BELFAST, Maine — The pungent aroma of freshly cut cedar spread around a chilly tent on the Belfast shoreline Tuesday as the occasional thud of mallet on chisel revealed the ongoing restoration progress on the AJ Meerwald, an oyster dredging schooner that is New Jersey’s official Tall Ship.
The Meerwald is spending the next six months or so in Belfast, where it is undergoing a historic renovation. A crew of shipwrights already has carefully removed its decking and are now fitting new beams to replace worn-out or rotten ones.
After all, most working oyster schooners would have been retired after 10 or 20 years — so a 93-year-old ship deserves a little extra care.
“It’s pretty unusual to have one this old,” Garett Eisele, the co-owner of Clark & Eisele Traditional Boatbuilding of Lincolnville, said. “We’re making good progress.”
The two-masted Meerwald arrived in Maine in September for its second-ever historic restoration. Clark & Eisele, a small, four-year-old company is doing the work in a temporary structure they built on a piece of land leased from the city of Belfast. It’s going so well they are inviting the community to come check the boat out at an open house on Saturday, Dec. 18.
“It’s a neat thing happening in the community,” Eisele said. “And I think it’s worthwhile to let the people in the town see what we’re doing.”
The wooden oyster schooner is owned by the nonprofit Bayshore Center at Bivalve, an environmental history museum located on New Jersey’s Maurice River. It was one of hundreds of schooners built along the South Jersey shoreline to catch oysters, and is used today as a traveling classroom.
It already looks very different than it did in September, although there is a long way to go before the work is complete — something expected to happen in the late spring or early summer. This fall, the Meerwald was hauled out of the water and moved into a white tent-like building in the parking lot adjacent to Front Street Shipyard. Inside it, a skeleton of scaffolding has been built around the ship so the crew members can move around the ship.
“It’s neat to see the structure,” Eisele said. “You can kind of imagine how everything functions.”
Because it’s a historic renovation, he and co-owner Tim Clark had to work closely with the New Jersey Trust regarding the materials they could use, down to the species of wood. The boat was originally constructed with white oak and Atlantic cedar, both of which are hard to source right now. Eisele traveled to western Massachusetts for three months, sleeping in a tent so that he could be close to a person with a sawmill who was willing to turn rot-resistant white oak logs into boards for the Meerwald.
“I found somebody crazy enough to saw wood for a custom boatbuilder,” he said. “You can’t just buy it.”
Right now, Clark and Eisele have four employees and five subcontractors working on the project. They will have another apprentice starting in the new year.
“This is a great project,” boatbuilder Aaron Freeman of Rockland said as he said as he fitted a deck beam into place. “It’s been a fun boat to work on.”
Eisele is hoping for a good turnout at the open house. He knows that people in the community have been curious about what’s going on inside the temporary structure, because some would come in and start asking questions. It was getting to be a little too much, so the company put up a handwritten sign asking folks to not just walk in uninvited.
“Everybody’s really interested in it,” he said, adding that he likes to show off the crew’s progress, just not all the time. “We have the best of the best working on this right now. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve put together.”
The open house for the AJ Meerwald will be held from 12-4 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 18, located in the temporary structure on the Belfast waterfront between Front Street Shipyard and the Front Street Pub. Admission is free, but donations to the Bayshore Center at Bivalve are encouraged.