Meghan Wren was 23 when she began an effort to restore a decrepit oyster schooner as a floating classroom to teach about the beauty and history of the Delaware bayshore area.
"The bay needed a voice," she said last week as the ship docked in Cape May, offering a simple explanation for why she has devoted her life to an area of the state most New Jersey residents don't even know exists.
But what sounds simple now seemed almost impossible to many at the time. The schooner, then called the Clyde A. Phillips after a previous owner, sat sinking in the river by the Mauricetown bridge.
Jane Morton Galetto, of Millville, a Bayshore Center trustee and a founder of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and its Tributaries, remembers the first time she saw Wren. Galetto was installing osprey nests along the river, and Wren was pumping water from what appeared to be a sunken boat.
"We were watching them, and they were watching us," Galetto said. "I asked what they were doing, and she said they were going to restore the boat. I guess I thought it was kind of crazy. I thought maybe they'd get it to float, but it would be a pretty miserable thing to see."
It was, at first.
In 1988, Wren spearheaded the official Schooner Clyde A. Phillips Inc. organization to raise money to restore the vessel, which was built in 1928 at the Dorchester shipyard. She had hoped to complete the project in time to take it to the 1992 celebration of Christopher Columbus' Atlantic crossing. But raising the estimated $400,000 needed was slow going.
"I was young and naive and might not have done it if I had known what I was getting into," she said.
But Wren is nothing if not determined and committed. A turning point came in 1991, when the New Jersey Historic Trust awarded a $215,000 grant, followed by $375,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In September 1995, the rebuilt schooner was gently relaunched into the Maurice River, with Wren breaking a bottle of champagne across the bow. She slept onboard the night before.
Wren doesn't have much time to spend on the boat today. Her husband, Jesse Briggs, is its captain, and their 8-year-old son, Delbay, is already an experienced deck hand, having taken his first trip on the schooner at just a few months old. He complained last week that the trip to Cape May from Atlantic City was "soooo boring" because there hadn't been enough waves, and he is somewhat ambivalent about his seaworthy name.
"He hasn't quite grown into it yet," Wren admits of choosing a name for her son that also expresses her love of the bay.
Wren now focuses her efforts on the Bayshore Center at Bivalve. The boat, she said, is largely a traveling marketing tool. If people aren't coming to the bayshore, she'll bring its history to them and maybe lure some down to learn more.
"It's just one goal after another," she said. "We needed a place to show the bigger picture and spread the word about the Delaware Bay. It's not just about the restoration. It's about changing people's perspective of the area. People kind of look down on it, but it has so many natural resources. It's so underappreciated."
Growing up in Millville, she admits, her own vision of the Jersey shore was the beach in Stone Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. She always loved the water, swam competitively and sailed. It was while working on a square rigger in 1986 that was going to the tall ship parade in New York that she got hooked on the idea of using a vessel to teach about environmental issues.
"I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life," she said. She returned to Millville and was working at the Greenwich Boat Works when she heard about John Gandy and the wooden boat he wanted to restore, the Clyde A. Phillips. His plans didn't work out, and Wren turned the schooner into a nonprofit organization.
Today, the center and the boat cost about $600,000 annually to operate, including maintenance, insurance, employees and boat crew. Wren takes a salary of $63,000 a year, officially working about 65 hours a week.
Raising money is a constant challenge. There are grants, annual memberships and revenue from bayshore fundraising events and sails. Its IRS returns list its mission as "to motivate people to take care of the history, the culture, and the environment of New Jersey's bayshore region through education, preservation and example."
Wren leads the way in setting the example, friends and colleagues said. Laura Johnson, who does marketing for the center and has known Wren since 1988, called her an amazing woman.
"She just sets a goal and goes for it," Johnson said. "A lot of people thought she couldn't do that swim. But it was the most amazing thing to see her come out of the water."
Wren swam 13.1 miles across the Delaware Bay earlier this month. She made the swim from Delaware to New Jersey to draw attention to the health of the bay and to support bay communities harmed by Hurricane Sandy. She is believed to be the first person to accomplish the crossing.
Galetto admits she was concerned for Wren's safety on the swim, because she knows how committed and driven she can be. Wren completed the trip in just less than nine hours.
"I really was worried that she might push on even if she should stop," Galetto said. "But she came out of the water and sounded like all she'd done was just climb a flight of stairs."
Wren credits the support she got along the way, a trait colleagues said identifies her leadership style of sharing credit and spreading praise.
Retired Millville school Principal William Sheridan, a volunteer and Bayshore Center trustee, said he is always impressed with people who have passion for what they do, and he has had a great time watching Wren flourish.
"When someone is so passionate, it's fun to support them," he said. "She's a fascinating person, so committed to the environment. Cumberland County tourism has really benefited because of her."
Most recently, Wren has been heading the post-Sandy Cumberland County Long-Term Recovery Group, a role that has been time-consuming and frustrating, but which she sees as an opportunity to promote the area and help its residents.
She was livid that the county was largely ignored for early post-Sandy recovery funds, and decided to swim the bay to fulfill a "bucket list" item, raise money for the center and raise awareness of the bayshore area. So far the swim has raised almost $23,000 of its $25,000 goal.
"I'd been talking about it, and my dad (Jim Wren, of Stone Harbor) said I have to do it while he's still here to see it," she said. She is currently working with officials from bayshore towns to try to develop a uniform promotional effort.
Commercial Township Mayor Donna Moore said Wren has been tireless in developing a united front but never acts as if she is the star of the show. She wants results, not recognition.
"After the swim, I asked her if she was going to get some rest," Moore said. "She said no, it's on to the next project."
Galetto said Wren has succeeded because she is still idealistic but smart. She has a vision and wants to involve other people.
"She's always looks for the silver lining," Galetto said. "It's just the determination she has to not dwell on problems but to find a solution."
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