Travel Washington, USA – Schooner Zodiac Wine Cruise

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By Linda Ball

Linda Ball at the helm of Schooner Zodiac

Linda Ball at the helm of Schooner Zodiac


My journey began by taking the beautiful Chuckanut Drive instead of Interstate 5 into historic Fairhaven, the old part of the city of Bellingham. Chuckanut Drive begins just north of Burlington, Washington, and is 21.28 miles. This drive was incorporated into the Pacific Highway in 1913 and was considered part of U.S. 99 in 1926. Now it is referred to as State Route 11, and is well worth the diversion off of busy I-5. From Chuckanut Drive, you can see the San Juan Islands, my ultimate destination. Chuckanut drive took me straight into Fairhaven, where I checked into the lovely Fairhaven Village Inn.

Fairhaven Village Inn

Fairhaven Village Inn

The Fairhaven Inn is only 15 years old, but in keeping with the historic flavor of  Fairhaven, it was built to reflect the charm of olden days. My room was air-conditioned, and well-appointed, including a gas fireplace, plenty of space, a very comfortable king-size bed, and a view of the port and water from a private balcony. I was greeted warmly, and given courteous answers to any questions I had.

Arriving on a Wednesday, the Fairhaven Farmer’s market was underway right across the street from the Inn. Unfortunately I couldn’t buy any of the fresh produce, because it would spoil in my car, but I bought a handmade beaded bracelet for $3 from a local artist, and an organic almond/lavender/butter cookie mix. I love cookies!

After the Farmer’s Market I took the Taylor Dock walk, about a mile round-trip. It’s a trail that starts in Fairhaven, and takes you over the water on a glorious path/dock. It was beautiful out, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Le Chat Noir - The Black Cat Restaurant in Fairhaven

Le Chat Noir – The Black Cat Restaurant in Fairhaven

After the walk I freshened up for dinner at Le Chat Noir, or The Black Cat, in the historic Sycamore Square Building. It may sound fancy, and it is a French cabaret-themed restaurant, but it’s very laid back. I ordered a six-ounce filet and it was perfect. I don’t like my meat bloody, but I don’t want to eat shoe leather either, and sometimes I do get shoe leather, or too much blood. Man, they got it right! I was delighted with the little potatoes and veggies that came with it. After dinner I hung out in the bar awhile and met some of the locals. Bellingham is cool!


All hands on deck to come about! This was one of many calls from Chris Wallace, the extremely capable first mate on the beautiful Schooner Zodiac out of Bellingham. Come about. Peak. Throat. Port. Starboard. The mainsail, foresail, gib; all or most are foreign terms to a new sailor. By the time this four-day adventure came to a close, even if you had never sailed before, there was an understanding of the magnificence of this sport. Our journey began with a basic tutelage of what was in store for us by First Mate, Chris.

Chris is an amazing woman. If the boat wasn’t sheparded by Captain Tim Mehrer, she’d be the boss. An outstanding sailor, her young daughter, Juliet, 14, is also a seasoned sailor with wisdom beyond her years. I love that kid.

Schooner Zodiac Wine Cruise

Schooner Zodiac Wine Cruise

A little bit about the Schooner Zodiac:  She is a 220 ton vessel, built in 1924. Her sparred length is 160 feet, and her deck length is 127 feet. Her beam is 25.5 feet, and she has a 16-foot draft. At a height of 127 feet with topmast, her mainsail is 4,000 square feet of canvas and weighs 600 pounds. It is the largest mainsail in North America! The Zodiac was built for the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson family and designed by William H. Hand, Jr. She was sold during the depression to the San Francisco Bar Pilots, retiring in 1972. In the mid-80s, the Vessel Zodiac Corporation was formed to operate the vessel, which apparently needed a lot of work. She has been restored and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. She is one big-ass sailboat, and I am now a huge fan!

