The Salish Sea, which includes Washington State’s Puget Sound, laps up against more than 2000 kilometres of coast and surrounds the intriguing San Juan Islands. Those who spend any time on the deck of a boat under full sail, gently floating between the green-forested islands of this picturesque waterway will be mesmerised by its beauty.
Averaging more than 240 days of sunshine each year, and only half of Seattle’s rainfall, this region is renowned for aquatic adventures and cruises. Only one tall ship regularly cruises these island waters — the Schooner Zodiac. A classic windjammer with the grandeur of a billionaire’s 1920’s yacht, the Zodiac offers a range of multi-day vintage sailing experiences around the San Juan Islands.
Having chosen to sail on the Zodiac’s annual Wine and Seafood Cruise, my husband and I were eagerly anticipating four days of dining on the region’s freshest seafood, and sampling local wines and ciders from the many boutique vineyards and distilleries scattered around the islands.
The Zodiac sails from Fairhaven in Bellingham, Washington, about halfway between Seattle, and Vancouver.
Adventurous passengers are encouraged to take an active part in sailing the schooner and learn basic sailing manoeuvres such as steering and standing watch — under the direction of the ship’s captain and the experienced volunteer crew. To our delight, the crew of 13 is an affable mixture of young and old men and women, each with a personal passion for tall ship sailing, and years of collective experience among them. As the journey begins, the crew organises all 19 passengers into small teams and assigns each team a sailing station.
A bracing wind picks up coming from the stern. The first mate barks out our first orders, “Sailing stations, all hands on deck! Prepare to raise the mainsail.” We scurry to work — our tall ship adventure has begun.
The teams hoist the foresail, staysail, and jib. Then the first mate orders all passengers and crew to break evenly on both sides of the deck alongside the mainsail boom to raise the massive 4000-square-foot mainsail.
The Starboard Team holds one line, and the Portside Team grabs the other, and ‘haul away’, then ‘hold’ until the mainsail is hoisted. The lines are secured in marlinspikes at the shrouds — the ship’s rigging that holds the mast up from side to side — and in the blocks at the base of the masts.
Our hard work is rewarded with the first of many gourmet meals — a lunch of perfectly-seared ahi tuna, served with a ponzu sauce, prepared by Caz, the ship’s excellent professional chef.
Mid-afternoon, the crew drops anchor offshore from Lopez — ‘the friendly island’. Here we spend a leisurely few hours tasting wines from Lopez Island Vineyards (LIV), San Juan County’s oldest winery.
Founded in 1987, LIV makes cool-climate, early-ripening varietals from France. An all-organic winery with a rustic, cottage-like tasting room, LIV feels and looks like a small winery somewhere in the French countryside.
First, we tried the barrel-fermented Madeleine Angeline (Loire) or ‘Mad Angie’. Aged for 18 months in oak, this varietal is comparable to a Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc. Next came the Siegerebbe (Alsace) or ‘Ziggy’, similar in character to a Gewurztraminer, followed by a delicious Sangiovese full of ripe cherry and blackberry flavours, and finally a luscious Yakima Valley Malbec, brimming with berry, cedar, blackberry and spice.
That evening the ship’s crew finds a quiet cove in Shaw Island’s Parks Bay and drops anchor. Sheltered by land on three sides, the waters are calm and comforting. As we relax on deck, and watch the sun meet the sea on the western horizon, winemaker Rob Newsom, from Boudreaux Cellars, offers an entrée of freshly-shucked oysters matched with his 2015 Riesling.
For the past four years, Newsom, a Louisiana-born winemaker, now a resident of Leavenworth, Washington, has joined the annual Seafood and Wine tour. He supplies his wine to pair with dinners, conducts a tasting onboard the ship, and shares his love of sailing and kayaking with fellow guests.
Dinner is mouthwateringly good beer-battered fish tacos with mango salsa and cilantro crème, fried plantains and lemon-lime coleslaw.
After a breakfast of crab-cake eggs benedict topped with roasted red pepper hollandaise, we jump on board the tender and motor into busy Roche Harbour on San Juan Island. This charming resort town is awash with swanky yachts, historic houses, clothing boutiques and picnicking vacationers.
Our destination on the island is the San Juan Island Distillery and Ciderworks. Here, partners Rich Anderson and Suzy and Hawk Pingree produce delicious small-batch ciders and a range of award-winning gins and liqueurs.
A short trek through a fragrant forest, of juniper, cedar, fir, and madrone, leads us to the distillery. Over the next few hours we taste our way through a selection of floral and herb-flavoured gins, and cider made from locally grown Washington apples.
That evening as the Zodiac glides towards Stewart Island’s Reid Harbour, a pod of playful Orca whales rambunctiously flip their tails and slap their dorsal fins against the water.
Anchored in the gentle waters of Reid harbour, Caz serves lemon-grilled trout, paired with LIV’s Siegerebbe wine. A mushroom risotto and fresh asparagus round out this delightfully fresh meal made with locally sourced ingredients.
This morning we wake to freshly baked salmon quiche, made with shallots and spinach. Any concerns about gaining weight on this trip, are quickly dismissed as we’re called to our stations.
Passengers rotate through a two-hour watch sequence by taking turns attending the four different stations for running a tall ship: manning the helm, reading charts for plotting the ship’s course, keeping watch on deck at the bow, and messengering at the stern, next to the ship’s wheel.
Despite glorious sunshine and a cloudless sky, the wind increases with our speed under full sail, and soon a sweater is needed to shield the cold wind slicing across the deck.
The Zodiac cruises past historic Lime Kiln Point and its 1919 lighthouse, then around the southern tip of the San Juan Island at Cattle Point Lighthouse, built in 1935. Porpoises, sea lions, and kelp forests are backdropped by coastal views of bald eagles, beaches and bluffs. Mature firs and cedars grow right down to the rocky water’s edge.
The ship continues along the west side of Lopez Island and around the top to its east side, mooring for the night at Spencer Spit cove.
Tonight, before dinner, Rob presents a tasting of four Boudreaux Cellars wines, describing in detail how he makes his wines, and the flavour and character of each. His Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are bold, rich, stand-alone varietals.
Crabbing season is open and tonight’s dinner is fresh local Dungeness crab accompanied by chorizo beef burgers and poblano potato salad.
On our final day, the morning sun rises over tranquil waters. It’s too calm to raise the sails, so the ship motors back to Fairhaven and we happily assume our turn in the day’s watch sequence.
The powerful currents in Obstruction Pass — between the southeastern tip of Orcas Island and Obstruction Island — are ferocious, pushing the ship port and starboard with ease. The more experienced hands take the helm to navigate these waters.
Island sailing demands effort from those on board, but the islands themselves offer something too — a sense of disconnection and isolation that lures mainlanders, urbanites, and free spirits, who prefer a challenge over a languid luxury vacation.
We enjoy a final lunch of squid and chilii pasta while anchored in tranquil Chuckanut Bay. Here we kayak in its calm, deep blue waters before returning to Bellingham. Rob, from his floating kayak, organises a picture of everyone along the portside, a memorial to teamwork and good times.
It’s a perfect ending to four magic days sailing the spectacular San Juan Islands.
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