A row of streetlamps cast a yellowish light over the cracked and aging Yonkers side-street. Under their electric beams, a warm breeze swirled the humid night air into long flowing patterns. Overworked air conditioners droned on, echoing off rain streaked brick and cinder-block walls. City borne dust and grime collected on every car parked along the curb, giving them all the same matte finish, dull and lifeless and begging for a good scrubbing. Detective Pete Jansen unlocked the drivers door of the black SUV and slid inside. The suspension creaked under his weight, then settled, and it was quiet. He sat there and stared at nothing, keys still in hand, playing back the tape in his head, trying to wrap his brain around what just happened between him and his now ex-partner, Gerry Sharpe. The fragrance of her hair lingered on his clothing where she had laid her head. He wanted to stay. She had asked him to. “Why didn’t I?” he wondered. “She had wine! She offered me wine for chrissakes,” he said to himself, well aware of the implications. She felt good in his arms. Warm, yielding, so unlike the hard-nosed detective he’d come to know over the past few years. And now he’d have to come to work each day and look into the face of a new partner across his desk. “Probably some old guy with BO and nose hair,” he thought. “Or even worse, a young pipsqueak greenhorn cadet fresh out of the academy.” He suddenly felt very lonely. “Aw crap!” he said aloud, then jammed the key into the ignition switch and started the engine.
The tide on the Hudson was at its lowest, exposing two feet of dark slime on the wooden pilings as well as the boulders and rip-rap that lined the shore and angled sharply up towards the street. The inky water was becoming more active as it began its twice daily northward migration, and with it, a parade of brightly lit tugs pushing their barges filled with unknown commodities towards unknow destinations, their Captains taking full advantage of the fair current. Spotlights, intensely bright and white, criss-crossed in front of the big vessels. The low pitched hum of powerful engines and the sounds of water rippling past the dock joined a chorus of peepers for the evening serenade. On land the only thing going on was a graffiti covered box truck lumbering noisily up the street and a pudgy old man walking a little black dog.
Gerry Sharpe sat in the comfortable pilothouse of the Great Harbor GH37, her bare feet resting on the gauge console. She cupped a glass of red wine in her hand. From her perch she could see it all and reflected on its beauty. “So this is how the other half lives,” she murmured and turned her attention to the array of gauges, switches, and levers under her feet. “Now if I can just figure out how to run this thing,” she said aloud. “How hard could it be?” Her head was still reeling from the recent life-changing events, but she was comforted by the fact that she was now quite literally in the drivers seat.
“I just don’t know. It’s too risky.” the man said. “Yes Layla, it is a pretty boat, but perhaps we should make do with what we have and move on.” The pair made their way along the waterfront sidewalk to the restaurant that overlooked the Yonkers free dock. The upscale eatery, now empty and darkened, became as unattractive as all the other businesses on the street, shuttered and locked-up tight against the world. The man pulled on the wrought-iron gate on the side of the building and the piece of wood that he had jammed into the catch fell to the sidewalk. He picked it up and placed it where he could find it again. They continued on to the chain-link gate that guarded the docks below. It was wide open. A broken padlock lay at their feet. “Well it’s about time,” he said to Layla. She looked back at him and remained silent. Together, they went down the long aluminum gangway. He helped Layla up onto the gunwale of the white trawler, unlocked the cabin door, and let her in. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “I’d better check the lines. The river’s getting choppy.”
“Hello!” a voice rang out. “Oh. Hello,” the man said. “I didn’t see you there. You startled me.” “Sorry. Nice night for a walk,” Gerry said. She was looking down from the open pilothouse door, wine glass still in hand. “Yes it is. Quite nice.” He lifted his chin towards the gate. “It’s open.” “My friend did that with a bolt cutter. I don’t think he liked the idea of crawling under,” Gerry said amiably. A small wake rebounded the boat off the fenders. Gerry steadied herself and spilled a bit of wine. “Haven’t got my sea legs yet.” “New boater?” “Yeah. New boater, new boat, new life.” Gerry looked straight up to the starry sky. “New everything.” “How long have you been looping?” he asked, pointing to the white AGLCA burgee. “What time is it?” she asked. The man looked perplexed as he checked his watch. “Almost one,” he answered. “‘Bout four hours then,” she said. “You? That’s your boat, right?” she sloshed her glass towards the tidy Marine Trader 34 docked in front of her. The name Breeze written in bold blue letters across its transom, up front on the bow rail it had a little flag like hers. “Actually, I recently acquired her. Looks nice on the outside but a bit messy inside. Haven’t had a chance to clean yet.” “Well, maybe I can help you, I’m pretty good with a mop.” “Thank you for the offer, but I’m very particular. I’d probably work you to death.” “Not if I shoot you first!” she quipped. “Beautiful boat, the Great Harbor. I used to have one.” he said. “Oh!” Gerry perked up. “I could really use a lesson.” “There’s not much to it really. I’m no expert, but I’d be happy to show you what I know. My name’s Lee.” “Gerry,” she said. “Pleased to meet you. “Permission to come aboard Captain?”
“Okay. You have two engines.” he began. “More specifically. two Yanmar 54 horsepower diesels. Very fuel efficient but slow. Don’t expect to go faster than ten MPH.” He scanned the console. “It looks like a lot of gauges but that’s because there’s two of everything.” “Where’s the speedometer?” Gerry asked. “The gauges only monitor the engines. Speed is reported on your navigation and GPS screens, but we’ll get to that in a minute. These two big ones in the middle show RPM.” “Like in my car.” “Exactly, and just like a car, you don’t want to over-rev, but it’s a lot easier to do in a boat, so keep it below the red line here,” he pointed. “Looks to be 2400.” “Got it.” “You got oil pressure, water temperature, and voltage.” he tapped them all in a row. “You want to see them in the normal range indicated by the green section, but sensors on the engines will cause an alarm to sound if there’s a problem. If you hear an alarm, check the gauges and shut down the problem engine. The best thing about twins is you can make it to port on just one.” “Then what?” “Well, you’ve got to figure out what’s wrong and fix it, or have it fixed. Most of the time it’s something simple, like a broken belt, or a coolant leak, bad alternator, or maybe a loose wire.” “Okay. Pretty much like cars. Got it. What if both engines die?” “You cant pull over to the side of the road and wait for Triple A, but you should drop the anchor to keep from drifting, and call for help on your radio,” he pointed to the marine band radio. “Keep this on channel 16 while you’re underway. Every boat within broadcast range can hear you.” “That’s good.” “Yes it is, even if you can’t see anyone you’re rarely alone.” “So how do you know where to go? Are their maps?” “Ahh. You really are a novice,” he said. “There are maps, but they’re called charts.” He opened a cabinet. “I see you have paper ones. Very nice, but nowadays it’s all electronic.” He reached over and switched on the Furuno chartplotter. The instrument booted up and glowed. “See. It looks just the paper chart but it moves along with you anywhere you go. That little triangle is you, this boat, and that magenta line is where you want to go. Your speed is also displayed here,” he pointed. It read 00.0. “That’s about it rookie. The engines start like a car.” He jingled the two ignition keys, one in each hand. They had yellow floats attached. “Diesels like a good warm-up. Fuel level is here,” he said pointing. “This is your holding tank level, you know, waste.” He flipped a switch. “It’s reading one quarter full.” You pump it out every once in a while.” “Where?” she asked. “Most fuel docks have a pump-out station. I usually do it when I fuel up. Or they can do it for you, just give them a tip. Five bucks is good.” He flipped another switch. “This your fresh water tank. You got 100 gallons, pretty good. Fill it with a hose at the fuel dock or while you’re in a marina. It’s fairly straightforward. Use the deck-key hanging over there and unscrew the fitting and stick the hose into it, same key also unscrews the pump-out fitting on the side of the boat. Everything is labelled.” “What about electricity?” “Ahh, follow me,” he said. They went to the aft-deck. He lifted a small hatch cover and pulled out a thick yellow cable. “Plug one end into the boat here,” he pointed. “I see it’s already connected. The other end goes into an outlet on the dock. There’s no power to connect to on this dock.” “Why do I still have lights?” Gerry asked. “Because you have a bunch of batteries somewhere on the boat. They wont last forever, but they’ll go a long time. They charge up by running the engines, like a car, or you can charge them if you’re on shore power, ya know, plugged in to the dock.” “What about hot water? I don’t seem to have any. It’s kinda lukewarm.” “There’s a hot water heater. Your batteries won’t run it. It requires too much juice. You have to be plugged in, or if you run the engines for awhile, they’ll heat the water. It takes a good half hour. Let’s start them up so you’ll have some.” “Great! I could use a hot shower.”
“How long are you staying?” he asked. “I’m not sure,” Gerry answered. “A forensic team is coming because this boat might be a crime scene. It’s a long story, but for now, I’m stuck here.” “Forensic team?” “Like I said. It’s a long story,” she answered with a dismissive hand gesture. “Hopefully they wont take too long, but as a retired cop, I know they’ll probably take their sweet time.” “How long have you been retired?” “What time is it?” “It’s one thirty.” “About four and a half hours,” she answered. “Well Miss Gerry, I’ll take my leave. I’m sure it will all work out. Maybe I’ll see you on the water.” He faced her and made a little bow. “It was very nice to meet you.” “You too. G’night Lee. Thanks for the lesson.”
He made his way back to the little trawler and opened the side door into the helm. Layla was laying on the couch and looked up sleepily when he came in. “We’ve got to go Layla,” he said. “Right away.” He turned the key and the Lehman 120 diesel engine rattled to life. Layla looked at him questioningly. “I know it’s dark,” he said. “Just go to bed. I’ll wake you when we anchor,”
The iron smell of blood, though now darkened and dry, still permeated the air in the tight galley. The heap of what once was a living human female lay on its side under an old blue tarp that was unceremoniously thrown over the gruesome scene. Gorey bits of brain tissue, bone, and hair, that clung to the side of the stove and cabinets could not be so easily covered. Layla got off the couch, and after carefully stepping through it all, plopped into her bed with a sigh.
“Memory is a strange thing, It doesn’t always work like you think it should. I remember moments I shouldn’t, and forget the ones that I should.”
I had a dream recently. My wife and I were boating in waters so shallow that we were afraid to start the engines. We could ruin the running gear, or clog the intakes with muck, so we got out of the boat and into the water, me in front, her in back, and pushed and pulled. I clearly remember the feeling of sand and silt giving way under my feet, and getting stuck in it, making it very difficult to move, yet I kept going, one foot in front of the other, until the danger was over. Metaphorically speaking, there’s a lot going on in that dream. The push and the pull, fear and danger, failure and success, working together towards a goal, that thing where it feels like your feet are stuck in clay. It was a good dream. I don’t often remember the good ones as much as the nightmares, but that one stayed with me. I liked the Yin and Yang of it.
I don’t remember boating after we returned from our Great Loop trip. Which is crazy. I must have gone for a ride or two. Didn’t I? I know we removed her from the water much sooner than usual because she needed some maintenance after being afloat for so long, but that was in late August. We arrived home in June. Could I have ignored my old buddy Ginger Lee for nearly two months? I feel like I lost an entire boating season.
Here we are in the Summer of 2019, our Great Loop trip is in the books, Ginger Lee is all spiffed up, and I’m excited to be back cruising. We locked up the house, gave our good neighbor Joe the key and our float plan, and walked a few blocks to Swifts Neck Beach. It was not a great day weather-wise. Steel grey clouds tormented the sky like a schoolyard bully. It felt like rain.
What’s a few raindrops between friends? Besides, the marine forecast wasn’t so terrible–one to two footers–so we loaded up Salty II and motored out to our Trojan F-32 Ginger Lee patiently waiting for us on the mooring.
One of my favorite things about living in Wareham is its access to Buzzards Bay, our super-highway to the world with exits to Vineyard Sound, Nantucket Sound, Rhode Island Sound, and the Cape Cod Canal. For our first stop we had planed to go east through the canal, then north to Green Harbor in Marshfield, but that didn’t happen. I’ll tell you the story.
After doing our pre-cruise rituals, which include cutting away the fishing line that I criss-cross along the bow rail to keep the birds away, and taking down the Gull-Sweeps that spin on the roof, also to keep the birds away, the XO dropped the pennants, and once again, after a year long hiatus, we be cruisin’!
