“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 right now 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.
Active Captain listed 3 marinas in Cleveland and the first one I called answered right away.
“‘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?”
“How about pump out?”
“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 are other 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 Lee the importance of alone time cannot be 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:
“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. Eggie bowls 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.”
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”
“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, Imagine Too, 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.