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Bellingham, Lummi Island, and a Sea of Vino
June 28, 2012
Today, I embarked the Schooner Zodiac in Bellingham, Washington for a totally different kind of cruise: a four-day winery trip through the beautiful San Juan Islands aboard a proper, working sailing ship.
Built in 1924, the Zodiac has been lovingly restored and maintained to her original glory by her owners and a team of dedicated crewmembers, many of whom are volunteers. From roughly June until October, she operates a variety of cruises to the San Juan Islands and beyond, including a massive 12-day voyage to Desolation Sound later this month.
The Zodiac is a totally immersive experience, meaning that I actually got to participate in the sailing of this sleek, 160-foot schooner, from raising the sails to helping with general maintenance to learning about proper navigation and positioning techniques.
Of course, participating in the actual sailing of this spotless ship is completely optional – but wouldn’t that be missing the point, not to mention a large majority of the experience? Half the fun of this unique four-day jaunt is precisely that: sailing the ship!
After a relaxed and informal boarding process at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal led by Beth, one of Zodiac’s kind and friendly crewmembers, First Mate Chris Wallace familiarized the 20 or so of us passengers – including yours truly – with the Zodiac and her crew.
Because I am a giant nerd, I was already familiar with some of the nautical terminology: ropes are considered lines aboard a ship; pulleys are blocks; the toilet is the head, and so on. Some of us passengers have sailed or cruised before, while others are unabashed landlubbers getting their feet wet for the very first time.
But Chris’s easygoing, friendly manner and razor-sharp wit quickly allayed any concerns we may have had. In fact, that same friendly, informal attitude is present throughout Zodiac’s entire crew.
As a sidenote, in keeping with the historical nature of the Zodiac, I left my laptop at home on this trip. What you see here was written first with pen and paper, then transcribed into Microsoft Word for posting here after the voyage had been completed. The last time I wrote so much by hand was probably in High School – and my hand is killing me!
But hand cramps notwithstanding, we were each personally escorted down below to our individual bunks by a member of the Zodiac’s crew, with Jacki leading the way for me.
Yes, I said ‘bunks.’
Now, keep in mind: this is all part of the fun of this unique experience and my own bunk – Number 35 – is remarkably cozy.
Located all the way aft on the port side of the Lounge, my bunk is a lower berth (see where that term comes from!) that is surprisingly comfortable. An electric reading light allows you to read or write well into the night, and a fleece blanket and pillow are provided. A privacy curtain can be drawn shut in the evenings, and there’s more than enough space for a six-foot-tall person to lay down here.
I just have to remember not to sit up in the mornings – though I foresee a few bumps on the head!
Back on deck, we began to move away from the Bellingham Cruise Terminal just after 10am, using our engine to leave port. We were each assigned sailing stations and once we were out in the bay, we proceeded to set sail for the very first time.
In order to raise Zodiac’s massive mainsail, it was all hands on deck. I was stationed on the starboard side of the ship, in charge of hoisting the “throat” with several other passengers and crew, which controls the height of the gaff nearest to the mast.
On the port side of the ship, passengers and crew were pulling on lines controlling the “peak”, or angle the sail would raise.
Everyone grabbed hold of their respective lines and remained at the ready until Chris yelled out, “Haul away peak! Haul away throat!” And we began the process of raising this 1,000-pound sail!
Raising the throat was a workout of the highest order. The higher you raise the throat, the more sail is exposed to the wind, and the heavier the line gets in your hands, to the point where you really have to put your back into it. But it was invigorating to see the mainsail up after a few minutes, billowing majestically in the wind. After repeating the process on the foresail and setting the angle of our booms (referred to as a “port tack” or “starboard tack”, depending on direction), we were sailing!
Of course, all that work requires some rejuvenation, which is why Ian, our onboard chef, whipped up a hearty lunch consisting of tomato basil soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and a spicy beef pie – fantastic! The weather was so great that I, along with many other passengers and crew, took my meals topside in the warmth of the sunlight and the gentle flapping of Zodiac’s sails.
Soda, coffee and tea are all provided in your cruise fare, and while no alcohol is normally provided onboard, our wine cruise includes complementary local wines served ashore and onboard the Zodiac each evening; when the ship is no longer under sail power.
With lunch taken care of, we sailed to Lummi Island and all hands were once again on-deck to assist with the lowering of the sails. Our performance was markedly better than it had been in the morning, as we all became familiar with our assigned station and our required duties. I am finally getting the hand of tying-off the lines at my station, which required a simple knot that I just could not for the life of me seem to grasp at first.
Not only were we bound for a wine tasting on Lummi Island, we were also fortunate to have two wine experts on-hand as passengers: Chuck Egner of ’37 Cellars Winery, who also brought some of his very own wines for us to enjoy; and Carl Pietrantonio of Bellingham’s The Purple Smile, onboard to discuss the varietals grown on both the San Juan Islands and throughout Washington State.
Now, I’m hardly a wine expert – but I do like good wines, and I do know enough to distinguish the good from the bad. Having a close friend who is also a wine expert doesn’t hurt, either!
After stepping ashore on Lummi Island, we were whisked to the Artisan Wine Gallery, a small, intimate wine club featuring tastings, artisan cheeses and some fabulous chocolates run by Rich Frye and Pat Hayes. Also there was Masquerade Wine owner Bill Kimmerly and his wife Jennifer, who lured us up to the Artisan Wine Gallery’s upper floors with the promises of rich reds and smoky aftertastes.
The great thing about these locally-produced wines is how rich, flavourful and high quality they are. I had no idea the wine industry in the San Juan’s was this well-balanced, and a few tastings whetted my appetite for more. Here’s what was amazing about this: the crew of the Zodiac arranged to purchase a case of the wines guests enjoyed the most to bring back and enjoy aboard the ship at anchor.
After sampling the entire programme of wines (and, let’s face it, a few more of the French-inspired chocolates), we returned to the Zodiac through the ship’s inflatable, motorized zodiac rafts to sample some more fantastic wines, this time from the collection brought aboard by ’37 Cellars winemaker Chuck Egner. His Merlot is one of the best I’ve tasted in a long time.
Before long, three quick clangs of the “chow bell” told us dinner was ready – and what a dinner it was! Freshly-made potato salad, beets, flank steak and fresh smoked salmon were all on the menu, barbequed out in the open up on deck.
As light began to fade, the Zodiac’s passengers enjoyed some more fabulous wines up on deck before heading down to the lounge for an opportunity to socialize and get to know one another. This is a very social ship, and the onboard atmosphere between passengers and crew reflects that, with plenty of laughter echoing throughout the ship well into the night.
Just after 9pm, the chow bell clanged again, announcing the presence of dessert: hot brownies served with ice cream.
Along with the other passengers and crew, I talked, laughed and drank until the ship’s generator was turned off at 11pm and we retired for the night, leaving me to write this by the glow of the electric light in my bunk.
I think it’s the end to a perfect day – and the start of a great adventure.
Our Voyage Report from aboard the Schooner Zodiac continues tomorrow, as we sail for beautiful Lopez Island for a tour of a picturesque vineyard!
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