It felt good to be thinking like mariners again, free of land-based concerns, reading the charts, checking the instruments, feeling the motion of the water as we carve our way through it, and breathing my favorite cologne Eau DeDiesel. The familiar sound of the engines working in unison made me smile. I may have let out a giggle as Swifts Neck faded away behind us.
We left the Wareham River and headed southeast around the Stoney Point Dike, then turned northeast into the Hog Island Channel where you never know what to expect. Even on a day when the marine forecast predicts small waves, this busy channel can be whipped up from boaters who ignore the 10 mph speed limit. Apparently there are not enough patrol vessels to enforce the rules. A spatter or two met the windshield as we passed between Mashnee Island and Widows Cove. Somewhere between Onset Bay and the Mass Maritime Pier, the rain became steady but light. We were focused on catching the fair current through the Cape Cod Canal and timed our arrival at its west inlet pretty darn good, but shortly after we went under the Bourne Bridge, it became obvious we needed a new plan. The weather was tanking fast. We weren’t going to make it to Green Harbor. Turning around wasn’t a good option because we’d be fighting the three mph current, not so bad, but in a boat like ours, whose top speed is perhaps eight, it’d take us a long while to get to the safety of Onset Bay, the port we passed thirty minutes ago.
“Whattaya think,” I asked the XO. “Harbor of Tears,” she answered quickly. The XO refers to the SandwichMarina Harbor of Refuge located inside the Cape Cod Canal near the east end. A while back she heard an account from another boating couple who ducked into the Sandwich Marina to get away from the weather. Their experience was terrible. The wind came from the wrong direction and rocked them unmercifully all night, so they coined that name The Harbor of Tears. It just sounds so romantic doesn’t it? I think I’ll write a song! Take heed all ye sailors of all of your fears for the sea won’t be kindly in the Harbor of Tears It was pouring wicked hard when I called them on the phone. The wind had picked up as well, but when we cruised into the marina, everything inexplicably went slack. The rain, the wind, the currents, everything. It was like somebody hit the pause button. Must be all those good karma points I’ve been saving up. We got a slip assignment as we passed the fuel dock. Its attendant leaned out of his little hut and pointed us in the right direction. As usual, the XO wrangled the dingy, hung the fenders, and prepped the lines for an unassisted docking, bow in, starboard tie up. It all went smoothly, but the very instant we got the shore power cable and water hose connected, all hell broke loose. Mother Nature: “Now?” God: “Hang on a sec, there almost hooked up.” Mother Nature: “Jeez! You’re killin’ me here. How ’bout now?” God: “Almost. Rick’s having a little trouble threading the hose into the pressure regulator. Ooh, looks like he’s done now. Okay Mama, let ‘er rip!“
There was a tornado in the area! This is very rare in New England. It wasn’t a big one, we weren’t going to be blown to Oz or anything, but for about an hour the weather was friggin’ scary. The wind was whipping and howling, rain was sideways, trees bent over. It was nuts!
Thank God it was a fast moving storm. By early afternoon we were able to leave the boat and stretch our legs. We’ve never docked here in Sandwich, it’s quite nice. There are no less than three restaurants within the marina boundaries. There’s also a seafood market, ice cream parlor, clam shack, and a whole shopping center across the street.
Well, we didn’t make it to Marshfield, but since we had a reservation there at the Green Harbor Marina, I called them to let them know we’d be delayed by a day. They were very understanding about the situation, but we had already paid for two nights on Dockwa, an online marina reservation service. Because of their policy of ignoring the fact that boaters are slaves to the waves and weather, it was too late to cancel without a penalty. The manager of the Green Harbor Marina was super nice and we worked out a great deal. We would come back on our way home and he would comp us for the day we paid for but didn’t get to use. Sometimes all you need is a little cooperation.
The morning greeted The Harbor of Tears with overcast but clearing skies. A light breeze tickled the burgee and smelled of good weather, good enough to warm up the engines and head out. At the east end of the canal we turned left and went north up Cape Cod Bay. The day was getting better by the second as we cruised past the expansive Plymouth Bay, Gurnet Point, the never ending Duxbury Beach, and into the mouth of the Green River. Its rock jetty welcomed us with open arms. Great rays of sunlight streamed through the retreating clouds, warming my face and my soul. Is that a choir of angels singing? I immediately fell in love with the place.
People go on adventures to find things they never knew were out there. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. “Why have I waited so long to visit this beautiful place?” I think I know the answer to that question. There are warnings about how shallow it is here, but they are misleading, well, I was mislead. After being here I realized that the depths are not dangerous for the prudent boater. Maybe if you had a sailboat whose draft was, say, five feet, typical for many, you might have a problem at low tide, but there are many such boats in this harbor. Certainly a boat like ours with its three foot draft can come and go at any time. Even though this has become an overnight stop for us, I’m happy we discovered the truth about this hidden gem. I’m looking forward to returning on our way home.
The next morning brought us bright blue skies and that sweet July heat that us Bay Staters love to complain about. Bye-bye Green Harbor, seeya in a bit. After leaving the Green River and winding our way around the many working boats pulling up their traps and making their living, we headed directly for the most visible landmark in this area, the famed I Love You lighthouse on Minots Ledge. Not called that because of its phallic appearance, but rather for its light that blinks 1-4-3.
We decided to check out Spectacle Island, one of the many Boston Harbor Islands open to the public. This one has moorings you can rent. You may also anchor, but because it’s near a boat channel where everyone ignores the NO WAKE signs, mooring is the best bet. A big wake can dislodge your anchor.
To minimize the wake problem, we chose a mooring close to shore. The distance made the wakes turn into slow rollers, not so bad, and later on in the day, when traffic diminished, the wakes were not so much of a problem.
Spectacle Island has a rich and pungent history as a place for horse rendering. Later on, they built a trash incinerator and it became the city’s dump. When the incinerator closed, they simply heaped the untreated trash there for thirty years! What the heck were they thinking? In the 1990’s they continued the tradition by dumping all the dirt from Boston’s Big Dig project, covering up all that trash and nearly doubling the islands size in the process. If you like beach glass, this is your happy place. You cannot walk one foot on its shoreline without finding the best specimens you’ve ever seen. I filled my pockets in five minutes, then I decided I would keep only one, making it all the more precious.
After a few days we somehow managed to tear ourselves away from the Spectacle. Peace and serenity gave way to busy downtown Boston at one of my favorite destinations: the Waterboat Marina.
I’ve been coming here off-and-on for nearly twenty years, and it still remains one of the nicest and friendliest marinas anywhere on the planet, and believe me, I’ve been to quite a few. It’s so close to anywhere I want to go in the city of Boston, a place I used to call my home. A place where a part of my heart still resides. I am reminded of that fact every time I visit.
Boston is not a part of The Great Loop. It’s a week away from Hell Gate in New York–the closest Loop route–so many don’t even consider Boston as a viable side trip, but I was surprised at how many here people recognized the gold burgee and what it means. It’s a real conversation starter. Apparently we’re experts! Sometimes I wonder: Did I really do that or just dream of its beauty.
We made friends with a few of the permanent resident live-aboards. They all wanted to hear something about The Great Loop. It’s difficult because there is just too much to talk about unless they want to know about something specific, and that doesn’t usually happen. “How was it?” That is the hardest question to answer. “It was…long.” “It was…good.” “It was hot.” “It was cold.” “It must have been incredible!” “Yes. Sometimes. Sometimes not so much.” I usually ask if there is anything they’d like to know about it. That sometimes spurs the conversation. If not, I’ll lay a few facts on ’em. “We travelled just over 6,000 miles in 11 months.” For some reason everyone wants to know how much we spent on fuel. “A bit over $8,000,” is my answer, but nobody ever inquires about the single most costly expense: health insurance. It was tempting to go a year without it, but ‘cha know, if anything happened to one of us, we could lose everything. Peace of mind is expensive. As it turned out, we stayed healthy. Yay! You can dazzle them with the basics all you want, but I get the feeling that people really want to hear something exciting, inflammatory, or crazy. “C’mon man. Get to the good stuff.” It’s not so easy. I can write all about the good stuff when I have time to sit down and organize my thoughts, make the corrections and edits, observe the proper elements of style, and pour myself a nice glass of cabernet. Contrary to popular beliefs, I’m not outgoing enough to spontaneously spew anecdotes to total strangers.
For my birthday the XO got us tickets to see the Red Sox play the Yankees. We caught a cab at the Marriott in front of the marina. Our gregarious driver got us within two bocks of Fenway Park, quite a trick with all the traffic, but the guy knew his back roads well, and we tipped accordingly.
In the early mornings, before the heat of the day kicked in, I walked a lot. I did the same routes I remember walking when I was much younger. The Financial District, Government Center, City Hall Plaza, Beacon Hill, Boston Common, the Theater District, and the North End. It sounds like a lot of walking but Boston is small, everything is very close. As a lad in my twenties, I remember routinely walking home from Kenmore Square after gigs at the Rat, a popular and infamous Rock and Roll venue. Picture a young musician with long flowing brown hair, guitar case in hand, “echo’s of the amplifiers pounding in my head,” confidently striding down Comm. Ave. at 2:00 in the morning just to avoid the stuffiness of a Green-Line subway car, and to breathe some fresh air before hitting the sack.
I was heartbroken when it finally came time to leave. My wife, with her unwavering kindness, consoled me. “We’ll be back.” She’s right. We will be back. As we backed out of our slip and headed down the fairway, the friends we met waved good-bye from their floating homes as they got themselves ready to go to work. I wondered if they were envious of us, untying the lines and becoming the vagabond travelers all boaters wish they were. But it was I who admired them. Living on the water on their boats, the amazing Boston skyline to awake to each morning, and the calming waters of Waterboat Marina to lull them to sleep every night.
It’s time to head back to Marshfield where we’ll have much more time to explore Brant Rock. The nice people at the Green Harbor Marina told us to pull into the same slip we vacated, which is great because we knew exactly where to go.
Brant Rock is a small and humble village. People still smile and say “good morning” as you pass, unafraid to make eye contact, and inspiring me to do the same. I imagine it’s been exactly the same for many years. I pray things will never change.
The mornings were hopeful, the days were long and hot, the sunsets breathtaking, and the nights cool and sweet. Places like this make me feel so happy to be alive.
We concluded our Summer cruise with a pleasant stay in Onset bay, another hidden gem but one we’ve visited often, and hopefully will continue to do so as we travel around Buzzards bay and beyond, our regularly scheduled waters.
The best thing I can say about Dad is also the best thing I can say about anyone: he was a nice man, a regular guy. He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t short. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t poor. He was not powerful, his weaknesses were few. He was just your average Joe going about the business of supporting his family. In his era, that is what men did. The lessons he taught me were by example. The most important of which is there is honor in working hard for a living. That one got through my thick skull. I’ve always had a job. Growing up, I’m sure I was his biggest challenge. Oh, I wasn’t terrible, but I had my moments. He handled my shenanigans with kindness and compassion, never fighting my battles for me, but instead, pointing the way, and gently kicking my sorry ass towards the proper direction. I may not have lived up to all of his ideals, but at least I knew what they were. When I sat down to write this I said to myself, “Rick, you shouldn’t make this about you,” but dammit, it is about me. Isn’t it? My feelings, my emotions, and after all, I’m writing this to make me feel better about losing him. I should have been closer. In life we don’t always have clean endings and good-byes, but we have memories to bring us through.
“When standing on the precipice of the unknown, you do what you always do, the familiar.”
