Last summer Melissa Kolano went away to sleepover camp. Only she didn’t stay in a cabin in the woods and roast s’mores and sing songs by the campfire. She had a true adventure, in fact, dozens of adventures, on the high seas — and she never left New Jersey.

Kolano, 13, a lively eighth-grader at Hopewell’s Timberlane Middle School, spent two separate weeks last summer on the A.J. Meerwald, New Jersey’s official tall ship. Her first session, in June, focused on the Delaware River and Bay; the other, in August, focused on the Hudson and the open ocean. Kolano says highlights included anchoring off Sandy Hook, going ashore with naturalists, filling collection nets, an unexpected fire drill, and, on a sultry day, life vests on, “abandoning ship” at sea. They even had to make an unscheduled stop to run from a huge thunderstorm, finding safe harbor in Lewes, Delaware.

This summer there will be two week-long maritime camps aboard the A.J. Meerwald: Monday to Friday, July 10 to 14, from Bivalve, the Merrwald’s home port, to Liberty State Park in Jersey City; and Monday to Friday, July 31 to August 4, from Liberty State Park to Cape May. Each camp starts on a Monday morning when parents drop their campers off at the ship. The camp ends Friday afternoon with a “parents’ sail,” when campers have an opportunity to show off their newly acquired skills to their families. The cost for the week-long camp is $750 and includes all room and board on the ship. It is designed for “sailors” aged 14 to 16.

Monica Halverson, shipboard program coordinator for the Meerwald, says campers do not need to have maritime experience. At 115 feet long and 22 feet wide, the Meerwald “is not a little boat,” says Halverson, “but you’re close to the water. Campers don’t need sailing experience; they don’t even have to know how to swim.”

Days are spent learning what it was like to live aboard an oystering ship in the early part of the 20th century, when the Meerwald was at its height as an oystering vessel, so the camp provides a history lesson as well as a hands-on maritime experience. Some of the activities include raising the sails; hauling in the trawl line and analyzing the catch; taking turns at the helm and bow watch; learning about watersheds and nonpoint source pollution; learning seamanship skills such as knot tying; identifying plankton under microscopes; navigating the ship; dissecting oysters; and assessing the health of the water using scientific measurements.

Says Halverson: “We have a huge 16-foot-long net we throw off the back of the boat. Any fish, crabs, or sea life get caught up in the net. The kids haul up the net, and our crew, who are knowledgeable about life in the waters, teach the kids about the sea life. They help campers make connections between the sea life and the importance of the quality of the water.”

Camper Melissa Kolano, daughter of Jim and Laurie Kolano, lives among a charming menagerie on a farm outside Hopewell. Her father is director of operations and planning for China Pathway Logistics, a new company he is involved in starting up in Beijing, which will provide GPS-based services in China. Her mother is a stay-at-home mom, who home-schooled her three children for several years. Melissa’s brothers, Jamie, 11, and Danny, 7, both attend Bear Tavern Elementary School in Hopewell. Melissa is the youngest of seven young writers mentored by Cool Women Poets at Princeton’s YWCA (including U.S.1 reporter Edelmann). She admits that before her Meerwald camping sessions, “the sea wasn’t a big interest.” A devoted competitor in a water polo team based at the Lawrenceville School, this girl is charmed by water. She found out about the Meerwald camp online.

Aboard, Kolano says, she acclimated swiftly, learning the mysterious names of all those lines: jib, main peak halyard, easy on the throat, tie off on the cleat. She rattles off sailors’ terms that have always baffled and lured this reader of sea tales, especially the knots: clove hitch, reef knot, rolling hitch, bowline.

Living quarters were, well, spare. “We slept below in teeny little bunks. The crew had decorated them for us.” She says she relished sharing the journeys with a marine biologist. “We examined shrimp, worms, crabs, and sea squirts in specially oxygenated water, then put them back in the sea. When they taught our parents (on the last day of camp) the oyster names, Dad ate the samples!”

Although Kolano says the “wetlands walk in Bivalve mud smelled really bad,” campers had fun getting into a mud fight, coming “back on board smelling of decaying crustaceans.” She adds: “It was a vegetarian ship, which most of the crew didn’t like. But we did. It’s more ecologically sound.”

