OVER 600 OYSTER BOATS were built between 1846 and 1930 in towns along the Delaware Bay like Bridgeton, Greenwich, Cedarville, Dividing Creek, Dorchester, Leesburg, Mauricetown; but very few boats are left today and those that are require a good deal of maintenance. All oystering was originally done by sail, but after World War II, dredging under mechanized power was allowed, so most of the oystermen cut their masts and installed engines. They’re a leaky fleet, named after families that have lived in the region for many generations: Robbins, Lore, Sockwell, Reed, and many more. New Jersey’s tall ship, the A.J. Meerwald is named for one such family, and was rescued from the mud by the efforts of Megan Wren, a native of Money Island in Downe Township. Wren began the Delaware Bay Schooner Project in 1988 as a conservation effort to restore the decrepit schooner. With the help of many volunteers including boat builders who were forced to learn as they went along, the Meerwald (which was originally built in 1928) was relaunched in 1998. The Schooner Project is now the Bayshore Center at Bivalve and the A.J. Meerwald has become a floating classroom. Her home port is Bivalve, but she also docks in Cape May, Burlington, and occasionally in Philadelphia. Just about all crew and maintenance work is done by volunteers and I’m proud to say I was one of them for a brief time. I toted equipment, filled oil jugs for the Meerwald’s engine and painted the address of the organization’s headquarters on 50 gallon plastic trash cans. While I was there, the Bayshore Discovery Project (as it was called at the time) had also acquired another old schooner named the Cashier for $1. At the time it was the oldest continuously used fishing boat in the world. It began its life in 1846. The paint on it was an inch thick in some places. Sadly, the paint was the only thing holding the Cashier together. She is now slowly rotting in the mud at the restored wharves of Bivalve.
BIVALVE is also home to the Bivalve Packing Company and it was on their premises that I watched another oyster schooner being rebuilt; this one practically from scratch using re-claimed lumber from an old New England barn. It was named early on–the Ada C. Lore. Once again local provenance. I would stop by the ship yard from time to time to check on the boat’s progress and once I had the opportunity to ask a few questions of the part time boat builders. How did they know where to begin? What plans were they working from? They just chuckled and gave me the old “scratch your head” look. They were honestly working from instinct I believe. Of course they had rudimentary boat building and carpentry skills but the real knowledge was in their blood.
The construction continued for several years and finally on one beautiful August day, it was time for the launch. Practically the whole town of Port Norris turned out for the spectacle; it was like a holiday. And it took all day. A very large crane capable of lifting 50 tons was hired, as was a semi trailer to haul the boat from it’s construction site to the nearby Port Norris Marina. One little problem though. In ordering the trailer someone had misplaced a zero and the trailer that arrived was only good for hauling 10,000 pounds when a 100,000 pound trailer was needed. A heated discussion ensued. The crane was already there, it would take another day to switch trailers, they would have to pay another day’s crane rental… Nobody was really sure how much the Ada C. Lore weighed but an estimate came in at about 25,000 pounds. It was finally decided to try and load her on the trailer and see what happened. These were either very stupid or very brave souls to risk several year’s worth of work on someone’s math error. But people who make a living on the water are used to risks. The crane was put into position, a huge harness slung under the boat, and she was carefully lifted onto the waiting trailer and chocked and shimmed into place. The back of the trailer sunk to about two inches from the ground and the rear tires were visibly splayed out unnaturally. But the truck driver got under way and very slowly the Ada C. Lore started on her journey to the water. Everyone held their breath when a tight turn had to be negotiated, but the only mishaps were a telephone pole bent to a 20 degree angle and a stop sign destroyed.
It was nearly twilight by the time the schooner arrived at her launch site with the crane following and setting up at the new location. The boat was harnessed again, lifted off the trailer and swung out over the water. In the best maritime tradition the owner, who was by now nearly totally drained, smashed a bottle of cheap bubbly on her bow and she was lowered into the muddy Maurice River, amid much celebration from all present.