To fully understand this story, we must go back much earlier. We began messing around with boats when I was a pro-bono offshore sailing coach at Navy from 1980 through my retirement from George Washington University in 1997. At that time, we sold our house with everything in it and bought a 34-foot catamaran on which we lived aboard, full-time, spending our summers in Chesapeake Bay and our winters in the Bahamas. Since Joan would only agree to a five-year stint, we came back to Annapolis in 2002, moved ashore, and sold the boat. But the urge to cruise was still with us so we turned to cruise ships and became world travelers. That all came to a halt when Covid struck, and we lost four booked cruises.
What next? Given the Covid restraints, our options were limited. My life has always been adventurous ,with my 20 years in the Navy and 17 years of taking the Mids on their summer training cruises, to places like Halifax, Bermuda, and Nassau. Joan, too, is a feisty individual. I recall back when we were first dating at the Academy, it was the winter of 1st Class year. We were walking across the yard, me in my heavy blues and overcoat and Joan in her camel hair coat when a company mate tossed a snowball at her. She didn't like it one bit, dropped down and packed a real hard one then unleased a left-handed, side arm zinger, straight to his head, shouting, "If you want a snowball fight, bring it on!" At that, I thought, "Whoa! I can't let this one get away!" And, we have been together ever since.
In thinking through past adventures on the catamaran, I focused on our trips up and down the ICW (lntracoastal Waterway) and how we always tried to take different routes each time, loops rather than straight line courses: the Dismal Swamp and Great Bridge cutoff; the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds; and South Florida and the keys In the process, I stumbled across the America's Great Loop Cruiser's Association. The more I investigated it, the more attractive it sounded. It offered everything: adventure, variety, excitement, and different forums for
information. The best part was that the Loop would take about 9 months to complete, enough time for the Covid issues to be resolved. The more we delved into the Association, the more intriguing it became. The Loop is about 6,500 miles long with over 100 locks. Due to speed limitations, the average boat speed for the Loop is about 8 knots which, depending upon side trips and excursions, translates into the 9 months of travel. With the Canada/US border closed to non-essential travel, our plan was to leave Annapolis by early June of this year, [go to chart] travel through the Erie Canal in July, be at Mackinac Island by August, be down to Chicago in September, and ride out the remainder of the hurricane season in Tennessee. In early November, we would proceed down the Tennessee-Tom Bigbee Waterway to Mobile, ending in Fort Lauderdale by mid January of 2022, and then proceed up the ICW to Annapolis, arriving home around mid-April. That was the plan. ]
So, who does the Loop? They refer to themselves as Loopers and to their trip as, Their Adventure. It used to be mostly couples in their sixties, but with the Covid, it is now everything from solo loopers to young families with kids. Some are even taking advantage of this new electronic age to do the Loop and hold their regular jobs at the same time by working remotely on their boats, anchoring, or staying at a marina, as necessary, to take conference calls. Although the average size of their boats is about 40 feet, people have completed the Loop in dinghies and on jet skis. The timeline varies greatly for Loopers, especially those on trailerable boats and those with family issues, as they often opt to do their adventure in segments-going home for a period then taking it up again where they left off. The current record for the longest time for completion is 12 years. You can easily recognize Looper boats by their Burgees- The design is a stylized depiction, showing the Loop in red. A white background is for Loop in progress. Flipping the colors, a gold background is for one successful completion (which Loopers refer to as "crossing their wake"), and Platinum is for multiple completions. When pressed about their fondest memories from their adventures, most Loopers say it is the people they met and the bonds of comradery they developed along the way. Something that we in the Navy are very familiar with.
What are these canals and locks? Canals have been with us for centuries as a means of transporting people and goods on boats and barges. It was when the need arose to get over topographical features and between bodies of water at different heights that locks were developed. Our canals are generally 50 feet wide, with earthen banks, and the water is 6 to 9 feet deep. Historically, they were developed for commercial use and that is still the justification for their government funding. Even today, commercial traffic through the canals and locks takes precedence over recreational traffic. The locks are box-like structures_ t hat average 50 feet wide, 40 feet deep, and some 600 or more feet in length. Their ends are enclosed by gigantic doors that swing open and shut or slide up and down like a guillotine. They are found in both singles and pairs, side by side, and in sequential lifts, called flights. The biggest example of this is the Troy/Waterford Flight on the Erie Canal in which consists of six lifts totaling 182 feet, to get from the Hudson River up into the Appalachian Mountain Range. They operate by drawing water from a large source such as a swamp or lake and, through a system of pipes and pumps, transfer the water between locks to affect the lifting and lowering. They are maintained and operated by a mix of state authorities and the US Army Corps of Engineers.
