Ships in New Jersey, Philly and Delaware offer history, even if they don't sail
Captain Josh Scornavacchi talks about the AJ Meerwald, New Jersey’s official Tall Ship at Bayshore Center in Port Norris on Thursday, July 30, 2020. Cherry Hill Courier-Post
Summer recreational experiences on the water can mean more than heading to the ocean for a dip, sunbathing at the beach or hitting the fishing pier.
New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware are home to a dozen vintage sailing and military ships that offer unique experiences on sails, tours and even dining on board.
Normally almost all of them would be open to the public, but not this year due to coronavirus precautions.
Just four vessels are open to the public and most of those delayed operation from spring until July to comply with coronavirus restrictions in each state.
All four ships are located along or on a tributary of the Delaware River, which borders this stretch of the Mid-Atlantic.
And only one is offering a chance to sail on board — the oyster schooner AJ Meerwald, New Jersey's official tall ship, which sails from the Bivalve Center in Port Norris, Cumberland County.
Open to the public for tours only are the warship Olympia that served before and during World War I and the floating tall ship restaurant Moshulu, both at Penns Landing in Philadelphia; as well as the World War II-era Battleship New Jersey in Camden.
Even the World War II aircraft carrier Intrepid cross the Hudson in New York City can only be viewed from the pier. It is closed, as are the ships and museum at South Street Seaport in Manhattan, and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Lilac, a buoy maintenance and lighthouse supply vessel docked on the Hudson River in New York Harbor.
Even the tall ships on Lake Erie in upstate New York are not sailing this summer.
Walk the decks like a sailor
To board any of the four open ships, a mask is required, social distancing of at least six feet is encouraged, tour capacity may be limited and advance reservations are required or strongly suggested. Ship crews also are sanitizing more frequently after hosting visitors.
"Many of the historic ships are suffering (financially) — even those that finally opened this season had to close again because of subsequent COVID-19 restrictions," said Bill Cogar, executive director of the Historic Naval Ships Association in Annapolis, Maryland.
"I would encourage people to consider visiting any of these iconic ships that are open to learn some fascinating naval and American history and walk the decks where sailors walked before them — and they can do it without crowds since the number of visitors is being restricted right now."
The Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial opened in June before any of the other historic ships with special state permission.
"If you go to a traditional museum, most artifacts are behind glass and you can’t touch anything, but when you come to a ship museum you are literally inside the artifact and interacting with it,” said Ryan Szimanski, Battleship museum curator.
He also said visitors who have come when he has been on deck duty are looking for something to do or somewhere to go to get the family out of the house now that some of the COVID-19 restrictions on the public have been relaxed.
The Battleship New Jersey Museum in Camden commemorates both the Pearl Harbor attack and the 75th birthday of its launching on the first anniversary of the World War II attack
More of the historic ships are offering virtual programs on their Web, social media sites or YouTube channels because of their restricted public access this year. The programming can be good educational experiences for children who are home for the summer or remote learning.
Other historic ships on the Delaware River — the tall ship Gazela, the tugboat Jupiter and the World War II submarine Becuna — also remain closed for now for various reasons including COVID-19 concerns and/or required maintenance work for U.S. Coast Guard certification delayed by the pandemic.
The Kalmar Nyckel, Delaware's tall ship on the Christiana River in Wilmington, also is closed to both sailing and tours at least until fall.
Here is a closer look at the ships you can board this summer:
New Jersey's official tall ship, the restored 92-year-old oyster schooner A.J. Meerwald, is the only major historic ship offering sailing excursions this summer in the region.
The ship's berth is at the Bayshore Center in Bivalve in Port Norris on the scenic Maurice River tributary of the Delaware — the same area Meerwald operated in the 1900s when Bivalve was the epicenter of the oyster industry in Delaware Bay.
The schooner normally visits Philadelphia and sails up to Burlington City during the season, but this year it is sailing closer to its home port. It will be plying waters between Bivalve and Delaware Bay.
Hands-on sailing lessons aboard the vessel and sometimes fresh oyster checking are not part of the sail program this year because of COVID-19 but if it's oysters you are after, try lunch at the center's Oyster Cafe .
Dining has been relocated from the indoor cafe to the covered wharf alongside the ship with social distancing between tables.
Three-, two-hour sails are available Thursday to Sunday through September beginning with a discounted sail at 10 a.m. and the last sail departing at 5 p.m. Prices range from $20 to $30 per person.
"We have space available because we are not seeing as many reservations as we had hoped," said Allison Place, whose husband Joshua Scornavacchi is the Meerwald captain. "We can take 41 passengers, but we voluntarily decided to carry only 30 and we are not allowing them to handle sail lines or do other hands-own sailing as we usually do."
Visitors to the Bayshore Center;s Delaware Bay Museum can peruse its new "Shipwrecks of the Atlantic: Out of the Deep" exhibit with artifacts rescued from the deep by Capt. Gene Peterson of Atlantic Divers.
Go: For sailing or cafe reservations call 856-785-2060 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial
The Battleship New Jersey offers only one of its usual tours this summer, but visitors will see both outside and inside decks. Just be prepared for a trek that is 1½ miles long and involves climbing stairs between decks on the nearly 900-foot long vessel.
A veteran of World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Beirut Crisis, the Iowa-class New Jersey remains the Navy’s most militarily decorated battleship with 19 campaign stars. It also offers a peek at more of its inside spaces than any other U.S. battleship museum.