In the Summer of 2017 we left Wareham Massachusetts to cruise this 6500 mile boat trip they call The Great Loop. The art of cruising was not new to us. Living on our boat for a year was. Before leaving we became members of Americas Great Loop Cruisers Association. We followed their website diligently and still didn’t know exactly what to expect. How could we? How could anybody? When it finally came time to leave, I remember standing at the helm that warm July morning. The engines were warmed up and my wife was on the bow waiting for my signal to untie us from our mooring that we wouldn’t see for a year. Something was tugging at my gut. Was it fear? Dread? Excitement? I’ve always worked, always had a job, always had a hot rod to tinker with, always played in a band and quit a really good one to do this. So many things that defined my life will be put aside for an indefinite amount of time. “Jeepers creepers Rick! You picked a hell of a time to have a moment. Dude! Shake it off!” My inner voice was absolutely right. After fighting so long and so hard to become one of the fortunate few, such feelings suddenly seemed inconsequential by comparison. If I’m willing to leave everything I hold dear on land to take a leap into the unperceived, what does that say about my mindset? “This is your dream Rick, and the most important thing rightnow is to be true to your dreams.” So I rolled with that. We said our goodbyes, cast off the pennants, and dove headlong into a world where everything is different, unknown, and temporary. Where each day we found ourselves in a new place both physically and mentally.
After a while, the shine of the new began to dull into a well worn patina, and we settled into some semblance of a routine. Our boat Ginger Lee, a 32 foot Trojan, was our home away from home. A warm and cozy place to live as we ventured outside the boundaries of the familiar. I can’t tell you how your particular experience will unfold as you travel around the inland waterways of Americas Great Loop. I can, however, share with you a glimpse of what our life was like on any given day, and hopefully, provide you with some insight about what to expect.
I’d wake up early and make the coffee. The XO always slept later than me. Early mornings alone in the dark with my thoughts and a warm mug somehow made everything seem possible again. A reset button. A quiet voice before the uncertainty of the day kicked in. There was always uncertainty.
After coffee I would take a long walk, sometimes for hours. Even when we were at anchor I’d hop into the dinghy and head ashore. It could be a beach on a deserted island, a quaint little town, or a busy big city street, I enjoyed hiking them all. I’d like to think the XO appreciated the quiet time alone. She was usually awake when I returned. “How was your walk?” she’d ask. There was always something to tell about my walks.
We became Gypsies on the water, never lingering too long in any one place. Always leaving before we became too well acquainted. Sounds so romantic doesn’t it? There was a little of that going on, but even us romantic Gypsies had chores that needed to be done. Cleaning was ongoing. Windows, dishes, carpets, counters, sinks, the toilet, and the entire exterior of the boat. We’d have to take out the trash too. Just regular housekeeping I suppose, except for the things that the boat required mechanically.
We named our Lehman diesel engines Castor and Pollux after the mythical twins. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but they became like good friends, each with their own personalities. Castor, the starboard engine, was fond of chewing up vee belts, and he would squeal loudly if that belt was not adjusted just right. Pollux, our port engine, would just stop running if the fuel filters were not fresh enough for his liking. It’s a good thing Castor was not so discerning. On three occasions we came in on his power alone. I quickly learned to change the darn filters at regular intervals. The primary every 50 hours, the secondary every 200. We became so attuned to their voices that we could tell if something was amiss. But–knock on wood– that did not happen a lot, and I think it’s because I kept such a close eye on them. I stocked the boat with a damn good set of tools and I am blessed with the ability to use them. We managed to avoid paying for any mechanical services.
The transmission fluid and anti-freeze levels had to be monitored, and we had eight large batteries that all needed to be topped off with distilled water about once a month. I did three engine oil changes during the Loop. Filters and motor oil are readily available at any auto parts store or Walmart. “Gee willikers Rick! What did you do with all that used oil?” you may ask. “I dumped it overboard!” NO NO NO! Only kidding! I repeat. I AM KIDDING! Just wanted to see if you were still paying attention! Never ever dump anything into our beautiful waterways. It’s irresponsible and totally illegal. Wildlife dies. Huge fines occur. People will hate you. Here’s what I did instead: I’d put the used oil into plastic jugs, and when we stayed at a marina that offered full mechanical services, I’d ask if I could use their oil dump. Simple as that. The answer was always yes. Then I’d load it all into a dock cart and deal with it. Usually by pouring the used oil into a 55 gallon drum in the service area, and giving somebody a big tip.
We did the grocery shopping at least once a week. If the market was within walking distance we’d bring along our rolling cart. Sometimes we’d use our bicycles, but the courtesy car was always preferred. I was surprised at how many marinas offer this very cool thing. You could reserve the car for yourself or share with others, which we sometimes did. What the heck, we were all going the same place anyway. To the Walmart! Boaters love Walmart so much these cars could drive themselves there. I’ve never been to so many Walmarts in all my life. Here at home, I don’t go there a whole lot.
Neither one of us were big on lunch, but dinner was sacred. We barbequed on the Weber Q100 grill we brought from home. Steaks, burgers, chicken, and my newly discovered favorite, brats. We’d maybe toss a zucchini or summer squash on the grill along with the meat. We also had two Kenyon butane stoves. They work well and you can stow them away after you’re done for more counter space. Another nice tool is the slow cooker or crock pot. Its wattage is low enough to run on our inverter so we could use it while underway. Did you know pizza shops will deliver to your boat? Oh yes they will, as long as you’re on a dock and you can explain to them where you are. We ate very well, and were always on the lookout for interesting breads, fresh fruits and vegetables, and good cuts of meat. Screw the canned stuff, fresh food is plentiful everywhere along the Great Loop. We came home with most of the canned goods we initially stocked.
Death, taxes, laundry, the three constants of life anywhere. Doing the laundry kinda sucked without a washer and dryer onboard. It reminded me of my younger days when I had to haul it down a Boston street. I’d sit there in the laundromat until it was done, because if I left I might come back to find my clothes dumped on the floor by some unknown person who needed the dryer, or a pair of pants. We’d seek out marinas that had an onsite laundry even if it cost more to stay there. We strived to wash our clothes once a week, but it was more like every two. Two weeks would sometimes stretch into three, you know how it goes, but in general, when the laundry bags’ girth started blocking the companionway, it was time.
Choosing what clothes to bring was tough. We each had a hanging locker, I had four drawers, she had five, so we couldn’t bring everything, and we didn’t know a lot about the weather conditions we would encounter. The XO brought a sensible mix of clothing, like wool hats, warm socks, sweaters, and items she could layer. I, however, chose poorly. I thought we’d be fighting the heat most of the time so I had plenty of shorts and tee shirts. Boy was I wrong!
In mid October the cold weather caught up to us in Grafton, Illinois. Guess who had to buy warmer clothes? The further south we went the colder it got. In Fairhope, Alabama, it snowed and the temps dipped into the low 20’s. Same thing in Carrabelle, Florida, where they got their first ever winter storm warning. There is something wrong about snow on palm trees. We bought two electric space heaters to augment our boat heater that burned denatured alcohol. We used gallons upon gallons of it. In every port my first order of business was to find a hardware store that sold it, then I would buy out their whole stock at $10 to $15 a gallon. In retrospect, I should have invested in good diesel heater. The cold followed us all the way to the Gulf Coast of Florida.
One of the more important things we had to do was figure out where to go next. No problem. We’d simply go online to Active Captain, get a list of marinas within our cruising range, and start calling them on the phone. Sooner or later we’d get a reservation. Then we’d enter the coordinates into the navigation system and that’s it. Easy-peasy. Not only would the GPS direct us there, it would calculate our ETA.
Our three rules for navigation: (1) Never plan more than the next days trip. (2) Never travel in bad conditions or darkness. (3) Don’t go anywhere without a marina reservation, anchorage, or free dock picked out. That being said, we had to be ready for the curve ball that life sometimes threw at us.
One fine August day we left the Forest City Yacht Club in Cleveland, Ohio, expecting a pleasant 25 mile jaunt to anchor in Lorain Harbor, also in Ohio. But fickle Lake Erie would have none of it. The course was west, the wind was north, and we were getting uncomfortably broadsided by the chop. “I can’t do two hours of this,” the XO said after only 20 minutes. I agreed. ActiveCaptain listed 3 marinas in Cleveland and the first one I called answered right away. “Edgewater Marina.” “‘Mornin’. Got room for a 32 footah?” “Ahh. Yeah. I have one spot left, if you don’t mind staying on the end.” “Mind? I prefer it,” I said. “Got diesel?” “Yup.” “How about pump out?” “Oh yeah.” “All right. See you at the fuel dock in 15 minutes.” We essentially went from one end of Cleveland to the other. A total distance of about five miles. Our shortest trip.
On another fine day in October 2017, we were staying at the free dock in Ottowa, Illinois, at the intersection of the Fox and Illinois Rivers. It was almost too good to be true. A free dock with electric, in a beautiful place close to a town filled with friendly people. We decided we might like to stay a while and sort of recharge a bit. Did I mention it was free? We settled in nicely, enjoying everything Ottowa had to offer. We washed our clothes, shopped, ate out often, and explored like googly-eyed tourists. Little did we know that soon we’d be running for our lives! Here’s what happened.
On the third night there was a terrible thunderstorm, as bad as I’ve ever seen. It rained cats and dogs. I woke to the not-so-soothing sounds of logs bouncing off our hull. The XO was already up and looking very concerned, apparently she didn’t sleep well. Even before coffee it took me about ten seconds figure out why. The Fox river was flooding! Its waters were rushing into the Illinois River at breakneck speed, bringing with it all kinds of stuff. I saw a whole tree float by. We briefly entertained the idea of riding it out, but when the water level threatened to rise above the dock we were tied to, we had to flee quickly with no plan. After forging our way through 20 miles of floating debris, garbage, and jumping Asian Carp, we came across a private marina filled with runabouts and smaller type boats. I called them, and they welcomed us with open arms to stay on their fuel dock, the only dock that could handle a boat our size. Thank you Spring Valley Boat Club! The place was totally awesome. We ate pizza at their bar and watched NFL football. All the members were very interested in our Looping life, and we enjoyed talking to them for hours. They were so nice I wanted to stay a month!
I learned to love the pleasures of anchoring. It was like taking a break from the world and the pressures of docking. Very similar to renting a mooring, except there were no phone calls to make, and no interaction with land-based activity, unless you choose to get in your dinghy and find some. We’d get the coordinates from Active Captain, go there, drop the hook, and enjoy life on the Island of Ginger Lee, population: two. Pre-Loop, we weren’t very experienced in the art of anchoring, but like anything else in this world, we did it so much we got good at it. Here’s how I did it with 99.99% reliability: Finding a good spot is key. I like seven to twelve foot depths, close to shore, but with enough room to swing in at least a hundred foot circle. If there areother boats anchored you must respect their swing circle. Okay, once I pick my spot, I head into the current or the wind, whichever is prevalent enough to push us backwards, then I drop anchor and immediately pay out at least 75 feet of line, more if in deeper water. To help with that, I marked my anchor line at 25 foot intervals. The current or wind will move us backwards until we stop. That’s it. I never back down on the anchor with my engines. For peace of mind and a good nights sleep, I’ll set the Anchor Watch program on the GPS to monitor our position. It’ll sound an alarm if we drag. Many boaters out there have a different method of anchoring. Whatever works for you is great. But for me, with my boat, and my particular equipment, I bet my life many times on the aforementioned procedure.
What’s the best anchor? We posted that very question on the AGLCA website and got bombarded with so many “correct” answers that we had to figure that out for ourselves. After much research by my wife, we got a Mantus. She chose wisely. It failed only once inside the breakwaters of Harbor Beach, Michigan, where it got so fouled with weeds it never reached the sandy bottom. There was a four foot ball of salad attached to the thing! After giving up and motoring into the nearby Harbor Beach Marina, tail tucked between our legs, the Harbormaster informed us that nobody has successfully anchored there in many years. “Too much weed infestation,” she said. “Yeah, I’m hip,” I answered. I’m just glad they had room for us. As it turned out, the weather turned ugly and we had to extend our stay.
Despite the all the maintenance, housekeeping, and navigation duties, there was an awful lot of free time to enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing. Both of us always had a book going, which is unusual for me, not so the XO. Her book cache caused the boat to lean so much we had to distribute them evenly. She also loved going to the beach, not to sunbathe, but to watch the waves. In close quarters like Ginger Leethe importance of alone time cannotbe overstated. While I smoked my cigars, she would often take off in the dinghy with a book, a bottle of water, and a big straw lifeguard hat. Yoga is everywhere! I don’t practice, but the XO loves it and found it in nearly every port. Folding bikes are among the best things we ever bought, not just for the Loop, but for boating anywhere. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on them. I bought ours online from Walmart for about $200 each. They’re still in great shape after ten years of use. We travelled with two kayaks. I think I used mine once or twice, but the XO was always paddlin’.
