Learning the Ropes Aboard a Schooner

We were a diverse bunch, the new crew of the Rebecca, a gracious yacht leaving Bellingham, Wash. with a passel of Elderhostelers aboard.

Included were a couple from California who had met in kindergarten, a former Navy nurse from Florida, several friendly women from Oregon, a youthful, 80-something couple who had recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and a New Jersey real estate agent fresh off an Elderhostel trip on a ferry through Alaska's Inland Passage.

Some were on their 14th trip with Elderhostel, a nonprofit organization that runs educational vacations for people over 55, while others, like me (two decades shy of the accepted age) were rookies. Five of the eight were current or former teachers, not unusual according to the veterans.

We were headed to cruise the San Juan Islands, an archipelago in Puget Sound between Bellingham and Victoria, British Columbia, known for their remoteness, wild currents, and the soaring, brick-barked madrone trees that hang over the water. Our mission: to learn navigation, currents, knot-tying, and local history while doing duties as part of the crew. This was not, we had been told, a mere cruise.

The Rebecca is an 87-foot diesel yacht launched in 1941. This was her first foray of the season, which became clear when it was time for us to polish the brass. She had fresh flowers all around, a cook who tempted us with a generous supply of fresh fruit and vegetables (and yogurt-covered pretzels, for balance), and two temperamental heads (toilets), one of which shut down promptly at 10 p.m. with the electricity. My top bunk was a bit too short for me to sit up in it, but I didn't spend much time there.

The trip was "planned especially for those who yearn to be on the sea without the rigors of sailing," according to the brochures. Our captain and coordinators provided clear instruction, and while it was tricky to get the sea lingo down (chart not map, galley not kitchen, berth not bed, port, starboard, fore, aft, lines, sheets, you name it), we were all tying natty bowlines in no time. I liked learning about how planets far from the center of the solar system can affect our tides, and about "windage," the surface a ship exposes to the wind.

We were treated to frequent views of our sister ship, the Zodiac, with slicker-clad Elderhostelers trimming her sails.

At 127 feet, she's the West Coast's largest working schooner certified by the United States Coast Guard, and supposedly has the largest mainsail in the country, at 4,000 square feet, or three times the size of my house.

As Skipper John Jamieson explains, "When the wind's jamming at 10 or 12 knots, and everything is pulled as taut as it can be, your heart is in your throat." Having learned the fine art of keeping a jib from luffing this summer on a mere 21-footer, I could only imagine.


But when the weather started "blowing like stink" and a small-craft warning came over the radio, followed by a play-by-play of the Coast Guard rescuing a stranded sailboat, we were happy to be on the Rebecca. Her lounge was well above the water line, so we could enjoy the scenery even in foul weather, and her sleeping accommodations were much more private than Zodiac's. Plus, on the Rebecca, we had wonderful photo ops as we followed the schooner around the Haro and Rosario Straits.

Our duties included anchor watch, two-hour nighttime stints spent making sure the wind didn't shift and the anchor didn't drag.

Over five days, I had a 4-6 a.m. and a 12-2 a.m. watch, and enjoyed hearing barred owls and peepers in Chuckanut Bay, south of Bellingham. One night in the dark cove of Stuart Island, my cabin-mate, Shirley, and I were alerted by loud splashes off the starboard side, sounding like giant beaver tails. We couldn't see a thing, but the captain told us the next morning that this was probably the cavorting of harbor seals.

For me, our first port of call was the highlight of the trip. On Sucia Island, really a collection of 11 smaller ones, several of us headed out to the southwestern shore, where we found a variety of fossils in the cliffs and rocks.

There I spotted six harlequin ducks, painted as brightly as carousel horses, a really rare find. Throughout the five days we also saw about a dozen bald eagles.

The archipelago's stories fascinated us. We cruised past Speiden Island, which doomed entrepreneurs had started to turn into an exotic game hunting spot. It's now full of the surviving Japanese sika deer, European fallow deer, Indian black buck antelope, and wild goats, some of which we could see grazing under a tree, uphill from two bald eagles perching on the steep grassy slope.

We also got a kick out of another island (near Sucia) allegedly bought by a drug runner during the winter, only to find later that that it was smack in the middle of one of the busiest summertime harbors in the San Juans.

Some of us visited Orcas Island's Mt. Constitution, a 2,400-foot observation point with views of Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier, a taxi ride away from our port of call, the Rosa Resort, a gracious home built by Robert Moran. The exhausted, overworked builder of the USS Nebraska had been given a few months to live, but lasted 40 years on the island.

In Roche Harbor on San Juan Island, some of us walked the mile or so to the eerie mausoleum that John McMillin, a wealthy mason, built for himself and his family. It is laid out like the family's dining room table, with each McMillin ashes encased in a stone seat on a circular altar deep in the woods.

And when we headed toward Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, we had plenty of opportunities to learn about the Pig War, "fought" between the US and Britain in 1859-'60 over the former's northern boundary.

The mobilized troops socialized freely, drinking beer on the queen's birthday, racing horses, and celebrating the Fourth of July together. The only casualty was the Yankee pig that started the whole hoo-ha by straying into an enemy garden.

Personally, I got irrational amounts of pleasure trolling through Friday Harbor's well-stocked consignment shops, yarn stores, and home-grown art galleries.

I can also recommend the whale museum, with its fascinating skeleton of the four-legged terrestrial predecessor of the whales we were hoping to spot on our trip. Unfortunately, March is a little early in the season for orcas, but our captain had spotted these killer whales on 7 out of 26 trips last year.

When we got back on land in Bellingham, I wondered at whatever it was that got me so used to the rolling water that solid ground felt liquid. Maybe it was a new-found love of floating past scenes and stories, of learning as a form of recreation. It's a feeling I'd like to have again.

What is Elderhostel?

Elderhostel is a nonprofit organization serving the educational needs of older adults. It can be reached at 75 Federal Street, Department MC, Boston, MA 02110-1941, at (617) 426-8056, and at www.elderhostel.org.

Our trip was hosted by the Northwest Schooner Society, though many of Elderhostel's week-long trips are held in hotels and motels, dormitories, or conference centers. The group offers intergenerational trips for seniors to take with grandchildren, domestic trips, and international expeditions, which are usually one to four weeks long. Service programs are also offered, with seniors volunteering with publicservice groups around the world.

Choose from classes like "Geology/Geothermal Features of the Tetons and Yellowstone," "Drawing and Painting from Impression and Nature," and "Early Indian and Cherokee Culture," among hundreds of other courses. About 310,000 people participated in 1997, in all 50 states and Canada.

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