Craft brewers offer samples as historical vessel sails in the shadow of Mount Baker.
BELLINGHAM — I’m in the middle of Bellingham Bay on a pristine summer evening and my wandering mind is envisioning a beer float — like a root-beer float, but with, uh, beer. Some people like them.
This is one of the schooner Zodiac’s Ales N’ Sails dinner cruises, so I suppose it’s natural that I have beer on the brain.
And I guess the startlingly near and clear view of snowy Mount Baker added the thought of a giant dollop of French vanilla.
Gliding peacefully over saltwater as the sun lowers into the San Juan Islands to the west, the sleek yet stately 160-foot historical sailboat — built in 1924 in East Boothbay, Maine, for the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical heirs — inspires such wandering thoughts.
That, and the samples of four beers from Bellingham-based Chuckanut Brewery, on tap from a portable bar on the aft deck.
This is one of the regular cruise offerings aboard the Zodiac, with rotating samples from local craft brewers, and I’m one of the near-capacity crowd of 47 passengers out for a three-hour sail. With a great view and just about all the beer we can drink.
Before boarding, passengers gather dockside at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in the Fairhaven district to admire the lovingly maintained vessel’s gleaming Douglas-fir spars. The mainsail boom, itself a tree trunk almost as thick as the 12-story-high mainmast, is a varnished work of art as sun glints off the wood’s whorls and knots. Baggywrinkles resembling giant, shaggy caterpillars — made from short pieces of yarn cut from old lines — climb shrouds to cushion sails from chafe. The water is a glittering jade green, and the view out to the bay is of slowly pirouetting sailboats in an evening race that won’t set any speed records in these light airs.
A black-and-white feline — Abby, the ship’s cat — nestles in the shade of a raised skylight on the Zodiac’s deck.
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Acting as ship’s mate tonight in charge of the young 14-member crew is Henry Darron, from Virginia, who starts our adventure with a safety talk aimed primarily at (A) keeping us from falling overboard, and (B) keeping us from falling down stairs or ladders.
“And our insurance company says no climbing in the rig today!” he concludes.
“Oh, shucks,” several in the crowd chuckle ironically, apparently more interested in hops than high-wire acts.
But there is a chance to practice some seamanship (and utter a pirate oath or two, if you like) as we get underway. Anybody who wishes is invited to help hoist the sails, starting with what Darron frequently reminds us is “the largest working mainsail on the West Coast.”
“It’s 4,000 square feet!” he cries. “The size of two tennis courts — or one 4,000-square-foot house!”
My fellow passengers and I queue up in two lines of a dozen or so people each, on both sides of the boat, like contestants in a tug of war in which the opponent is the heavy gaff-rigged sail.
Grabbing rough, inch-thick rope, my team leans back with many a grunt and hauls on what’s called the throat halyard, raising the end of the gaff nearer to the mast. The others haul on what’s called the peak halyard, raising the end further from the mast.
“All the way, throat!” calls Darron, then “Hold, peak!” and vice versa until the mammoth white sail towers over us and softly bellies in the breeze.
Mike Heintz, a retired engineer who lives in Bellingham, enthusiastically hauls at the front of our line. Had he ever raised a sail before?
“Yes, on a really tiny boat — I think it was a Sunfish,” he says. “I have nothing to compare it to, but being at the front I’ll assume my job was harder than anyone’s!”
And now, as they used to say, it’s Miller time. But, to the joy of craft-beer lovers aboard, it isn’t.
This is the second Ales N’ Sails cruise for the Chuckanut Brewery crew, and they love doing it, says co-owner Mari Kemper.
“Look at the view here!” she explains, pointing to Mount Baker. “You don’t get that view until you’re on the water. It’s fun for all our crew that gets to come along, and when you get out on the water you just find it’s easier to relax.”
It’s relaxed all around, since no money need change hands as thirsty passengers line up to sample the first ale offering (all covered in the $69 fare).
The evening’s samples start with the perfect summer sip, a low-alcohol Mexican-style Lager, which the brewery concocted last year for Tom Douglas’ restaurants (“like Corona, without the skunkiness,” Kemper quips).
With beer in hand, I wander down one of the scuttles — the salty term for a stairway — to visit the ship’s cook, Caz Ludtke, who’s busy in the galley preparing dinner for about 70 people.
It’s her second season on the Zodiac in about eight years on tall ships. As on many classic sailing vessels, this crew includes nomads who move from ship to ship across the globe. One crew member this evening speaks with a distinctive Scottish accent.