After dinner is a nice time for a dinghy ride. Damn! I love that. Grab a couple of cold beers, hop into Ol’ Salty, and just putt-putt around, checking out the boats, waving to the folks on the docks, and enjoying the scenery. Bring a dinghy! Sure, it’s a little extra work, but well worth it. We towed ours the whole way.
We had good TV reception with a signal booster connected to an antenna mounted high on the flybridge. At home my TV is always on. Not so on the Loop. TV can’t compete with the scenic waterfront views we had every day, but sometimes it was a nice diversion. We followed the entire Winter Olympic games and watched football every weekend. We brought our laptops and had internet everywhere with a Verizon MIFI jetpack. It’s a wireless router about the size of a bar of soap. Sleep always came early on the boat. Probably from the constant motion. In the world of cruising, 9:00 PM is known as boaters midnight.
Am I boring you? It’s not always cool adventures fraught with danger ya know, but it did get a bit more interesting when we wanted to leave port.
It always seemed like time went by faster in the morning, and the earlier we arrived at our destination, the more time we’d have to enjoy our stay. Looking through the logbook, many of our departures were between 7:00 and 8:00 AM, and most of our trips were in the thirty to forty mile range–about five or six hours– so immediately after coffee, we entered departure mode. A dance we knew well.
When you rent a slip, you’re paying for the use of someone elses resources, so the first step in our little dance was to disconnect the boat from the wonderful world of municipal utilities. A pedestal on the dock supplies 30 amps of electricity and an unlimited supply of town water. We’d unhook the cable and hose that brought these to our boat, coil them neatly on the deck, and stow them away. Next, we’d put on the headsets for instant two-way communication. No hand signals or shouting for us. With headsets we could talk to each other in our normal voices no matter where we were on the boat. Very civilized.
The XO prepped our dinghy Salty by getting the floating tow lines hooked up behind the boat. I’d wait to start the engines warming so she didn’t get gassed out by exhaust fumes. The events and conversations usually went sometime like this: “Salty good?” “Yeah.” I’d hear my wife’s voice loud and clear in my ears. In stereo! “I’m starting ’em up,” I’d say, and get the engines started one at a time. Always the starboard first. It’s the most cantankerous. Sometimes I would have to tickle the throttle to coax it awake. Once they’re both running I’d turn on the electronics. “I’m going on the dock,” the XO would say as she stepped off the boat. Then she’d walk up the dock to the bow line cleat, untie the front lines, and toss them onto the fore-deck. “Bow’s free,” she’d say as she headed toward the aft line cleat. “Okay. I got her.” My hands on the controls, ready to correct if the bow decided to swing out, which it often did. “We’re free,” she’d say after untying the rear dock line and stepping back onto the boat. “I’m on the boat.” “Alright, backing out.” I’d bump both engines into reverse for half a second, then back into neutral. Ginger Lee would lumber slowly backwards. At this point both our heads were on a swivel. Don’t want to hit the lawyer’s expensive new Hinkley sitting inches away from us. And it’s wicked bad form to tear off the power pedestal with the anchor. “Okay back here,” she’d say. “See that pole?” “See it,” I’d say and again bump it into reverse then neutral. Ginger Lee sneaks by the power pedestal, the lawyer’s boat, and the pole. Once we were in the fairway, I’d put one engine into reverse and the other into forward. This made us pivot on axis until the bow faced the direction we wanted, then with both drives in forward gear, we’d slowly exit the marina. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen, but of course, it may not. The wind and the current have a nasty habit of kicking up just when you don’t want them to. If that happens I had to be ready to make the boat bend to my will, and never go faster than I want to hit something.
Once out in the open, the XO would walk outside along the foot-wide gunwale to the bow, picking up the fenders along the way. Then she’d coil up the dock lines and take them aft to be hung on hooks. “Gee whiz Rick! It sounds like the XO is doing all the work.” “Yeah, I know, she’s very busy when we depart. After so many repetitions she got really good at it.” The XO’s line work is superior. When we got boarded by the Coast Guard for a routine inspection, a young female cadet was impressed. “Whoa! Who did that?” she asked, pointing to the row of neatly coiled dock lines. We carried eight: a hundred footer, a fifty footer, two twenty-fivers, two fifteens, and two shorties. At one time or another we had use for them all.
In over 300 ports this same scenario played out many times. We became a such a well oiled machine that I can’t remember ever screwing it up. Okay, there was that time in Havana IL when our headsets failed at the same time the wind tore us away from the dock we were attempting to tie up to. Things got ugly fast. I’m just glad that we managed to secure the boat without doing any damage. I’m even happier that no one saw our boat follies. We immediately bought new headsets online and had them shipped to us. Any marina along the way will accept packages for you.
Much of the Loop involves following a well defined waterway and just staying between the aids to navigation. You don’t really need a chart plotter. All you need is GPS. All modern charts have the coordinates, Active Captain as well. Yeah, we went old school with paper charts, but chart plotter technology came in handy a few times, especially in some wide open sections of the Intracoastal where the nav aids are far apart, or some port entrances where the channel is not clearly marked. But we found ourselves staring at the damn chart plotter and not paying attention to our actual surroundings, so we made it a point to not have it on constantly.
Many people, myself included, tend to relate only the brightest passages with pictures of blues skies, gorgeous backdrops, and smiling faces. But it’s not always a nice day. We had no problem cruising in the rain as long as the water was smooth enough. It’s not as pretty to look at, but if we always waited for a perfect day, we’d never get far. We relied heavily on our instruments as well as our own abilities, and learned to trust both.
I’ve always said that boring is good on a boat, because to me, it means that there is no drama. The water conditions are good, and everything is running smoothly mechanically. But what about us humans? Biologically speaking, Pretty good. There were no trips to the emergency room, and for the first time in my life I went a whole year without catching cold. But mentally, it’s a different story. It’s my inner struggle. We’re in a boat travelling at seven mph. It takes a long time to get anywhere. There is a lot of time to think and I wasn’t always at peace with my own thoughts. In the first month and a half I found it difficult to shed the feeling that something could go wrong. It’s a 40 year old boat, so many things can happen, and there is this woman that I love and need to protect her life. It sounds funny to say that, and my wife will laugh when she reads it, hell, I laughed too, but my point is: we all have fears. The fact that I do a good job of hiding mine doesn’t make them any less real. I couldn’t let them consume me. I refused to. It’s so counterproductive. I had to get out of my head. “Oh dearie me.What if the boat sinks?” “We have a spare! We tow a dinghy everywhere and it’s never more than a few feet away. We simply hop into it, start the motor, and zoom off.” “Oh my gosh. What if we crash?” “That’s what insurance is for.” “What if the engines stop running?” “We either tow the boat with our dinghy or drop anchor and wait for Sea Tow.” “What if I die?” “Well then you wont care. You’re dead!” As a whole, the Great Loop can be daunting. You’re following the seasons around the eastern half of the country, cruising thousands of miles. All the ports, locks, bridges, pump-outs, fuel-ups, and everything else that goes on is a lot to absorb. So don’t think of it as one thing. Why not think of it as a series of short day trips? Which is exactly what it is. Hey, I like day trips. Do it all the time at home. The strategy worked, especially after it became clear that our boat can do this, is doing this, and rather nicely. We can do this. We are doing this. Our Loop began on July 5th, but it wasn’t until sometime in late August that I began to feel at ease. By then we had successfully completed all the tasks and maneuvers we would ask of Ginger Lee and ourselves for the entire trip. From then on, it would be rinse and repeat, honing and improving the skills. That’s good news. Here’s the bad part: From then on it would sometimes be a struggle to keep from being bored out of my skull!
As our engines did their thing, thrumming tirelessly beneath our feet, I tried my hardest to keep from looking at the GPS counting down the hours, minutes, and seconds to our destination du jour. We’d often pass the time talking about the people we met, their strange and interesting dialects, other boats, the local foods, the weather, the upcoming lock or lift bridge, or anything else that caught our fancy. I think we talked to each other more than we ever have before. We also spent more time together in silence than ever before. The greatest test of any relationship. On travel days we ate breakfast on-the-wing. I’d usually cook while the XO attended the helm. Eggiebowls we called them. Scrambled eggs or omelets with mushrooms, olives, cheese, or any leftovers we happen to have, then served in bowls to make it easier to eat and drive the boat. At 11:00 it was snack time. The favorite was apples cut into wedges, again, easier to eat and drive. If no apples it would be cheese and crackers.
Although Ginger Lee was equipped with a fully functional flybridge helm, we never used it, opting instead for the salon helm station. “It’s closer to the snacks,” I would say to anyone who asked why. True, but it just was easier than climbing up and down that ladder. Besides, the salon was warmer than the flybridge because we had a heater that worked from hot engine coolant just like in a car. We often cruised in our pajamas. Picture driving your house from your living room.
The following is a real account and typical of cruising the Great Loop. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. It was a beautiful day. We were cruising along at our usual seven MPH, just minding our own business. The XO was behind the wheel, I was making the bed. Suddenly, a shrill tone from our AIS alerted us there’s a vessel approaching. We couldn’t see it yet as the waterway was curvy, but the instrument told us a lot. It’s a class A [commercial boat]. We know its size, its draft, it’s name, where it’s from, how fast it’s travelling, and how far away it is.
A boat named Samson a mile away was coming towards us at 7 knots. We assumed it’s a tow [a tug pushing barges] because that’s the only commercial traffic on this waterway. Our AIS broadcasts our information as well, so you can bet they’re “seeing” us too. We have two radios and keep one tuned to 16, the international hailing and distress channel, and the other tuned to a working channel. Around here the tows are all on 13. The radio tuned to 13 crackled to life. “Ginger Lee, Ginger Lee.” “This is Ginger Lee. Go ahead” I answered. “Ginger Lee, what is your tow?” the captain asked. The XO and I looked at each other. We’re confused at first, then it hit us. Much to our amusement, he thought we’re another tow! “A 12 foot aluminum dinghy,” I replied, and after a hearty laugh, clarified. “We are a 32 foot PC [pleasure craft].What side do you want us on. Over.” “See you on the one Ginger Lee. I’ll back off until you’re clear.” “Good copy Samson. Port to port. Ginger Lee out.” “Roger Roger.” The other Captain has instructed us to keep him on our left side. After taking a corner we finally saw him. It’s indeed a tug pushing 30 barges. The massive rig slowed to 3 knots to let us pass before he has to take the curve where he will need whole waterway to do so. The XO, being the cautious pilot that she is, has hugged the shoreline leaving a huge football fields distance between us and him. Once again the radio came alive. “WHOAAA! I’m not that scary. Am I?” the tug captain exclaimed, laughter in his voice. The XO keyed the mic and replied. “But you’re soooo big!” The moral of the story is: You need AIS! Preferably one that sends as well as recieves. Since all commercial vessels are required to have them, you’ll be able to see where they are and what they’re doing within a 20 mile radius.
Locks are a pain in the ass! They take up so much time and the potential for something to go wrong is high. Nobody likes ’em but they’re a fact of life on the Loop. There’s literally no way around them, unless the wickets are down, and that only happens when the water level is high enough on the waterway to bypass the lock. I considered it a good day if we only had one lock to go through. Once we reached the Atlantic coast it was cause for celebration. No more locks!
Before we started our Loop you could count the number of locks we traversed on one finger. Let’s just say I was a bit apprehensive at first, but we quickly became experts. On the Erie Canal we did over a dozen locks the very first day! When we stopped for the night in Canajoharie NY, my head was spinning from the experience. The XO poured us a couple of shots and handed me my guitar. Calmness prevailed.
Thanks to our Skipper Bob guidebook, we knew the name of the lock, the phone number, if the lock uses hanging lines, cables, or floating bollards, and their hours of operation Not all locks are open 24/7. Most keep regular working hours.
