BELFAST — The A.J. Meerwald, a 115-foot Delaware Bay oyster schooner, is getting the second major makeover of its 93-year history in Belfast, and the public got to see the work in progress firsthand during an open house in a temporary building at Front Street Shipyard Dec. 18.

The oyster dredger is the official tall ship of New Jersey, and is in the hands of Lincolnville company Clark & Eisele Traditional Boatbuilding for its woodwork. Crafted from white oak with a cedar deck, the ship underwent a complete restoration in 1994. After being used as an educational vessel for the past 25 years, it needed another overhaul, so it was sailed up to Belfast from New Jersey by John Gandy of Blue Hill, who has been involved with the Meerwald since 1986.

Garett Eisele, who owns Clark & Eisele with business partner Tim Clark, hopes that with the help of his “awesome crew,” the $1 million restoration will be completed in June. The open house was the first of many, as the company hopes to hold one every month or two so the public can see the Meerwald’s progress. Eisele was pleased by the “fantastic” turnout of people to view this “neat piece of history.”

Silas Yates performs with his jazz band, Plus Four, under the A.J. Meerwald Dec. 18. Photo by Cali Warren

The tall ship is owned by the nonprofit organization Bayshore Center at Bivalve, which was started by former Merchant Marine John Gandy and some like-minded friends when Gandy acquired the Meerwald back in 1986. “She was a derelict and I had a dream,” Gandy said, and the ship is now the “Coast Guard-certified official tall ship of New Jersey.”

Brian Keenan, executive director of the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, is “very excited” about the restoration. He came to Belfast for the open house and explained that this is the first time New Jersey has ever permitted a historic artifact to leave the state for restoration. “New Jersey takes historic preservation very seriously,” he said.

In an effort to promote the schooner’s restoration and raise awareness of the history behind it, a book was published in November with $10 of each sale supporting the repair effort. “The A.J. Meerwald and New Jersey’s Oyster Industry,” by Rachel Dolhanczyk and Constance McCart, describes both the history of the vessel and the “unknown history of the New Jersey oyster industry,” according to Keenan. He added that the oyster industry of the Garden State is the second-largest in the country.

Those attending the open house also enjoyed music by jazz quintet Plus Four, which performed a variety of instrumental pieces for the crowd. The hosts served light refreshments and baked goods, and the book and memorabilia were available for purchase. Copies of the book are also available at bayshorecenter.org.

 

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