As with everything else on the water, there are anomalies. The Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds come to mind. There are locks connecting the Chesapeake Bay, which is tidal, to the Sounds which are not. Yes, the water level in the sounds d es go up and down, but it is because of wind action not the pull of the sun arid moon. Think of them as a huge saucer of water which is filled by rivers and · streams and drains out through the Outer Banks into the Atlantic Ocean. While wind and weather generally move from west to east, they have little noticeable effect upon the sounds, but when the wind shifts to the north or south, it causes the water to pile up on the down-wind shore like a miniature storm surge, rather like tipping the saucer.
Which brings us to weather. This, aside from maintenance and upkeep, is the most critical element of cruising in a small boat. Most Loopers start off by developing a go/no-go table drawn from their boat characteristics and their own capabilities with indices of wind direction and strength, wave height, presence of rain or fog, location and direction of weather system highs and lows, and so forth. Then they consult the most prominent weather forecasts. From these, they choose a forecast that at least three of the forecasters agree upon and compare it with their table to determine their choice of activities for the following day. In addition, they always keep a constant eye on the cloud cover and formations. All of this is modified by whether they are in inland canals or out on open waters, such as the great lakes. The lakes are much more of a challenge as their weather patterns tend to change more quickly and, due to the long fetches, the impacts are more severe and longer lasting.
Now that we have an idea of the environment, let's look at a typical day. It begins the evening before as one checks charts, cruising guides, and weather to lay out the course for the following day. By the way, the mile markers on our canal systems are laid out in statue miles, not nautical miles, which are about 250 yards longer. When we were cruising on our catamaran, since we averaged only 5 miles an hour, I would choose a destination for the next day of about 50 miles away, plus a more distant one in the event we made good progress from favorable winds and currents and a closer one should they be against us. One of the first things you lose when you go cruising, is the normal sense of time. While I did wear a watch, it was not for telling the time of the day, but rather to keep t rack.of what day of the week it was. Cruisers and Loopers generally shift into "sun" time, meaning, getting up at sunrise, making breakfast, and getting underway shortly thereafter. Joan and I generally had a light snack at high noon and were anchored or tied up in a marina by late afternoon. If in a marina, we usually strolled the piers socializing with other cruisers until sundown. For cruisers and Loopers, 9 PM is their midnight. Then the cycle repeats itself.
In one sense, there can be hours of boredom on the Loop, but they are always interrupted by challenging periods of negotiating passage through locks or transiting through quaint little towns. Then there are the vagaries that make doing the Loop an adventure: In 2019, it was the State of Illinois closing their 96-mile waterway and canal system connecting Chicago to the Mississippi River, for repair and maintenance, from early July to mid-October, thus stacking up Loop boats around the Chicago area. In 2020, the US and Canadian governments closed their border to non-essential traffic. However, there were some interesting accommodations to that action. The commercial route between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and around Niagara Falls is through the Welland Canal which is totally within the Province of Ontario, Canada. Knowing that that route must remain open to international commercial traffic, the solution was to permit US boats to pull into St. Catharines, a Canadian international port at the west end of Lake Ontario, to debark their US crew to take a bus back to the States. A Canadian pilot and line handlers would then take the boat through the Welland Canal to Buffalo, New York, another international port, where the boat would be returned to the US crew. Thus, making the transit an international enterprise. Another situation was the St. Clair River, Lake, and Detroit River system which connects Lake Huron to Lake Erie. The US/Canadian border runs right down the middle of that whole system, about 100 miles long. The solution there was to ignore minor course deviations relative to the border, but each nationality had to stay to its own side for anchoring, going ashore, and tying up at marinas. That is still the case today. Here is a trivia question for you-If you travel due south, 180 degrees true, from Detroit, Michigan, what is the first foreign country that you come to? Anyone? Canada (Winsor, Ontario).
This year was even more weird-we had two events, both on the Erie Canal and both in May. The first one was the collapse of a spillway near Macedon which partially blocked the canal and the second was near Little Falls where a barge .· smashed into the slide frame of the Guillotine lifting door. All these events raise the question, what do you do if you are stuck in such a situation? Fortunately, everyone today has access to many modes of communication and most Loopers have AIS (Automatic Ship Identification) systems installed on their boats. The AIS prints out your boat name on their radar and navigational display scree ns; .. so, everyone nearby .wit h AIS installed knows who you are and where you are. Plus, when Loopers meet they usually exchange boat cards which are like calling cards and provide boat names and cell phone numbers. Thus, "word" travels quickly in all directions. Loopers would then seek some means of securing their boats by heading for the nearest marina, tying up at one of the waiting bulkheads which are located at each end of a lock, or as a last resort, anchoring fore and aft in place.