When we approached any lock the first thing I did was call them on the radio, but always waited until we’re within sight. I quickly learned that they usually won’t respond unless they can see you. I think it’s either because they use low power hand-held radios that require line-of-sight, or they wanted to be sure you’re actually coming. You can call them on the phone at any time during their working hours. They’re friendly. Sometimes I’d call them the day before to get a feel for how busy they’ll be.
The events and conversation may go something like this: “Lock 14, lock 14. Ginger Lee, over” “Fourteen.” “Good morning. We’re a 32 foot PC requesting a westbound passage. Over.” “Okay Ginger Lee. I’m turning the lock around now. There’s an eastbound in the chamber. It’ll be about 30 minutes.” “What side please?” [I’m asking so we know what side of the boat to hang our fenders.] “Keep to the left, pull all the way forward.” “Good copy. Left side. Ginger Lee standing by on 13/16.” While we wait, the XO ties our dinghy on the hip so it wont drag on the lock wall. She hangs fenders on the port side. If there’s no current I’ll just keep the boat in neutral until we drift a little too close to the shore. Sometimes I may motor around in slow circles. You could be waiting with other boats so you have to keep out of each others way. When the lock door opens, a traffic light on the side will stay red until the eastbound boat exits. Let ’em pass through. When the light turns green, slowly queue up with the other waiting boaters and enter single file. There’s no rush. I like to see how the current effects the other boats. The rules state that everyone in the lock must wear a life jacket. The XO puts hers on and heads to the bow. On the way she grabs her gloves, a short dock line, and a sharp knife. No it’s not murder, it’s just good prep.
I motor in at headway speed. Once inside the lock I start steering closer to the left wall. I put it in neutral and we slow down so much that the rudders are useless. I steer with my engines, creeping closer. Right engine forward, then neutral. The bow gets closer. Left engine forward, then neutral. The aft swings closer as well, still creeping forward. “Which one?” the XO asks. She is sitting on the deck next to the midship cleat, gloves on, ready. The loop end of a shortie dock line is around the cleat. the working end is in her hand. She wants to know which bollard to use. “Next one,” I reply. Left engine reverse, then neutral. The bow responds, gets closer still. “Right here is good,” I say as I bump both engines into reverse then quickly into neutral. We stop. Ginger Lee comes to rest against two fenders. At the same time the XO puts the line around the bollard and back to the boat. By putting the line halfway around the cleat she can loosely hold the boat against the wall without letting go of the working end. “We’re good,” she says. I shut off the engines and key the radio mic. “Ginger Lee secure,” I announce over the radio. The lockmaster may come by to chat, but I think he also may be assessing your lockworthyness. I bet he has seen a lot of stuff go wrong, like boats hanging off the wall because the floating bollard got stuck. Sometimes a boat will come away from the wall and flip around 180 degrees. It happens a lot. I’ve always wondered how, until one day it almost happened to us.
We were in a very deep lock, the hanging lines were so long that even though the XO had her line around the midship cleat, the stray currents started moving Ginger Lee away from the wall. In a flash we were like 10 feet away. From the aft deck I couldn’t reach the nearest line with my longest boat hook. I quickly got to the helm, restarted the engines, put one drive in forward and the other in reverse, and the boat’s big butt started slowly creeping closer to the wall until I was able to reach the other line. We both held on until the ride was over. Never hard tie your boat to anything in a lock. Keep a sharp knife handy in case your dock line snags.
But I digress back to the typical locking scenario. When everybody’s ready the Lockmaster does his thing. The huge lock door closes slowly behind us, seals with an loud metallic clunk, and we start going down about a foot every 5 seconds. The wall becomes larger, blacker, and slimier. Water escaping through the door echoes eerily throughout the chamber. We become tiny, like a bar of soap clinging to the side of a bathtub. Birds swoop in to snatch up the fish stranded in the webbing of the massive door. Swirling eddies appear and move us around a bit. The whole time, the XO and I like to chat through the headsets. “See that wading bird? It just swallowed a fish half his size!” “I think there’s a manatee in the here with us.” “What would happen if the both doors suddenly opened?”
Soon after we stop dropping the door slowly opens. Water swirls in and we bounce off the walls a few times. The fenders are filthy with scum. I always make a mental note to clean them but never do. Why bother? There’s always another lock. When a loud siren wails, it’s time to start the engines and leave. With a boathook, the XO pushes us away from the dark wall and I engage the drives. When past the doors, I key the mic. “Ginger Lee clear. It’s been a pleasure working with you. Have a pleasant day.” “Thank you and have a safe voyage,” the Lockmaster says and tosses us a wave through his window. Locks are quite the experience!
There’s a lot of superstition in our boating world. We knock on wood a lot, we never whistle, and we have a Lock Luck candle. It actually worked! It was initiated after having a hell of a wait on the Illinois Waterway. Us and another boat circled in front of a lock it seemed like forever. With negative contact from the lockmaster either on the phone or the radio, I asked the other captain if he knew what was going on. He said that some tows push so many barges that they have to lock through in pieces, and the lockmaster was most likely busy with that task. Working boats have priority. Lockmasters will always put them through first. Sometimes the tug captain will let you lock through with him, but he’s under no obligation to do so.
Let’s talk about marinas. Shall we? If we had a reservation I’d call them when we got about ten minutes away. They all have a certain radio channel they like to use, but I always had the phone number handy just in case they’re too busy to answer the radio. Either way you have to talk with somebody to get your slip assignment. I like to keep it brief and simple. “Hello. This is motor vessel Ginger Lee requesting a slip assignment. I have a reservation.” If for some reason you can’t make contact, you can always pull up to their fuel dock, or their face dock [a long dock usually parallel to, or facing, the waterway] and talk to someone in person. Unless you need fuel or a pump-out, this is not desirable because it means you will be docking twice. It’s just more work. Once you make contact most marinas are pretty good at directing you to your slip. “Take a left at the big sailboat with the blue hull. Pull in next to the Boston Whaler about halfway down the fairway on your right.” “What side tie-up for bow in?” I always ask so we know beforehand where to hang the fenders, and where to put the dock lines. “Port side tie up for bow in,” would be one of the two possible answers. We enter docking mode. Headsets on.
The XO goes right to work as we enter the marina, quickly pulling the dinghy in closer to the transom. “Salty is wrangled,” she announces while cleating the loop end of a fifteen foot dock line to the aft, and coiling the working end loosely on the side. Then, with a 25 footer over her shoulder, she walks along the gunwale to the bow and loops it around the bitt of the windlass and dumps the rest on the foredeck nearer to the port side. She hangs the fenders and returns to the bow. Meanwhile, back at the helm, I slowly turn left around the blue-hulled sailboat. “There’s the Whaler,” she says. “See it,” I say. We both hope there will be a dock assistant waiting for us. “There’s a guy,” I say, and come to a complete stop in front, then pivot the boat with the engines to face the open slip. This is where it could get tricky. Wind and current may come into play. I’m always surprised when they don’t.
I ease the bow in and the XO tosses a line to the guy. He gets the front tied to the dock, but if the aft moves away, I’ve got to correct with the engines without going forward. The XO walks to the aft, hands the assistant the rear dock line, and there we are. “We’re in,” she says. I shut everything down and it’s Miller Time! We both have to stay sharp and pay attention when we dock. Like an airplane, the most dangerous part is landing. It’s so much easier when there is someone on the dock to help. Most places will have people to do this for you, that’s why I like to call them when we’re close, but sometimes it’s just another boater who happens to be around. If I see a boat coming in, I’ll help them. It’s good karma. There’s a lot of karma in boating. But you always have to be prepared to dock by yourself because it happens a lot. We have a plan for that. The XO will get the lines ready by cleating them to the boat and placing the working ends where they can be reached from the dock. I’ll bring the boat close enough so she can step onto the dock and grab them. Docks can be slippery, wiggly, or splintery, so try not to jump and wear shoes.
Sometimes the dock attendant will go about the business of completely securing the boat. The XO frowns on that. She has a certain way she likes to do it. Hey, I’m cool with that. I’ll send the guy off with a five dollar tip and let her do her thing. Before you know it she’s got the bow secured with a vee formation through the chocks, and spring lines going fore and aft. If someone else ties up your boat, it’s a good idea to check the work. Once the boat is secured, I’ll connect one end of the water hose and the shore power cable to the boat, run them along the gunwale to the bow, and hand the other ends to the XO on the dock. She’ll hook ’em up to the pedestal and wait for my thumbs up. I’ll turn on the kitchen sink tap and let the water run for a while, then flip the transfer switch on our boats electrical panel from “INVERTER” to “SHORE POWER”. If the meters swing to 120 volts we’re done. But the power pedestals are out in the elements and subject to use and abuse, so if the meters don’t come on, she’ll try flipping the breaker, or maybe another outlet. Sometimes just wiggling the plug works. Once in a while the pedestal is dead and you have to try another. We carry three power cables that can be hooked together in case the working electric is far away. Same with water. We carry three hoses. Some marinas have only 50 amp outlets. Our 30 amp cable won’t connect without an adaptor. Don’t leave home without one like I did. I had to acquire one along the way. It’s also a good idea to have a twenty amp set up [a long extension cord and a 20 to 30 amp adaptor] because once in a while the only power available is from a conventional outlet like the ones you have in your house.
It’s nice to be connected to municipal water and electric, but Ginger Lee is quite self sufficient. She has her own water supply, about 80 gallons. A decent amount if you use it wisely. Never leave the water running while doing the dishes or showering. Wet, soap up, rinse. I always make sure I fill our water tanks before we leave any marina because you never know what can happen.
It was a lovely January morning when we left the Sea Hag Marina in Steinhatchee FL. We were on our way to Cedar Key FL when Pollux suddenly conked out. I had just changed the fuel filters so it must be another problem. Long story short, we were stranded at anchor for a week while waiting for a new fuel pump to arrive from American Diesel. We had plenty of water, but the engine that needed the fuel pump was also the engine that heated the water, so for the first and only time on the Loop, we used our generator.
We never drink the water in the boats tank because it just doesn’t taste as good as bottled water. A close second is town water filtered with a Brita system. By the way, always ask if the water supply at the dock is “town water.” Many marinas pump water from the lake and they don’t always tell you. I’d never heard of such a thing until we were slipped at a marina in Michigan. The XO noticed that every time we used our faucet a pump on the dock turned on. Upon further investigation we discovered the pumps inlet pipe went directly into the lake.
For electricity at anchor or while underway, we have solar! Five solar panels are wired to a charge controller, then to four batteries, which are connected to a power inverter [a device that converts 12 volts DC into 120 volts AC] and then to the transfer switch on the electrical panel. This means the boat always has electric no matter what. Our Sears 120 volt refrigerator ran continuously for the entire Loop. “Ice from the Sun,” the XO says. When we reached Chicago IL we added an Engel portable freezer to the system and it ran non-stop as well.
No matter where we were, we always had power, hot and cold running water, heat, internet, and TV. We weren’t roughing it by any means, but I’m surprised at how many people thought so. “Where do you sleep? In a hotel room?” “No, silly goose, we sleep in our own bed. There’s one on the boat.” There were an inordinate amount of people who thought we never got off the boat! Like a Carnival cruise ship or something. “What if you run out of food?” “What if you need to make a call?” “What if someone needs to get in touch with you?”
Here are some questions I should answer: “What did you do with your mail?” We had it forwarded to St. Brendans Isle, A company dedicated to handling mail for cruising boaters. They will throw out your junk mail and forward the good stuff to you anywhere in the world. Many of our bills were paid electronically, but if that’s not an option, they will scan the bills and email them to you. We’d print out the scanned bills and mail in the payment. Yes, we took a printer with us. “What about your house?” We shut off the water, used light timers, and set the heat thermostat to 45 degrees so our pipes wouldn’t freeze. Our neighbors across the street were nice enough to keep an eye on things. We encouraged them to use our driveway so the house didn’t look empty. “What about your car?” We have three. I went online and found the recommended procedure for a year long storage. Change the oil and filter, fill the gas tank, add Sta-Bil fuel stabilizer and run it through the engine, and finally, disconnect the battery. I put one car in the garage and covered the other two in the driveway. All three started right up when we returned. “What about health insurance?” When we started planning our trip, health insurance was the single most expensive item on our list, more so than fuel, which at the time was over four bucks a gallon, but it took so long for us to get everything in order that I got old enough to get on Social Security and Medicare. Not only was our healthcare bill cut in half, but we had an income as well. So my advice is: get old.
