Sea Stories for the 21st Century

Zach Rollins ’19 hosts a podcast called Along the Keel. A URI marine affairs grad and licensed boat captain, he’s discovered a calling in teaching people to love the ocean. Writer Hugh Markey caught up with him to chat about finding his niche as a podcaster.

Captain Zach Rollins at his home in Wickford, Rhode Island, on the shores of Mill Creek, part of Wickford Harbor. Zach has collected abandoned buoys around the waters he’s traveled for many years.

How did the Rhode Island coast shape you?
I grew up near Mill Creek in Wickford, Rhode Island—we used to call it the Amazon. As you travel down the creek, it turns into an estuary, then a harbor, and then Narragansett Bay. So much to explore.

My parents wouldn’t allow me to take out our 12-foot Zodiac Rib power boat alone. I’d been rowing a boat since I was 6, but the deal was, when I could swim across the creek without a life jacket, I could take the boat. Well, the summer I was 12, I swam that creek. After that, I could take the boat, and a whole new world opened for me.

As a college student, you got your captain’s license.
I had been working at a boatyard and got my license at the end of my junior year at URI. When I went to take the test, the test administrator offered me a job teaching people to drive boats.

That job was trial by fire. I knew how to drive a boat, but figuring out how to teach someone else was a great learning experience.

After graduation, Rollins wanted a new challenge. He was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when a friend called and suggested moving to Hawaii. Maybe inspired by the transformational cross-country journey he was reading about, he agreed to go. Soon, he was working as a captain for a tour company.

I met hundreds of people from around the world; some had saved every penny to come on this trip. Encountering a manta ray or a humpback whale became an opportunity to share and educate. I had customers tell me it was a life-changing experience. I learned how much I enjoy teaching and sharing what I know.

The pandemic devastated Hawaii’s tourism industry, so Rollins returned to Rhode Island to focus on his podcast.

How did your podcast start?
I was on a plane toying with the idea of how cool it would be to tell stories of people whose lives are focused on the water. I started contacting people whose businesses related to the ocean.

“I’m teaching people how to love the ocean.”

People were interested. The first week the podcast was out I got, like, 25 downloads, mostly friends and family. But it kept growing and now we have thousands of downloads a month.

I noticed that a number of your guests are artists.
Art and conservation go hand in hand. Conservation is really an interpretation of what’s important and valuable. I think that’s what artists do—interpret what’s valuable.

What’s ahead for you?
I just signed a contract with a company that is doing geophysical surveys off the coast of Rhode Island and Montauk, New York—it’s for the wind farms. Whatever else happens, I’ll continue working around the ocean because it feeds the podcast. The podcast has a lot of legs. I want it to be entertaining and educational. I’m teaching people how to love the ocean. •

—Hugh Markey ’81

Interview excerpted and edited from 41° North: Rhode Island’s Ocean and Coastal Magazine and included here courtesy of 41° North, a publication of Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Institute at URI.

Photo: Dana Smith, courtesy 41° North