Cold rain and a fierce north wind whipped my face. I tightened my hood, careful to keep one hand on the Zodiac’s helm. I knew almost nothing about sailing, but here I was, at the wheel of a 127-foot vintage wooden schooner in a driving rainstorm, all four sails catching the wind. Twenty-three wannnabe sailors and I had been told this would be a working trip, but I never thought I’d actually be piloting the ship, especially on a day like this.
Fall weather in the Pacific Northwest can turn in a heartbeat. Tides and currents in the San Juan Islands often work against you. But this schooner had sailed in conditions much worse in her 87 years. The Zodiac pushed through the dark gray water, solid as a freight train. Whitecaps crested the waves. Cool crisp air filled my lungs and I looked straight ahead to Sucia Island.
Captain Joe stood a few feet away, his black souwester turned up at the brim, a dead ringer for the guy on the frozen fish package. He’d been sailing since he was five and had devoted much of his adult life to the schooner Zodiac. She was his baby. No way I could let anything happen to her on my watch.
“Ease a little to the left,” he shouted. I turned the wheel, almost as wide as I was tall, and waited for the ship to respond. A vessel this large can hardly turn on a dime. I looked out at the deck, slick with rain, through the spokes of the wheel. Wind whistled past my ears. What was the worst that could happen? A rogue wave? A submerged rock? High above, the four white sails billowed in the wind, the 4000-square foot mainsail, batted about on its eleven-story mast, a commanding presence. Slowly, through the driving storm, the bow turned.
Cold raindrops stung my face. My legs, wet despite my so-called waterproof pants, felt like ice, my fingers numb. My fellow passengers and the crew scurried about on the deck, securing the sails in the biting wind. They were my responsibility-I couldn’t make a mistake. The Zodiac plowed on, the dark waters churning into a frenzy. The sound of the brass bell, cut through the wind. The captain leaned toward me.
“I think your watch is up.” He pulled down his hat. “You did a good job.” I did a good job!
To think I almost didn’t make this trip. Last summer, a kayaking friend had told me she was going to help crew a tall ship in September, but she’d had a family emergency and couldn’t go. “Take my place,” she said. “You’ll have fun. It’s about time you got out of your comfort zone.”
I’d seen these beautiful wooden schooners, with their huge sails and tall masts, on television and in the movies. My only experience with sailing was on a nearby lake in a friend’s 15-foot sloop, trying to remember to duck before the boom came around. Could I actually sail a boat ten times that size? And what was wrong with my “comfort zone?” I liked it there, nice and safe. I wasn’t sure how safe an old sailboat would be.
I found excuses. It’s a long drive from Eugene, Oregon to Bellingham, Washington. I don’t know how to sail and I’ll make a mistake and do something stupid. I won’t understand the sailing terms or be able to follow orders. I might get hurt. Somehow, I pushed my doubts aside and let my adventuresome spirit surface.
In all my years of living in the Pacific Northwest, I’d never seen a whale. How many times had I stood looking out at the ocean, binoculars trained on the water, waiting for a glimpse of a whale? Did I ever see one? Nope, not one. Never. Surely, I’d see one on this trip. Come on, there was a reason they named Orcas Island, the biggest one in the San Juans, Orcas.
I packed my duffel-no wheely suitcases allowed-with rain pants, boots, a hat, two pairs of gloves, and my new, “windproof to 60 miles-per- hour” jacket and headed north on I-5. Eight hours later, duffle in hand, I walked toward the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.
There she was, the schooner Zodiac-all 127 feet, 160 feet including the bowsprit (one of the many new sailing terms I learned). Her white hull shimmered in the late afternoon sun, her two giant wooden masts reached into the sky. The crew bustled about, getting ready for the wannabe sailors, one of which would be me.
Later that night, after dinner, Captain Joe told us the Zodiac had been built in 1924 as a graduation present for an heir of the Johnson & Johnson family. Some present! In 1928, she finished fourth in the Transatlantic Race for the Kings Cup. During the Depression, she was sold to the San Francisco Bar Pilots, where she worked the rugged waters outside the Golden Gate for forty years. In the mid 1970s, the Vessel Zodiac Corporation restored her, saving her from the scrap yard, and she earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Quite a history for an old lady pushing ninety.
We shuffled aboard, 23 people I’d never met and with whom I would spend the next four days in very close quarters. My tiny cabin nestled in the bow. Four narrow bunks hugged the curved walls. I threw my duffle on the bottom bunk and climbed into the upper one. A small reading lamp above the pillow. A thin foam mattress. No sheets, a couple of wool Army blankets. No sitting up in bed with a good book. Slumping in bed would be more like it. I stuffed my clothes into the small cubbies at the end of the bunk. Not the QEII, but I wasn’t here for luxury. I was here to be a sailor.
I clambered up one of the steep ladder staircases to the deck. We’d motored out of Bellingham, on our way to Chuckanut Bay, where we’d anchor for the night. The early evening sky had turned orange, bathing the trees and water in a soft golden light. A half moon rose in the east. I stood at the rail, the water rippling in thin mackerel waves as we cruised into the bay.
