Built in 1924 for the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals fortune, the two-masted schooner Zodiac has been based in Seattle since the early 1990s. She is the largest wooden sailing vessel still working on the West Coast of the United States. The Zodiac was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is presently operated by the non-profit Northwest Schooner Society for Elderhostel and youth training cruises, group charters, and day-sail excursions throughout Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and nearby waters
The Zodiac is a two-masted schooner weighing 145 gross tons with a deck measuring 127 feet from bow to stern. Commissioned as a yacht for Robert Wood and J. Seward Johnson, she was designed by legendary naval architect William Hand Jr. on the model of a "racing fisherman" schooner popular in the Atlantic cod fishery during the early 1900s. The Zodiac was built at the Hodgdon Brothers Shipyard in East Boothbay, Maine, and finished fourth in a 1928 transatlantic race from New York to Spain.
She was purchased in 1931 by the San Francisco Bay Pilots Association, which rechristened her the California and removed her masts. The vessel served as a pilot boat at the entrance to Golden Gate until 1972, when she was purchased by a couple who moved her to Newport, Oregon, for rehabilitation as a sailing yacht. When this proved too daunting, the owners donated her to Karl Mehrer, a veteran seaman and then master of the Adventuress, another vintage schooner which had seen duty as a San Francisco pilot boat.
Mehrer organized The Vessel Zodiac Corp. with his son Tim and wife June in the late 1970s to rebuild and sail her as a charter and training vessel. They moved her to Seattle and began a 15-year labor of love to reclaim her former glory. The vessel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, and her original name was restored in 1984 on the 60th anniversary of her launching.
As the Mehrers and scores of volunteers neared completion of the Zodiac's reconstruction, they discovered that federal law prohibited Coast Guard certification of wooden vessels of over 100 gross tons. Seattle attorney Tom Johnson recruited the aid of U.S. Rep. John Miller, who charted a course that led to a special Congressional waiver for the Zodiac in the early 1990s.
The Zodiac has been operated by the non-profit Northwest Schooner Society since 1994, and is berthed at a north Lake Union pier donated by King County. She can accommodate up to 49 passengers for day sails and sleep some two dozen people willing to help man the sails and swab the decks on extended cruises in the San Juans and nearby waters. Her current (1999), mostly volunteer crew includes skippers Karl and Tim Mehrer, sail master Jerry Mixon, engineer Doug Lanning, mate Laura Peterson, ship's cook Lesley Mulcahy, and ship's cat Bosun.