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SAILING THE SAN JUANS : Haul Away! : For $500 Apiece, 20 Novices Chartered a 127-Foot Schooner, Learned the Lingo, Hoisted the Sails and Had a Grand Adventure

TIMES STAFF WRITER; <i> Balzar is chief of the Times' Seattle bureau</i>

Before daybreak the last damp hawser is heaved aboard and coiled on deck. The sailing schooner Zodiac eases out of the sleeping harbor and ghosts through a chilly drizzle toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca where the wind blows.

We crinkle in stiff nylon foul-weather gear as we move across plank and tar deck. Zodiac is the largest sailing vessel of its kind on the West Coast, 127 feet long. It is celebrating its 70th birthday afloat.

And for this blustery spring week the Zodiac is ours as we roam the blue-black waters, the narrow channels, the open straits, rain-forested shores and sheltered harbors of Washington’s San Juan Islands.

Here with bald eagles, dolphins, harlequin ducks, seals, sculpted cliffs, tide pools, spicy fresh air and towering cedars, 20 friends, acquaintances and distant friends-of-friends have taken a flyer on each other and a small-time, big-boat operation.

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We took a chance with the weather too. Springtime in these waters between Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and the Washington mainland is windy. But wind hereabouts spells weather--so we’re swaddled in gloves and long johns. Those who follow us on Zodiac later in summer will lounge along in their shorts and tank tops. But they are unlikely to receive our reward: flying on the wing of a gale in a tall ship sailed well.

How well?

Doggone well, if you please. And to our astonishment, we’re doing it pretty much on our own.

Some of us are small boat sailors; many had never hoisted a line until four days ago when we gathered aboard at Bellingham, two hours north of Seattle. Never mind. A 200-ton schooner is a life apart from a small boat. We’re all novices at this.

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But the spirit has seized us. In the name of hard play, we practice and learn. And nature favors us, delivering light winds for the first days. So while we work, we can absorb the scenery of this lovely nest of islands, venturing as the wind blows us from secluded anchorages to busy port towns.

In ages ranging from our mid-30s to early-60s, we stand daylight watches by the bells, set the sails and work the tacks--and whoop it up like college kids at the end of the day. Zodiac’s crew of nine, including three men with captain’s licenses, supervises us with self-assurance. But sometimes with urgency.

Using our backs and tired hands and newly sharpened eyes, we now fathom the ancient working and lilt of schooner sailing--turning the huge spindled helm and hauling, coiling, flaking, adjusting and making fast the ship’s quarter-mile spider web of heavy lines, matching Zodiac’s cloud of canvas to the twisting channels and shifting winds of island navigation.

Each of us now feels a swell of confidence, a hardness in our muscles, an uplift of exuberance as we slip away on this work-a-day Wednesday morning into exposed waters south of the islands where the north Pacific reaches its finger into the American continent.

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A diesel engine has taken us clear of the picturesque harbor at nearby Victoria, British Columbia, where we made an overnight side trip. Usually, we’re not underway until mid-morning. But today, as we gulp steaming mugs of coffee, and, I confess, wrestle here and there with a touch of that old sailor’s curse, the hangover, we are happy to rise before the sun. Today, we are hunting for wind.

Sailing stations! . . . On the peak halyard, haul away! . . . Avast! . . . That is well, make it fast . . . Come up from behind . . .

The patois of the ancient mariner is no longer so strange.

First we hoist the 4,000-square-foot mainsail, almost the size of a basketball court. Everyone lines up tug-of-war style and pulls on twin, two-inch-thick rope halyards to the old sailing chantey, “Two-Six Ho.” The sail creeps up the towering fir mast with unbearable slowness, and sweaty wisps of steam rise from inside our waterproof pants and jackets. There are no winches on Zodiac.

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Then the smaller foresail is raised on the shorter mast forward, not an easy task either. By now, our wind off the southern tip of Vancouver Island is brisk and the dawn sky breaks wet and lumpy gray. One of us is stationed on the five-foot spoked helm to hold Zodiac pointed into the breeze and keep pressure off the huge spread of canvas.

Next, the staysail, and finally, the jib are set. Arms ache. Hearts pound. There is now 7,000 square feet of sail aloft, loose and cracking nervously in the wind.

Capt. Tim Mehrer, a sanguine native of these waters who has commanded Zodiac for 20 years, orders the helm spun over. The ship bears off, her sails filling with a deep whuh-thunk . Sheet lines squeak taut. Wooden pulley blocks rattle and tense. The 13-inch-thick, wood-plank hull heaves into five-foot chop with a melodic groaning and creaking. This is the song known to seafarers as the working of a wooden ship. The disappearing music of our heritage.

