At every refuge along the sprawling waterways, rivers, and lakes of the eastern North American continent, highlights abound: historic houses and museums, village fairs and festivals, church suppers and quaint libraries. And verdant parks, quiet anchorages, peaceful spots to walk the dog, marinas with squeaky-clean bathrooms, mechanics with good deals on parts and speedy prop fixes.
Yet whether they get a tipoff to the creamiest custards or the friendliest customs officials, what the cruisers of America's Great Loop route-all 6,200 counterclockwise miles of it-treasure the most from their adventures are the people they meet along the way.
The Loop is a route northward along the southeastern coast of the United States. It follows the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway into Chesapeake Bay, then either up the Hudson River or to Montreal, via the St. Lawrence River, on into the Great Lakes, and down the Mississippi River or the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Loopers then take to the Gulf of Mexico and ultimately end where they started, in Florida.
Loopers have voyaged aboard everything from canoes to Kadey Krogen trawlers and the occasional sailboat.
Those I met hail from as far south as the Florida Keys to as far north as the city of Sorel, in Quebec. So it makes sense that they have an uncontrollable urge to connect and reminisce about what, for many, is the transformative experience of a lifetime.
When they met at a spring rendezvous at the Grand Strand Resort conference center and marina fronting on the Intracoastal Waterway at North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, from April 25 to April 28, 2010, that's exactly what hundreds of Loopers did, under the auspices of the America's Great Loop Cruisers Association, which claims 4,500 members. (For more on the Loop, see page 58.)
Flanked by marine-industry sponsors of every stripe, in three and a half days they shared insider info, attended a roster of seminars and meetings, and enjoyed group meals kicked off with introductions by Loop veterans, those under way, and a host of wanna-bes.
Loopers also gathered dockside. En route to the next stop, some of them had come to the confab aboard their own boats, and they were generous to anyone who happened by.
"We're loopy people," says a smiling Alan Syme of Kaos, a 46-foot Sea Ranger, as he walks a visitor through the main Loop and its sundry side routes and smaller circular courses. Setting out in October 2006, Alan and his wife, Susann, have almost completed two Loops with side trips.
"Some of us continue to cruise, some live on their boats," Susann says while effortlessly serving up a breakfast spread. "You could do the same route four times and never go the same way twice."
This Canadian couple, who'd kept their kids busy on weekend outings on different boats over the years, dove full time into the adventure. They retired, sold their home, and moved aboard Kaos to prepare for the trip.
"People couldn't get their heads around it. They'd ask, 'Where's your stuff?'," says Alan, who seems more interested in keeping the floating city that Kaos is in working order than in accumulating tchotchkes. After his decades of service as an engineering officer for the Canadian air force, it's little wonder that Kaos carries such amenities as two computer systems, a full electronics navigation suite, a watermaker, and a washer/dryer. "Susann says I spend half my life in other people's boats," he says.
The Symes were part of the lineup of speakers at the rendezvous, one of two annual gatherings; the other, bigger rendezvous is at Joe Wheeler State Park, in Rogersville, Alabama, in October.
"We feel it's a pay-it-forward kind of thing," Susann says. "We don't mind sharing the knowledge we gathered in years of cruising. We tell newbies that it's extremely important that you have commitment from both parties. And we tell them, 'Live your life on the water as close as possible to the way you live your life at home.'"
"It's not a complicated trip," Alan adds. "It can be done by novice boaters. Sailboats can take their masts off and ship them or take them on deck. There's sufficient fuel. And there's a nice mix of restaurants and socializing."
A 60-pound white standard poodle named Dee Dee functioned as the icebreaker for many a social encounter along the route in 2005, when Wisconsin residents Gene and Kathy Schnagl did the trip aboard Del Coronado, their 42-foot Cruisers motoryacht.
"It was wonderful, an experience I wouldn't give up for the world," says Kathy. "We got to know all the stops because we needed to take the dog out. We had play dates for the dogs. We lived our Loop to the fullest, and we had a ball!"
The Schnagls, like most other Loopers, are retired and thriving and still drawing on skills gained over the decades to enrich their lives afloat. With careers in law enforcement and the administration of polygraph tests behind them, Gene and Kathy continue to explore new worlds and remain experts in the realm of human nature and criminal psychology.
Gene, who was a homicide detective, admits that he employed some tactics to encourage Kathy, who wanted to become a gemologist after she retired from the Milwaukee sheriff's department, to do the Loop. "My strategy was that if I insisted on doing the Great Loop first, there'd be resistance," he says. "But if I went for her retirement dream first. . . ."
And so it went, with Gene tagging along when Kathy entered gemology school and cheering his wife on through graduation and a business startup.
"I was waiting to see how far this boat thing was going to go," Kathy recalls. "I said, 'I guess this is what I have to do for my husband.'"
