Along the Keel
A CONVERSATION WITH PODCASTER ZACH ROLLINSBy Hugh Markey | Photographs by Dana Smith
Zach Rollins has had marine-related careers on both coasts and hosts a rapidly evolving podcast centered on the ocean. He’s a University of Rhode Island alumnus, a licensed boat captain, and a competitive weightlifter. He’s also 23 years old.
How did the Rhode Island coast shape who you are?
It’s hard to put into words, but it was incredibly influential just because of the nature of how the coastline is constructed—it allows for so much exploration. There are so many nooks and crannies and coves in Narragansett Bay. I grew up near Mill Creek in Wickford, and growing up, we used to call it the Amazon. As you travel down the creek, these 6-foot phragmites seem huge; they feel like they’re 50 feet high, and you go up there and you see the red-winged blackbirds and the herons hunting on the shoreline and in the marsh. And as you travel down, you kind of start to see the beginning of an estuary, the estuary turns into a harbor, and the harbor turns into a bay.
Growing up, my parents wouldn’t allow me to go and take out our 12-foot Zodiac Rib power boat alone. I’d been rowing a boat since I was probably 6 but couldn’t take the power one. The deal was, if I could swim across the creek without a life jacket, then I would get to take the boat. Well, you’d better believe that the summer I was about 12, I swam that creek. After that, I could take the boat, so that kind of opened a whole new world for me.
Rollins was born in California within sight of the Pacific. His parents moved around a bit when he was very young, but it was the Rhode Island coastline that was the biggest influence in his early life.
College Student with a Captain’s License
I had been working in the marine industry at a boat-yard, and I saw getting my captain’s license as the next step because then I [could] get a job working on the water. Over Christmas break and through the spring semester of senior year, I studied and got my license. It just so happens that when I went to take the test, the test administrator asked me, ‘Hey, what are you doing this summer?’
‘Using my captain’s license, hopefully.’
‘Do you want a job? I want to start this boater program to help teach people how to drive boats.’
So, I got the job teaching. It was very much trial by fire … you know, I know how to drive a boat. But to try and get someone who has never touched a boat in their life to dock it and feel confident with themselves … inside, when I first started, I was like, ‘Oh [no], they’re gonna crash, they’re gonna crash!’
So, you know, to be kind of put in that position where it’s like, ‘All right, you have to figure out how to teach this person.’ It was a great learning experience, and that carried over to Hawaii.
Shortly after getting his degree in marine affairs from URI, Rollins was casting about for a new challenge. He had weathered some difficult personal experiences. He began reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about a transformative cross-country journey.
Then a friend with similar entrepreneurial interests and wanderlust called him and suggested they move to Hawaii. The next day, he agreed to go. Soon, he was working as a captain for one tour company, and then he was hired by another.