I have a strong fascination for lighthouses and the people that cared for them, with their unique and romantic, sometimes tragic, lifestyle and history. In fact, not only did my husband and I get married at a lighthouse, but we recently completed my Bucket List item of touring all the lighthouses in the State of Washington that you can visit. However, it wasn’t until just recently, that I had the opportunity to see some of these scenic lighthouses from the point of view of the sea, and from the perspective of the sailors who had relied upon, and continue to do so, these important structures for navigation and landmarks. From aboard the impressive 160-foot sailing vessel with four majestic sails, the Schooner Zodiac, on their four-day Spring Lighthouse Tour, I gained an even bigger appreciation for the powerful lights beaming from the legendary lighthouses, and for the sounds of the mighty fog horn. Even with the modern technology of radar, GPS, radio communication, and even apps on cell phones, lighthouses are still essential at night, in the fog, or in inclement weather.
It wasn’t just the lighthouses though that made my excursion on the Schooner Zodiac memorable around the San Juan Islands in Washington State. It was the historic Schooner Zodiac itself. It was her people, her educational aspect, her history, and her grandeur that were evident from the time I boarded, to the couple of times we hoisted the 127-foot tall, 7,000 square feet of sails, to the restful nights being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the ship. (Although one of the nights it was a bit rockier due to some windier conditions.)
In our four days on the seas, the Schooner Zodiac took me, my husband, other passengers, guests, and the crew to see eight lighthouses and light stations, three of which we were also able to visit on land via their Zodiac Tender, a small motorboat, where we donned lifejackets to make it to shore. We sailed from picturesque island to picturesque island by day, and anchored at peaceful secluded coves by night, including Hughes Bay at Lopez Island, Port Townsend, and Prevost Harbor at Stuart Island. When the weather was clear and warm, and the skies and water were both a rich blue, we had glimpses of Mount Baker and the Olympics Mountains. Even when we were greeted by the fog in the mornings, and the wind was stronger and the air was colder, all the realities of sailing made my four days on the Schooner Zodiac an exciting adventure. We also had a few chances to kayak, we stretched our legs for an hour at Roche Harbor, we saw a pod of porpoises, a convocation of eagles and seagulls feeding on fish, and enjoyed the ability to see abundant stars at night. (We unfortunately did not see any whales this trip, but that is a certainly a possibility in these waters.)
It was also the people, all of us in fact, crew and passengers alike, that added to the ambiance of the journey. From the helpful and hospitable captain, to the talented cook, to the knowledgeable volunteer crew. There were even a couple of people aboard the ship who work closely with lighthouses as volunteers and were able to provide us with deeper information about the lighthouses. The passengers were fun group, too. With the age ranges of both the crew and passengers from their 20’s to their 80’s, we got samples from fun and laughter, to hearing sailing stories of the wise and experienced.
We passengers had the opportunity to learn about sailing and to participate in what it takes to make the Schooner Zodiac sail. In four half-hour shifts, each passenger had a “watch rotation.” One rotation was a lesson in navigation through charts, radar, compass, and other means. We each got a turn at steering the helm, sometimes using a landmark when the weather was clear to steer by, other times by using a compass in the fog. Doing a bow watch from the front of the ship looking for debris, kayaks, other boats, whales, or anything that might be in the way, was our third rotation. And being a quarterdeck messenger between the bow and the person steering and navigating at the helm was the fourth.
Each passenger also had a “sailing station” when it came time to “prepare to make sail.” When they called “all hands on deck,” we made our way to participate in something that, from someone who had never done this before in her life, I thought was amazing, and gave me a rush of excitement. My sailing station was the “staysail,” where with one crew member, he instructed me on when to pull the line to raise the sail, and how to belay and do a locking hitch of the line to complete the process. All passengers participated in raising the “mainsail,” by teaming up together on one of two sides, pulling a thick line, heaving the heavy sail as it rose in the wind. This took my breath away, both literally from the hard work it was to pull that heavy line, and figuratively from seeing the white sails breathing as they rose in the wind against the blue sky.
And when they called “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.
One morning all passengers were able to contribute to the preparations of cleaning the deck, polishing the brass, and getting the Schooner Zodiac ready for the day. I must say that in four days’ time, I learned more about sailing and navigation and boats and weather than I personally ever have in my life. Even all of the words and terminology I just described, I have never written before. Very educational.
The Schooner Zodiac itself was originally launched in 1924 in Maine as a private luxury yacht for the heirs of Johnson & Johnson. The Zodiac’s history also includes coming in fourth place in the 1928 Transatlantic Race for the Kings Cup, and sailing off the Golden Gate in San Francisco for 40 years as a pilot schooner. She was retired in 1972, but has been lovingly restored to its majesty of the 1920’s, with its intricate mahogany, oak, and teak wood detail both inside and out, along with modern conveniences, including showers, and delicious food prepared by the previously-mentioned talented cook. Sailing out of Bellingham, Washington, the Schooner Zodiac was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
My fascination for lighthouses continues. And thanks to my sailing with the Schooner Zodiac’s Spring Lighthouse Tour, it has now grown with appreciation to include not only seeing the lighthouses from the sailor’s point of view, but also from gaining some skills and knowledge of what it takes to be a sailor on a ship out on the waters that also seem to have its own unique and romantic, sometimes tragic, lifestyle and history.
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.
List of lighthouses in the order of my pictures above, with the number of pictures of each lighthouse:
Burrows Island Lighthouse (2)
New Dungeness Lighthouse (3)
Point Wilson Lighthouse (2)
Lime Kiln Lighthouse (3)
Smith and Minor Islands (2)
Turn Point Lighthouse (2)
East Point Saturna Island Canada (2)
Patos Island Lighthouse (3)