HISTORIC JOURNEY ON THE SALISH SEA
It’s a beautiful Spring day in the San Juan archipelago and I awake to glassy water in the bay overlooking Sucia Island. On the island campers are just emerging from their tents and stretching their legs, but from where I stand on the Schooner Zodiac, breakfast is done by 8am and all hands are on deck as a crew of nine volunteers and 12 guests polish the brass, hose down the deck and scrub the historic vessel’s surface free of dirt. The 165-foot long, gaff-rigged ship is a sleek beauty with mahogany rails, Douglas Fir masts and beautiful brass details. She’s particularly impressive when her sails are at full mast, a massive white butterfly on the ocean that can travel at 13 knots under full sail.
Built in 1924, the Schooner began her life as a gift from one of the Johnson & Johnson brothers to the other. The two hired a crew and sailed the Kings Cup, a trans-Atlantic race to Spain, and up the east coast to Newfoundland and Labrador. They sold it during the Great Depression and for the next four decades the vessel became a working pilot schooner for the San Francisco Bar Pilots.
In 1974, when the Schooner’s retirement was imminent, she was purchased by a circle of friends who formed the Vessel Zodiac Corporation and to this day, are devoted to restoring it to its original beauty. The Schooner spends its summers in the Pacific Northwest, attending tall ship festivals, taking guests on day sails in Bellingham Bay and sailing multiday itineraries with various themes. I’m on the Spring Lighthouse Cruise, and it’s clear from the get-go that the cruise is educational, that there’s plenty of hard work involved and that guests are expected to pitch in.
My first shift on day one was in the Chartroom, where I was shown how to read the navigational map using numbers from a computerized GPS. We plotted our journey for the day, noting the islands we’d pass, the depth of the water we’d be traveling in and our estimated time of arrival. Earlier that day we’d spent an hour of heavy work pulling ropes to hoist the sails, but no sooner were they up than the wind died down.
On deck, guests unpacked Scrabble boards, read books and luxuriated in the unexpected Spring sunshine until a pod of orca whales was spotted. We dropped everything but cameras and watched in stunned silence as a pod of six whales swam gracefully past the vessel, their breathy exhalations punctuating the stillness of the water.
Throughout the cruise we rotated on various shifts, with crew members checking in to ensure we were doing our jobs properly. On day two, after the deck was cleaned I was on Bow Watch, looking out to sea. At the far end of the vessel, my 13-year-old daughter Amy was at the varnished oak wheel, steering the Schooner. Later, the two of us would learn how to coil ropes into a ballentine and fold the mast.
Over the next three days we cruised past several of the lighthouses that pepper the San Juan Islands. At some, like Patos Island, we took a small motorboat to the beach and hiked a forested path through the island to reach the lighthouse. In years past lighthouse keepers inhabited homes nearby their workplaces, and the keeper at Patos allegedly rowed his daughters to school on Orcas Island each day. Today, however, the lighthouses are all automated and many of their doors remain firmly locked to the public.
It was a windless day as we cruised past the eastern point of Saturna Island and the captain had shut off the engine so we could enjoy the blissful silence of the San Juans, the view of beaches devoid of footprints and the song of bald of eagles calling each other from the trees.
The ship sails 120 days a year, and guests board for the sheer experience of sailing in a vessel built to perfectly harness the wind, one with an illustrious history and a wide hull that allows it to glide through choppy waters without causing its passengers even a hint of seasickness. For some the opportunity to see orca pods course through the water, porpoises dip in balletic sequences and seals bark and groan from the rocky island outcrops is the most memorable part of the trip. For others, it’s the chance to be engaged on a working vessel where they can learn to navigate, lend their weight in hoisting sails and appreciate the beauty and complexity of the Schooner and its smooth movement on the ocean.
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IF YOU GO:
The Schooner Zodiac has a variety of day sails and multi-day itineraries departing from Bellingham Bay April through November. For information visit www.schoonerzodiac.com or call (206) 719-7622
PHOTOS: by Lauren Kramer
1. 300: Guests on board the Schooner Zodiac help out with all the sailing tasks, including the heavy lifting.
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