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Sailing Out of My Comfort Zone -- and Into My Life

“We dropped anchor, grabbed a bottle of Tabasco, climbed into a dingy and rowed to a tiny oyster-covered island,” my father told me some 20 years ago. “We pried oysters off that rock and ate until we could eat no more.”

Since then I’ve dreamed of going to the San Juan Islands, an archipelago in Washington that borders Canada. I just never figured I’d be cruising there on a 1924 160′ wooden tall ship which, despite a complete lack of sailing know-how or experience, I would help sail.

I had been feeling stuck at home, sucked into the daily rhythms of life and work to the point that I had started to bore myself. Realizing that I needed a change of pace, I called a couple of friends who publish an online women’s travel magazine.

 

“Have you ever covered the San Juans?” I asked. “I know that’s a stupid question since one of you is Canadian, but I really want to go.”

 

They started to laugh. Okay, I knew it was stupid.

“How do you feel about sailing?” one of them asked.

“I think I should like it. I want to like it. But I get seasick,” I said. “On the other hand, I should be able to deal with that.”

“What are you doing next Thursday?”

We arrived in Bellingham, Washington after a leisurely drive timed to miss Seattle traffic and headed directly to see Schooner Zodiac at the Fairhaven Cruise Ship Terminal. She’s a beauty, a two-masted wooden yacht designed by William H. Hand, Jr. for millionaires Robert Wood Johnson and J. Seward Johnson, heirs to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals fortune. Hand had intended to epitomize the best features of the American fishing schooner, so the polished red oak and white oak ship has sleek lines and a Doug Fir main mast which rises more than 12 stories into the air.

I couldn’t believe my luck. I also couldn’t completely believe that this was about to be home for four days and three nights.

The fact that I was going to help sail this vessel made me realize just how far outside of my comfort zone I was about to venture. I looked at the bowsprit, the wooden pole that extends off the front of the vessel like a marlin’s sword. “Okay, there’s one place I’m not going,” I announced to my friends. 

Armed with three sets of Acubands, Dramamine and Meclizine (all mine), we boarded the next morning at 9:30 a.m. I headed below board to stow my gear in the salon, a study of varnished mahogany, oak and teak that heralds back to the Art Deco days when the ship was originally commissioned. The passenger berths reminded me of European train couchettes (the second-class variety). The mattresses were thin and the space cramped, but who cared. I laid out my sleeping bag and shut the curtain to discourage a visit from Abbey the cat. I would find out later that ships with live-aboard kitties aren’t required to invest in extra pest control.

When I finally emerged back up top, I realized that not only were we already underway, we were a good quarter mile from the dock. I began to think that perhaps I need not have worried quite so much about getting seasick.

“Sailing stations!” the first mate suddenly cried. I would soon find out that he was a volunteer. Aside from the captain and the cook, so were all the rest of the crew members.  Schooner Zodiac’s mission is to not only to “educate, inform and involve passengers in the lore of tall ship sailing” but to keep “the nautical tradition and skills of our maritime history alive.” So each outing helps hone the sailing prowess of a rotating volunteer crew.

“Have you ever sailed?” asked Sam, a 20-something intern crew member from Glasgow who had been living aboard for the past several months.

“I capsized a Sunfish once,” I answered. “And I’m scared.”

 

“You’ll be fine,” he assured me before explaining that we’d be raising the jib. He taught me how to secure the line (not to be called a rope even though that’s what it looks like to a landlubber like me) with figure eights and a locking half hitch. He also explained that I would be helping to ensure that the line was on the proper side of the mast. That’s my translation, of course. I’m still largely at sea when it comes to nautical terminology.

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Once the jib had been raised and the line properly made up, we pitched in where needed to help raise Schooner Zodiac’s 4,000 square feet of mainsail, the largest working mainsail on the West Coast of the United States.

“Haul away peak! Haul away throat!” yelled the first mate.

