For A.J. Meerwald Crewmember, Life Is About Living ‘Day by Day’

Visit the Schooner in Barnegat Light
Jul 28, 2014
Photo by: Liam McKenna Ceili Brennan

Rather than navigate through Little Egg Harbor’s complex channel system, the A.J. Meerwald schooner, which was scheduled to arrive in Beach Haven Friday, July 25, for public education programs, opted to use the easier-to-navigate Barnegat Inlet. The vessel has been docked near the lighthouse in Barnegat Light.

Changing with the tides is something Ceili Brennan, the Bayshore Discovery Project’s youngest deckhand educator aboard the A.J. Meerwald, has had to get used to since she began sailing on the authentically restored oyster schooner in March. She currently lives on the ship with eight other crewmembers.

“I never know my schedule. I kind of just live day by day,” she said. “I love being on the ocean and living on a boat. A good community aspect comes from it naturally. You’re living in close quarters with other people for months at a time so you get to know people pretty well,” she added.

After graduating from college with a degree in biology and earth and environmental science just a year ago, the 23-year-old Brennan said she knew she wanted to work on a tall ship. She first learned about tall ships, which are sailing ships with high masts, when the Sea Education Association, the internationally recognized leader in undergraduate ocean education, hosted a program at her high school. Brennan grew up in Bergen County. As a kid, she spent her summers with family on LBI.

According to officials at the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, a nonprofit organization that owns and operates the A.J. Meerwald as a hands-on sailing classroom throughout the region, the vessel was one of hundreds of schooners built along South Jersey’s Delaware Bay shore before the decline of the shipbuilding industry, which coincided with the Great Depression. The A.J. Meerwald was designated as New Jersey’s official Tall Ship in 1998.

For the past four years, the A.J. Meerwald has been stopping at Long Beach Island during the summer season for public sails and deck tours. Before arriving in Barnegat Light last week for five days, the vessel spent about 3½ weeks in Jersey City. Ten campers ages 13 to 17 spent five days and four nights aboard the ship while it was anchored in the Raritan Bay. Before offloading in Barnegat Light, where the teens’ parents picked them up, they spent most of their time learning about nautical education, including knot tying and navigation, Brennan explained.

“It’s a good way to get a different perspective on a place you’ve known for a while or have vacationed to,” she said. “A lot of people probably haven’t seen LBI on the water from a giant tall ship.”

Wouter Zwart, Brennan’s friend and fellow deckhand educator, said he really enjoys the educational aspect of sailing on the A.J. Meerwald. This is the Arizona native’s second time sailing on a tall ship.

“I really believe in hands-on education, both as a teacher and a student,” he said. “Working on a ship is a lot about building on trust. You really rely on everyone since you’re working with dangerous stuff. And you have limited privacy. Sailing attracts unique, hard-working people who can put up with long work days.”

Brennan and her shipmates will continue sailing on the vessel in the New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware region until October, educating the public on the ecology of the region’s waterways as well as teaching basic seamanship skills and discussing the ship’s history.

“It’s fun being in different places all the time,” Brennan said. “I’m from New Jersey, but I haven’t been around New Jersey in a couple of years, so it’s kind of fun to get to know it again. I’ve explored a lot of new places.”

When the public is on board for an educational sail, Brennan helps raise the schooner’s sails and also helps lead the different educational stations. Topics of discussion range from water quality to oyster dissection. A 16-foot trawl that scoops up bottom-feeding fish such as crabs, horseshoe crabs and mussels is also used to educate the public.

“It’s kind of like college in that you’re living at work,” she said. “There’s no difference between home and work. Sometimes alarms go off. In that way it’s kind of like you’re always at work.

“I think the thing I miss the most is having a life that’s the same every day, where you have a routine. But at the same time, that’s the thing I’m trying to escape most,” she added. “That’s what I love most about being on a boat, not having to do the same thing every day. So it’s a trade-off.”

During days when she has off from working on the schooner, Brennan gets to tour around town. While on LBI, she plans to visit friends and family, including her grandparents who have a summer home in Surf City and her aunt and uncle who have a home in Harvey Cedars.

Spending time at the beach was also on the agenda before the ship moves to its next port of call in Atlantic City.

“We haven’t seen a real beach in a while. We’re excited to go swimming,” said Brennan. “We’re not allowed to swim off the boat for insurance reasons, so we’re really excited that there are beaches around here.”

— Kelley Anne Essinger

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