Schooner Zodiac is called a tall ship, loosely defined as a classically-rigged boat. Tall Ships America was founded in 1973 as the American Sail Training Association. One of the deck hands said the term tall ship came from an excerpt from the poem, Sea Fever by John Masefield:  “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song, and the while sail shakes, And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.”

Now, if you’re expecting luxury cruise line accommodations, this isn’t the cruise for you. There are only two passenger state rooms, and the rest of us were in cozy little berths, with a curtain to draw for privacy. I compared it to glamour camping, or glamping, on the sea. It was comfortable, but tight. On this sort of cruise, with 12 crew and 18 passengers including myself, you become fast friends, and we all did. It was as though we were a big family for four days.

As we motored out of Bellingham, we got settled into our berths. Then the work started! Ken, my boss on the mainsail, had Annette, Carl and I (my co-workers on the mainsail) lay down the line on the deck, snaking it back and forth in an orderly fashion. Time to raise the sail! I was pulling as hard as I could, along with everyone else port side, to raise the peak of the mainsail, while on the starboard side, they were raising the throat. Chris would give us the command to haul away peak! Or, haul away throat! Al, a retired Coast Guard Captain, who is still in its auxiliary, was to my right, cracking me up the entire time, teasing me that I wasn’t pulling hard enough. He considers himself a “friend of the boat,” and was on the crew as a volunteer. Great guy. The weather was perfect, unusual for the Pacific Northwest, and I found myself slathering on more sunscreen.

Schooner Zodiac Galley

Schooner Zodiac Galley

We passed Eliza Island, which does not have access by the Washington State Ferry system. It looked at first like two islands connected by a bridge, but it is just very low in the middle. We were headed for Lummi Island, served by a small county ferry which makes the short six-minute crossing from Bellingham. Lunch was served before we got to Lummi, by Ian, “the most important person on the boat,” according to Chris. Ian is a one-man kitchen miracle. The galley is his property, and you don’t want to get in his way. I was scared of him at first.

Everybody is assigned a cup for coffee, water, whatever. Your cup has the same number as your berth. If you lose your cup, too bad. Sure as hell, I set mine down somewhere and couldn’t find it for hours. I was mortified that Ian would make me walk the plank. But I came to realize he was a real pussycat. Someone located my cup, and hung it back up on its hook, and young Ben, a polite and helpful young man whose berth was above mine, ran to tell me it was back! His folks were on board – his mom, Annette, mentioned above, is with Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.

Ian fed us three fabulous meals each day. Lunch that first day was tomato basil soup, three different salads and a fresh sandwich bar. Between meals, he always had sweet or savory snacks out. Thank God we were working!

Masquerade Wine Company of Bellingham

Masquerade Wine Company of Bellingham

Once to Lummi, we dropped anchor and were ferried in zodiac inflatable rafts to the island, and picked up by Chris’s husband who ferried their van over to the island. Everywhere we visited we were taken in on the rafts. Lummi was a wet landing; yes, we got our feet wet. I thought it was fun. We were delivered to Artisan Wine Gallery, a lovely little tasting room and wine shop owned by Rich Frye and Pat Hayes. There, we were treated to a tasting by Masquerade Wine Company of Bellingham. Masquerade is owned by Bill and Jennifer Kimmerly, recent transplants to Bellingham from Prosser, Washington. They have been making wine since 2004, sourcing their grapes from Eastern Washington.

The first wine we tasted was a sparkling wine, 2007 Effervescing Elephant – really. It’s a combination of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Masquerade won gold in 2011 and 2012 at the Seattle Wine Awards as well as gold in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in the sparkling category for this delightful wine. Our next taste was a nice, dry 2011 Gewürztraminer which won silver in the Seattle Wine Awards this year. I’ve personally been on a dry rose kick of late, so I particularly enjoyed the 2011 Cab Franc Rose, which was followed by Bill and Jennifer’s 2005 Cab from a single vineyard in Walla Walla, which was very nice. But it didn’t stop there! We tasted their 2007 and 2009 Cabs as well as their 2007 Syrah. Both the 2007 Cab and Syrah were spectacular.

