SEATTLE -- First things first. I am not a nautical person. Growing up in Ohio, the closest our family ever got to a body of water was the plastic kiddie pool in our backyard. So when I got the assignment to join an all-women's, learn-how-to-sail group headed to the San Juan Islands this summer, I hesitated.
But somehow, I couldn't quell a voice that kept whispering: Break out of comfort zone, break out of comfort zone ...
It's 9:30 a.m., and I arrive at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal where the "Nauti-Girls" tour is about to get underway.
For the next three days, 17 women will live aboard the historic schooner Zodiac and get schooled on all things sailing. Twelve crew members, five of whom are men, will be our guides.
The Zodiac is a fixture on the Pacific Northwest nautical scene. Built in 1924 for the heirs of the Johnson & Johnson family, the wooden vessel weighs 146 gross tons -- that's 327,000 pounds -- and measures 127 feet long on deck. Four sails, the largest of which is 4,000 square feet, propel it (plus an auxiliary engine).
"Make no mistake," says first mate Chris Wallace, 48. "Y'all are gonna be sailing this ship."
Nauti-Girls was Wallace's idea. She lives on the boat with her husband and two daughters, 12 and 18. She was inspired, she said, to revive a similar trip held on the Zodiac before, called "Seawenches," which aimed to introduce more women to sailing.
Today, the sun has no clouds to compete with. And the women, who range in age from 27 to 67, are already hitting it off. I'm inclined to kick back with some chilled pinot gris and take in the spectacular island views.
But Wallace and Captain Tim Mehrer have other plans. It's almost 11 a.m. and conditions are ripe to raise the sails.
Many of the women have sailed before and look unfazed by mentions of "boom" or "abeam" or "halyard." I remember too late that the five-page glossary we'd received weeks ago is on my desk in Seattle. For the green-as-grass novice, this is where things start to get a little fuzzy.
But I can, on a good day, comprehend an objective. And today's objective seemed clear enough: Get the mainsail up.
I look around, get into stance, and start copying other women pulling on a rope. (In ship lingo, that's "line.")
After several heaves, I get tired. My back hurts. My biceps burn. Internal whining hits overdrive. I frankly don't see the point to all the effort when there is, after all, an engine that powers this boat just as well.
"Keep it going, ladies! Keep it going!" shouts deckhand Casey Gordon, 27, a Kate Hudson look-alike with dreadlocks.
I glance up and notice the massive sail inching higher. Excitement crackles. We throw more energy into the task when, slowly, the sail reaches the top.
A moment of euphoria. Everyone cheers, then scrambles to get the other sails raised. Most of us don't know each other, but we all have one goal and accomplish it together.
Now I get why they call this a sport.
After hours of tacking (turning) the ship, we make it to Sucia (locals say "SOO-sha") Island by late afternoon and drop anchor at the remote, largely uninhabited marine park.
The smell of dinner wafts up from chef Ian Relay's kitchen.
The dining table is where a lot of these conversations take place. The women bond quickly. There are tales of breast-feeding, wacky ex-husbands, raising children, then trying to shove said children out of the house by age 25.
By 11 p.m., it's lights out and I'm wiped. Twelve of us are assigned military bunks in the main cabin. I dive in, trying not to notice the forearm's width between my head and the ceiling.
In sailing, the elements dictate your day. And today the winds aren't cooperating. Instead of raising the sails, we explore a couple islands, one of which is Sucia, known as the "crown jewel" of Washington's marine park system.
I'm itching for some land time anyway and scramble off to hike the densely wooded trails, inhaling lungfuls of cedar-scented air. I later run into a deck hand, Beth Loudon, who is giving the others a guided nature walk. We eat wild blackberries, which taste like red wine, and head back to the Zodiac, where we motor off to our next stop, Roche Harbor. Along the way, I get a 30-minute turn at the captain's helm.
By late afternoon we anchor at Reid Harbor on Stuart Island, the northwesternmost of the San Juans, and mark our last night with a barbecue. After dinner, some go kayaking, while others relax with wine and watch seals pop their heads out of the water. Waves lap gently against our boat and a gull's cry punctuates the quiet. It's a bittersweet moment, the kind that comes when you know you have to leave a really beautiful place really soon.
It's going-home day and the captain says the tides are in our favor, as are the winds. Translation: great sailing conditions.
As we dock in Bellingham, Wallace gathers us on the deck and reads aloud the original "Seawench Pledge."
"We the Seawenches/ The queens of the Emerald Sea/ Hereby solemnly swear to:/ Stay happy, healthy and strong ... Laugh often and love well .../ So that someday on .../ We may meet and sail again."
The women hug, exchange e-mail addresses and promise to get in touch soon. It's an estrogen fest, but I love it and feel grateful for the experience.
Even if it did mean forsaking a pillowtop mattress for two nights.