There are no real ocean swells reaching this far into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Zodiac does not bob or roll in the chop like a smaller sailboat--the sensation that induces seasickness.

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Instead, she powers through the open water at 13 knots, her massive deck lifting and falling dramatically, or so it seems to us, but so slowly, so heavily that only one or two aboard feel any queasiness. At first I can see a couple of faces fixed with that pale, uncomfortable, oh-ho look. But this passes quickly with the immense excitement and laborious maneuvers necessary to execute long, rounding tacks from one broad reach to another.

Patrick Kerns, the 290-pound, pigtailed itinerant tall-ship sailor who is our bosun and mate, covers the deck in big strides, his wet, bristly face aglow with a fierce smile. In a hoarse growl, he offers us praise and encouragement. “That was a tack! Well done. That was how it’s done!”

It is warm and dry below, but no one leaves the deck. There will be time for that later. Good wind over a good ship is rhapsody. Except for a single passing freighter, we are alone at sea in what mariners call a fresh gale. To the starboard, the snowy Olympic mountains peek through steely layers of clouds. Off the port, the silhouette of the San Juans fills the horizon and dead ahead a black squall line of a storm gathers.

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There are many reasons to come to this popular vacation region. Sailing is one of the best.

We find ourselves making a circle through the San Juans, counterclockwise, starting in the remote north. Up here, the San Juans are a necklace of small, unoccupied islands--Patos, Sucia, Matia, Clark--designated as state marine parks, reachable only by watercraft.

A day’s sail away is lovely, finger-narrow Reid Harbor at Stuart Island, part state park and part sleepy rural homestead. Not far away is the resort village and marina of Roche Harbor on heavily developed San Juan Island. Here is a 150-year-old inn with nostalgic hospitality and the kind of guests who can appreciate the silhouette of a big schooner looming through the front window of the bar.

The port of Victoria has every bit the feel of the islands, although it is not part of them. There are few feelings to match arriving here in a sailing ship.

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But today we traverse the southern reach of the islands, ducking out of the winds to clear U.S. Customs at Friday Harbor, the largest community and chief tourist destination in the San Juans. Even in the off-season, the port is a bustle of fishermen and yachts and seaplanes and day visitors who have come by ferry. By acclamation, we on the Zodiac decide to limit our shore leave to only one hour, preserving the afternoon for more sailing.

Our departure proves to be a false start. A late head-count shows us one person short. Dave Early, a Zodiac crewman, has slipped ashore to make a phone call. We double back through the crowded harbor. And as he races down the long dock to meet us, a crowd gathers. We break out kazoos and pipe him aboard, red-faced, to the tune of “Anchor’s Away.” The crowd cheers.

Outside the harbor, our gale has diminished to a gentle breeze, which we leisurely ride toward the very southernmost tip of the San Juans to a bay on Lopez Island where British Capt. George Vancouver anchored 202 years ago during his exploration of these islands. Off in the distance, the lights of Seattle glow orange against the clouds. A gentle rain begins, and we scamper to the warmth below.

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I feel particular satisfaction. Five months ago, I was stirred by the sight of a big schooner as it pulled away from the dock at Bellingham, Wash. On its stern was the name Zodiac. Inquiring on the waterfront in Seattle, where I live, I learned it is the largest of fewer than a half-dozen charter schooners on the West Coast.

Later, I tracked down Mehrer and his father, Karl--both schoonermen who make their living in the industrial boiler business and devote the rest of their time to preserving historic sailing ships.

The Zodiac, they explained over lunch, is maintained by 60 or so volunteers. Almost nobody could afford to pay workers to keep up such a ship. The volunteers take their turns as crew during the spring-to-fall sailing season, then help with refurbishment during winter. When at sea, only the cook is paid.

It turned out that for all their seafaring skills, the Mehrers were not much in the way of high-powered marketers, and happily so. Their clientele came from people like me who happen along, the curious, and then by word of mouth.

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But there was a catch to the charter. Since they were a small operation, they accepted only groups, no singles or couples. For a six-night, five-day, cruise, I would have to assemble a full compliment of 20 guests--we would need that many to lift the sails and handle the boat.

Impossible, I thought.

But I scratched down the costs on a cocktail napkin: 20 people at $500 apiece, plus tax, would cover the charter, including all food. Hmm. Maybe not so impossible after all--a hotel room and food for six days could easily run more.

