Nearby, the lighted torch of The Statue of Liberty seemed to take people back in time to when New York Harbor was filled with such sailing ships were common in New York Harbor.
On this day, members of New Jersey's Clean Community program were taking a ride on the A.J. Meerwald - the official tall ship of New Jersey to talk about the environment and to take in a few of the lessons the ship offers.
The Meerwald is part of what is called Bayshore Discovery Project out of Bivalve, New Jersey, founded in 1988 to conserve and enrich the history, culture and environment of the New Jersey coastal waters.
The ship, which is 23 feet wide, and 115 feet long comes north from South Jersey each summer to provide local groups and school children with an floating lesson in the environment.
The boat has a crew of ten, but guests are frequently asked to help raise the 3500 square feet of sail. They are given instructions on when to pull the ropes and when to let them go. The ship is built with oak planks on an oak frame. The deck, masts, booms and gaffes are made from Douglas fir. The sails are of traditional cotton canvas, and her lines are made of Manila hemp - a tribute to the past when hemp ropes were industry standard. With a 70-foot high rigging and 85 feet length of deck, guests were also given basic rules of the sea, where to step and when, as well as how to use life preservers, though none were needed on this relatively gentle jaunt around the harbor.
A floating history lesson
The A.J. Meerwald is a floating history lesson, a throw back to a time when the Delaware River and Hudson River were a huge part of oyster harvesting. 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. But the oyster population was wiped out by disease in 1957 and never fully recovered.
Crew member Eva Millwood gave a brief overview of the ship's rich history during the first half hour of sailing.
The Meerwald was built in 1928 as an oyster dredging schooner, commission by the Meerwald family which owned several other boats.
The ship is typical of the last generation and most highly refined oyster dredging vessels, designed specifically for Delaware production. Shipbuilding in general declined with the 1929 stock market crash.
Unlike most other wooden sailing ships, the Meerwald was designed so that it could be operated by one person, allowing the rest of the crew to harvest oysters.
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 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.
Oysters were a part of Bayonne's history, too
During the trip, various crew members gave lessons on various aspects of the waterways, samplings of sessions they usually give to kids, hoping the guests would return to their various homes where they teach or are involved with the environmental community to bring kids and others back for one of the many themed tours.
Sarah Whittam, who joined the crew last year, gave a lecture on oysters since the history of ship was tied closely to the industry. She detailed some of the attributes of the oysters typically found in local waters and particular their ability to act as cleansing filters of the water.
"The average oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day," she said.
The three-hour trip around New York Harbor was organized by Sandra Huber, executive director of the New Jersey Clean Communities Council, which oversees litter abatement programs in 559 eligible municipalities in 21 counties as a way for members from around the state to network, and as a reward for their activities over the years.
The Clean Community Act was passed by the state legislature in the late 1980s, resulting in concerted efforts by concerned citizens in all 21 counties to clean up their part of the world.
Programs around the state have included cleanup ideas such as Adopt-a-Road program, recycling, and waterway cleanups.
On board from Bayonne were members of the Bayonne Board of Health, as well as Dr. Joseph Ryan, public relations person for Mayor Joseph Doria, and Anna Panayiotou and Thomas Tokar, both teachers and both members of the Cleaner and Greener 2000 program that promotes the environment through a variety of initiatives, including waterside cleanups.
Ryan said he had come on the ride for several reasons, partly to get information, and joked later about his efforts helping to put up the sails, saying, "I like to get in a little physical activity from time to time."
On serious note, Ryan said he had not previously viewed Bayonne from the Eastern side, although had traveled through Kill Van Kull and Newark Bay in the past.
"It gives me a new perspective on the city," he said, and like others, he had hoped to get a glimpse of the new 9/11 memorial being constructed at the former Military Ocean Terminal. But the haze made seeing it on this hot day difficult. Ryan also appreciated the history lessons on the oysters.
"Although much of it involved South Jersey, oyster industry played a big part in our own history," Ryan, a local historian, said, noting that Bayonne had once been the home of similar oyster harvesting operations.
Tokar and Panayiotou had both come to network and learn new ideas for helping to cleanup Bayonne's waterways.
Although Clean Communities program in Bayonne has a five day program slated for October, Tokar said the group also cleans up bay areas near the high school and is involved in other programs. The program is also involved in educating students about the waterways around Bayonne, through several programs during the year.
Panayiotou one program through Public School No.14 even gets involved with research and study of the local environment.
Also on board from Jersey City was Principal Wally DeFilippo of the newly opened Frank R. COM will School, saying that he come along to get ideas for environment studies that he hopes his students will engage in.