This brings us to the last area of concern-How much does it cost to do the Loop? Your food costs are about the same as at home. The incidental costs for side trips and excursions depend upon your individual lifestyle. The largest incremental costs are for fuel and marinas. Fuel is about $3 a gallon and a twin engine 40-footer burns about 5 gallons an hour at 8 knots. So, 6,500 miles at an average speed of 8 knots and $3 a gallon equates to about $12,000 for the trip. For the marinas, one has more control over the costs. Most of them charge $1.50 per foot of boat length plus more for electricity, water, and waste pump outs which can add an additional $15 tp $20. So, for a 40-footer, this would be at least $60 to $80 a night or at least $16,000 to $20,000 for a nine-month trip. However, most Loopers cut that down to 1/3 by anchoring out or spending nights hanging off one of the waiting bulkheads at the end of a lock, then going into a marina every third day or so for fuel, food, water, laundry, and other necessities. So, with $12,000 for fuel and $5,000 to $7,000 for marinas, one can easily do the Loop for about $2,000 a month, plus incidental costs for equipment repairs or replacements.
Now, on to our Adventure-but first, we would need a boat. We spent most of 2_020 on the Yachtworld web site reviewing beaucoup boats of all shapes and _sizes. By October we had settled on the Mainship because we liked the lines and the habitability. Moreover, although no longer in business, the company was bought out in 2012 by a leading top-end boat builder, Marlow, which spoke highly of the Mainship design and build. In the process, we learned that all the low and mid-range inventory of available boats was gone, nada, zip. Only four of their largest models, the 43-foot sedan, were still on the market. We instantly started contacting brokers. One boat was already under contract. Another had been on the hard for 3 to 4 years up in CT where water had gotten into it, filling it with mold and dry rot. On the third, a yard person had mistakenly started a winterized main engine which destroyed the engine. That left only the fourth,down in Norfolk, VA. By now, it was early November. My_ son, Scott, a diesel expert, and I quickly drove down to check it out. I made an offer, and we went to survey. The survey disclosed that the owner had just completed the Loop in that boat, but for whatever reason, had ceased maintaining the boat about two years prior to that; thus, there were many, many discrepancies. We could have walked away at that point, but it was the last one available and the discrepancies were correctable. Also, to leave at that point meant waiting at least another year for the next marketing cycle to achieve our dream. I estimated the cost of repairs, negotiated a much lower price, and bought the boat on 30 December.
Driving round trips to Norfolk every other week revealed that I had woefully underestimated the cost of the repairs by about SO percent, but at that point we were committed. Also in January, Joan began developing stability and pulmonary issues. Realizing that she may have difficulty getting on and off the boat, I ordered a set of boarding stairs and installed boarding gates on each bow. Then, considering that she might be spending more time in the salon than on the bridge, I added satellite TV. In February, we began receiving our Covid shots. In mid-March after receiving her second Covid shot, Joan came home and, in getting out of her car, collapsed on our concrete driveway. After a week in hospital, she came home in a wheelchair and on oxygen, full time. When we disclosed our Loop plans to her doctors, they suggested that we reconsider, citing the risk of something happening out in the "boonies", off the grid and away from any medical facility. Joan, ever the feisty one, wouldn't hear of it and insisted that she could still do the Loop.
In early April, assisted by a son-in-law, I moved the boat up to Annapolis. Later, in mid-April at a grand-daughter's wedding, we were all having such a grand ole time that we neglected to monitor Joan's portable oxygen device and the . battery went flat. It was only when we noticed that she was unconscientious · that we became aware of her situation. After another week in hospital and more consultation with her doctors, both sides were still in disagreement, but the doctors had upped their position from a simple negative suggestion to a strongly presented negative recommendation.
As May rolled around and with our June departure date fast approaching, we scheduled another meeting with Joan's doctors-there were three. This time they were unanimous and firm, Joan's situation was basically unchanged. There would be future peaks and valleys, but this was her new reality. Accept it. Joan's cruising days on small boats is over. Cancel the Loop trip. Whew! What a gut punch! On the surface we accepted their opinion, but between ourselves, we kept searching for other alternatives such as just doing the ICW down to FL and back. However, by mid-July it became clear that there were no alternatives, and we began researching brokers.
We settled on Curtis Stokes whose firm enjoys a high reputation among Loopers and is noted for its national and international presence. The boat went on the market in August. There were three nibbles. The first was a lady who liked the Yacht world presentation, but upon visiting a 35-footer, decided that it was too big for her which meant that our boat, a 43-footer, was impossible. The second, was a couple from New England who wanted to downsize from their 55-footer. They made an appointment for a visit but arrived a day early and, from the pier, . decided that ours was too small for their needs. The third was a couple from Washington on state. They visited the boat, went out for a trial cruise, came back, and made an offer. We accepted. The boat is currently under contract and was surveyed cm 8 September. We are now in the final signatory phase and expect close by early next week.
So that, my friends, is the story of our Loop Adventure which our son, Scott, characterized best when he said, "Dad, it was a great idea-just 10 years too late." Thank you.