BELFAST, Maine — The AJ Meerwald, the official Tall Ship of the state of New Jersey, looked a little tired and worn Tuesday afternoon as it waited to be hauled into its temporary home in a parking lot on the Belfast waterfront.
The Meerwald, a two-masted 93-year-old oyster dredging schooner that’s in Belfast for its second-ever historic restoration, should look refreshed and renewed soon. And that’s something that makes the crew of this hardworking boat — now used as a traveling classroom — very happy.
“She’s a good boat,” Ethan Nielsen, the chief mate, said. “There’s a lot of love put into her.”
The ship is owned by the nonprofit Bayshore Center at Bivalve, an environmental history museum located on New Jersey’s Maurice River, part of the historically rich oyster grounds of Delaware Bay. But even though the AJ Meerwald is a favorite of many New Jersey schoolchildren and others who have sailed aboard her, the wooden boat is due for a makeover, almost 30 years after her first restoration.
A small Maine company, Clark & Eisele Traditional Boatbuilding of Lincolnville, is glad to provide that service for the New Jersey Tall Ship.
“It’s a pretty major overhaul we’re doing on the boat,” Garett Eisele said. “We’re going to replace the whole deck and the rails. Redo the deck frame, the cabin structure and the bulwarks. It’s going to look a lot nicer.”
In 2017, he and Tim Clark, partners in the boatbuilding firm, responded to an ad about the AJ Meerwald and traveled south to look at the schooner.
“We saw that she was still in really sound condition, but needed work done preventatively,” Eisele said.
Over the next nine months or so, they will get that work done. The 85-foot-long AJ Meerwald will be encased in a 100-foot temporary structure built on land that Clark & Eisele has leased from the city of Belfast. The worksite is located in the parking lot adjacent to Front Street Shipyard, and the boatbuilders are hoping to have monthly open houses so they can show curious onlookers what they’re doing.
“The city has been really inviting and helpful to us,” Eisele said. “They’ve been great.”
Because the ship is historic, the boatbuilders had to work closely with the New Jersey Historic Trust about the materials they use for the restoration.
“Right down to the species of wood used,” Eisele said.
The boat was originally constructed with white oak and Atlantic cedar, both of which are hard to source right now, the boatbuilders said, although they were more abundant during the ship’s first restoration. The historic trust is allowing the Maine boatbuilders to use easier-to-find wood such as Alaskan yellow cedar for elements of the boat that are painted, Clark said.
If the Meerwald looks familiar to Mainers, that may be because it’s very similar to the Schooner J & E Riggin, which offers windjammer cruises out of Rockland. The Riggin, built in 1927, just one year earlier than the Meerwald, also was an oyster schooner that plied the rich waters of South New Jersey.
They were among hundreds of sailing vessels constructed to catch oysters in South New Jersey. The fishery was lucrative. At its height, the oyster community of Bivalve, New Jersey — located next door to the evocatively named village of Shell Pile — shipped 30 to 80 box cars full of oysters daily. The molluscs, a prized delicacy, traveled to destinations all over the country.
“That’s a lot of oysters,” Josh Scornavacchi, captain of the AJ Meerwald, said.
People built fortunes on the oyster fishery, he said.
“During the height of the oyster industry, Bivalve was the wealthiest town in New Jersey,” Scornavacchi said. “There were more millionaires per capita than in the rest of New Jersey combined.”
But those days did not last. During World War II, the AJ Meerwald was commandeered under the War Powers Act and was outfitted as a fireboat by the U.S. Coast Guard. Not long after the war, the oyster industry collapsed when a blight caused by a parasitic protozoan, called MSX, wiped out nearly all of the oyster beds.
“They started to come back, but another disease happened in the 1980s,” Scornavacchi said. “The industry is nothing compared to what it was.”
He’s looking forward to the restoration.
“I think it’ll make us look more professional and more presentable,” the captain said. “It looks like a working boat right now.”
Brian Keenan, the director of the Bayshore Center, said that it seems very appropriate that the second restoration happens in Maine. That’s because the AJ Meerwald, which had been left for junk on the side of a creek in Maryland, was originally rescued by Captain John Gandy, who now lives in Blue Hill.
“It was John who was the early visionary,” Keenan said. “He purchased it for a dollar and he and his son spent every weekend for six to nine months getting it seaworthy. Then they brought it back into the Delaware Bay, and began the process of restoring the boat.”
Gandy helped facilitate the creation of the Bayshore Center before leaving New Jersey, eventually to settle in Maine. He was aboard the AJ Meerwald for its recent voyage to Maine from New Jersey, Keenan said.
“We decided on Maine because of the extensive knowledge base and skill set you have there for wooden boat restoration,” Keenan said. “We’re just delighted to be there in Maine.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Garett Eisele’s name.