SEATTLE — First things first.
I am not a nautical person. Growing up in Ohio, the closest our family ever got to a body of water was the plastic kiddie pool in our backyard.
So when I got the assignment to join an all-women's, learn-how-to-sail group headed to the San Juan Islands this summer, I hesitated.
"That sounds really cool," I wrote to the feature editor, choosing my words carefully. "However, my one concern is that it's for 'women sailors' or 'women who are wanting to become sailors' — an aspiration to which I can lay no particular claim."
No biggie, he replied. Write it from the novice angle. Oh, and by the way, you'll be in a communal bunk room for three days, sharing a bathroom, etc. Sound good?
Not really. But somehow, I couldn't quell a voice that kept whispering: Break out of comfort zone, break out of comfort zone ...
OK, I wrote back. Game on.
It's 9:30 a.m., and I arrive at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal where the "Nauti-Girls" tour is about to get underway.
For the next three days, Seattle Times photographer Erika Schultz and I, along with 15 other women, will live aboard the historic schooner Zodiac and get schooled on all things sailing. Twelve crew members, five of whom are men, will be our guides.
The Zodiac is a fixture on the Pacific Northwest nautical scene. Built in 1924 for the heirs of the Johnson & Johnson family, the wooden vessel weighs 146 gross tons — that's 327,000 pounds — and measures 127 feet long on deck. Four sails, the largest of which is 4,000 square feet, propel it (plus an auxiliary engine).
Gazing up at the mast, I get a little awe-struck. The tall ship seems like a profound feat of engineering, with a dizzying network of cables and pulleys designed to work in concert. I can't get over how someone dreamed it all up.
Or that we'd actually be in charge of moving this thing.
"Make no mistake," says first mate Chris Wallace, 48. "Y'all are gonna be sailing this ship."
Air currents whip her hair into blond spaghetti swirls that rise higher and higher as we motor out onto Bellingham Bay. The sails are down as we set off on the cobalt waters in search of the wind.
Nauti-Girls was Wallace's idea. She lives on the boat with her husband and two daughters, 12 and 18. She was inspired, she said, to revive a similar trip held on the Zodiac before, called "Seawenches," which aimed to introduce more women to sailing.
Today, the sun has no clouds to compete with. And the women, who range in age from 27 to 67, are already hitting it off. I'm inclined to kick back with some chilled pinot gris and take in the spectacular island views.
But Wallace and Captain Tim Mehrer have other plans. It's almost 11 a.m. and conditions are ripe to raise the sails.
We're quickly assigned stations headed by a crew member. I'm part of Team Jib.
Learning to sail means learning a new vocabulary. Mariners, apparently, were quite the linguists in their spare time. FYI: "Three sheets to the wind" has an entirely different meaning here than in your neighborhood bar. Even modern-day terms like the "bitter end" and "scuttlebutt" originated from the seas.
"All of life is about sailing. Most people just don't know it," said Paulette Bergh, our hostess on the trip, and a licensed captain certified by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Like Bergh, many of the women have sailed before and look unfazed by mentions of "boom" or "abeam" or "halyard." I remember too late that the five-page glossary we'd received weeks ago is on my desk in Seattle. For the green-as-grass novice, this is where things start to get a little fuzzy.
Wallace gives me orders.
"Sonia! You'll be doing blah blah blah and blah blah blah. Got it?"
I nod. I don't understand a word. But I can, on a good day, comprehend an objective. And today's objective seemed clear enough: Get the mainsail up.
I look around, get into stance, and start copying other women pulling on a rope. (In ship lingo, that's "line.")
After several heaves, I get tired. My back hurts. My biceps burn. Internal whining hits overdrive. I frankly don't see the point to all the effort when there is, after all, an engine that powers this boat just as well.
"Keep it going, ladies! Keep it going!" shouts deckhand Casey Gordon, 27, a Kate Hudson look-alike with dreadlocks.
I glance up and notice the massive sail inching higher. Excitement crackles. We throw more energy into the task when, slowly, the sail reaches the top.
A moment of euphoria. Everyone cheers, then scrambles to get the other sails raised. Most of us don't know each other, but we all have one goal and accomplish it together.
Now I get why they call this a sport.
WEARY BUT WELL-FED
After hours of tacking (turning) the ship, we make it to Sucia (locals say "SOO-sha") Island by late afternoon and drop anchor at the remote, largely uninhabited marine park.
The smell of dinner wafts up from chef Ian Relay's kitchen.
One thing you will not be on the Zodiac is hungry. Relay's fresh, simple meals of veggie wraps, salads and mouth-watering apricot crisps will make you turn back for seconds, and in my case, thirds. I eat here like it's my job. We all agree we must either marry or adopt this man.
"He doesn't even want our help washing the dishes. I love him," said Paula Bamburg, 59, of Seattle.
The dining table is where a lot of these conversations take place. The women bond quickly. There are tales of breast-feeding, wacky ex-husbands, raising children, then trying to shove said children out of the house by age 25.