 

Thankfully, due to the insistent recommendation of my friend Viv, I had brought gloves with me. The lines are coarse and heavy, and raising the sail seemed to go on and on. By the time the sail was just halfway up, I wasn’t sure whether I was more thrilled about the fact that the gloves had spared my hands or the fact that I had thought to cancel my following week’s workout.

Even a monster big sail needs wind, which was running in serious short supply that day. We came about in Chuckanut Bay by Governor’s Point, and resumed our whopping 1.9 knots. A kayak approached, caught us, and after a chat paddled past. The incident might have been humiliating had it not been so ironic and funny.

Eventually, we were forced to lower sail, which is another group effort. As the sails were being furled (tied up in non-navigation language), I ran around taking photos.

 

Life is good! I thought. Then it hit.

 

“Linden, want to come help us with the jib?” Sam yelled. “You’re going to need to climb out over the bow.”

 

Are you kidding? 

I knew I could take a pass, but I had come in part to break out of my box. So despite a pronounced discomfort with heights, I set down my camera, breathed in hard and began to inch my way on my stomach out over the bow. Eventually, I swung my leg down until, after two tries, my sneaker finally touched the cable that holds the net under the bowsprit. I looked down for a moment, just long enough to realize that I should never look at the water from that vantage point again.

Unfortunately, furling the sail required me to ease my death grip on the single piece of wood I had still been able to reach. I let go of what felt like my lifeline, leaned against the bowsprit and started pulling the jib toward me, helping to pack away fold after fold until it had been neatly tied up and covered. Then I gratefully climbed back over the bow of the boat and congratulated myself for courage beyond the call of duty.

My self-congratulation was cut short by directions to report to the chart room for a navigation lesson, whereupon I learned how to read a chart and discovered that a fathom equals six feet. Who knew?

 

Immediately after the lunch that followed, I took the wheel. I hadn’t factored in the currents that push the ship, but I got up to speed fast. Grabbing the wheel, I turned the pegs hand over hand to the left, then just as fast realized that I was causing the ship to deviate from her course. Switch! I spun the wheel to the right, overturning once again even though two of the pegs are marked, one with a rope wrap and the other with two notches. And so it went. I felt like a drunken sailor unsuccessfully trying to keep the craft on a straight path.

“You’re steering this ship!” announced my friend Jill.  

 

“That’s ridiculous,” I answered.

 

“This is power!” 84-year-old Martha—a passenger who worked as hard as any of us at raising and lowering the mainsail as well as manning her own sailing station—would later exclaim with a smile that lit up her watery blue eyes. She was right.

After half an hour, I was relieved and sent to do bow watch. Posted at the very tip of the bow, I would be responsible for spotting any potential hazards, including crab pots, buoys and deadheads (water-soaked, partially submerged logs), as well as any boats directly in front of us since those can’t be seen from the helm.

I straddled the spar and looked down to the furled jib where I had just done a tightrope act before scanning the grayish waters ahead. 

 

“This is your moment of zen,” said Viv.

 

All I could hear was the wind in my ears and the Washington state flag snapping above. Seagulls landed and took off. I didn’t have to worry about crab pots because at 50 fathoms, the waters are too deep.

 

“No one wants to pull up a crab pot from a depth of 300 feet,” Captain Tim Mehrer had explained to me while I was at the helm.  

 

Without much to worry about, I scanned the island coastline, with its mix of sandy and rocky beaches that give way to verdant hills of madrone trees, red alders and maples. Even though the islands were heavily logged in the 19th century, the lush second growth is home to the second greatest concentration of bald eagles in the continental U.S. You can also spot great blue herons and red-billed black oystercatchers, along with numerous shore birds and deer that flourish due to the absence of predators.

 

Determined not to get too distracted from my duties, I noticed a fishing boat and a sailboat in the distance and signaled the folks at the stern. When no one acknowledged my sign language, I walked over to the talking tube, essentially an elegant brass version of the telephone game we all used to play with two cans and a string, took a breath and blew into it deep and long. A corresponding whistle emanated from the other end of the tube, prompting a fellow passenger to put an ear to the tube.