Like many wine makers, Bill and Jennifer started as home wine makers. They landed in Eastern Washington totally unrelated to wine, and in 2004 they released 125 cases of Red Mountain Merlot. The rest is history. They will be opening a second tasting room soon. In addition to their tasting room in Bellingham, they will have the very first tasting room in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which they will share with Mt. Baker Vineyards. How exciting! I can’t wait!

Back on the Schooner Zodiac,  we were running behind schedule, so we headed back toward the mainland to anchor in Chuckanut Bay for the evening. I was called to helm duty and I was thrilled! These duty rotations were every half hour, but somehow I ended up taking us all the way in to the bay – about an hour! It was a thrill – my favorite job because I could see my goal in clear sight. I had my lesson in the chart room earlier in the day, but found it a bit too technical. I understood how to get our bearing using the GPS, but the old fashioned way of identifying three points out in the wild blue yonder and figuring it out on the chart was beyond my sailing skills!

On board, we had a winemaker, Chuck Egner, from 37 Cellars in Leavenworth, Washington. He and his wife Candice were very gracious, sharing some of their wine with us, too. Chuck is partners with his brother-in-law, Frank Dechaine. He said they would move about 600 cases this year. 37 Cellars won gold at the Seattle Wine Awards for its 2009 Petit Verdot. Chuck and Frank named the winery after their 1937 Martin guitars; Chuck would gently play in the evening, adding to the entertainment. We drank some of 37 Cellars 2009 Merlot that evening, which was very nice, along with an assortment of wines from Masquerade.

Ian cooked huge chunks of flank steak and fresh salmon on the grill for dinner. I loved the grill – it sort of hung onto the edge of the boat and it was huge! It had to be to fit all the meat on it that he cooked! One of Ian’s appetizers that night was bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in bacon with an apple cider vinegar and honey reduction. They were to die for. I had one of the kids on board bring me a couple of them when I was at the helm and couldn’t get to them.

Ian rings the breakfast bell at 7 a.m. and if you miss breakfast, too bad. It was too early after all of the imbibement the night before but I got up for French toast, bacon, potatoes, melon, coffee, juices or cereal. I barely had enough time to get some clothes on and get up on deck to work!

It was extremely windy, so we got the sails up. It was exhausting; then I was on bow watch for half an hour, watching for any obstacles in the water. My favorite joke was “iceberg, dead ahead!” If you do see something – a log or little tiny boat – then you blow into this brass tube that creates a whistle to the messenger who is stationed at the stern. Then, bow watch tells the messenger what’s up, who in turn can alert whoever is at the helm. It was sort of like tin cans with the string between them when you were a kid.

After a half hour on bow watch, then a half hour as the messenger, I was pretty cold from the wind, so I went in for a spell. Meantime, Abbey, the boat cat, who is a sweetheart, actually got seasick and threw up on the deck. I saw second mate, Brandy, only 19 and a seasoned sailor, clean up poor little Abbey’s mess. To add to the drama, it was so windy the almost-brand-new mainsail tore, so it had to come down.

To warm up, I headed for the shower, for my first ever “Navy shower.” To conserve water, you get wet, then turn off the water to soap up, then turn the water back on to rinse. The problem was, I had a hard time regulating the water temperature. I was either freezing or it was going to scald me. So, I’m sure I used up more than my quota trying to get it right! But I felt better afterward. Lunch that day was a delightful Mexican Fiesta, with the best tortilla soup I’ve ever had, and a taco salad bar – very satisfying.

