Hoisting the Sails in the San Juans

written by Lori Sweeny

I’m at that season in life when, if I bend over, I think about the consequences. Will I get back up? What will be damaged in the process? What shows?

On the Schooner Zodiac, thirty women raised four sails daily. The main sail weighs 1,800 pounds, and hoisting it took ten minutes, longer if you were on the peak (that log on the main that had to be raised 110 feet). Taking it down meant taking a knee to let out 600 feet of the halyard, then unceremoniously climbing up on the boom and stuffing it all back in. Women my age are familiar with stuffing it all back in, but this involved bending over.

The whole experience of being on the “Z” involved learning. Tim Mehrer and his high school friends bought the Schooner (so called because it has more than one mast and the main sail is on the taller mast) in the mid-1970s. They restored all 127 deck feet back to her 1924 glory, no small feat given she’s made of wood. They teach every passenger about tall-ship sailing—every passenger learns to chart, steer, swab the deck with seawater, learn “aft” and other jargon and hoist those four sails.

Day one is like childbirth. It’s exhilarating. But then it’s hard (did I mention hoisting that main sail?), and you wonder if you’ll ever raise your arms above your head again. You finish and the sense of accomplishment is no small thing, but then you realize the bunk is a small thing and you wonder if your bent-over back will recover in this odd-shaped mattress. You never slept so well.

… Or ate so well. The only paid person on the ship is the cook, and she is so worth it, providing fresh produce and good coffee and enough chocolate to keep thirty women happy.

You learn to have the highest respect for the ten women who are the volunteer crew. They know this ship inside out. They crawl belowdecks to the chain locker with ear protection and bare feet to lay the anchor chain evenly. They “sweat” the line 25 feet to hoist three dinghys and all that rigging. Never stern (pun intended), these muscled, good-natured women showed us the ropes on this all-woman sail. They never gave into the fatigue, and patiently showed us a ballantine coil for the sixth time.

Plying through the water in the San Juans, anchoring in a quiet bay, enjoying the fine summer weather and working hard at something so satisfying, so seemingly unattainable at this juncture in life, was the best experience. Becalming, as the sailors say. Repeatable. Memorable. A grand story.
Travel, at it best moments, helps us rethink how we do life. It renews our senses, introduces us to a whole new vocabulary of life. The Schooner Zodiac did all that for me in three days. It helped me bend over. Ahoy!

Mariachi Huenachi

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