 

“Sailboat straight ahead,” I said.

 

“Got it.”

 

I’d done my job and saved the day.

 

Soon after we pulled into the bay between Decatur Island and James Island, where we could see snow-covered Mt. Baker rising in the background. Still on watch, I noticed a salmon’s silvery belly flash in the sun as the fish jumped two feet in the air after an unfortunate, low-flying bug. We dropped anchor, hopped into Zodiac-style tenders and headed for land to enjoy picnic-style salmon and chèvre, cheese squares and hot crab dip appetizers, along with wine tasting courtesy of Masquerade Wine Company. “When you taste wine, keep your mouth open,” advised the wine rep as we sampled three whites, a dry rose and a 2010 Syrah and 2007 Cabernet. “The flavors are intensified that way.”

 

Aye, aye!

Since we were on Schooner Zodiac’s seafood and wine tour, the following day we stopped at Lopez Island Vineyards’ tasting room in Lopez Village, the island’s commercial hub located some four miles from the Fisherman Bay ferry landing. After sipping a few varietals including a Sangiovese and a Malbec, we checked out the nearby gallery, shops, fruit stand and bakery before heading back to the boat. Had we had more time, I would have loved to hit one of the local restaurants.

Back on the boat, we headed for Parks Bay off Shaw Island, where we kayaked through the placid waters of the San Juan Island’s Inside Passage, looked for orcas and porpoises, and ate dinner on deck. Then we watched the sun set as the skies turned orange and the stars popped out only to disappear into the night fog.

Our third day would take us to Roche Harbor, a postcard-picturesque location on the south side of San Juan Island. After a leisurely stroll past historic Hotel de Haro and its stunning gardens, and then up a narrow winding road flanked by fragrant apple orchards, we reached Westcott Bay Cider/San Juan Island Distillery for the distillery tour and a little more tasting, this time of hard cider and gin. In addition to making a variety of hard apple ciders—including a brut that’s so dry you can barely taste the fruit—and award-winning gin, the distillery also makes an apple eau de vie that has garnered awards and a craft-distilled apple brandy deemed in two national craft distilling judgings to be the best in the U.S.

By the last day, after a second low-wind day of sailing and a third day that had us making nine knots against a three-knot current, we passengers had actually begun to feel like we knew what we’re doing. During my second go-around at the helm, our newfound skills would become apparent.

We had been motoring yet again to make sure we returned to dock on time.

“Should we raise the sails?” asked Captain Tim, directing one of the volunteer crew members to take a poll. When she hadn’t returned after ten minutes, he turned to me.

“Are we sailing?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I answered.

“We’re sailing,” Captain Tim announced.

“Man sailing stations,” yelled the first mate, and 16 passengers and 11 crew members sprang into action, raising the sails like a well-rehearsed dance troupe.

The winds had calmed again, so the thrill of the prior day’s fast pace was replaced with pure appreciation of the beauty of the four white sails, 7,000 square feet in all, billowing against the blue of the sky, the dusty green of the wooded islands and the schooner’s glistening cognac masts and hull.

As we pulled back into Bellingham Bay, I realized that I’d gotten a reset I didn’t even know I needed. I had wanted not just a getaway, but an adventure. But I came away with so much more. After just four days of hoisting sails, manning the helm, looking out for water hazards on bow watch and scaring myself not just once but twice when I had helped furl the jib, I was able to view my life with startling clarity. I could see the parts that work along with changes long overdue. The answers that had seemed so elusive suddenly seemed so simple.

I tell my writing coach clients that they need to step away from their projects to regain perspective. Who knew that the fresh eyes we need for our creative endeavors are just as critical on the personal front? And who knew that I’d find the perspective I didn’t even realize I was lacking aboard a tall ship called Schooner Zodiac? My only regret is that I still haven’t rowed over to an island to pluck oysters out of the water and feast. Time to revisit Schooner Zodiac for a longer cruise into San Juan Islands’ northern waters. I can’t wait.