By Isaac Bonnell
With so many fun activities to do on land, it’s easy to forget sometimes that Bellingham is also a great place to get out on the water.
And whether you’re a certified sailor or just looking to paddle for a few hours, Fairhaven is a great place to start your boating adventure.
Not many large boats call Fairhaven home. Sure the Alaska Ferry and various NOAA vessels regularly stop in for repairs, but they rarely stay long. This year, however, the historic schooner Zodiac officially moved to town and later this month will show off a freshly repainted transom that shows Fairhaven as its homeport.
At 160 feet long and weighing in at 146 tons, the boat is the largest wooden schooner on the West Coast and also boasts the largest mainsail, which is 4,000 square feet. Originally built in Maine in 1924 as a private yacht, the schooner is now operated as a charter vessel.
The Zodiac is no stranger on the Fairhaven waterfront. Previously, the boat would moor in Seattle for the winter and dock in Fairhaven at the cruise terminal in between summer trips out to the San Juan Islands. The lease in Seattle ran out this year, though, and so the crew decided to look for a new homeport.
“We were getting tired of spending half the year down there and half the year here,” said first mate Chris Wallace. “We’re pretty excited to be here — Bellingham has a lot to offer. And this dock has a lot of visibility.”
Down in Seattle, the splendor of the historic boat was sometimes lost among the melee of the fishing fleet and other large vessels, Wallace said. But in Bellingham, the Zodiac is a big fish in small pond. And it already has quite a local following. Whenever the schooner comes back from a trip, there is usually a crowd waiting to watch it dock.
The Zodiac spends a good part of the cruising season in the Puget Sound, doing everything from sunset cruises to winery and brewery tours with onboard tastings. During the brewery cruise, the crew even brews a batch of its own recipe, Schooner Rat IPA.
The longer cruises and winery tours usually cater to the out-of-town tourists looking for a unique Pacific Northwest experience, whereas the day trips are popular with the local crowd, Wallace said.
“We get a lot of people from out of state for the brewery and winery tours,” she said. “People are looking for those vacations that aren’t over to Europe, but still unique. So we’re always looking for something new and unique to highlight on a cruise.”
Paddling for pleasure
If the wind is too light for sailing, then you’ll just have to paddle yourself around the bay in a boat from the Bellingham Bay Community Boating Center.
Located just a few hundred feet down the shoreline from the Zodiac, the center is a one-stop shop for renting small watercraft: They have sailboats, sea kayaks, row boats, racing sculls and sit-on-top kayaks. The center is also going to offer stand-up paddleboards this year.
“Bellingham is a small-boat town — it’s one of the best paddling towns around,” said Executive Director Mike Callaizakis.
The center offers paddling skills classes all summer and also has kayaking camps for kids. For those who want a guided tour, the center offers weekly sunset paddles and when there is a new moon, they offer a bioluminescence tour to see glowing plankton from 9 p.m. to midnight.
When the nonprofit was launched in 2006, the founders were adamant about being located on the Fairhaven waterfront. Protected from the prevailing south winds, the small Fairhaven cove offers a “little protected bubble” for beginners to learn and it is within a day’s paddle to several attractions, Callaizakis said.
“This is a perfect spot because we’re located in the middle of the bay,” he said. “It only takes 30 to 40 minutes to get to Boulevard Park and it’s about three to four hours round-trip to get to Chuckanut Bay.”
The location was also a big draw for Blake Young, owner of NuCanoe. He moved his business from Irongate to the Fairhaven waterfront in December of last year to be closer to the water. NuCanoe makes sit-on-top boats that can be configured for whatever type of activity you feel like doing.
“This boat will allow you to go out on the water and do whatever you want to do,” Young said. “The hull is a platform hull that people can set up for a one-person fishing boat or a three-person family boat. In just a couple minutes, you can configure it however you want it.”
Along with the benefits of working right next to one of his favorite places to paddle, Young has also seen an uptick in sales locally.
“Before, no one was going to stumble upon us,” he said. “Now we have people stop in every week, even in the winter, saying they saw our boat out front and just wanted to stop in and take a look.”
So if you find yourself yearning to be out on the water this summer, just follow the crowds to Fairhaven. You’ll find plenty to do there.