Camper curriculum emphasizes bay ecology, life cycles of oysters, plankton and other water-creatures encountered by day and by night. Biology takes a front-row seat, joined by chemistry and physics. Winner of significant fellowship money to pursue her felting craft — “Melissa’s hands must always be busy,” says her mother, Laurie — it is no surprise that Kolano became adept at shipboard weavings, including “monkey’s fists,” an eerily Celtic web of hemp.

The young sailor’s favorite moments were visual. Night watches stirred, even stunned this young poet. Sea-jellies danced away from the bow wave, as bioluminescence painted black water. She could not choose her favorite between night sailing and helm steering, between anchor watch and bow watch, moonlight on ocean and fireworks on land. The Meerwald continues to lure Kolano with its world of marine ecology and other sciences that fit right in with her career dream, marine mammology.

To get a preview of what it would be like to spend a week on the Meerwald or just to get a small taste of seagoing life on a tall ship, there are several Sailor for a Day camps for campers aged 10 to 16: Wednesday, April 19 (when many school are on spring break), sailing out of Burlington; Wednesdays, July 19 and 26, sailing out of Liberty State Park in Jersey City; and Wednesdays, August 9, 16, 23, and 30, sailing out of Cape May. The cost is $60.

Public sails (day and evening) and a multitude of onboard education programs are also offered (see listing at end). New Jersey’s Tall Ship may be chartered for festivities and fundraisers. Corporations lease her for a day of team building, during which a combination of Coast-Guard-licensed captains and trained teamwork facilitators lead participants through maritime exercises that envelop communication, problem-solving, decision-making, and above all, mutual support. The Meerwald can sail from its home port of Bivalve, as well as Burlington, Cape May, Island Heights, Liberty State Park, Atlantic Highlands, Penns Landing, and Lewes, Delaware.

The A. J. Meerwald, a handsome, even rakish, 1928 oyster schooner makes its salty home port in Bivalve, Cumberland County, on the Delaware Bayshore. The Meerwald’s glory days unfurled in the early 20th century. As U.S.1 reported in a destination story on Cumberland County (August 24, 2005), at that time more millionaires per block resided in minuscule Shellpile and Bivalve than anywhere in the world. This schooner returned daily from Delaware Bay exertions, laden to the limit with oysters craved by gastronomes from coast to coast. During this era, Cumberland skies were alive with schooner sails.

The Coast Guard appropriated the Meerwald (though it was wooden) as a fireboat charged with protecting Philadelphia during World War II. In 1957, she was abruptly deposed by “multinucleated sphere unknown,” a.k.a. MSX, a pathogen — invisible to the naked eye — that proved as devastating to oysters as DDT to osprey eggs. DelBay oysters vanished in three apocalyptic months. Most schooners were abandoned to rot dockside. The Meerwald sailed through a number of incarnations, from that of sailless oyster seeker to lowly clammer. A pilot house imposed, her solid masts removed, this noble craft was frequently submerged for endless empty years. It was completely abandoned in 1980.

Until 1988 when Meghan Wren entered the picture. The Meerwald, in its current iteration, is the brainchild of the indomitable Wren. Born and raised in Millville in Cumberland County, Wren has a passion for both life on the water and history, having served as deckhand, shipwright, and crew member aboard the Elissa, a three-masted ocean-going barque out of Galveston, Texas. From the moment she learned of the existence of the A.J. Meerwald, she fairly moved heaven and earth to raise the vessel from derelict to elegant floating classroom and time-travel machine. It is now New Jersey’s official Tall Ship.

While a student of Stockton College, Wren, then in her early 20s, led a grassroots effort to raise the funds necessary to bring the Meerwald back to its former glory. Bake sales to fundraisers featuring auctions of work by local artists led to larger scale grant writing: two significant grants came from the New Jersey Historic Trust and the New Jersey Department of Transportation. Eventually the fundraising got so involved that Wren decided to leave school to devote herself fulltime to the project. Steadily enrolling donors, this determined woman raised $800,000 (and bear in mind that is 1980s dollars). Shipwrights and other skilled craftspeople contributed more than a million dollars’ worth of expertise and pride. Today, Wren is the executive director of the Bayshore Discovery Project, a nonprofit that oversees the A.J. Meerwald and also holds the title to the 1849 Cashier, built in 1949 and considered the oldest working vessel in the country. The Bayshore discovery also offers outreach education, wetland walks, and other programming.