“They’re from all over the country, all over the world,” Darron tells me. “It’s a very neat experience. You get to meet all sorts of interesting people, and you form a cohesive unit out of people who pretty much have nothing in common except for a love of the ocean.”
Ludtke has posted a perfect beer-friendly menu: pretzel-bun bratwurst sliders with caramelized onions; herb and mustard potato salad; corn, tomato and bacon salad; chicken enchilada suiza and dessert of raspberry cheesecake brownies. (Vegetarian and other special menu items are available by advance request.)
I’m just in time to watch her ring the dinner bell.
Diners can stay below in the roomy salon, though most take plates back up top in the waning sunlight that is just about the same color now as the Vienna Lager that Kemper and Michael Toomes, operations manager for the brewery, are serving up. It’s described in the brew menu as “light bronze, malty, toasty, toffeeish,” with a crisp finish.
Also on tap: the “golden, dry, sharply bitter, noble, flowery, snappy” Chuckanut Pilsner, which seems made to match with potato salad.
Passengers chat, sip and eat as they perch on rails and cabin tops and take in the vista. From left to right as I turn 180 degrees: Mount Baker, then the snow-capped Cascade peaks called The Sisters, then the Chuckanut Mountains, followed by distant Cypress Island and finally the long hump of Lummi Island, silhouetted now like a black, crouching panther.
I wander aft to watch passenger Meghan Schleicher, visiting from Denver, who is handling the ship’s wheel with one hand while nursing a beer with the other. She has a big smile on her face.
No, she’s never steered a boat like this before. And no, in the light breeze it’s not difficult — especially under the watchful eye of a crew member.
“He’s telling me how many spokes to turn it,” she says.
Most seem happy with the ale selection.
“This exceeded my expectations,” says Jenifer Jaques, visiting from Portland. “I’m not typically a lager or pilsner person, but these are good.”
As the Zodiac aims back toward port and the crew tugs, tucks and hauls sails down, Kemper serves up the last beer of the evening, her Schwarz Lager. The tasting notes say “black, bitter chocolate, bready, dry and smooth.” In other words, practically tailor-made to go with raspberry cheesecake brownies.
In fact, it would have been amazing with a scoop of French vanilla plopped in.
If you go
Ale cruises and more on the Zodiac
The Zodiac’s summer 2017 schedule has so-far included three Ales N’ Sails cruises, each featuring samples from a different craft brewery and including dinner ($69). One such cruise remains this summer, though if demand warrants, more Ales N’ Sails outings may be added for fall; call to find out.
The next is 6-9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 10, with Bellingham-based Aslan Brewing.
Other day sails
Space remains on other outings, including:
• Friday Night Salmon Dinner Sails, $59-$79.
• Bellingham Bay Brunch Sails, Sundays, $49-$69.
• Afternoon Adventure Sails, Sundays, $35-$55.
Space remains on several multiday cruises in summer/fall 2017. A sampling:
• Ukuleles at Sea is just what it sounds like; bring your own; Aug. 7-9, $595-$675.
• Voyage to Desolation Sound, Aug. 19-30, $2,350-$2,800.
• Autumn Harvest Cruise, visiting farms and markets of the San Juan Islands; Oct. 13-15, $675-$750.
Passengers sleep in 48-inch-wide bunks behind a curtain off the ship’s salon or in one of seven private staterooms with multiple bunks and a sink and mirror.
Most sailings depart from Bellingham Cruise Terminal/Alaska Ferry Terminal, 355 Harris Ave., Bellingham.
Bookings / information
206-719-7622 or schoonerzodiac.com
A nautical glossary
Spar: A stout pole such as those used for masts, etc.; a mast, yard, boom, gaff or the like.
Boom: A horizontal spar at the base of a sail.
Gaff-rigged sail: A sail that is four-sided rather than triangular, set fore and aft rather than crosswise to the vessel; with a spar (“gaff”) at the top as well as a boom at the base.
Baggywrinkle: A soft covering for cables to reduce sail chafe. There are many points in the rig of a sailing vessel where the sails come into contact with shrouds or other rigging; unprotected sails would soon develop holes at the points of contact.
Shroud: A cable or line providing lateral support for a mast.
Halyard: A line used to raise and lower a sail.
Generations of family ownership
Bellingham’s Mehrer family acquired the Zodiac in the 1970s and restored it with the help of a community of volunteers before beginning to operate it as a charter vessel in the early 1990s.
Three generations of Mehrers have skippered the Zodiac, including Karl Mehrer (now retired) and his son Tim, who now shares captain duties with his son Calen.
The Vessel Zodiac Corporation’s bylaws direct all profits beyond operating costs back into the continuing restoration of the boat.