A.J. Meerwald

BRISTOL BOROUGH >> The Bristol Borough Rotary Club will help send borough seventh graders and their teachers on a river excursion this month they won’t soon forget.

The club is underwriting a good chunk of the cost of sending about 120 students and staff on a Delaware River excursion aboard the tall ship, the AJ Meerwald, which will be docked in the Borough from May 6 to 12.

Bobby Moyer, who teaches seventh grade in the Bristol Borough School District, said this will be the fourth or fifth year the school district will be participating in the sail, which teaches kids about ecology and the environment in addition to giving them a spectacular view of their hometown from the river.

And thanks to the Rotarians, the cost per student for this year’s field trip has been cut by two-thirds.

“It’s not only generous, but it’s great to know people in the community see this as a great opportunity for the kids, that they acknowledge the importance of hands-on education and getting out into the environment,” said Moyer.

About 120 students and staff members from Bristol Junior-Senior High School will participate this year in three different sails, said Moyer.

“To understand the river you have to be on the river,” said Moyer. “And probably out of 120 students, just 10 percent have been on the River. They’ve all seen it from the shoreline. With this, they will finally get to see Bristol from the water, which is huge because it looks beautiful from the water. The town was designed to be seen from the water.”

While the Meerwald is docked in Bristol, its crew will be providing reserved public and private excursions along with giving more than 200 area students a chance to explore the ship, its history and the Delaware River.

“We do a lot of public sailing, but our main mission is to educate,” said Allison Place, the marine operations manager at the Bayshore Center in Bivalve, New Jersey, where the Meerwald is homeported. “We talk a lot about the human impact on the waterways and what can be done to make a positive impact on the environment.”

According to Place, the ship will be visited by at least five school groups, including three from the Bristol Middle High School, a group from St. Marks School, also in Bristol Borough, and a school from Philadelphia.

“It’s a really fun sail,” said Place. “The students get to work with the crew, set the sails and participate in different learning stations. It’s all hands-on so they get to actually see and touch the things that are out in the water. The kids can look under the microscope and see plankton. It’s quite fun.”

Place continued, “What makes our program unique is that we tie in history to our environmental lessons. The boat is pretty unique. It’s an original 1928 oyster schooner. Most of the other tall ships you see are replicas. We talk a lot about the history of the oyster industry because that’s our roots. We also talk about the human impacts on the oyster industry, how the river was significantly over fished, the introduction of species into the bay that wiped out oysters and we tie that in with the present,” she said. “We also talk about the history of the Delaware River and how polluted it used to be and that it’s better now.”

According to Place, a major focus of its sails is educating the students on the impact they could be having on their local waterways even if they don’t live on one.

“We have a whole station revolving around watersheds. We have a model of mountains and terrains. We put garbage on it and watch it wash down into the waterways,” she said.

“A lot of these kids have never been out on their local waterways before so to get them to see what they have in their own backyard is a great experience. And Bristol is amazing from the water. It’s really cool.”

Traditionally the Meerwald has sailed out of Burlington. Since Bristol opened its new docks, its been doing both. This year, however, because Burlington’s docks are being repaired the ship is docking exclusively in Bristol this year.

“We love Bristol’s new docks,” said Place. “It’s a great port for our crew. The dock is wonderful. Some of our ports are out in the boonies so it’s nice when you can walk around town and go to a restaurant.”

She added, “We’re really excited to be coming back to Bristol and we really appreciate that the town takes such good care of us while we’re there.”

The A.J. Meerwald is New Jersey's official Tall Ship. She is a restored oyster dredging schooner, whose home port is in Bivalve, Commercial Township, New Jersey.

Launched in 1928, A.J. Meerwald was one of hundreds of schooners built along South Jersey's Bayshore before the decline of the shipbuilding industry which coincided with the Great Depression.

Today, the A.J. Meerwald is used by the Bayshore Center at Bivalve for onboard educational programs in the Delaware Bay near Bivalve, and at other ports in the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware region. The A.J. Meerwald was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 7, 1995.

“She is 115 feet long from the tip of the bow sprit to the end of the boom and she’s 68 feet tall on her main mast,” said Place. “We have three sails and we can take 41 passengers out. She’s an original oyster schooner from the Delaware Bay. She’s very unique.”

During WWII, the Meerwald was commandeered by the Coast Guard and used as a fireboat. She also did a stint as a clammer for a while and then she sat in the mud for quite a while after she was retired in 1980.

In the late 1980s she was purchased, restored and eventually relaunched in 1994.

Today, she is manned by an eight member crew of all different ages and backgrounds and skill level. “We have the captain and seasoned sailors and people who have never sailed before,” said Place.

Out on the river “it’s beautiful. It’s awesome. And if you’re prone to seasickness that’s a good place to go - nice and smooth,” said Place. “There’s no seasickness on the river. It’s a smooth sail and around Bristol it’s beautiful.”

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