Standing Watch, Lopez Island, and adventures in Wine

Friday, June 29, 2012

Raising the anchor aboard the Schooner Zodiac as we sail for Lopez Island. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The start of another exciting day aboard the Schooner Zodiac was heralded by the chime of three bells at 7am sharp by Chef Ian, officially announcing the call for breakfast.

I had a great, refreshing sleep in my little bunk, which had just enough storage space for my backpack and soft-sided luggage. More importantly, I never banged my head on the bunk above me! But a word of advice to the light sleeper: bring earplugs or an iPod to drown out the various people noises at night.

My cozy berth, 35, aboard the Schooner Zodiac. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

My iPod, along with the soundtrack to Master and Commander, worked very nicely indeed.  Forgot your earplugs? No worries – Zodiac’s dedicated crew usually carries extras.

Breakfast was a hearty affair with bacon, French toast and some delicious fried potatoes. Dieting? Don’t – you will need the protein for the sailing tasks that lie ahead, and with a stiff wind blowing down on us from the north, it wasn’t long before the call of “all hands on deck!” rang out just after 8:30AM.  We were going sailing again!

Uncovering the sails in preparation for sailing! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

On Chris’s orders (“Haul away peak! Haul away throat!”), it didn’t take long after raising the mainsail for us to get moving at a great clip – probably six or seven knots. The Zodiac heeled over to her starboard side, creating a list in the deck that seemed to only let our nimble schooner speed up.

Captain Tim Mehrer oversees the entire preparations for our sail to Lopez Island. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

But as quickly as the main sail came up, it also had to be brought down: a tear had developed in the brand-new sail, necessitating a quick take down.  We were still able to continue sailing with two other sails fully up, but the racing-style list the deck had taken on gradually lessened without the presence of the mainsail.

With sails fully up, the Zodiac heels over and catches the strong wind blowing from the north. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Looking down at the sea from our slanted deck before a tear in the mainsail forced us to bring it down. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

With the mainsail safely stowed, it was my turn to participate in the ship’s rotation watch. While it’s optional, I relished the chance to take part in this important part of the experience onboard the Zodiac, and I noticed nearly every passenger took part as well.

Zodiac’s Chart Room. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

I spent my first 30 minutes of watch duty in the Chart Room, learning about navigation and nautical maps and positioning from Brandy, who told me how to plot a course and read the navigation charts, including how to distinguish depth readings, buoy markings, and how to properly read and plot latitude and longitude coordinates.  I’ve seen them on every single cruise I’ve ever taken, but have always been embarrassed that I couldn’t read them – until now.

Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Afterwards, at 10:30AM I rang the ship’s bell twice, twice more, then once to signal the current time before heading off to the stern to see Jacki for a lesson in steering this beautiful ship.

I don’t normally like to put photos of myself up on this site, but this shot of me steering the Zodiac with the help of Jacki begged to be put up. Photo courtesy of Ben Bagley.

With her help and Captain Tim’s, I was able to navigate the Zodiac around tiny Towhead Island off to our port side, then bring her around the island in order to clear a navigational buoy. Zodiac was surprisingly responsive to helm commands, and I eventually got the hang of how long it took between the time I put the helm over and the time the ship’s bow would start to swing.

After 30 exhilarating minutes steering the Zodiac, I went all the way forward to the base of the ship’s bowsprit to act as the lookout.

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

This doesn’t necessarily include other vessels that are underway and crossing the ship’s path, but does include things like partially-submerged objects, disabled vessels, or anything that could affect the safe navigation of the ship.

Plenty of Washington State ferries criss-crossed our path. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

While I saw nothing worthy of raising the alarm (via a brass pneumatic speaking-tube), it did give me a great view – and a new respect for a post that was, up until the advent of modern navigation equipment, de facto aboard ships of all kinds (though officers on the bridge of modern cruise ships regularly post extra lookouts at the wings whenever it is deemed appropriate.)

Tendering ashore from the Zodiac, seen here in the beautiful light off Lopez Island. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

After my stint at the bow, I spent 30 minutes acting as a relay between the bow and the helm; listening for any whistles through the pneumatic speaking tube and monitoring the VHF radio for any mayday or pan-pan calls or calls directed to the Schooner Zodiac.

Ashore on Lopez Island, we were whisked to the Lopez Island Vineyard for a tasting. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Following my two fantastic hours on watch rotation, it was time for another hearty meal served up by Chef Ian. Our delicious lunch consisted of clam chowder, sandwiches, and a tasty rice stirfry, and by the time we were done, we had arrived at our anchorage just off of Lopez Island, gateway to our tour of the Lopez Island Vineyards.

