Bellingham, Lummi Island, and a Sea of Vino

June 28, 2012

The 1924-built Schooner Zodiac, tied up at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Zodiac’s Chart room and kitchen skylight are visible in this photograph. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Check out that mast! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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!

First Mate Chris Wallace welcomes passengers aboard our four-day wine cruise adventure. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Chef Ian fills us in on the ever-important culinary aspect of our voyage. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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!

Zodiac’s Lounge also contains many of her sleeping quarters: cozy bunks that recall the early days of sail. A few private staterooms are also available. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

My bunk, Number 35, was super-cozy and a great experience! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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!

Raising sails aboard the Schooner Zodiac – a process that involves passengers and crew alike! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

The sails are raised! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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!

Underway across Bellingham Bay at last! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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!

Yours truly reflected in an ocean that was as smooth as glass. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Passengers get to assist in the sailing of the Zodiac by spending time in the Chart Room, at the helm, standing bow watch, and acting as a message relay. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Standing watch on Zodiac’s bow. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Lowering the sails in preparation for our arrival off Lummi Island. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Zodiac’s zodiacs (say that a few times quickly!) were put in the water to whisk us ashore for our first wine tasting on Lummi Island. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Calm, serene Lummi Island. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Zodiac guests and crew mingle at Artisan Wine Gallery’s tasting room. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Masquerade Winery owner and winemaker Bill Kimmerly serves up some of his creations of the grape. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Returning to board the Zodiac after an enjoyable tasting on Lummi Island. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Winemaker Chuck Egner takes guests through his wines and how they are made. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Even the ship’s cat, Abbey, seems to want in on the action! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

Chef Ian barbecuing up a storm on deck. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

A few guests set out in the Zodiac’s sailboat for a short evening cruise around the ship. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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.

The evening brought more delicious wines brought onboard from our tasting ashore. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Passengers enjoying themselves in Zodiac’s Lounge. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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!


8 Responses to Schooner Zodiac Voyage Report – Day 1

  1. Vanny says:

    Aside from the sleeping quarters, I think this would be an experience I’d enjoy. I am such a light sleeper. Visiting wineries is a big draw. How soon would you have to book something like this?

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      You can also get a private stateroom with two bunks or three bunks for a little more money. It’s a really cool experience. They have a full sailing schedule here; I think you can even book as little as a month or a few weeks ahead if they have space.

  2. Joan Marie says:

    What a casual atmosphere to make new friends and share the work, er, fun of sailing! The ship appears beautifully restored. As a sailboat owner myself, I can confirm that grilling and wine dovetail nicely with the sailing experience. I chuckled to note that you called her a “proper” ship, oh, that is quite the international compliment. I am horrified to see a cat onboard because my allergic reaction would quickly turn to asthma and a panicked inability to breathe. I know felines have their purpose on larger ships — but I sure hope all passengers are advised prior to boarding. Your photography, as always, is outstanding. Love the photo taken of the reflection in brass; truly amazing!

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