A Sailor’s Life on the Schooner Zodiac

By Lara Dunning

It’s a sunny Pacific Northwest evening with a slight breeze. I’m on a historic 160 foot pilot schooner cruising through Bellingham Bay. Water ripples and the sun makes its way toward the horizon dotted with emerald islands. A four-course meal is being served and with each delectable dish a frosty Boundary Bay beer is poured. Pairing each bite with a sip, the flavor combinations pop in my mouth. Conversations hum. As the sun sets everyone wants to linger in the glow.

This is no fantastical sea story. This is the Ales ‘n’ Sails dinner cruise on the Schooner Zodiac.

Captain Calen at the helm_WEB


I wasn’t sure what to expect, but a day on the water is easy breezy on this historic schooner. The sheer splendor of its 127 foot deck with a 12-story main mast and the “largest working mainsail on the west coast” leaves one in awe. Built in 1924 for the heirs of the Johnson & Johnson family it epitomizes the best features of an American fishing schooner. In 1982, it also earned its place on the National Register of Historic Places.

As we cruise into Bellingham Bay, the self-assured stance of third generation Captain Calen Mehrer puts one at ease. He, and other crew members, most of whom are volunteers, climb, perch, and maneuver on the ship like they are part of it. They busy themselves with readying the mainsail and tell us we will help hoist it up. At 4000 sq. ft. it’s quite a feat. Able guests form two lines on either side of the deck and pick up a large rope called a halyard. Under the direction of the crew we tug and pull and tug and pull. Once the mainsail is up, it’s time to raise the 1500 sq. ft. foresail. The hands-on experience gives one plenty of time to ponder the hard working life on a ship this size.

Zodiac Name Back of Boat_WEB

Once the sails are up the first beer is poured; a summer pilsner with European malts and Czech Republic hops. About twenty minutes later, Chef Miranda of Meander’s Kitchen, announces the first course, which is salted roasted radish with goat cheese, honey, watercress and lavender vinegar. Bryan Krueger, from Boundary Bay Brewing Company, pairs it with “Steady as She Goes” sour wheat beer with Salish seawater. Guests may dine in the main salon and galley which has beautiful varnished mahogany, oak and teak. Or, up on deck. We grab our plates and sit on the deck with views of the sun, sail and surf.

The second course is coconut curry mussels with a golden Safety Break India Session Ale. Together, the heat from the curry mellows. The main entrée is berbere spiced lamb rib chops with banana jasmine rice. It’s paired with Cedar Dust IPA which is flavored with five varieties of Washington big hops. Dessert, always my favorite course, is cardamom and clove spiced crème caramel with rose Chantilly. It’s so delicious that the chef quickly receives a marriage proposal. The dish is perfectly paired with Trappist-Style Dubbel with flavors of toasted pretzel and fig. It is also the 2015 North American Brewers Association Gold medal winner.

Throughout the night I’m continually amazed at how the spices and complex flavors compliment and meld into one another giving each pairing a deeper flavor profile. I’m even more amazed that this pairing is all taking place on a lovely lined wooden seabird.

First Course in Salon_WEB

Throughout the cruise the crew answers questions and guests take their turn at manning the wheel by turning it a “couple of spokes.” Captain Calen tells me that during the Depression the Zodiac was sold to the San Francisco Bar Pilots, who renamed her California. She worked in the waters outside the Golden Gate until 1972. A few years later, the Vessel Zodiac Corporation formed to “operate and maintain the schooner,” and her former beauty and name was restored. Today, she navigates the waters of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands.

First Course_WEB

Throughout the summer the Zodiac has a variety of day sails, from Salmon Dinner Sails, Chuckanut Bay BBQ Sail, and July 4th Fireworks Dinner Sail. They also have longer water adventures like Pacific Northwest Seafood and Winery Tour, Voyage to Desolation Sound and the Autumn Sailing Adventure. Next summer, they plan to schedule more Ales ‘n’ Sails Cruises. The Zodiac can also be chartered for the day or overnight for those who want some true alone time with this historic beauty.

After the sun sinks below the horizon we head back to the Bellingham Cruise Terminal. Above us, the stars peek out from the night sky as if to navigate us like sailors of old.

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