Lopez Island Vineyards

Lopez Island Vineyards

Next stop, Lopez Island Vineyards, owned by Brent Charnley and Maggie Nilan, an organic operation. These folks grow Madeline Angevine and Siegerrebe grapes on the six acres they own, and also have an absolutely beautiful garden. He said these grapes grow well in the Puget Sound area, adding that the south sound is drier than areas of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Oregon’s Willamette area. Brent said they started their vineyard/winery 25 years ago by selling stock to locals. Brent had spent time in the Bordeaux region of France after college and fell in love with the idea of growing grapes. He attended UC Davis in 1980 to study viticulture. From Davis, he said he got his first job in the wine industry with Mt. Baker Vineyards. While nurturing his own cuttings he honed his skills as a farmer. His vineyards were planted in 1992.

Brent could be classified as a viticulturist/farmer/scientist/winemaker. His passion for his vineyards was obvious. Our first taste was the 2011 Madeline Angevine, a varietal new to my palate. It was dry fermented, meaning it was fermented until all the sugar was out. It was dry – and delightful. Then we tasted the 2011 Siegerrebe, also new to me. Both of these are wonderful summer wines. Brent and Maggie do source their red grapes from the mainland. The grapes for the 2009 Merlot came from an organic grower in Prosser, Washington. A funny conversation came up about the effect the movie “Sideways” had on Merlot sales. Indeed they did plummet! It wasn’t just me! There’s a line in the movie, if you haven’t seen it, where Paul Giamatti, playing a total wine snob, says, “I’m not going to drink any f—in Merlot.” But in fact, Brent said Washington grows very good Merlot. I enjoyed his immensely. Our final taste was the smooth 2008 Cab/Merlot.

Schooner Zodiac Wine Cruise Visits Lopez Island Vineyards

Schooner Zodiac Wine Cruise Visits Lopez Island Vineyards

This is a lovely place to visit even if you don’t drink wine. The vineyard dog, Jesse, had to be the most mellow dog I’ve ever seen! She laid on her back the whole time we were there, encouraging us to scratch her belly! Back on board the Schooner Zodiac, for appetizers, Captain Tim was at the barbecue, cooking fresh oysters on the half shell, then Al poured a wonderful garlic/butter sauce on them. We ate them off napkins with plastic forks, and there I was, not an oyster fan, eating three of them because they were so good! Dinner was Puttanesca pasta, also known as “whore’s pasta.” Now if you look up the history of this term, there are a few different definitions, but Ian said the term comes from the Napolese harlots who could make it with whatever was in their pantry, and in a hurry between johns! Ian’s was pretty special, with caprese salad and homemade bread on the side.

After dinner we drank more wine, and hilarious conversation ensued. Al regaled us with many tall tales, and I learned a lot about the many characters – crew and passengers – on this fabulous trip. For example, Brandy, the second mate is fearless. Her dad lives on a sailboat, a common thread among crew. Turns out two brothers on the crew, Seth and Jordan, their mom lives on a sailboat, too. They were two of the closest brothers I’ve ever been around. They do everything together, as they are only 14 months apart in age. Seth and Jordan both play ukulele, as do I, and I had brought mine with me, so we had great fun jamming later on. That night we anchored off Lopez Island, near Spencer Spit.

San Juan Islands Sunset

San Juan Islands Sunset

The next morning, we woke up to very thick fog. You couldn’t see anything. It was eerie, but kind of magical. The crew spent time cleaning the deck and finishing up repairing the sail, which was quite an art to watch. I sat and chatted with another passenger, Liz, and crew member Beth, a real sweetheart who is four months pregnant! Even carrying a child, Beth was a bad-ass sailor, but she admitted to fatigue more often than before she was expecting. We told her to be kind to herself. This is her first child.

As we cut through the fog under power, it was intense and slow, with the horn blowing every two minutes, being echoed by the Washington State Ferries doing the same. By 10:45 a.m. we picked up speed, and pretty soon the fog lifted and the sun emerged. We got the sails up by about 11 a.m. Our destination was lovely Roche Harbor, on San Juan Island.