It’s time to talk about bugs. Mosquitos are everywhere, that’s a given, but the AGLCA website was abuzz about no-see-ums. It was no-see-ums this, no-see-ums that. Well, we were ready with yards of special screening. But guess what? The no-see-ums were a no-show. Yup. We never saw-um. Instead we had fruit flies and mayflies. There was absolutely no mention of either anywhere on the Looper Forum, but I sure as hell know all about them now. The fruit flies first showed up in Suttons Bay, Michigan. Apparently there are a lot cherry farms around there. We made the mistake of leaving our screens off for about an hour after we arrived and were quickly inundated with the little bastards. Fortunately there is a cure. Put some apple cider vinegar in a bowl and add a drop of dish detergent. The first bowl we put out was blackened with hundreds of dead bodies in ten minutes, but it was not enough. We put out several more bowls and it worked! Unfortunately, there is no such cure for the disgusting mayflies. I’m from Massachusetts, we don’t have them, I’ve never even heard of them, but one morning in Baldwinsville NY, the exterior of Ginger Lee was filthy with these strange little insects stuck to the dew that collected there. “What are these things?” I asked myself. They sort of looked like mosquitos and they were all dead. I rinsed them off and forgot about them. But on the way to Sandusky OH we were swarmed. Thank God they didn’t get inside the boat, but they piled up a couple of inches deep in the corners of the aft deck. They smelled awful like dead fish. It took hours to clean them up with a wet-dry vacuum and a broom.
And now for a quick word about showers and bathrooms. All the marinas have them, but beware, some of them suck. You may need to lower your standards for a lot of them unless you do what I did. I spiffed up our own bathroom with all new fixtures including a new toilet and an extra large holding tank.
I like using my own bathroom, but some places have excellent facilities, so we each had our own shower bag containing all the necessities for the complete marina bathroom experience. My bag included a bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo, a wash cloth, towel, deodorant, long-handled back scrubber, shaving gear, and the most important thing of all, a pair of flip-flops. The XO and I both agree that the best bathrooms on our Loop were in St. Augustine FL at the Marker 8 Marina. They were large, immaculate, and included all the fluffy white towels and washcloths your little tushie could desire. The worst, for me, was at Bobby’s Fish Camp in Alabama. I still remember with a shudder the crunching of large insects under my feet. Sure, I could have showered on the boat, but I really wanted to experience the worst so I could write about it. And so I have. Now I can delete it from my memory. NOT!
Since I warned my wife about the shower at Bobby’s, she wisely stayed away. The worst bathroom for her was at Bayside Marina in Queens, New York, where many Loopers stay to get ready for their trip through the infamous Hell Gate, a passage that must be done at slack tide. To get to the bathroom you had to walk around piles of well-used fishing equipment and down a dimly lit hall. The toilet had no lock on the door and the shower was poorly constructed of rustic, unpainted scraps of wood. The water just drained through the floor onto the bay below. A moldy plastic shower curtain served as a door. The only place to put your clothes and things was the dirty floor, and, oh yeah, it was next to the “emergency exit” that the marina staff propped open so they could come and go through it.
The Mississippi River is like a superhighway for commerce. It’s all about the barges and tugboats. The muddy water flows uncomfortable fast, and our boat acts funny when it’s being pushed. It gets all squirrely, sometimes oversteering, sometimes understeering. Thank God we were only on it for four days. On the first day we left Grafton IL for Hoppies Marine in Kimmswick MO, the only marina and fuel stop on the Mississippi for pleasure craft. It took us only five hours to go 58 miles, and that includes waiting for two locks. We whipped along at twice our normal speed. Docking at Hoppies is crazy! You approach the place head on, then, at the last second, turn up-river parallel to the dock, and hope your engines can overcome the current while a couple of large men grab anything they can on your boat, then scramble around cleating your lines. It happened fast. Those guys knew what they were doing. There were three other Looping boats there as well. Miss Norma, ImagineToo, and Shangri-La. An elderly gentleman (I think it was Hoppie himself) got us together and gave us an interesting talk about the ways of the Mighty Mississippi. He explained about wing dams, the man-made underwater piles of rocks that create currents to scour out the middle of the river and keep it deep enough for the tows. “Just stay in the middle between the buoys and they won’t bother you,” he said. He told us about crossing day markers, the diamond shaped signs with a checkerboard design. “If you see one the left shore line, there’ll be another on the right shore. The good channel is between them. Keep one your butt, and the other on your bow.” He talked wistfully about his younger days on the river. It was his job to keep the kerosene lanterns lit on the aids to navigation. It had to done no matter what, rain or shine, and especially in stormy conditions.
The second day on the Mississippi we travelled 42 miles to the Kaskaskia Lock. You don’t go through the lock, but tie up to the long wall beside it. It’s actually very calm there because it’s not part of the Mississippi River, but rather a left turn off of it. I gotta tell ya, it’s one hell of a scary left turn. Ginger Lees’ ass fishtailed almost 90 degrees before I powered out of it.
On day three we went 70 miles to the Little Diversion River, a quiet, well protected anchorage. That time, I was ready for the scary turn from a five knot current into calm waters.
On the forth day it was 44 miles to another anchorage called Boston Bar, just a few miles away from the mouth of the Ohio River, where all the madness finally ends. To this day, if you ask the XO what was the worst part of the Great Loop, she’ll tell you without hesitation it was the four days on the Mississippi River.
Cruising north up the east coast felt different somehow. I sensed the change the instant we made that left turn onto the intracoastal in Florida. We were heading towards home. Everything was winding down. Every now and again we’d catch glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean peeking through the barrier islands. This was our regularly scheduled ocean. The same one that lies outside our door in Massachusetts. There were no more locks to deal with, so the water levels were no longer controlled. Even with Ginger Lee’s relatively shallow draft of three feet, we had to watch the tides closely. We became slaves to their cycles, sometimes leaving at the break of dawn to avoid running aground.
On Thursday June 7th, we cruised into Wareham and hooked up to our mooring in Swifts Neck. It was bittersweet, but definitely more sweet than bitter. I shut off the engines, Castor and Pollux, our heroes that took us through over 6,000 miles of water and all they asked of us was a fuel pump and a few V-belts “And that’s how you do the Great Loop,” I said “This seems nice. Let’s stay here a while,” the XO chimed in. We embraced for a long time, trying to absorb in a few minutes what happened to us in eleven months, two days, and four hours. I dare say we were both ready to once again walk among the landlubbers, but we weren’t leaving the boat. Not yet. It’s like we needed to ease our way off in respect and reverence to Ginger Lee, our warm and cozy home away from home. Besides, that champagne isn’t going to drink itself!
The pertinent stats: We used 2,771 gallons of diesel fuel that cost us $8,200. The average price was $2.94 per gallon. Our two Lehman 120 diesel engines combined burned 3.29 gallons an hour at an average speed of 7.4 MPH. (1600 RPM). We stopped at 335 places, 106 of them were free, 229 of them we paid for. We anchored out 75 times. We hooked up to 34 mooring balls. Stayed on 85 docks or walls. Rented 141 slips at marinas. The most expensive marinas were Hoffmans Marina in New Jersey at $111 per night, and Ram Point Marina in Rhode Island that was 96 dollars night. Typical for New England marinas. The least expensive was in Baldwinsville NY at $5 per night, and the R.E. Mayo Seafood Dock in Hobucken NC was only 85 cents a foot.
They call it The Adventure of a Lifetime. I’m not sure I like that old cliché. There are many long and boring passages, and much of the trip involves doing many of the same things we do at home on land. Our daily lives on the Loop, the day-to-day stuff, may, or may not be particularly adventurous on any given day. Should the catch phrase be changed?
My wife and I lead such sedate lives these days. I can’t believe we did what we did. For a whole year we travelled in our boat, living this life that is so not normal for us. We’re not rich. We’re not poor either, but c’mon, it’s pretty cool shit for normal working folks. No? Once in a lifetime stuff. Right? Maybe not. I’m sitting here thinking about how much effort it took to accomplish such a feat once, and yet I actually have the balls to ask myself: “How can I do it again?” The answer, of course, is: not so easily Rick, you schmuck. I know. Crazy. Right? But I can’t help myself. The Great Loop became a part of me, and after it was over, it stayed with me. I’m like so many other ex-Loopers with acute symptoms of Post Loopum Depression, and there is only one known cure. Such magnetism is hard to explain. Sometimes I wonder if it’s about the emotional connection we all have to nature, some kind of deep biological urge that makes us want to leave our comfortable homes on land and return to the primordial soup. Whether or not I get to do it again is something I just don’t know right now. But there is one thing I know for sure, it will never be like the first time. Safe travels all you Loopers who stand on the precipice of the unknown. My heart surely beats with you. I hope I was able to unlock some of the mysteries, and shed light on what may lie ahead on any given day, as you journey around Americas Great Loop, The Achievement of a Lifetime.
“We all have two lives. The second begins when you realize you only have one.” –Confucius
“What in God’s name are you talking about?” he asked. “Wattaya mean you just bought this boat? Are you serious?” Detective Gerry Sharpe looked deep into her partner’s eyes. “As a heart attack,” she clipped. As if for emphasis, several strands of dark wavy hair escaped from her high ponytail and drifted across her long neck. “How is that possible?” Pete asked. He was obviously taken aback, and Detective Peter Jansen– Eagle Scout, R.O.T.C., former Marine, and cop with fifteen years of service under his substantial belt– was not often so. “Technology will save us,” she answered waving her phone. After wrangling her hair back together, and securing it under a red band, she continued, “Or more specifically, me.”
“I’m sick of it Pete. Sick to death of it. All of it. My whole goddam life. Just look at me. What do I got? I’m an old lady with a crappie job with shit for pay. What do I have to look forward to? A promotion? Hah! Chief Merryweather is ten years younger than me. She’s not going anywhere. I hate cats, so cat lady is out,” she chuckled softly. A bit of a joke, yes, but she had that resolute look in her dark eyes. Pete knew she was indeed serious as a heart attack.
“Gerry, you’re not that old,” Pete said. He softened his voice and spread his arms. “And this will make you happy?” He was trying to understand. She answered with a question of her own. “Do you even know how old I am?” Pete was silent. He knew the right answer, but sometimes it’s better to be kind than right. Gerry continued, “What is the single most precious commodity in the universe?” she asked. Again, Pete was silent. He did not know the answer. “Time,” she said flatly. “Everyone is out there fighting their own battles. You, me, everybody. What does it get us? More time?” “You sound like someone who has more questions than answers,” Pete offered. Sensing more from Gerry, he waited. It came. “I made the call Pete. I quit the police force. I’m cashing in my pension, buying this boat, and taking back my life.” She took a deep breath, stood tall, and faced him like a woman who’s soul had been cleansed. “It’s a done deal Pete. And ya know what? I feel good about it. Damn good.”
They avoided looking at each other for a long moment while Gerry’s statement hung there like a low wet Buzzards Bay fog. “Jeez Gerry,” Pete said, finally breaking the silence. “Was it something I said?” There was laughter and the mood lightened. “Why don’t you stay?” Gerry asked. “There’s plenty of room. And wine.” “Thanks Gerry. It’s tempting, but I think I’d rather drive home alone in the dark than face the morning traffic.” “Let me at least make you some coffee.” “I really should get going. Some of us have to work ya know,” he said with a smile. Grabbing his jacket, he headed for the door. “Don’t I even get a hug?” She asked. Pete put down his jacket and held her tightly. She felt warm, and small. Because of who she was, he didn’t allow himself the luxury of what would normally be considered perfectly natural feelings, but he was reminded of how long it’d been since he held a woman, been with a woman. “You’re a good man, Peter Jansen,” she said into his chest. “And a good partner. I’m gonna miss you.” “Oh I’ll be around. You better call me. Okay?” “Betcha ass,” she said. Pete picked up his jacket, opened the door, turned to face his former partner, and said the three little words she never expected to hear from him. “I envy you.”
