highlights fresh and local food. Next door is a four-mile nature trail through marshlands. “A lot of our activities are based on celebrating the bay and reconnecting the region with this incredible resource,” says Wren.

The income from cruises and camps, along with fund-raisers like an annual festival, partly cover the Meerwald’s expenses, which include repairs, maintenance and crew. Grants and donations help, too. “Last year we had to replace nine ship ribs and 30 oak planks,” says Briggs. One generous donor made the work possible. The Meerwald team has been pushing for an annual appropriation from the state, but no such support seems forthcoming.

Back at the stern of the Meerwald, Briggs gets ready to return to port after the two-hour cruise. The wind is dying with the sunlight. A fiery gold outlines the distant clouds.

At 8:10 pm, the sun slips below the horizon. Briggs cranks the starter, waking the big diesel engines.

“Uncleat the line,” Briggs calls, and the first sail loosens its grip on the mast.

“Ease away together,” he commands. Steadily, the sail drops, and the Meerwald heads back to the Jersey City dock under diesel power.

At the dock, the passengers head for their cars. The crew stays on board. There will be drinks and laughter. Rocked by the lapping waters, they will sleep in their berths until sunrise. Then they’ll head back to sea.

Gale Scott is deputy executive editor of MD Magazine and MDMag.com. She lives in Cranbury.

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