From someone who tried to take a sailing class back in college, but did not succeed at it, I must say that in four days’ time aboard the Schooner Zodiac, I learned more about sailing and navigation and ships and weather from the perspective of the seas than I personally ever have in my life. I think my favorite part about it all was seeing the majestic white sails of the Schooner Zodiac breathing in the wind against the baby blue skies, that I helped hoist.
When the calls “all hands on deck” and “prepare to make sail” were issued, there was a flurry of activity, under the direction of a crew member. We were on our four-day Spring Lighthouse Tour in the San Juan Islands in Washington State, and we were getting ready to hoist those majestic sails. All of us passengers had each been given a “sailing station” when we first boarded the Schooner Zodiac, so we reported there first. My station was the “staysail,” a single triangular sail towards the front of the ship. My instructions from the one crew instructor that I was teamed up with had to do with untying a line, pulling the line to raise the sail, and belaying the line with a locking hitch to complete the process. Well, there was more to it than that, but for my first time doing this, and with a lot of good guidance and assistance from my crew instructor, and from me asking a lot of questions, and from having my crew instructor double and triple check my work, I was able to raise the staysail!
But not before the majority of passengers and crew participated in the hoisting of the “mainsail.” We teamed up together on one of two sides of the ship, the “peak” and the “throat” sides, which correlated with the “port” and the “starboard” sides of the ship respectively. Each team had a thick line (halyard) to pull, which upon command from a crew member, raised the heavy sail up into the wind. Sometimes the peak side pulled, other times the throat side, other times both sides pulled. It was tough to pull that line, so I can see why many people were needed.
At one point, I asked my crew instructor how many people minimum have they ever hoisted the sails with? He replied that they once did it with five people! I then asked him, “and what is the ideal number of people?” To which he replied, “Everyone!” There must have been at least 20 of us hoisting the sails this time.
Once all four sails were hoisted, the jib, staysail, foresail, and mainsail (although I think we only raised three), and the excess lines were coiled and neatly put away, we were all then told, “all hands stand down.” I asked my instructional crew member well, I have always either stood up or sat down, but I had never stood down before. So what did that mean? It meant that I could go back to doing whatever I was doing before the call was made for “all hands on deck.” So I usually returned to taking lots of photographs, staring in awe at the raised sails, relaxing, or going back to my one of four “watch rotations.”
All passengers also had the opportunity to learn a lot more about sailing other than hoisting the sails through four voluntary “watch rotations” of a half-hour each. These rotations rotated throughout the passengers and over the four days, so each of us had several rotations of the watch rotations in order to keep building our sailing skills. Our first rotation was a navigation lesson in the chart room with a crew member. I was taught navigation skills about charting (maps in nautical terms), use of latitude and longitude, and figuring out how long it takes to get somewhere using the formula I learned back in grade school of “rate times time equals distance,” using a Nautical Slide Rule. I learned that buoys have different colors and flash patterns, just like lighthouses. I learned that 1 knot is about 1.1 miles per hour, therefore 10 knots is about 11 miles per hour. I learned that one fathom is six feet. I learned about the use of a compass, a caliper, and a simple number 2 pencil. To some, this might be basic knowledge, but to me I found it quite interesting to gain some good understanding about sailing that somehow I didn’t quite get back in college.
When the navigation lesson was over, I had a turn at our second rotation, steering the helm. Aided by the captain or a crew member, I learned how to use a landmark when the weather was clear to steer by, and by using a compass when there was fog. I learned that it is not quite like driving a car. Yes, to go left, you steer left, and to go right, you steer right, but a 160-foot ship is much bigger than a car, and it takes time to respond, and then it over responds, so corrections need to be made to bring the ship back to sailing straight ahead. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about doing this, being responsible for making sure I was on course, but of course they weren’t going to leave a beginner like me alone at doing this, so I felt at ease when the captain or another crew member was nearby.
Doing a bow watch from the front of the ship looking for debris, logs, crab pots, kayaks, other boats, whales, or anything that might be in the way, was our third rotation. It was quite a different experience doing the bow watch if the skies were clear and you could see quite a lot ahead of you versus if it was foggy, and you couldn’t see much. In either case, if we spotted something we were to whistle into a brass tube at the bow of the ship which was connected to a brass tube near the helm at the aft of the ship.
Then the quarterdeck messenger, our fourth rotation, would answer the whistle, and then the two would communicate the message, informing the person at the helm. It was kind of like that telephone game you played when you were a kid with two cans at each end of a rope. Of course, it really wasn’t a game, and was quite useful, especially because when you are standing at the helm, with the 160 feet of ship in front of you, you really can’t see what is directly in front of the ship.
Another lesson that all passengers contributed to were the preparations of getting the Schooner Zodiac ready in the morning for the day. This included cleaning the deck, wiping down the wet sitting areas (that was my job), and polishing the brass. It was a lesson to show how much dedication and care is needed to make sure the ship stays clean and looking sharp, and everyone on board is comfortable.
Now I know I have a lot more to learn about sailing, but what I learned in four days aboard the Schooner Zodiac on their Spring Lighthouse Tour, I felt was a great foundation. Much, much more than an entire class in college. Whether you are an experienced sailor, or a beginner like me, I would recommend a cruise with the Schooner Zodiac not only to learn some sailing skills, but to also travel to some great destinations!
I was provided this excursion courtesy of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism and the Schooner Zodiac, but all opinions are my own. For more information about sailing with the Schooner Zodiac, please visit their website, www.schoonerzodiac.com, which includes a list of all upcoming cruises from now through October, from their day sails, to their three day trips, to trips of longer durations, from the San Juan Islands to the Canadian Gulf Islands. The ship carries up to 26 passengers on overnight cruises in berths or private rooms, and up to 49 passengers on day sails.