A ride aboard New Jersey’s official tall ship

BY Lauren Wanko, Correspondent |

The crew tends the lines and is soon underway on New Jersey’s official tall ship, the AJ Meerwald.

“It’s historic. It feels rugged. It feels tough. I mean, it’s been working for decades,” said Johann Steinke, captain of the A.J. Meerwald.

“The vessel was created and commissioned to be built for the purpose of oystering, so it was built to harvest oysters,” said chief mate Joshua Scornavacchi.

Launched in 1928 in Dorchester, the AJ Meerwald is a restored oyster dredging schooner based out of the Bayshore Center at Bivalve.

“The oyster population was huge back then. On any given day you would see between three and 500 vessels like the one you’re on right now sailing around on the Morris River and the Delaware Bay. And every day, just in small little town of Bivalve, they would ship out 50 to 80 boxcars, train cars, full of oysters all over the country. And they considered themselves the oyster capital of the world. They would even send oysters to Europe,” said Scornavacchi.

During World War II, the schooner was outfitted as a fire boat and she was eventually used as clam dredge. In the late 1980s, she was donated to the Bayshore Center at Bivalve.

Today the crew sails the vessel throughout New Jersey and to other states. Visitors are welcome onboard to set the sails, learn about the environment and the schooner’s history. They’re on the water for about eight months a year. The 10 crew members actually live on board during that time.

Steinke has served as captain of the vessel since February. While underway, he also enjoys reading the children’s book he wrote to those on board. Princeton resident Patrick Leger is happy to be on the AJ Meerwald.

“Just to be moving around on this piece of history, and seeing all these wooden masts and traditional sails, it’s really exciting,” Leger said.

The two-masted, gaff-rigged schooner is 115 feet long overall.

“The beauty of these boats and historical vessels in general is that they can symbolize anything. Most of our ancestors in this country came over by boat — that’s the truth of it. Most of our working was done, historically everybody had to wait for the wind and weather. When it rained all the roads were muddy so you couldn’t travel, but a boat could. A lot of people think ‘Oh, there’s no wind, you can’t sail.’ Well that is true, but everyone had to wait for wind and weather. These were the semi-trucks of the day, and these working vessels were what kept our world going back in the day,” said Steinke.

At the end of the trip, the crew lowers the sails and prepares for their next voyage.