Tall Ships Tacoma-I

The Maze series has been pretty heavy-duty, and there’s more to come (sorry to say)–but I thought we all needed a break, to ponder things more graceful and elegant. So put your pencils and pads in your desk, and let’s go for a little boat ride.

Never let it be said that I rush into anything–in truth, I put the “pro” in procrastination. Last summer–just before the July 4th weekend–I had a wonderful opportunity: to be on board one of the sailing ships in the Tall Ship Festival in Tacoma.

It was a spectacular adventure on a spectacular day–the the type of day you dream about when the rain and the darkness settle over Puget Sound like sodden tarps during the endless dreary gray of a Northwest winter.

The morning started out like many here–even in the clear warmth of summer–with a low fog over the Sound, quiet and muted in tone, the haze rendering depth deceptively and desaturating colors, its damp coolness belying the coming heat of midday sun.

Our journey started from the Port of Tacoma, a busy industrial harbor which handles one of the largest volumes of container ship traffic on the West Coast, due to its proximity to Asia and excellent rail access.

container ship
We took a ferry from Tacoma to nearby Quartermaster Harbor on Vashon Island, were the tall ships had anchored, each arriving over several days from many remote ports of call. Upon entering the harbor, the effect was magical: sailing ships large and small, their masts rocking slowly in the gentle swells of passing craft. Surrounding them, in growing numbers, were countless smaller boats, power and sail, dinghy and yacht, clinging like pilot fish to to their ancestral predecessors. Signal flags fluttered, Old Glory flew grandly on tall masts, and boat horns sang celebratory as their klaxon call echoed off the tree-lined shores surrounding them.

My assigned boat was the Zodaic, a two-masted gaff schooner home-ported in Seattle.

Built in 1924 for the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, Zodiac was designed to epitomize the speed and beauty of the American fishing schooner. She raced from Sandy Hook New Jersey to Spain–finishing fourth–a short-lived flash of glory, as the Crash of 1929 forced her sale to the San Francisco Pilots Association in 1931. Renamed California, she served forty years off the Golden Gate as the largest schooner ever operated by the Bar Pilots. She was manned by a Naval crew during WWII, guiding warships into the bay through the narrow straights, and was finally retired in 1972, the last working pilot schooner in the United States, subsequently falling into disrepair through disuse and neglect.

In the late 70s, a non-profit corporation was formed to operate and maintain the schooner, whose maiden name was restored to Zodiac. Drawing on an experienced crew of sailors and shipwrights, many of whom have worked on other tall ships such as the Adventuress, Sea Cloud, Eagle, Lady Washington, and Robertson II, the ship was restored to her former beauty and sailing strength. In 1982 she was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The boat has been magnificently restored, its brass trim and shellaced hardwood woodwork providing a glimpse into a world 75 years past.

A view toward the stern.

The helm.

The compass, a glorious composite of glass, brass, and hardwood.

The wait seemed interminable–several hours, in fact–as people were transfered by skiff and powerboat to the many waiting tall ships, prior to the grand parade from Quartermaster Harbor back to the Port of Tacoma. Finally, with all aboard, we began to slowly motor out of the harbor, amidst a remarkable flotilla, a sea of small pleasure craft and sailboats–no trivial feat this, as the limited visiblility and the manuverability of a sizeable sailing ship like Zodiac made collisions with small craft a constant risk.

But at last–the fog now cleared and a brilliant, clear Northwest day upon us, the crew began to hoist the sails, and our short but glorious sailing parade began.

I’ll be posting lots of pictures of the tall ships and other historical boats in the near future, so stay tuned.

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