Doing It Old School by Jeff Sublett

Whenever I spend time on one of the historic tall ships I’m reminded of sailing on a friend’s current sailboat. We sit in a cushioned cockpit, out of the sun under a bimini, and shielded from the spray by a tailored dodger. We stand behind the pedestal mounted wheel topped with a large accurate, easy to read compass flanked by equally accurate instruments giving us wind speed, direction, boat speed, and we never have to leave the cockpit to raise, lower or adjust the sails. Did I mention the handy cooler filled with cold drinks and snacks? No, there isn’t a couch and big screen television, we are still sailing after all, and our attention is focused on managing wind, tide and sail to reach our destination, lunch. This is a far cry from the experience aboard the A.J.Meerwald now or when she was launched in 1928. What, no teak and holly decks and no dry bunks with Ralph Lauren sheets? In the end the true essence is the same, the delight we derive from being surrounded and engaged by wind, water and wood. Yes wood, why else would we have so much teak and mahogany in our plastic boats, it just feels right. The A.J.Meerwald wasn’t designed and built to make those who sail aboard feel pampered, it was conceived to work, and work hard bringing it’s crew and catch home safely. It’s only some seventy years later that her mission has become to bring joy and knowledge to all those fortunate enough to sail aboard her, and still doing it old school. You may find an occasional plastic bucket or appliance aboard but essentially it’s the way it was when she was a working oyster schooner plying the Delaware Bay along with hundreds of other similar boats in the thirties and forties. The difference is this old gal survived
thanks to fate, fortune and the herculean restoration work of the Bayshore Discovery Project.

As she was at her launch, the AJ Meerwald has an overall fully rigged length of 115’, 83’ on deck and a beam of 22’1” on a gross tonnage of 57 carrying 3,562 sq ft of sail. She’s a big boat with a low 4’ freeboard and relatively shallow 6’ draft to facilitate her intended purpose of bay oystering under sail or power. These vessels had evolved to meet the specific needs of the local oystermen in terms of
size, draft and tonnage. A.J.Meerwald was typical of the Delaware Bay oyster schooners built along South Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore in Dorchester before the decline of shipbuilding in that area, at around the same time as the Great Depression. The A.J.Meerwald was built by the Charles H. Stowman & Sons shipyard for her owners and captains, the Meerwald family of South Dennis. She was one of several boats owned and operated by the family at that time. A.J.Meerwald was launched in the fall of 1928 as a bald-headed (no topmasts) gaf-rigged oyster dredge. She’s oak planked on oak frames of “relatively” light scantlings as was characteristic of  the Dorchester schooners.

From launch until June of 1942 she was one of as many as 500 schooners sailing the bay as part on the oyster trade until she was commandeered under the War Powers Act. The U.S. Coast Guard removed her masts and added pumps and a deckhouse and used her as a fireboat. In January of 1947 she was returned to the Meerwald family, the condition unclear, but that fall she was sold to Clyde A. Philips to be used as an oyster dredge under power. The A.J.Meerwald became the Clyde A. Philips, but at least she was once again working at her trade. In 1959 she was passed on to Cornelius Campbell, outfitted for surf clamming, and operated as a clam dredge by American Clam into the late 70’s. After a ten year retirement the Clyde A. Philips was donated to the Bayshore Discovery Project. With that transfer, the recovery, restoration and celebration of one of the few remaining authentic Delaware Oyster Bay Schooners began. The Bayshore Discovery Project, created in 1988, was given the Clyde A. Philips by Captain John Gandy in 1989.

By 1992 she was lifted by crane from the riverand set in Bivalve, N.J. for restoration. Three years later in 1995 she was launched and rechristened the A.J. Meerwald and added to the National Register of Historic Places, soon to be designated New Jersey’s Official Tall Ship in 1998 by then Governor Whitman. In order for all that to take place a complete and painstakingly accurate 26 month professional restoration had to happen first. The restoration began with basically a bare hull which had to be brought back to it’s original shape and dimensions after decades of hard use and neglect. Then, with thorough historic research, careful planing, a ton of grassroots funding, the support of New Jersey Historic Trust and the New Jersey Department of Transportation she was returned to her home waters very close to original ship she was at her launch in 1928. A.J. Meerwald was brought back with workmanship and traditions passed down through generations of local craftsman, materials from some of the same mills and sources used in the original build and thousands of volunteer hours. A.J.Meerwald now sails her home waters in and around New Jersey and beyond promoting the environment, culture, and history of the New Jersey Bayshore region. She sails out of her homeport at Bivalve on the Maurice River in Port Norris, NJ, also the home of New Jersey’s Tall Ship and Delaware Bay Museum and Folklife Center. Under the command of Captain Jessie Briggs and a crew of twelve she sails from April to November fulfilling her current mission of providing entertainment and educational programs to the public.

The A.J.Meerwald and other tall ships like her do so much more, they offer us a tangible, hands on, link to the traditions and methods of the past in a world immersed in so much virtual reality. Put down the smart phones, smart pads, laptops and get out on the water in a wooden ship, lend a hand raising the sails, feel the power of the wind, and understand why the A.J.Meerwald crews never needed a gym membership.

To get aboard, get more information, or get involved, contact the Bayshore Discovery Project at 856-785-2060, by email at info@bayshorediscovery.org or on the web at http://www.bayshorediscovery.org . New volunteers are always needed and welcome, “many hands make light work!” and there’s plenty of work to do year round maintaining the Meerwald and her homeport. As always have a happy, healthy, and safe boating season.

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