I was walking along the Inner Harbour in Victoria, British Columbia this past weekend when I spied an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time: the classy and elegant Schooner Zodiac.

Heading back to Schooner Zodiac in preparation to move to her overnight anchorage at Parks Bay. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The beautiful Schooner Zodiac. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Schooner Zodiac is an absolute win for anyone that loves classic sailing vessels. Built in 1924, this 160-foot long ship has been lovingly preserved and restored and can take 26 guests on overnight cruises, or a maximum of 49 on the ship’s one-day sailings that usually depart roundtrip from Bellingham, Washington between April and October.

The day-sails are a great chance to get out on the water and see what it’s like to sail aboard this gorgeous ship. For me, though, nothing beats the ship’s multi-night cruises through the San Juan Islands.

Built in 1924, the Schooner Zodiac is a living, breathing time capsule. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Built in 1924, the Schooner Zodiac is a living, breathing time capsule. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

In the past, I’ve sailed on two special voyages: a wine-themed cruise, and a beer-themed cruise. Both voyages called on some of the most picturesque places in the San Juan Islands, from remote anchorages that you’d be hard-pressed to find on a map to more popular tourist attractions like Friday Harbor and Port Townsend.

My first voyage back in 2012 was something of an accident. My editor at the Vancouver Province at the time offered the sailing to me because she wasn’t all that interested in sailing ships. I, on the other hand, definitely was. That the ship left from Bellingham – just across the United States border from the suburb of Metro Vancouver I lived in at the time – and didn’t require anymore long-haul flights cinched the deal for me.

Sunset aboard the Schooner Zodiac; a magical moment. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Sunset aboard the Schooner Zodiac; a magical moment. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

It’s the smell that hits you first when you step onboard: the sweet, woody scent of decades of varnish and pitch that mingle together like the scent from a fine glass of scotch. Then, you notice the wooden decking beneath your feet, the brass brightwork at the tiller, and the massive sails that have been keeping the Schooner Zodiac under way for the past 92 years.

The sails are new, of course. But the Zodiac has been so lovingly maintained by Captain Tim Mehrer and the ship’s legions of volunteer crew members that she looks – and more importantly, sails – like the day she was launched back in 1924.

Perhaps the best part about the Zodiac – besides her friendly crew and the ship itself – is the ability to take part in everything, from hoisting the sails to “tacking” (re-arranging the sails from port to starboard or vice-versa), or even taking a turn at the ship’s wheel. You can learn about charts, navigation, VHF radio, and pretty well anything else you’ve ever wanted to know about marine operations.

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

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

Guest accommodations range from a handful of wood-panelled staterooms to bunks (or berths) in the ship’s main lounge. These are tremendously cozy, with a small electric reading lamp, a privacy curtain, and call back to the classic days of sail gone by. On the first evening, everyone nervously gathers in the lounge, semi-afraid of what sounds might emanate during the night. By the next morning, everyone is already fast friends.

Cruises aboard the Zodiac are both active and relaxing. During the day, you can help with the actual sailing operations of the ship (something I’d really encourage you to do – you’re missing out if you don’t), while evenings are spent over a glass of wine and a game of cards in the lounge, or up on deck listening to one of the ship’s crew play a few tunes. I remember both events fondly. Actually, when I first sailed aboard her, I expected things to be rather sedate. Instead, I found most guests embroiled in a fantastic card game in the ship’s main wood-panelled salon, playing through even after the ship’s generator (and its lights) were extinguished at 11:00 pm.

Zodiac heeled into the wind. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Zodiac heeled into the wind. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

While her 2016 season is drawing to a close, the Schooner Zodiac still has a couple of multi-day sailings left on her books for 2016. There’s the Secrets of the San Juan Islands on August 20, 2016; a Ukuleles at Sea theme cruise departing on August 29 for three days, or the quick Labor Day Family Escape that departs on September 3, 2016. The Windjammer Rendezvous is always a lot of fun (October 8), and the season concludes on October 14 with the Autumn Harvest cruise through the San Juan Islands.

One of the more interesting voyages this year is a special book-themed cruise that takes place on September 13, featuring a list of destination-specific voyages curated by Librarian Andrea Gough of the Seattle Public Library.

Can’t make it this year? The Schooner Zodiac returns to the waters again in 2017.

A sunset to remember awaits us aboard the Schooner Zodiac. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

A sunset to remember awaits us aboard the Schooner Zodiac. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

 

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