Hands-On Cruise: Schooner Zodiac

by Adam Sawyer | Photo © Taylor Hodges

Based out of Bellingham, Washington, the Schooner Zodiac is a classic, 160-foot windjammer. At over 12 stories high, she lays claim to the largest working mainsail on the west coast. Launched in 1924, the Zodiac is an elegant vessel, adorned with polished brass and varnished mahogany, that is operated by a licensed captain and an experienced crew of volunteers.

The Schooner Zodiac leaves Bellingham on a number of public and private charters, spring through fall. These excursions range from day sails to multi-night outings. Popular day cruises center around picnic or dinner outings that feature local wine or beer pairings. Multi-day sails explore the lighthouses, history, and food and drink of the San Juan Islands.

For those looking to immerse themselves in sailing culture, a few days on the Zodiac will provide all the nautical knowledge one can absorb. Willing participants are afforded the opportunity to work side by side with crew members at all the stations necessary to ensure a smooth sailing, from charting all the way up to taking a turn at the helm. Note, however, if you plan on spending any time in the Captain’s shoes, you’ll be expected to put time in on the other stations beforehand. The culmination of collective training gets put on display as crew members and guests raise sail and the Schooner Zodiac rides the wind toward the San Juan archipelago. Your training is rounded out with morning chores that include polishing the brass and mopping the deck, the wind at your back.

But it’s not all work on the Zodiac. Between the shore explorations done at designated stops, downtime is filled with opportunities to enjoy pastimes that are exclusive to life on a tall ship. There are, of course, a number of places on deck to tuck away and read or take in the scenery. Down below, quick bonds are forged hanging out in the charthouse, main salon, or the galley with fellow guests and crewmembers. The food, drink and company are all exceptional, and, if those galley walls could talk, they’d provide ample evidence to support the claim.

Most passengers on overnight (or longer) sailings need to be ready for curtained berths and shared heads with showers. There are a handful of private staterooms. Privacy is not the same as on a typical cruise ship. But the camaraderie that develops between passengers who go shoulder to shoulder to sail the ship makes communal living on board part of the overall experience.

A sailing on the Schooner Zodiac is a journey that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the setting, the San Juan Islands, the crew, the vessel herself and a fist full of intangibles. Enjoying the sunrise and sunset from the deck with your beverage of choice doesn’t hurt anything either.

The Schooner Zodiac’s Story
The Schooner Zodiac was built for the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson family. In 1928, she finished in 4th place in the Transatlantic Race for the Kings Cup. Beginning with the Depression, the Zodiac was owned and operated by the San Francisco Bar Pilots and was renamed California, working the Golden Gate waters as the last working pilot schooner in the U.S. In the mid-70s, the Vessel Zodiac Corporation was formed to restore, operate and maintain the schooner, whose name was changed back to her original, Zodiac. In 1982, the schooner was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.