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The Art of the Sail

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Story by Tom gierasimczuk

Everything is more tactile after three days of crewing a 90-year-old schooner in Washington State’s San Juan Islands

Few vacations get as real, as quickly, as they do aboard the Zodiac Schooner, a 165-foot two-mast wooden time machine that sails out of Bellingham between June and October.

It’s because few vacations—especially ones just an hour from Vancouver—rely on passenger participation as much a sailing aboard a working ship using centuriesold technology.

It was barely 30 minutes after boarding and a dense but brief of marine technology—“a rope is a line and we always coil it from the inside out”—that we get to work. The industrial and Victorian skyline of Northern Washington State’s largest city still looms large behind us when life on land officially switches to the life aquatic.

“The winds are right. It’s time to raise sail!” yells Captain Tim Mehrer, whose family rescued the Zodiac from a San Francisco scrap yard in the mid-’70s and whose father captained it until Captain Tim took over. The dozen crew organized the 18 guests into two groups—“peak” and “throat”—and yell to “haul away” on the miles of ropes, er “lines,” that serve as circuit boards on this timeless technological marvel. As we sweat, fumble clumsily and try to minimize our discombobulation in front of strangers who will soon be mateys, Captain Tim tells us to look up.

Above us, one of the largest mainsails in the Pacific Northwest catches the southern wind and balloons. But before we can admire our work and the timeless ingenuity of wind-harnessing technology for too long, the crew remind us that there’s three more sails left and the two groups spend the next 20 minutes in grunting unison raising the foresail, staysail and jib (see diagram). It is after this initial trial by fire that the crew of newbies and our kids get to explore our home for the next three days.

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The ship itself is massive as far as heritage sea craft go. Amazingly it’s more than twice the size of Columbus’s largest vessel, the Santa Maria. As we sprawl in the polished wood-adorned common quarters, library and games room, the realization that groups twice our number crammed into boats half the size and set off for months across the Atlantic is repeated often in disbelief.

For the next three days, everyone vibrates with the adventures before us. There’s the work stations where the crew teaches us about charting a course in the map room.

Or bow duty, where we stand guard looking out for small boats and logs. Then there’s everyone favourite: Driving Under the watchful eye of Captain Tim, of course. Then there’s leaving the ship, setting crabbing traps by dinghy, or exploring still coves by kayak, or disembarking for lunch on San Juan Island. After three days on board, the schooner is in our hearts and life aboard it yet another sweet summer memory to repeat. But this time, with gloves for the rope burn.

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HISTORY zodiac schooner

1923 Built for the heirs of the Johnson & Johnson Family to optimize the best features of the American fishing schooner

1924 Launched in Maryland

1928 Competes in the Transatlantic Race for the Kings Cup; finishes fourth

1930s Sold to the San Francisco Bar Pilots to work helping cargo ships enter the bay

1972 Retired as a pilot boat

1974 Bought by the Mehrer family and relocated to Bellingham

1982 Named to the National Register of Historic Places

zodiac schooner

Launched 1924
Designer William H. Hand, Jr.
Rig Two-masted Gaff
Topsail Schooner
Builder Hodgdon
Brothers Shipyard,
East Boothbay, ME

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