Chuckanut Island is uninhabited, a 5-acre preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy. The sculpted sandstone shoreline swirled and jutted into the water. Tall cedars waved their boughs in the breeze. Reddish brown bark peeled off an ancient madrone tree. A trail snaked along the shoreline. I wanted to go ashore for a quick hike, but I didn’t want to be late for dinner. In the distance, an owl hooted from the woods. Laughter drifted from below-my shipmates gathering around the table. I took a last look, and climbed down the stairs.
Rain bounced off the hatch when I awoke the next day, sprayed my face when I opened the cabin door. A storm had rolled into the Straits of Juan de Fuca during the night. This would be the best day to sail, the worst day if you wanted to relax in the sun. I pulled on my foul weather gear, jacket, wool socks, boots and fleece hat, grabbed a cup of coffee and went up on deck. Dark clouds skittered across the skyline. Ropes clattered against the masts in the fierce north wind. The night before we’d been told about sailing stations, peak and throat, bow watch and commanding the helm. Today, we’d find out who’d paid attention. That better be me.
All day, the rain and wind persisted. The Zodiac sliced through the rough waters of the sound, her four sails stretched tight. Most of us had little sailing experience. In half hour shifts, we learned to read the complicated navigation charts, command the helm (Captain Joe nearby), stand bow watch, and receive messages from the bow, shouted into a copper tube, up to the helm. What if I forgot something?
My team was responsible for the topping lifts, the lines that support the mainsail boom. The mainsail! Big Mike, our team leader, explained our duties. “When the wind comes up, everything has to happen quickly. You guys need to be fast and work together.” He picked up the end of the rope. “We call this a halyard. You’ve got almost 4,000 square feet of canvas to hoist, and when I call, ‘sailing stations’, you’ve got pull this with everything you’ve got.” Could I do it and would I be fast enough?
The four teams rotated positions, allowing free time to read, play cards, sleep, or relax below. If that’s what you chose to do. Not me. I didn’t want to miss a thing. How could you not want to stand in the rain, legs planted firm, watching those magnificent sails high above your head?
The water churned and tossed. Sea gulls pocked the dark sky, wings outstretched, the wind carrying them higher and higher. An occasional freighter chugged by, steady and severe in the dark water. But no whales. The water was too rough to see them, even if they’d surfaced for a peek at us.
The storm revealed only the outline of the islands, dark foreboding bodies of land. Later that afternoon, when the rain let up, other islands emerged from the mist, blanketed in lush green foliage.
We anchored that evening in Reid Harbor, off the shore of Stuart Island. Accessible by boat and plane, only a few houses and a long-abandoned one-room schoolhouse are scattered here. The Zodiac carries two motorized inflatable dinghies. I took advantage of the clearing skies and went ashore. A dirt path trailed off in two directions-I choose west, following the remainder of the sun. My feet, now in dry shoes and socks, crunched leaves and skirted around poison oak. Golden sunrays shot out of the clearing clouds and, like in my childhood book, Tell Me About Jesus, I almost expected him to appear in his white robes. I sat down on a large rock. The Zodiac bobbed quietly in the harbor. An eagle’s white head caught the sun as it landed in its giant nest atop a nearby fir tree. I listened for babies, but the only sound was the wind in the yellowing aspens, and the water, always the water. The sun had faded, the fall air had a definite chill-time to get back to the ship.
The following morning dawned bright and sunny. The storm that had earlier soaked me to the bone had disappeared, leaving only a few marshmallow clouds and dead calm seas. We bid farewell to Reid Harbor and motored south, Orcas Island now on our starboard side. I took off my windbreaker, looked out over the glassy water and let the sun warm my face. This would certainly be the day I’d see a whale. We were in their home turf, the conditions were perfect-the sun bright, the water quiet. A few small sailboats passed by, their hulls reflected on the calm water.
Something caught my eye. A whale? Nope, porpoises. They jumped through invisibles hoops, their sleek black bodies sliding effortlessly through the water with barely a splash. For ten or fifteen minutes they played in front of us, but then they were gone, as quickly as they had arrived. They were fun to watch, but still, I held out for a whale.
After lunch, the wind picked up. “Sailing stations. Prepare to make sail,” Big Mike called. I grabbed hold of the halyard and, teammates beside me, planted my feet firm on the deck. “Haul away, peak,” Mike shouted. I tightened my fingers around the rope, dug my heels into the deck and pulled with all my might. “Haul away throat.” The other team pulled their halyard. “Come on, you guys need to pull harder if you’re ever gonna get this sail up,” he yelled. “Haul away peak, haul away throat.” Slowly, the sails unfurled into the wind. We were on our way toward Sucia Island. I took off my gloves. Fresh blisters bubbled on my palm, but I didn’t care, I’d earned them. The sails billowed in the afternoon sun. We did it. I did it.
We passed tiny dots of islands, the only residents noisy sea gulls and other waterfowl, and larger islands with lavish summer homes, their lawns reaching to the water. Shades drawn, outdoor furniture put away, their owners now back in the city.