On the current Firepower Tour the public will see the interior of a massive gun turret, the combat engagement center, the mess deck where sailors ate, the bunks where they slept, the captain’s in-port and at-sea cabins, the ward room where officers had meals, the boiler and engine rooms and exhibits of historical artifacts.
On the deck they also can view a Seasprite helicopter like the type on the New Jersey in the 1980s before it was retired as a Navy ship.
Because of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, the separate multi-deck gun turret tour and popular overnight encampments are not available. The annual New Jersey Craft Brewers Festival rescheduled to September also has been cancelled.
Go: To purchase tickets or to access virtual programs and videos of ship tours, visit battleshipnewjersey.org
The Cruiser Olympia is open for tours at Penns Landing in Philadelphia but only on weekends.
Independence Seaport, also open, operates the vessel — the only early steel warship still afloat and one of only two surviving Navy ships that fought in World War I.
It was the flagship of Commodore (later Admiral) George Dewey in the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Her final journey was bringing the American Unknown Soldier of World War I from France to the U.S. in 1921.
The museum has one of the largest maritime art and artifact collections in North America. It is featuring several new exhibits — "River Alive!,'' "Patriots & Pirates'' and "Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River.''
Go: Weekend tours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reservations are strongly recommended at phillyseaport.org/
Moshulu, the world’s oldest and largest square-rigged sailing vessel still afloat measures more than a football field long, but it favors food over sailing.
Reported to be the only tall ship restaurant in the world, the Moshulu restaurant, bar and deck have been recognized for its awarding-winning, AAA 4 Diamond rating under its current ownership.
The ship once hauled coal and other cargo around the world but now sits at 401 S. Columbus Blvd. along Penns Landing in Philadelphia. Service temporarily is limited to outdoor dining on its spacious main deck because of the the state COVID-19 ban on indoor dining.
Go: Main deck dining is Wednesday to Friday from 4 to 10 p.m. for dinner and Saturday and Sunday noon to 9 p.m. for brunch and dinner. Email INFO@MOSHULU Wednesday through Sunday or call 215-923-2500 or visit philashipguild.org/ships/gazela/
A fall reopening of the Wilmington sailing ship is a possibility but no decision has been made.
The ship is headed in late August for month-long, maintenance dry docking in Connecticut. The website states that sails or appearances may resume on Sept. 26.
“We regret that summer sails and deck tours are cancelled due to COVID-19, but watch for fall sails. Decisions on future operations will be based on government and public health guidelines," said ship spokeswoman Jan Ross.
Tony Bosworth and Gary Deshong both completed 10,000 hours of volunteering for the Kalmar Nyckel. Their services will be acknowledged by having a carved wooden bust of themselves placed on the side of the stern on the ship. Delaware News Journal
Kalmar Nyckel is a full-scale replica of a Swedish merchant ship that landed in 1683 in what is present-day Wilmington to establish the colony of New Sweden, the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware Valley.
Normally, the ship sails from May through October and between Virginia and New England but not this year. Its home berth is the Tatiana & Gerret Copeland Maritime Center on the Christina River, 1124 E 7th St. in downtown Wilmington, Delaware and also in nearby Historic New Castle, Delaware.
Go: Visit kalmarnyckle.org or on weekdays call 302-429-7447 for COVID-19 operational updates. For virtual field trips of the inner workings of the ship contact the assistant director of education at David.Livingstone@kalmarnyckel.org.
The Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild is seeking volunteers to work on board the three-masted barkentine Gazela at Penns Landing since volunteers were not permitted on board earlier this year because of coronavirus guidelines.
Although the ship has not opened yet this year, guild chairwoman Melissa Simmons said the board is trying to schedule some limited openings on Saturdays for ship visitation.
Built in Portugal about 120 years ago, Gazela fished mainly off the coast of Newfoundland until 1969 and is one of the oldest of its type in the world.
Go: To volunteer and check on tours updates visit philashipguild.org/volunteer/
Cape May-Lewes Ferry
If you like traveling on the water, board the Cape May-Lewes Ferry for a leisurely excursion on foot, bicycle or in your vehicle.
Relax for the 85 minutes it takes to travel 17 miles across Delaware Bay and absorb scenic views of landmarks, harbors and sea life like dolphins and whales between New Jersey's southern peninsula and Delaware.
The Lido Deck bars recently reopened for drinks and light fare onboard while on shore the On the Rocks restaurant in Cape May and the new Grain on the Rocks on the Lewes wharf are serving lunch and dinner outdoors.
Explore the beach towns of Cape May and Lewes. The historic Lightship Overfalls in Lewes is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. For another nautical experience on the Jersey side, the Cape May Lighthouse is one of the few open this summer along the shore, offering breathtaking views of the bay and shorelines of the two states for hearty visitors who can climb the 217 steps to the 156-foot-high light that has guided ships at sea.
Go: There are multiple bay crossings daily with Cape May departures as early as 7 a.m. and return departures as late as 7:45 p.m. from Lewes. Reservations are required for all ferry passengers now because of a reduced schedule. Call the guest cervices center at 800 64 FERRY (800-643-3779) or visit www.cmlf.com/
Carol Comegno loves telling stories about South Jersey history and our military veterans. Her book, “The Battleship USS New Jersey: From Birth to Berth” is the definitive history of the battleship. If you have a story to share, call her at 856-486-2473 or email email@example.com.
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