Along the way we observed Spieden Island, off the north end of San Juan Island. There are no humans on the island, but there are fallow deer from Europe, Mouflon sheep from Corsica and Sika deer from Asia left as a result of a former owner of the island stocking it with game to be hunted. The practice was stopped for fear of the risk of shots traveling to nearby San Juan Island. Now the majority owner of the island is the founder of Oakley sunglasses.

The wind died, so we took the sails down about 1 p.m. and powered into Roche Harbor. I have been to San Juan Island three times, so I was very familiar with Roche and Friday Harbors. What a fabulous island. We hiked about a mile to San Juan Island Distillery to sample hard cider from apples grown right there on the owner’s one and one-half acres. Owned by Richard Anderson and Suzy and Hawk Pingree, this was a new experience for me. They also make gin and pommeau which was pretty strong stuff! I’m not much into the hard drink, but those who were seemed to enjoy the gin tasting. The ciders were very good, but again, not my thing.

From the distillery, we took vans to San Juan Vineyards, which is in between Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor on Roche Harbor Road. I was no stranger to San Juan Vineyards, as I’ve been there each time I’ve visited San Juan Island. On seven acres, Madeline Angevine, Siegerrebe and Pinot Noir are grown on the property. The landscape also includes the tasting room, which was once a one-room school house, a small chapel, and the winery.

This beautiful place has been for sale for four years, why I don’t understand. It produces excellent wine, and it’s so picturesque. The asking price of $1.5 million has been reduced from the original price, which I can’t remember exactly. We tasted the 2009 Madeline Angevine, 2011 Pinot Gris (I usually don’t like Pinot Gris, but this was quite good), a 2008 Cab/Merlot blend which is a great table wine, the 2008 Merlot and 2009 Cab. I bought a couple bottles from them as well as a shirt that says “What happens at the vineyard, stays at the vineyard,” appropriate by this time in our journey! At the end of the trip, when I disembarked, Stuart, Ian’s red-headed son, who was also on the voyage, looked at me and said, “Now, remember Linda, what happens at the vineyard stays at the vineyard.” He was such a character. So many great kids.

The vans took us into Friday Harbor. Captain Tim, Al and a few other crew brought Schooner Zodiac around from Roche Harbor while we drank our way across the island! I made sure to hit my new favorite store, Pelindaba Lavender. Pelindaba has a large lavender farm on the island, and the amount of product they make from the basic essential oil is remarkable. Lotions, soaps, candles, soothing eye pillows, foot soak, tea, honey – it’s all there. Love that place. Several of us met up at Cask and Schooner, a great newer bar and restaurant in Friday Harbor for, yes, more wine, before getting back on the Schooner Zodiac for Ian’s last supper for us.

Schooner Zodiac Paella

Schooner Zodiac Paella

We anchored for the night in Parks Bay off of Shaw Island, not far from Friday Harbor. Ian served up the most delicious paella loaded with shrimp, clams and chicken. He cooked it on the grill wearing one of his many colorful shirts. I showered and turned in fairly early that night. I was just pooped.

The breakfast bell came early the next morning, and there was Ian with pancakes, sausage, hash browns, fruit and all of the usual cereals and juices. We had to organize our stuff and get ready to return to Bellingham. I got my last crack at the chart room, helm, bow and messenger duties. We sailed through Upright Channel south of Orcas Island, through Peavine Pass, then between Cypress and Sinclair Islands back to Bellingham. Ian fed us delicious wraps for lunch along with salads, and leftover whore’s pasta and paella. I can say without a doubt, we were never left hungry!

Arriving back in Bellingham, it was quite a chore to dock Schooner Zodiac. It was okay. It gave me time to reflect and say goodbye to everyone. I did not want to get off the boat. Ever. Sailing is very romantic, but also hard work I’ve learned. But now I understand the draw to the sea and the sails.

If You Go:

Schooner Zodiac.

Fairhaven Village Inn.

The Black Cat – Le Chat Noir.

Pelindaba Lavender.


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