"A month before we left," Gene says, "I said, 'OK, I'm putting the boat and things for the trip together.'"
"He did all the planning," Kathy says. "I did nothing but trust him. I really figured he knew what he was doing. I was taking care of the finances. It's really learn as you go."
Would they go again?
Kathy: "No! It's hard work!"
Gene: "I'd leave in half an hour!"
Rest assured, the Schnagls still have each other, Del Coronado, and, it goes without saying, Dee Dee the mascot. They're active members of the South Shore Yacht Club in Milwaukee, and Kathy owns and runs a Prescott Miller Jewelers shop in nearby Greendale.
As it was time to put in some volunteer hours at the rendezvous registration table, the Schnagls bid farewell, and Betsy and Rick Johnson of Rick 'n' Roll II, a Glacier Bay 2690 Coastal Runner powercat, rolled out the welcome mat.
Their boat certainly isn't the smallest vessel to do the loop, but it brings new meaning to the term cozy. "We couldn't live on this full-time," says Betsy Johnson. "Before we did the Loop, we weren't campers, but we are now."
Yet the Johnsons are hardly suffering. Rick 'n' Roll II has heat, air-conditioning, a head, a microwave, refrigeration, hot water, an alcohol stove, a toaster oven, and an enclosed aft cockpit. "We were never cold," Betsy says.
She was also quick to point out the advantages of this type of boat for a trip that's still fresh in her mind, having just finished in March 2010. "Ninety percent of the women who do this trip don't dock the boat. I do it every day, and I can singlehand this boat with no qualms. We don't have a dinghy. and we don't spend as much money on our boat."
Besides urging women to become more involved with and knowledgeable about their boats, the Johnsons are sticklers for experience, safety, and education on the water. Rick and Betsy each hold U.S. Coast Guard captain's licenses and have taken U.S. Power Squadron courses. Though they've owned and cruised other boats, they took Rick 'n' Roll II for a one-month shakedown on Chesapeake Bay when they decided they wanted to do the Loop. "It gave us a feel for what it was like to be on a boat daily," says Betsy. "Most of our boating is intracoastal, and the bay took us into a totally new area."
Chesapeake Bay was just one highlight of the Johnsons' Loop experience. "It's tough to beat cruising by the Statue of Liberty, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point," says Rick. "We were just blown away by how beautiful the Tennessee River is. It's peaceful, and you don't have to worry about heavy weather and big seas."
To that endorsement, it's not surprising that Betsy adds with conviction: "We're going to do the Loop again on a bigger boat in 2012."
A small yet outspoken sailing contingent turned up at the rendezvous and dispelled a popular notion that only powerboats do the Loop. Among them were the two sailors on Catnip Too, a Catalina 28, and Gillian Outerbridge, the singlehander on Dart, a Flicka 20 designed by Bruce Bingham and built by Pacific Seacraft.
Canadians and longtime friends Mary Lou Hunt and Joan Gordon made a deal. While Mary Lou is a lifelong sailor and dreamed of the Caribbean, Joan is petrified of the ocean. The Great Loop seemed perfect for them: It would satisfy Mary Lou's desire to find islands and Joan's desire to remain in sight of land. After outfitting Catnip Too with everything they thought they could want or need, they set out in July 2005 and finished at Midland, Ontario, in August 2006.
"There's a big world out there," says Mary Lou. "It changed us. It gave us a sense of accomplishment. We learned to appreciate the simplest things. We didn't panic. We took life one day at a time. We planned nothing."
"I was so burned out before," Joan adds. "I was ready for a vacation. I didn't want to deal with other people. The Loop restored our faith in human nature. We've been best friends for 29 years and even after 29 years and the Loop, we're still talking."
Brit and Bermuda resident Gillian Outerbridge recounted her adventures along portions of the loop over two summers in Going About! A Waterway Adventure.
"When I think back," she says, "I think it was easy, but when I read my logbook, I was scared witless."
Outerbridge, who had Dart shipped from Bermuda without rig and tanbark sails to her departure point at Liberty Landing Marina in New Jersey, enjoyed magical days and nights cruising with her mascot, Tucker, a Jack Russell terrier. "If you're on a 20-foot boat with a dog, how many men do you need?" she asks. "In the end, I found small was better."
Perhaps Betsy Johnson of Rick 'n' Roll II holds the best perspective for those who may agonize over whether to do the Loop by power or sail. Before Johnson did the trip, she read Maiden Voyage, Tania Aebi's memoir about her solo circumnavigation as an inexperienced teenage sailor in the 1980s. "Maiden Voyage was the inspiration for this trip," Betsy says. "I figured that if she could do that, we could do this!"
Elaine Lembo is CW's deputy editor.