BELFAST, Maine – The AJ Meerwald, New Jersey’s official state tall ship, is restored, rejuvenated and nearly ready to return home after a 10-month historic restoration by expert boat builders in Belfast.
“It feels good to have the Meerwald and make it look really new,” Garett Eisele, co-owner of Lincolnville’s Clark & Eisele Traditional Boatbuilding, said Tuesday. “We are really happy to see the boat in the water. We are really happy with how it went.
Maine is one of the few places where a project like this can happen — “on time and on budget,” he said — because there are enough skilled craftsmen around who know how to make historic vessels like the 94-year-old oyster dredge schooner. to their former glory.
“In the middle of the pandemic winter, we hired a team. We didn’t have a single slacker in our crew. The people were amazing and there was nobody who wasn’t very, very experienced,” Eisele said. “And everyone was very local.”
He attributes this, in part, to the state’s fleet of historic wooden schooners, which continue to cruise coastal waters in the summer.
“Last weekend I was sailing, and there were 12 schooners sitting there, with all these people sitting on them, and all these little sailboats going around,” he said. “It’s really, really special in the world. The fact that these boats work is why we have the skills here to not just do an interpretation, or come back to it, but to actually be trades people. and do it right.
The schooner belongs to the non-profit association Bayshore Center at Bivalve, an environmental history museum located on New Jersey’s Maurice River. It is used as a traveling classroom to teach people about the rich Delaware Bay oyster beds and more.
The Meerwald, which arrived in Maine in September 2021, was due for a makeover, and Eisele and Tim Clark got the job.
The transformation of the wooden boat is stunning, said John Gandy, a retired ship’s captain who lives in Blue Hill. He saved the Meerwald from the mudflats of New Jersey in 1986, when he bought it for a dollar from its owner, who had stripped it and no longer needed it. He was in poor condition. But Gandy’s family had been in the oyster industry on the South Jersey Shore for generations past, and he knew something about oyster dredging schooners.
“These are beautiful ships, and I always dreamed of how great it would be to put one back under sail,” he said.
The boat’s first restoration was completed in 1994 after extensive fundraising and the formation of a non-profit organization.
“It’s quite impressive to see him floating again. And damn, the whole transition has been amazing,” he said. “These people are woodworking artists. It’s absolutely beautiful, what they’ve done with the boat and what it looks like now. I can’t find words to describe it.
Now freshly painted white with colorful stripes on her hull, the wide-beamed Meerwald was one of hundreds of sailboats built for oyster fishing in southern New Jersey. It was a lucrative business, and at its peak, the oyster community of Bivalve, New Jersey, shipped 30 to 80 carloads of ice-packed oysters daily to destinations across the country.
The restoration aimed to restore the boat to its new shine.
“They had a historian on staff who checked our project plan, to make sure what we were doing was compliant and that we were replacing as much as possible,” Eisele said.
In the end, the team had to replace everything from deck level up, including the transom and around 30 hull planks. Because this was a landmark renovation, they worked closely with the New Jersey Trust regarding the materials they could use, right down to wood species.
“It was definitely the biggest project we’ve done,” said Eisele, 31. “We have been building a relationship with the boat for a long time. We had a pretty good idea of what we were getting into, but there are always things you can’t tell when you’re doing it. [demolition].”
The Meerwald restoration experience was special, he said.
“I think this job is particularly interesting because it’s a dead job. It’s not really something that people do commercially anymore, and as we move away from the age of sailing, with each generation, we lose more and more information about how it happens done,” Eisele said.
It is fortunate that they were able to rent land from the City of Belfast where they built a temporary structure to carry out the work on the boat.
Despite numerous COVID-19-related delays and unexpected surprises, such as previously unidentified rot, the crew – which numbered 14 at its peak – got the job done.
John Brady, acting director of the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, said he was delighted with the restoration of the Meerwald. The organization is working out the details of the trip back to New Jersey. She will spend a week alongside in Belfast, then be moved, possibly to Castine, until the crew is ready to take her back to Bivalve.
“The boat looks, I think, better than ever,” he said. “It was really great to work with the folks in Maine to make this happen. It’s great to see that there is such interest in maintaining wooden ships in Maine.