Winemaker Brent Charnley explains his process at his picturesque vineyard. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Owned by Brent Charnley and Maggie Nilan, this picturesque vineyard has been producing high-quality wines since 1987, on a six-acre plot of land and utilizing grapes that can be sustained in a similar growing climate, like those found in Northern Europe.

During our visit, Brent explained the different types of wine that are produced at the vineyard, along with stories of the winery’s founding and how its inception came about after a visit to France’s Loire valley spurned him to start his own vineyard on Lopez Island – a move that was made possible by offering stock in the vineyard to the local community in order to raise the needed capital.

Lopez Island VIneyards founder and winemaker Brent Charnley. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

While Brent had set out an entire tasting menu for us that spanned several varieties of wine and red wines, my two personal favorites were the Siegerrebe – a dry, aromatic white wine that would pair nicely with spicy dishes or Asian cuisine; and the stunning, organically-grown Blueberry fruit wine, which pairs excellently with chocolates, desserts, or can frankly be served on its own. I could have bought a case of these two wines. Heck, I should have bought a case.  All the more reason to return.

The winery also produces a wide variety of wines that are made from grapes farmed in the Yakima Valley in mainland Washington State, including a mellow, dry Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Malbec blend that is aged two years in oak.

Returning to the Schooner Zodiac. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

But the other reason to visit the Lopez Island Vineyards in person is for their extreme natural beauty: the gardens and property are immaculate, beautiful, and pleasant to stroll on a sunny day with a glass of Malbec in hand.

After an enjoyable afternoon enjoying Brent’s hospitality and wines, we returned to the Zodiac just before 5pm and set sail for our overnight anchorage, located between Frost Island andSpencer Spit.

Kayaking proved to be the perfect vehicle to get some great shots of the Zodiac at anchor. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Today was my first visit to a vineyard, and when we arrived at our overnight anchorage, another opportunity presented itself: kayaking.

I’ve always wanted to kayak but never really had the opportunity to do so. So when the Zodiac’s crew announced they were putting two kayaks and the small sailboat into the water for passengers to use, I jumped at the chance, securing a kayak to myself.

The stillness of the water at our overnight anchorage near Frost Island was remarkable. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

As I discovered, I have quite the aptitude for it – I can paddle and steer solo without any issue. So I took the opportunity to take some photographs of the Zodiac at anchor before venturing off to explore the sheer shoreline of Frost Island.

After 30 minutes of toodling around in the bay, I sailed my kayak back to the Zodiac and was welcomed aboard by Jacki, who had a refreshing glass of wine waiting for me as I ascended the ladder and stepped back on deck.

Schooner and kayak. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The sun shone brightly on deck over dinner, and the crew once again purchased a large case of wine from the Lopez Island Vineyards for us to enjoy. It was a perfect evening.

Welcome aboard! Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The passengers have gotten to know each other and the crew by now, and Chef Ian’s fantastic cooking is another chance for everyone to bond, relax, and enjoy themselves fully.

I am in my bunk as I write this, with just the dim light of my in-bunk light to see by. Lights out is in 30 minutes at 11pm, yet I can still hear music coming from the Chart Room where Seth, one of our sailing interns, has broken out the guitar and ukulele. A game of cribbage is in full swing in the dining lounge once again, and I can hear the gentle pitter-patter of rainwater running down the scuppers up on deck.

Watching the sailors in the sailboat from the comfort of the Zodiac. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The sun sets on another day aboard the Schooner Zodiac. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

I cannot believe that this ship and its unique sailing experience have literally been in my own backyard and I never knew about it until now. I wish they could tack on a few more days to our itinerary – suddenly, three nights and four days seems all too short.

Some came here for the wine. Others came here for the scenery. I came for the ship.

No one has been disappointed!

Night falls aboard the Zodiac, anchored off Frost Island in the San Juan Islands. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Report from aboard the Schooner Zodiac continues tomorrow, as we sail for Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island for a tour of a distillery and a winery!


6 Responses to Schooner Zodiac Voyage Report – Day 2

  1. Nicholas Sabalos, Jr., CDR, U.S. Navy (Ret.) says:

    Would I be correct in saying: “Aaron Saunders has the BEST job in the world!”? (And is darn good at it!)

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      Thank you as always, Nicholas! (and yes, I think it’s a darn cool job that I’m very grateful for! It took a lot of hard work…)

  2. Liz says:

    Counting the days! Gordon and I are in Indy (Indiana) for his B-day weekend and it is 101degrees! We are going to the fireworks tonight. I know crazy! it willbe a sweatfest!

  3. Scott G. says:


    It was a pleasure cruising with you. You got some great photos!

  4. Joan Marie says:

    Oh, love the kayak oar photo– very imaginative! I am enjoying your storytelling talents as well as all photos. You are very handsome as you handle the helm, grinning ear to ear. This habit is going to get expensive ….. (pssst, the way, it is “chart”, not nautical map!)

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