About two dozen Hudson County students got their chance to sail on Oyster Schooner A.J. Meerwald, the official tall ship of New Jersey, in early July. The voyage, which left from Liberty State Park, was an educational experience for elementary school students from Bayonne — the final leg of a five-day environmental camp. The students also learned about the historic ship, which comes to Jersey City several times each year for various educational programs.
For student Rayn Aidukas, the trip on the Meerwald and other adventures in and outside of Hudson County took him out of his comfort zone.
“This camp was fun and full of adventure,” he said. “I learned a lot.”
As members of the crew talked to local students about the ship and the Hudson estuary the ship sailed past national monuments such as Ellis Island.
Piotr Luczyn took the lesson to heart, saying that he learned a lot about oysters. While his shipmate for a day and fellow student Kristopher Torres got a slightly different lesson.
“The one thing I learned was worms are useful,” he said.
The Bayonne students helped the crew raise the 3,500 square feet of sails during the initial launch. They were told when to pull the ropes and when to let them go, although later, when the sails were brought down, operations were left in the hands of the professionals on board.
A history lesson on the ship and oyster industry
The students also learned about the boat itself. The schooner, which was first launched in 1928, has gone through a number of transformations during its lifetime, including service briefly as part of the national coastal defense during World War II.
The ship was originally commissioned by the Meerwald family of South Dennis and was constructed by Charles H. Stowman & Sons in Dorchester as one of the hundreds of ships working the oyster beds near the mouth of the Delaware River.
New Jersey was among the nation’s leading sources of oysters for almost a century, with yearly crops of 5 to 10 million pounds harvested at its peak.
In 1942, the U.S. Maritime Commission commandeered the ship under the War Powers Act to serve the U.S. Coast Guard as a fireboat. Most of her sailing gear was stripped. A few years after the war ended, the ship was returned to the Meerwald family who sold it for use as a motorized oyster dredge.
When the oyster industry crashed in 1957, the ship eventually took up duty as a surf clamming boat and continued to operate in that fashion until the 1970s when she was retired from service. The boat was donated to the Schooner Project in 1989, fully restored including sail rigging for use as a floating classroom and re-launched in September 1995. On Earth Day, 1998, Gov. Christine Whitman designated the Meerwald as the official tall ship of New Jersey.
“It was our goal to ensure the students went home today with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the wildlife on the river and its coexistence within an urban environment.” – Larissa Drennan
The last trip of five days of adventure
The trip on the schooner was the last of a series of events for Bayonne students taking part in the five-day Environmental & Engineering Program for the Bayonne Public Schools. The curriculum was designed by Larissa Drennan, a science teacher at Woodrow Wilson School.
“It was our goal to ensure the students went home today with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the wildlife on the river and its coexistence within an urban environment,” said Drennan.
The students from grades four to seven from various Bayonne schools also took an eco-cruise through the Hackensack River estuary held by the Hackensack Riverkeeper where they saw a variety of wildlife from cormorants and osprey to bald eagles and mute swans.
They also traveled to Snug Harbor in Staten Island, collecting samples from wetland areas and checking sample nets to identify insect larva, baby snails, and other life, bringing back some to examine at the science lab at Woodrow Wilson School. Closer to home, the students even sampled wildlife at Rutkowski Park on the Bayonne/Jersey City Border in a nature walk led by the Bayonne Nature Club.
Student Richard Moreira said he learned about many aspects of nature.
“This camp has taught us a lot, such as how interesting the forest is and how it is so important to protect our ocean from further pollution,” he said. “This camp has taught me about animals that I didn’t even think about researching before, like bullfrogs and how they catch their food.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.