I set myself a deadline of 30 days. I called and wrote about 30 friends and acquaintances, some of whom I’d known a lifetime and others who I just met. I told them to pass the word to their friends.

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If I had 20 checks within a month, I’d confirm the charter. Otherwise, I would drop the idea. Two weeks later, I was turning people away. From New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Canada and Seattle, my friends and their friends took the dare. Our group was born. And we spent the next months in exquisite anticipation, sharing books and seafaring movies, planning and daydreaming. We wrote and called and talked ourselves into a froth.

But I worried: Had I oversold the venture? How would 10 men and 10 women, some married and some single but all set in their ways, adapt to the loss of privacy of dormitory sleeping? Or to sharing three heads and two showers? What if the wind failed us? What if it rained every day? What if the food was lousy?

I send a warning letter: Prepare for everything. This is the Northwest.

With bulging sea bags, we boarded on Friday afternoon at Bellingham’s ferry terminal and motored to a nearby cove.

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Robin Clark of Manhattan Beach, Calif., brought his songbook and lyric voice. Ross Anderson of Seattle brought a guitar. We sang. Chef JoAnn Perna of Creswell, Ore., produced the first of a steady offering of galley feasts--dinners that included salmon, pasta primavera with calamari, Mexican fajitas and breakfasts such as blueberry beer pancakes. We gorged ourselves. Up from the stowage locker came fresh-from-the-keg bitter ale from Seattle’s Red Hook brewery and cases of assorted Washington wine. We drank.

In the morning, we sailed off the anchor without starting the engine--a showy accomplishment for us novices. Likewise, we sailed the next afternoon into the San Juans to Sucia Island Marine State Park and anchored without need of engine power, a feat that even small-boat sailors rarely attempt in these tight, shoal waters. We launched one of our two tenders to take a dozen hikers ashore to explore the island park. Others of us traded turns exploring coves with the two kayaks we brought aboard. Who could count all the eagles and seals and sea birds and dolphins?

We gathered in the soft light of the great wood salon below deck and staffers Tim and Karl told us about this ship, registered as a national historic vessel--built as a trans-oceanic pleasure yacht for the founders of the Johnson & Johnson Co. and later turned into a bar pilot schooner off of San Francisco.

And every night, again and again, I’m pleased to report, I listened to the same thundering toast: to my own dumb luck or gifted foresight, whichever, for taking a chance on a schooner and a gang of disparate pals. Here, here. We had sailed in glorious waters, unhurried and with friendship snugged down by a new dependence on one another and by unexpected sentimentalism for an old wooden ship. And we vowed, we would sail the Zodiac again.

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GUIDEBOOK

A Schooner in the San Juans

Schooner Zodiac: Tim, Karl and June Mehrer, P.O. Box 322, Snohomish, Wash. 98291-0322; telephone (206) 483-4088 or (206) 325-6122.

What: Standard cruises are five days, six nights. Special scuba diving or kayaking trips can be arranged; the company is flexible.

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Where: Zodiac sails from the Alaska State Ferry dock in Bellingham, 90 miles north of Seattle. Shuttle bus service is available from Sea-Tac airport in Seattle.

Typically, Zodiac ranges the San Juan Islands, north of Puget Sound. Port calls are possible at Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. Depending on weather, voyages to Victoria, British Columbia, can be arranged, but this requires a half-day to clear Canadian and U.S. customs.

How much: Overnight charter cruises are $2,000 a day for 20 people, or $500 per person for a five-day cruise. Add to that Washington’s 7.8% sales tax. There is no seasonal adjustment.

Who: Sailing experience is not necessary, and many cruises are chartered by active retirees. Helpful are an interest in boating, wooden vessels, the San Juan Islands and teamwork.

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Food: Standard fare is old-fashioned American. More contemporary cuisine is available on request. Dining is in the galley and aft salon.

Accommodations: Pullman-style berths, 42 inches wide, with privacy curtains. Berths are situated in salons forward and aft. No private cabins.

Gear: Sleeping bag, layered clothing, rain jacket and pants, sun protection and (depending on season) rubber boots. Work gloves strongly advised.

Weather: At this latitude, there are no sure bets. Generally, summer in the San Juans is sunny and mild, but winds are light to dead calm. This is the season for sightseeing and relaxing. Spring and late fall bring more weather and wind for sailing. The best winds can be wet and cold. Zodiac normally sails from March through October.

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