Slack tide on the Hudson River, that magical time when the flow is neither north or south and all is still. In as little as an hour ago, this old waterway was rushing headlong into New York Harbor at nearly five mph. Soon it will reverse direction and head north towards the St. Lawrence River before the turbulent cycle repeats itself. But for now, it seemed the whole world had slowed to a leisurely pace. The Sun had taken its last gasp an hour ago, but a yellowish hue still clung to dear life and reflected pleasingly off the surface of anything that cared to accept it. A streetlamp tucked into a lonely corner flickered on, then another, and another. Radiating from the busy restaurant overlooking the docks, the clinking of glasses and tableware merged with the sounds of soft music and many indistinguishable conversations. Neatly dressed patrons, mostly couples, came and went. No one was in a hurry. It was a beautiful Summer evening in Yonkers.
“Oh dear,” the man said, his fingers clutching the chain-link fence. “Looks like they’re staying. I was hoping we’d have more time.” “Huh, do you really think so?” “I don’t know. It seems very risky. There’s two of them and one of ’em is very big.” The pair continued watching. “Layla, look. The big one is leaving.”
Built in an era when boatbuilders thought that fiberglass hulls had to be as thick as their wooden predecessors, my sturdy 1975 Trojan F-32 did not start out its 44 year old life as a long distance, live-aboard cruiser. But not long after I purchased her, I knew she was up to the task with a few modifications. Its interior, after all, is already highly regarded as one of the best laid out, most spacious of all boats in its class and size, but in order to realize my dream of doing The Great Loop, I had a few ideas to maximize its potential to that end, and beyond.
All F-32’s have a galley down configuration. You walk into the main salon through a sliding glass door and step down four steps into the galley, head, and dinette area. I’ll translate for the non-mariners: walk through the living room, down into the kitchen, bathroom, and breakfast nook area. My wife and I had a problem with the dinette or breakfast nook: when sitting down to eat, the view is very limited. Two small ports are all you got. “What was that noise?” “I don’t know hon, let me check,” I would say, and proceed to slide out of my bench, climb the stairs, and look around. “Oh, it’s just the Joneses starting up their new Ranger Tug.” Back down the stairs I would go to continue eating. “Ooh! What color is it?” Well, you get the idea. Not a great position for a couple of nosey boaters. The mechanical engineer combined with the woodworker in me and devised a simple solution:
A table connected to the bottom of the salon window with tall swivel chairs. The front one can be swiveled around to drive the boat from the lower helm. The table itself is hinged so it can be folded down for access to the starboard engine. Now we can eat and people-watch to our hearts content.
Next, I turned the dinette into a permanent full-sized bed.
The original dinette was designed to be converted to a bed, but it was a bit too narrow for the two of us to sleep in. The sides of the boat angle in, of course, so I built a platform and raised it to where it was wide enough. As you can see, it hangs over a few inches into the companionway, but not enough to be a problem. I made the mattress from memory foam I bought at Walmart. I glued together two 4″ and one 2″ thick pads then trimmed it to size with a serrated bread knife. A conventional full-sized sheet set fits nicely. A room darkening curtain on a spring loaded rod provides privacy and keeps the morning sun off my wife’s face so she can sleep late. There’s plenty of room for a bookshelf above the bed. I attached it to the wood panel that runs along there. Just to the right of the bookshelf is the access panel to the back of the lower helm station. Every time I wanted to get in there I had to remove 6 screws, a real pain in the butt, so I hinged it.
Since we were no longer sleeping in the vee-berth–the aptly named front part of the boat–I built two long shelves and a work bench. It became our storage and pantry area. I installed a fan and LED lights. Not shown is the Dometic countertop icemaker that fits nicely under the starboard shelf against the bulkhead. My wife duct-taped insulation around the cooler. Sure is ugly but it keeps ice for a week.
This boat had a puny holding tank. Gawd, we were always pumping out. After taking careful measurements, and doing a lot of research on line, I found a perfect match from a California outfit called Ronco. I got a 45 gallon tank designed to fit into the front of a boat. It was a stock tank right off the shelf. Ronco will supply the all the elbows and fittings you need, and tap the holes for them wherever you want.
The original bathroom door opened out into the galley. I didn’t like that at all. It had to be shut all the time or it would get in your way. Bad for airflow, especially for a bathroom. I reversed the hinges so it lays against the bulkhead and can be held there with a drop-latch. I didn’t like the vee-berth door for the same reasons. I removed it and set up a privacy curtain with a tie-back. Guests can go in there and change out of their swimsuits or whatever.
We didn’t have much use for the factory installed electric stove and oven, in fact, we never once used it. We keep Ginger Lee on a mooring at home, and in a slip, that old appliance would require 50 amp service, which meant running two 30 amp shore power cables. Sure, the genset would run it, but who wants to listen to that for an hour while you bake that cake? Not me. We cook on our barbeque grill 90% of the time. Sometimes we use the butane canister stoves made by Kenyon. We have two. I like them because after you’re done you can tuck them away. I’d rather have the counter space, so I tossed the old Princess stove, and put in a top loading freezer.
I found solar panels the same size as the hatch covers. Between those, and two on the aft-deck top, we run the Engel freezer, the refrigerator, and a 2000 watt inverter continuously. On long passages, try a Crock-Pot or slow cooker. After three or four hours the wonderful aroma of beef, potatoes, and gravy will fill the boat.
Thanks to Mr. Sun, we have all the continuous electric we need while moored, anchored, or underway. So why do we need a 4,000 watt gasoline powered generator? I didn’t like having gasoline on a diesel boat. I dunno, it’s like bad form or something, so I removed the gen-set and put an extra fresh water tank in its place. Tank is available from Tractor Supply Co. Would you believe that generator had a huge 42 gallon gas tank! I cleaned it and now use it as another diesel tank, increasing my range by a substantial amount. I had no problem selling the genset for $1500.
I made a cabin heater from a Ford F-150 heater core and plumbed it into the port side engine cooling system. I used the Ford one because it’s big, and for some reason, substantially cheaper than the others. This type of heater is commercially available for boats, but I’m a dog that needs a job, and I had a 12 volt fan lying around, so I made my own. Even on a cold day, this thing heats the cabin too much, which is good, because you can always shut it off. Of course, like a car, it only works while the engine is running.
I get a lot of comments on my aft-deck roof. I built it because my fair skinned wife is from the land of the pink people, She actually gets sunburned though a tee shirt. Not me. With my swarthy Italian skin, I’d be out there in full sunlight bronzing like Dennis Eckersley, but you know how it goes, happy wife, happy life.
Over the Winter, I built the aft deck roof in my garage. I carefully photographed every step of the process from beginning to end, including the fabrication of the stainless steel supports, the roll-up clear curtains, and finally, the installation. Oh, I had big plans. It was going to be an epic blog entry. I would become famous among Trojan owners. The impossible has been achieved! Rick has done it! There would be write-ups in magazines, ticker tape parades down 5th Avenue, interviews on Good Morning America. My God! I would be on Ellen! Alas. It was not to be. I somehow managed to delete everything from my camera.
We all make mistakes. Right? Now I can only tell you about the process: it all started with scrap carboard…
“Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy.” Cat Stevens
From the log book on Sunday September 10th 2017. Written by the XO. 8:04 AM Bilged away from Port Austin. Light and variable winds, waves 2′ or less. 12:10 PM Bilged at anchor in Tawas Bay, NE corner. Mantus is back!
The XO mentioned the bilge twice. I guessed it was time to tighten the stuffing boxes. These are holes in the boat bottom that the shafts go through. GingerLee has four. Two for the rudders, and two for the propeller shafts. They’re basically threaded tubes stuffed with graphite or Teflon infused rope that’s wrapped around the shaft. A big nut on the end squishes this rope tighter around the shaft to seal it, but not completely. It’s should leak a little bit in order to lubricate the shafts as they turn. Five drips per minute is about right. That’s right, there’s always water coming into the boat, but there’s a pump connected to a float switch. When the water level inside the boat reaches a certain level, the float switch turns on the pump and the water leaves the boat. It’s an old-school system but reliable. If we notice the pump turning on too often, it’s time for me to contort my old bones into the bilge and make an adjustment.
Plan A was to head northwest from Port Austin to Harrisville, crossing Saginaw Bay, but the waves, though not terribly large, were hitting us the wrong way. As always in boating, your direction is dictated by the conditions. After a half hour or so of picking stuff off the floor, we set a more comfortable westerly course, pushed ourselves into beautiful Tawas Bay, and dropped the anchor.
From the log book on Monday September 11 2017 Written by me. 8:15 AM or so weighed anchor. 1:10 PM Arrive Harrisville Harbor. 1288 to 1326= 38 miles
When we got to Harrisville Harbor I adjusted all the stuffing boxes, and while between the engines, I checked the oil, transmission fluid, and coolant levels. After topping up the four starting batteries with distilled water, I adjusted the belt tension on the starboard engine. I noted the engine hours at 1,720. These engines have run nearly 300 hours since we left home, that’s about four times more than they usually run for a typical New England season. Gosh darn it! It was the dreaded oil change time. First one on this trip. Those suckers need 24 quarts. Not only did I have that much oil on board, I also carried enough filters for the entire trip, and a gizmo that sucks the oil out of the engines. “Hey Rick. What did you do with all that used motor oil?” “So glad you asked.” At the time I had no friggin’ idea. It turned out that any marina with a repair facility will take it if you ask nicely and tip handsomely. I asked a young dock hand and he brought over a cart and took it away. Worth a twenty buck tip any day. I wish I could just pull her into Jiffy Lube.
There are those that say the prudent Looper should be past Chicago by this time, ya know, to keep from freezing your butt off. But there we were, still heading north in mid September. There was some concern. It was almost October, and in Massachusetts, October can sometimes be awful. Snow is not unusual, and our latitude was way more north than our home in Cape Cod, in fact, it’s about the same as the northern Vermont border. Yikes! But as usual, I had a guardian angel on my shoulder. The weather was spectacular.
In our travels, we met a very nice cruising couple. Not Loopers, but they noticed our Massachusetts registration, and we noticed theirs, also from the Bay State. We started talking, and over cocktails aboard their gorgeous sailing catamaran, Rogue Angel, I discovered that they were very fortunate indeed, because in their lifetime they had amassed enough money to be able to sail their boat between their homes in Massachusetts and in Florida. They were what us New Englanders call snowbirds. They spend their Winters in Florida and Summers in Weymouth. A couple of childhood sweethearts who married young and worked hard most of their lives, they were just two years older than me. The next day at the marina they had a mechanic aboard their boat, and after he left, I asked my new friend if everything was okay. He said yes. It’s just a minor drip that needed to be tightened. He opened the starboard engine hatch to reveal a tidy little engine compartment. I asked him why he just didn’t do it himself. After all, he looked trim and fit and was obviously no stranger to the tool box. His answer surprised me: “Because I no longer possess the agility.” It stuck with me and made me think. How much longer will it be before I am saying that?
We all know somebody who doesn’t own a screwdriver and has everything done for them. I’m not putting you down, brothers and sisters, one day due to the unstoppable aging process I may walk among you, I simply wish to say that it’s not my choice. Either way there is always a cost. Some pay with money, others like myself, pay with aches, pains, and skinned knuckles. Who is wiser? I say the one who is happy.
“You could have drama, or it could be boring. Anything can happen.”
From the log book on Friday September 1, 2017. Written by the XO.
9:40 AM Left Harsens Island 4:40 PM Arrived Port Huron, Michigan, River St. Marina. 1,123 to 1,158=35 miles.
It only took two days to wrench ourselves away from Harsens Island. Any longer and I would have become a permanent resident. Because that’s what the place does to people. We cruised north up the St. Clair River, half of which is Canada, that is, the international border runs along the middle of the river. It’s okay to cross the border in your boat because you’re not considered an illegal alien until you physically touch Canadian soil. As you can see from the log book, it took us 7 hours to go only 35 miles. “Why so long?” you ask. It’s because we were fighting against a 3 knot current the whole way. Through some of the skinnier sections, the current increased to 4, sometimes 5 knots. It’s what the St. Claire River does. On perfectly flat calm water, Ginger Lee does 7 to 8 knots at her engines “sweet spot” of 1600 RPM. Do the math; we were crawling. No, wait, crawling is faster. People strolling along the shoreline were passing us. I don’t wanna even think about the skull numbing boredom. Yes, I know, the scenery is gorgeous, we’re outside and not toiling away at our job, and we are boating. All true, but after several hours of swimming upstream, what we found endearing and charming got old and stale pretty darn fast.