Stepping aboard, passengers do not leave history behind: to earn her National Historic Landmark status, 12 percent of the Meerwald’s original structure and fittings had to remain. In fact Meerwald retains 15 percent, mostly in her aft cabin. The ship’s gleaming decks are Pinelands cedar, well tempered by salt tang and scouring winds. Soaring masts are Douglas fir, northwest imports, since our state no longer shelters such towering conifers.

This writer took two public sails and watched legendary river towns float past. Two hundred, even 300 years ago, when sails ruled the waves, these cities were the stuff of legends. On our first trip Burlington, established in 1677, gets smaller in the distance as we head to Pennsylvania’s Bristol (established in 1681). Here, sudden pure silence ensues; motor off, sails hoisted by the willing and the strong, the Meerwald “comes about” near New Jersey’s mostly invisible town of Florence, established in 1849. On the far horizon, her capitol, Trenton, waves arms of Crayola-hued technology. Even river towns play second fiddle to the ship itself. Possible exception: on our second trip when we tack along the Hudson, Manhattan’s sharp buildings and Lady Liberty flirt in and out of masts and canvas.

The Meerwald was always meant to teach both crew and passengers. Ecology is Meghan Wren’s passion, to the degree that she named her newborn son Delbay. The Meerwald’s resident crew members (April through October) take turns educating. Travelers not only raise sails and sing sea chanteys, but also participate in oyster-dissection sessions. Energetic crew members lead the group, aided by simple three-dimensional models, through a journey of watersheds and non-point-source pollution (pollution such as fertilizers and pesticides that seep into waterways from home gardens and farms, and other sources that cannot be specifically pointed to).

Voyagers discover how to tell that the Meerwald is an oyster schooner. She sports two masts, fore-and-aft rigged, meaning that they swing from side to side. Her “very shallow draft” (she does not draw much water) permits her to maneuver in the Delaware Bay’s shifting shallows. She is “beamy,” which means wide-in-the-beam (good for ship, bad for humans). Oyster ships must be broad for most of their length to make room for heaps of shellfish. The Meerwald’s high boom is a particularly defining factor. The thick wooden boom spreads the bottom of fore-and-aft sails. It has to be high so that oystermen, standing on heaps of shells, would not get a concussion by being hit by the boom’s swing as winds had their way with the sails.

Ashore, oysters were stored in scows, fresh water plumping the catch. Copious barrels were shipped from Bivalve to America’s most legendary eateries — Manhattan’s Delmonico’s, Chicago’s Drake, and San Francisco’s storied Mark Hopkins Hotel among the fortunate recipients.

Halverson says the camps offer life lessons that go beyond the hands-on maritime learning that takes place on the ship. “We focus on life skills and character building. For each camp, a group of six kids, who don’t know each other, come together, outside of their normal environs. We once had a group of inner city kids from Indianapolis come, who had left all their friends and didn’t know anything about water. It was special to watch how they developed as people. Campers learn how to interact with different people, they reach a higher level of self-confidence. The kids are usually very timid at the beginning of the week, and then on the last day, when parents and families come aboard for a day and the campers demonstrate their newly-acquired skills, they’ve proved something to themselves.”

Camps and public sails on the A.J. Meerwald. Week-long camps, $750, limited to six campers. Day-long camps, $60. A $150 nonrefundable deposit is required to make a reservation for maritime camp. Space is limited so early registration is encouraged. Public sails commence Sunday, April 9, and continue through October. Public sails generally run two and a half hours. There are daytime and evening sails. The cost is $30 for adults; $25 for seniors; and $15 for children 12 and under. Visit www.ajmeerwald.org. or call 856-785-2060, ext. 100.

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