Along the Keel

Fall 2020

A CONVERSATION WITH PODCASTER ZACH ROLLINS

By 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.

For me, every time I stepped on the boat, [I thought], ‘These people paid X amount of dollars to come out with me. So, it would be a disservice for me to not provide the best trip possible.’

I also had this opportunity to share and to educate. You can really connect with the guests because nine times out of 10, they’ve never seen this in their entire life. I met hundreds and hundreds of people from all around the world, speaking different languages, from different walks of life, and some saved every single penny that they ever owned to come on this one trip with me and my crew. To see something like a manta ray, or a humpback whale—I just knew I had to share that with someone. And to know that this might be their only opportunity to see it. Who knows, maybe if they’re a younger person, they go on to become the next Jacques Cousteau. I have had customers tell me that this was a life changing experience.

But at the same time, it also gave me the confidence to think, ‘I can apply what I have done so far in school, in work.’

I just enjoy teaching. At the end of the day, I enjoy being able to share what I know.

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated Hawaii’s tourism industry, and Rollins returned to Rhode Island.

He now hosts a podcast, Along the Keel, featuring people whose lives are tied to the ocean, from the Maine couple who recycle fishing bibs into backpacks and accessories to support local fishing charities to the artist who started out in marine science, but whose experiences led him to believe that he could best preserve his beloved underwater world by creating sculptures out of debris, including a 30-foot piece depicting waves, utilizing 20,000 golf balls collected along the shore. 

When did your podcast start?

The podcast came to me while I was on a plane a couple of years ago. I was toying with this idea of how cool it would be to be able to show people the different lives of people on the water. Like if you’re a tugboat captain, that’s completely different than someone that drives a ferry. I wanted to be able to hold a genuine conversation with someone that might also be educational for the listener. I started contacting people whose businesses related to the ocean.

[Guests] were very interested in being on a podcast, and, quite frankly, it was a podcast that didn’t even exist yet, right? And when it was finally out there, the first week I got, like 25 downloads, mostly friends and family. But the next week I got 50, and the next week after there were 100. Now we’ve gone on to have thousands of downloads a month. It’s kind of unnerving. Because you’re like, ‘All right, well I need to keep pushing and making more shows and getting more people.’

I had this fear that I was going to run out of people, you know. And it’s funny because one interview led to another interview, and one person led to the next.

Guest Artists

I think art and conservation go hand in hand. Because conservation is really an interpretation of what’s important and what’s valuable, and how it relates to you. I think that’s exactly what artists do—interpret what’s valuable. I think that that same concept applies to guys like Ethan Estess, who is going out there making a big sculpture out of fishing nets and golf balls that were all scavenged from the ocean. They’re bringing to light issues that would otherwise go unnoticed.

 

What’s ahead for you?

I actually just signed a contract with a company that is doing the geophysical surveys off the coast of Rhode Island and off of Montauk, and it’s all for the wind farms. Whatever else may happen, I’m going to continue to work around the ocean because it continues to feed the podcast. The podcast is something with an educational element, a business side; it has a lot of legs. I want it to be a place where people can go and be entertained and learn something new about the ocean. I’m teaching people how to love the ocean.

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