When we docked in Port Huron, Michigan, we knew full well what we were getting ourselves into.
Have you noticed how the pictures are fuzzy and out of focus? It’s like my brain after two crazy days in Port Huron. Really, we barely escaped with our lives! Some of the bullet points: *The laundry monster was growling and it was the XO’s turn. Our friend Michele has a washer and dryer and she graciously offered the use of them, and even came by in her car for transport, a big deal for the XO and I, who envy loopers with boats large enough to have a washing machine on them. That was early afternoon. I didn’t see my wife until the next morning! Apparently, doing laundry involved a trip to the packey. *After a dinner party at Dale and Michele’s place, the XO and I were riding back to the boat, when suddenly, I fell off my bike! I tried to say it was loose dirt but the XO wasn’t buying it. I was schnockered. Jeez, I hate when that happens. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t get drunk. Not since I retired from being a kick-ass, hell-raising, rock and roll mega star. Sure, I like a cold beer on a hot day, I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, and an occasional cocktail. I’m like Joe Sixpack. Just your average overachiever. Anyway, I was okay. Falling off a folding bike with little 20″ wheels is a breeze. You’re so low to the ground it’s more like rolling off the seat. We walked the rest of the way back to the boat with no further incidents.
From the log book on Sunday September 3rd 2017. Written by the XO. 8:40 AM Left for the 9:00 bridges out of Port Huron. 12:09 @ the fuel dock, Lexington.
We fought our way north up the St. Claire River. I doubt if we were making 3 knots against the terrific current, especially under the Blue Water fixed bridge where the river is at its narrowest. But in less than a mile we were out of its grip and into Lake Huron. Our speed increased and the engines thrummed happily. I drew a straight line course to Lexington Harbor, Michigan. It’s been a while since we’ve seen another Looper. The last time was way back in New York nearer to Connecticut. I remember this because it was the first time anyone had ever called me on the radio to request a slow pass. The name of the boat escapes me, but the hailing port was from North Carolina, home of America’s most courteous boaters.
From the log book on Tuesday September 5th 2017.
8:25 AM Left Lexington. 10:15 Into Port Sanilac on the starboard engine alone after the portside overheated. 1,180 to 1,195= 15 miles est.
We were cruising to Harbor Beach on a chilly gray morning, just minding our own business, following another straight line course along the Michigan coast. The XO was at the helm and I was trying to find something to do to pass the time. I had already washed the dishes and made the bed, fixed the water pressure switch, painted the trim and watched it dry. Suddenly, engine alarms! It’s a horrible noise specifically designed to make your heart race and knock you off your chair. Think angry pterodactyl. I picked myself off the floor and scanned the gauges. The port engine temperature spiked to nearly 220 degrees before I shut it down. “That’s not good,” I said. But luckily, the great state of Michigan has provided boaters with a harbor every 20 or so miles, and we happened to be within a few miles of one. I called Port Sanilac, and right away, a real person answered the phone! That is exactly what I needed to happen at that moment. I explained the situation and requested a slip that we could pull into easily since our maneuverability was compromised. “I got slip for you. It’s a straight shot in from the breakwater,” was my answer. Sometimes all you need is a little cooperation. We pulled straight in. There was someone waiting to help us but it was a perfect 3 point landing. Better than I do with both engines running! It didn’t take long to discover the engine had a broken vee belt. It would be our second on this trip, which is not even a third of the way over. “Should I stock up on vee belts?” I pondered. “No problem,” the Dockmaster said. She pointed to the huge marine repair and parts facility right next door. “I love Michigan!” I gushed.
From the log book on Tuesday September 6 2017. 9:35 AM Left the dock at Port Sanilac. Futile attempt to anchor in weeds. 3:00 PM At Harbor Beach Marina in a slip.
We tried to anchor in heavy weeds. I didn’t work. After several attempts, all we got was a four foot ball of salad attached to the anchor. We finally gave up and grabbed a slip at the Harbor Beach Marina. A good decision because bad weather kept us there for three days. The marina had fuel, pump-out, clean showers, and was close to a quaint downtown with lots of shops. There were also well-cared-for walking and biking paths with lots of historic markers. It was very nice, but…
The noise from a nearby waterfront processing plant was a constant, unrelenting din. Not to mention the slight chemical smell. During the day you almost get used to it, sometimes even forget about it, but at night it’s difficult to ignore. Especially at the marina where there is nothing but a short expanse of water separating it from the plant. The XO went online to find out what they make. The answer was somewhat cryptic: they make palatants for the food industry. What? Palatants? My spellcheck doesn’t think that’s a real word. Aha! Artificial flavoring. Hey, somebody’s got to make the stuff. Why use the real thing when you can use all kinds of chemicals with unpronounceable names? And who the hell am I to complain about a factory that employs thousands of hard-working Americans, and keeps this historic city thriving? Shame on me. “Oh dear. A visiting yachtsman from the Colonies doth turn up his nose. What ever shall we do?” “We must close down the factory this instant!”
From the log book on Saturday September 9th. 8:20 AM Left well in Harbor Beach. 12:37 PM Port Austin fuel dock, slip at about 1:00
We arrived at Port Austin, Michigan to the aroma of something delicious cooking on somebody’s grill. After we secured the boat, a total stranger approached us. In his hands were two big beautiful bratwurst sandwiches slathered with mustard. “Enjoy,” he said as he handed them over to me. I was so starving it was like the guy gave me a Porterhouse steak. I couldn’t thank him enough. “You’re welcome,” he said. “It’s no big deal.” He’s right, it’s just a couple of brats, but that is what I will remember whenever I think of Port Austin. Sometimes it’s the little things.
“You can loop all you want, many do, but the experience will never be like the first.“
From the log book on Monday August 28, 2017. Written by the XO.
8:20 AM Left Sandusky Bay anchorage. Winds SE 5-15k, chance of showers, maybe thunderstorms. Waves 1-3, decreasing to 1′ or less. 3:30 PM At the Lake Erie Metro Park Marina, in Brownstown, MI. 1016 to 1069=53 miles
All loopers have a comfort zone. It’s a distance and time factor based on either the speed of your vessel or the speed your are allowed to go, and the amount of time you’re willing to stand behind the wheel. As you can see, 53 miles took us over 7 hours, way above our comfort zone.
What was our reward for travelling so far and traversing the shallowest entrance channel we’ve encountered so far on the trip? Muddy props and a very bewildered Dock Master.
“Why are you here?” he said. “I have nothing available for a boat your size.” Our relatively small cruiser looked like a behemoth among all the runabouts. “Well, because I called and made a reservation. ‘Bout two hours ago. I was told to come on in!” “I just started my shift. Who told you that?” “A woman’s voice on the phone is all I got. I didn’t get a name.” “Aw man,” he said, shaking his head. I got the distinct impression someone was in trouble. Well, okay,” he rubbed his chin. “What’s your beam?” “Thirteen,” I answered. “That’s what we got in the Travelift bay. See if you can get her in.”
I squeezed her in there all right. Bet your ass I did. The next available port was another five hours away, and the weather sucked . Fortunately, the small Travelift bay had low walls, and Ginger Lee’s max beam is measured at the rub rail, four or five feet above the waterline, and tapers in from there. I figure I had less than a foot on each side. Just enough for the fenders.
From the log book on Tuesday August 29 2017. Written by the XO. 8:45 AM Slowly and carefully left Lake Erie Metro Park Marina. Forecast is for showers off and on, possibly thunderstorms. Sometime around 2 or 2:30 we stopped on the wall of Millikan State Park under the lighthouse because of a tremendous thunderstorm. Later, Keans Marina after getting slammed against the wall.
We said our goodbyes to our old friend Mister Lake Erie. From Buffalo, NY to Brownstown, MI, there were some great memories. We began our northward climb around the mitten as the Michiganites say. Our destination was Keans Marina in Detroit, but on the way there, as the XO wrote in the log, the early afternoon rain got too heavy for our wipers to clear away. When the thunder and lightning started crashing all around us, we got spooked and quickly tied up to the wall along Milliken State Park and waited until conditions got better.
We thought we were so fortunate to find a wall to tie up to. “Let’s stay the night. It’s nice here,” I said. Then it started happening. Rude boaters repeatedly slammed us against the wall with their uncaring wakes. Welcome to Detroit! We decided to move on and take the slip we reserved.
The Keans Marina is so huge they didn’t know we were there. Yup, we could have stayed for free. They had no record of us being there, nobody remembered taking our reservation, or assigning us a slip.
From the log book on Wednesday August 30 2017. Written by then XO. 10:50 AM Late start; had to wait for the fog to clear; fueled up and pumped out. 2:40 PM On D dock at the South Channel Yacht Club. 1095 to 1123=28 miles.
After the fog cleared we left busy Detroit and crossed Lake St. Clair: the lonely lake, forgotten amongst the greats. We followed our GPS and the nav. aids straight across to the South Channel, and Harsens Island, a most wonderful and unusual place.
Harsons Island is one of those places that just made me feel good. I’m not sure why. It’s an inner thing, a warm glow. If dreams do come true, I imagined they came true there. I’m not the only one who felt it. Every single person I talked to said the same thing: I arrived here, fell in love with it, and never left. This made me rethink where I belong. Who wouldn’t want to call this place home? I’m jealous. Good God! The allure of Harsens Island had captivated me too! We’re always cruising, always moving on, never in one place for very long, like American Gypsies on the water. It’s just incredible. “How did I get here?” I asked myself. The answer was sitting right next to me. It’s through the Herculean efforts of my wife. Simply put, she knew I dreamed of doing The Great Loop, and so she made it come true for me. I’m a fortunate man to have her in my life. On a beautiful island in southern Michigan, where the miles gone by under our keel could be counted in thousands, and the miles of waterways ahead of us could be as well, I promised myself to always remember one thing: home isn’t a location, it’s a person.
“The water excites the mind and soothes the soul.”
From the log book on Saturday August 26th 2017. Written by the XO:
8:48 AM Left Edgewater Marina. Goodbye Cleveland! Sunny, east winds 5-10 kts., seas 1ft. or less. 12:45 PM Dropped anchor in Lorrain Harbor, west side by the breakwater, which is full of little shacks. Miles travelled: 960 to 985=25
After a week of six to nine foot waves and a wicked wind, Lake Erie smoothed out. It was a nice little run to Lorain. I’m really digging our Mantus anchor. It’s batting a thousand, absolutely reliable, but our windlass refuses to free drop like it’s supposed to. We have to wait until it spools slowly out until proper amount of rode is achieved. In this case–ten feet deep–we need to let out around 70 feet. The boat drifts quite a bit before the anchor reaches the bottom. It’s a problem that needs to be dealt with.
Lorain is a quiet, well protected harbor, but if offers little else to the cruising boater. Once a bustling center of commerce, filled with dock workers toiling about huge lakers, loading and unloading cargo for the many manufacturing plants. One by one they closed down. One of the last to go was Ford Motor Company. Lorain is the poster child for deindustrialization.
From the log book on August 27th 2017. Written by the XO: 8:55 AM. Left Lorain Harbor of bugs. 12:30 PM. Anchored in Sandusky Bay between Johnsons Island and Bay Point. 12:30 – 2:30 PM. Killed many bugs.
That’s right. Not a typo. We spent 2 hours killing and cleaning up bugs. Somewhere between Lorain Harbor and Sandusky Bay, two things happened: (1) We were swarmed by disgusting mayflies. Apparently their sole purpose in this world is to reproduce, die, and smell very bad. Their dead little bodies piled up 2 inches thick on our aft deck. Meanwhile, while we did battle with tee-shirts tied around our head, several nearby runabouts filled with local teenagers frolicked in the warm bay, seemingly unaffected by this plague. We were being singled out by bugs! Look guys, boaters from Massachusetts. C’mon, let’s get ’em! (2) We travelled one thousand miles!