Beyond the bay and out past the breakers, ocean swells roll on like prairies, and that’s about where Johann Steinke turned a pale, grayish kind of green, one day when he was a kid.
Whatever Steinke had for breakfast, for dinner the night before, became chum that day in California, though some of it landed on his Boy Scout troop leader, too.
“I said, ‘I’m never going out on the ocean again,'” Steinke, 40, said Thursday, recalling that fishing trip.
Born in Canada and raised in Fresno, Calif., Steinke said he was about 13 when he learned he was a landlubber. It wasn’t until decades later, when he watched Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a 2003 Russell Crowe film about tall ships, naval battles, and life at sea, that he decided to test himself again.
“At the end of the movie, I thought, ‘Crap, I wasted my life,'” he said.
So Steinke made up for all those dry years by working on more than a dozen tall ships, cruising up and down the West Coast, in the Bahamas, on large lakes, and even from Ireland to Denmark in a Viking vessel. In Washington state, he captained the Lady Washington, which appeared in several Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Steinke was recently named the captain of the A.J. Meerwald, a 90-year-old, two-masted former oyster schooner that is New Jersey’s official tall ship. Previous captain Jesse Briggs left to work on a historic tugboat in New York.
Steinke still gets seasick — “Oh, yeah”— but found a medicine that works.
“I had no idea how awesome these old boats are,” he said. “I love the crew and the camaraderie. I love the hard work.”
On Thursday morning, a half-dozen crew were busy readying the 115-foot Meerwald for a Coast Guard inspection at a marina on the Maurice River in Cumberland County. They were moving ballast forward, and the deck had recently been pitched with tar to keep it watertight. A deckhand was affixing Steinke’s wheel on the stern, and the bosun sat on the bowspit working ropes, her legs dangling above the murky water.
Chuck Ball, an apprentice shipwright from East Kensington, sat on a floating dock, shoring up the ship’s bumpers.
“I commute every day,” Ball said.
Along with a new captain and some crew members, the schooner — named for the South Dennis, N.J., family that commissioned it for oystering in the 1920s — also got an overhaul thanks to a donor from Cape May who left a large gift when he died last year. The ship is scheduled to begin sailing next week.
“We have a new generator, a new engine, and a lot of new wiring. It’s a fresh start,” Steinke said. “We’ve had tremendous donors.”
The Meerwald is used for education, sailing all summer from its home port at the Bayshore Center, a nonprofit in Bivalve dedicated to preserving the history of the Delaware Bay, New Jersey’s often-forgotten other shore. The ship makes journeys up and down the coast, to ports in Delaware and up to Philadelphia, able to stay out for days at a time. Steinke’s wife, Megan, will be the Meerwald’s cook, and she won’t just be slinging hash in the cramped kitchen below deck in the hold.
“She learned how to cook in France, but she’s also learning how to cook Indian food,” he said.
The couple drove cross-country from the West Coast in February and moved into a home next to the Bayshore Center, in one of New Jersey’s more rural settings.
Steinke graduated from the University of California, Davis in 2001 and recently published a children’s book called The Greatest Captain in the World, which he likes to point out is not an autobiography. He has sold a “few thousand” copies and hopes to have readings on the boat during the many field trips the Meerwald hosts.
What makes a great captain?
Steinke said it’s mostly lots and lots of hours on the water, but there’s more to it and he’s learning.
“It’s an art and it’s a science,” he said. “You never stop learning.”