By 11 p.m., it's lights out and I'm wiped. Twelve of us are assigned military bunks in the main cabin. I dive in, trying not to notice the forearm's width between my head and the ceiling, and start to doze. Ah ... sweet sleep ...
But wait — what's that? BZZZZZ ... Pfffffttt ... BZZZZZ ...
Oh, no. Snoring. It starts with the bunk next to me. Then across from me. Soon, the whole room is buzzing like a Weyerhaeuser logging operation. Clearly, everyone has jetted off to Dreamland except me.
I pitch in my own exasperated sighs and crank up the iPod, but nothing works. Desperate, I remember we can sleep on the Zodiac's deck. I grab my sleeping bag and climb the wooden steps into the icy night air.
All of a sudden, silence swallows me. I stare with wonder at a sky that looks like it's been freeze-framed on the Fourth of July. Curling up near the bow, sleep comes, at last, underneath a canopy of shooting stars.
In sailing, the elements dictate your day. And today the winds aren't cooperating. Instead of raising the sails, we explore a couple islands, one of which is Sucia, known as the "crown jewel" of Washington's marine park system.
I'm itching for some land time anyway and scramble off to hike the densely wooded trails, inhaling lungfuls of cedar-scented air. I later run into a deck hand, Beth Loudon, who is giving the others a guided nature walk. We eat wild blackberries, which taste like red wine, and head back to the Zodiac, where we motor off to our next stop, Roche Harbor.
Along the way, I get a 30-minute turn at the captain's helm. The ever-patient Gordon assures me that steering the Zodiac is like driving a car — and if my car weighed as much as 20 African elephants and had a giant steering wheel with wooden spokes, I might have believed her.
Truth is, I'm amazed someone actually trusts me to do this, so I just focus on trying not to collide with an errant kayaker or stray land mass.
By late afternoon we anchor at Reid Harbor on Stuart Island, the northwesternmost of the San Juans, and mark our last night with a barbecue. After dinner, some go kayaking, while others relax with wine and watch seals pop their heads out of the water. Waves lap gently against our boat and a gull's cry punctuates the quiet. It's a bittersweet moment, the kind that comes when you know you have to leave a really beautiful place really soon.
We pour more wine and talk until the sun dips below the horizon.
It's going-home day and the captain says the tides are in our favor, as are the winds. Translation: great sailing conditions.
This time, everything goes much more smoothly. Phrases like "Helm's Alee!" —the command given by the captain or first mate to turn the ship — barely make me blink. I've deduced that my job is to pass a line through a hole on the side of the ship. When the crew needs me to help haul (pull) the sail, I jump in.
As we dock in Bellingham, Wallace gathers us on the deck and reads aloud the original "Seawench Pledge." "We the Seawenches "The queens of the Emerald Sea "Hereby solemnly swear to: "Stay happy, healthy and strong ... Laugh often and love well ... "So that someday on ... "We may meet and sail again."
The women hug, exchange e-mails and promise to get in touch soon. It's an estrogen fest, but I love it and feel grateful for the experience. Even if it did mean forsaking a pillowtop mattress for two nights.
IF YOU GO
Sailing the Zodiac:
The schooner Zodiac can accommodate up to 49 passengers for a day or evening sail. The ship is also available for charter. Here's a sampling of Zodiac cruises, and standard-berth costs per person; for a complete list see the website:
—Nauti-Girls, the women's cruise on which this story was based, repeats Oct. 8-10; $485, with meals.
—Autumn Songwriter's Cruise, Sept. 13-16, $485, includes all meals.
—Oktoberfest Dinner Cruise, Sept. 28, 6 to 9 p.m., $50.
—Oktoberfest Brewery Tour. A four-day cruise through the San Juan Islands to tour local breweries and learn from experts onboard how to brew beer at home, Sept. 30-Oct. 3, $685, includes tastings and onboard meals. 2011 season: Reservations open now; 10 percent discount for early bookings: —Lighthouse Cruise, June 23-26, $600. —San Juan Islands Winery Tour, Aug. 4-7, $800. —Photography Cruise, Sept. 23-25, $500.
Pack warm clothes, a sleeping bag, towels, and, if you wish, alcoholic beverages of your choice. Waterproof clothing is strongly encouraged, since weather can change rapidly on the water. There's no laundry on board, so bring enough clothes for the duration of the trip. More information" See schoonerzodiac.com.
HISTORY OF THE ZODIAC
The Zodiac, launched in 1924, was built in Maine for the heirs of the Johnson & Johnson family. It was designed by William H. Hand Jr., to showcase the "best features of the American fishing schooner," according to the tall ship's website. During the Depression, the Zodiac was sold to the San Francisco Bar Pilots and renamed "California." The ship worked the waters near the Golden Gate Bridge for years before it was retired in 1972. In the mid-'70s, the vessel was renovated and renamed Zodiac. In 1982, the Zodiac was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.