Take a sail on New Jersey’s state ship
⛵ NJ's state ship is the AJ Meerwald, a 1920's oyster schooner
⛵ The boat is not a replica and still goes out for sails on the Delaware Bay
⛵ Its home port is in Bivalve, Cumberland County
New Jersey has a state flower, a state fruit, a state flag, and a state vegetable, just to name a few. But did you know that we have a state ship?
It is the AJ Meerwald, a restored Delaware Bay dredging oyster schooner.
Who was AJ Meerwald?
Augustus Joseph (AJ) Meerwald II, born in 1863, followed in his father’s footsteps of working the waters, offering merchants vessels and oyster boats in South Jersey, said Rachel Dolhanczyk, museum curator for the AJ Meerwald.
She said Meerwald and his wife had 8 children. Their two older boys, Augustus "Gus" and William "Bill" built an oyster schooner boat in 1928 and named it after their father, a successful oysterman, and a prominent member of the NJ Board of Shellfisheries, to honor him.
What is the history of the AJ Meerwald?
The AJ Meerwald was a Delaware Bay oyster schooner. This style of boat was built in the 1920s because the 20s was the heyday for the oyster business, Dolhanczyk said. In those days, fishermen were harvesting a lot of oysters along South Jersey’s Bayshore.
Because of that, oystermen were building bigger boats so more oysters could be harvested.
The AJ Meerwald was one of those boats.
“Like all boats, she’s based on the environment. She’s built with a centerboard that can be pulled up in shallow waters. Her draft or her depth isn’t very deep. It’s only six feet. It’s all based on the environment,” Dolhanczyk said.
Why was the AJ Meerwald chosen to be the state ship?
In 1988, the non-profit, The Bayshore Center, which owns and operates the AJ Meerwald, began a mission to restore the vessel to be used for public sails and to advance the understanding of the human impact on the aquatic environment.
In the late 90s, a letter-writing campaign to then New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman started, in order to make this the state ship.
In 1998, The AJ Meerwald was designated New Jersey’s Official Tall Ship.
It’s only a title. There is no direct funding with that title, Dolhanczyk said. While it’s an honor to have this title and to be an ambassador for the state of New Jersey, she said the ship and the museum remain a private non-profit, and therefore, rely heavily on public generosity to continue to stay in operation.
Where is the AJ Meerwald today?
Her home port is in Bivalve, New Jersey in Cumberland County, on the Maurice River, just off the Delaware Bay.
“What’s cool about that and why it’s so significant is because that’s the very waters that the AJ Meerwald worked during her years as an oyster boat,” Dolhanczyk said.
Not only is she from 1928, but the AJ Meerwald is also still working the waters today, she added.
The boat, which holds up to 50 passengers, is still used for public sails. People can go out on two-hour sails, help raise the sails, learn about the history of the boat, and the crews who worked the oyster boat back in the day, she added.
The boat is great for school or church field trips, complete with hands-on activities. It’s also used for specialty sails like wine and cheese sails.
Dolhanczyk said the boat has also done lighthouse sails, where the AJ Meerwald sails to different lighthouses in the Delaware Bay.
She said the boat has been used for weddings and private parties, too.
The AJ Meerwald is the real deal. Last year, she underwent a one-million-dollar restoration. It was actually her second restoration, Dolhanczyk said.
“So she’s extra pretty right now. She’s not a replica. Many times when you go places or go sailing on vessels, they’re replicas of something that was built long ago.
Part of what makes the AJ Meerwald so important is that she is a real vessel that sill works these waters,” Dolhanczyk said.
What is the AJ Meerwald museum?
Again, the actual AJ Meerwald continues to sail today. But the museum associated with it is housed in a 1904 oyster shipping shed. It’s a historic building because the sole purpose of it in the early 20th century was to pack and ship oysters, Dolhanczyk said.
The museum has exhibits and hosts programs and events. For example, every second Friday of the month there is a festive party in the evening featuring live music on the docks, raw oysters, local beer, and wine. Each month a different speaker presents a topic relating to the environment, local history, or other interesting topics. There are also food trucks and local craft vendors.
The museum is open for free self-guided tours, and the gift shop, the Meerwald Mercantile is open, too. No tickets are needed for these Friday events.
Feel free to check out AJ’s Pub and the Oyster Cracker Café, as well.
“We are an environmental history museum. We look at the human impact on the aquatic environment," she said.
What is there to keep in mind?
It’s not just a story about “back in the day” because there is still a New Jersey Delaware Bay oyster industry both with farm-raised and wild-caught oysters.
“We’re starting to see more and more New Jersey oyster menus at restaurants and raw bars. It’s not just Delaware Bay oysters but further up the shore like Barnegat and elsewhere, there’s a lot going on with New Jersey’s oysters,” Dolhanczyk said.
The AJ Meerwald also sails from different ports around the area. Since it’s not always in the Bivalve area, it’s a good idea to check the website to see the full sailing schedule.