We anchored for the night in another quiet bay. I’d been eyeing the sea kayaks onboard since we’d left Bellingham. I asked one of the crew to lower one down for me. I squiggled into the kayak’s seat, tightened my life jacket and dipped the paddle into the dark green water. The kayak slipped gracefully toward the shore. Quiet, it was so quiet.
I paddled into a patch of green and yellow reeds. The stalks clicked against the hull. From deep in the reeds, hundreds of iridescent blue dragonflies flew out. I let the kayak drift. The dragonflies glistened, buzzed around, trying to find another place to settle. A red-tailed hawk circled above, its raucous cry punctuating the quiet early evening. A breeze brushed through my hair as I paddled along the shore. A few wood ducks slipped by, quacking their displeasure at being disturbed. Shadows from the tall firs grew long-time to return to the Zodiac.
The next morning, I awoke to the smell of freshly-brewed coffee. I pulled on my jeans and sweatshirt, grabbed my jacket and followed my nose. Coffee mug in hand, I climbed the stairs for my first look at the day. Windy enough to put up the sails. After breakfast we motored out of the quiet bay into the open waters. Sailing stations were called. I was beginning to get this sailing thing down, which lines to pull, and when. The sails snapped against the mast as they went up, then unfurled, tight against the sky as they caught the wind. Maybe this would be the day I’d see a whale.
I’ve been to the San Juan Islands before, one of the jewels of the Olympic Peninsula. Fewer than 20,000 people reside on this cluster of 200 islands, but many of them have no residents at all. In the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, it’s quiet and peaceful-no freeways, Wal-Marts or golden arches.
Little islands appeared, then disappeared as we sailed by. The wind whipped my hair. It seemed like we were going so fast, but we were really only going about four knots, less than five miles-per-hour. Heading south, we sailed close to more islands accessible only by boat. A herd of mule deer grazed among dried grasses. A few raised their heads, as if to say, Who are you?
The day grew long. We’d lowered the sails and were headed to a small bay near San Juan Island, where we’d spend our last night. Seagulls floated above, catching the updraft. The Zodiac nudged into her spot for the night, the dark waters rippling in her wake.
When we dropped anchor, the sun had already gone down, leaving an apricot glow in its path. Not the spectacular pink and orange and red sunsets you see in magazines, just a soft blush of color. On the shoreline, Canada geese floated through native sea grasses, their long necks bobbing.
After dinner, we raised our glasses to a wonderful trip and recalled our favorite experiences. We toasted to another year, another voyage on the schooner Zodiac. I slipped away from the frivolity and went up on deck.
A butter-colored gibbous moon was rising over the island, its image mirrored on the dark water. An owl hooted. I wondered if it saw us or was calling to its sweetheart in the dark. One lone light, half way up the main mast, lit the deck. A few stars speckled the darkened sky. I would remember this night. I would always remember this trip.
No sleeping in this last morning. The crew, up early, were raising the anchor under my cabin. The giant chains clanked and scraped, nearly shaking me out of my bunk, pulling the multi-ton anchor up from the depths. I glanced at my watch-6 a.m. We needed to be in Bellingham by 10 o’clock. I pulled on my jeans, grabbed my jacket and climbed the stairs to the deck.
Still a bit dark, no wind. A fishing boat had drifted into the bay during the night, its lights shone on the water. The anchor packed into the hold, the Zodiac began her journey back to Bellingham. In the dusk, we passed islands, some dotted with house lights, some only dark shapes. On the horizon, a freighter, heavy with cargo, chugged its way across the bay.
In the east, the clouds turned a pinkish orange. The sky slowly faded from gray to pale blue. An occasional sea bird flew across our path. My caffeine habit kicked in and I went below for my first cup of java. By the time I returned to the deck, the pink and orange sky was close to a memory.
The Zodiac motored on. Somehow, it felt like she knew she was going back to the barn, returning to the harbor. The islands slipped away, behind us now. We turned south, and rounded a bend. Captain Joe stood at the helm. “Wanna take over?” he asked.
“Me?” I said. Silly question-most of the others were still at breakfast.
“Sure, you’ve caught on to this sailing stuff pretty quick. You can handle it. Just make sure to keep her about 500 feet off shore.”
Five hundred feet. I looked at the shore. Exactly how far was 500 feet? I turned to the captain. “Yes sir, 500 feet.” My hands on either side of the steering wheel, I kept my eye on the shore, a vague estimate of 500 feet in my head. The large wooden wheel, smooth under my hands, barely moved as I steered the Zodiac back to port. I’d really pulled it together, gone from a scared and inexperienced passenger to someone who knew what to do and when to do it. I didn’t want to go back.
Off in the distance, Bellingham. Refinery smoke stacks poked into the sky. Buildings clustered together, cars and trucks rumbled down the streets. A train whistled. Reality.
Every day had brought something different, rain, wind, sun, clouds. Deer, ducks, eagles and porpoises. But no whales. But even without whales, I’d make this trip again in a heartbeat. I’d discovered new-found confidence, testing myself against the elements in this amazing vintage schooner the size of a football field. I’d challenged myself, and proved I could do it. Like many that had come before me, I’d become a sailor.