Our Turn For The Great American Loop


Turn! Turn! Turn! That’s the title of a Pete Seeger song made into a smash hit by the Byrds in the 1960s, and it perfectly answered the question of when my wife Lisa and I should retire. We grappled with that question, and others, as many of our friends were doing. When should we sell our family home. When is the right time to embark on a life-altering adventure? Finally, the answer became clear. We should do it as soon as we could. It was our… Turn! Turn! Turn!.

Jim and Lisa decided to quit their jobs, sell their house, move aboard, and enjoy the cruising life while they had their health and the resolve to do it

Lisa and I have been in and around water all of our lives, and we love the boating life. So it makes sense that a 45-mile voyage north to Charlevoix, Michigan, on our 42-foot Silverton Convertible in the summer of 2003, could’ve been a catalyst in changing our lives forever. Charlevoix’s harbor sits in a protected lake just inside a channel that leads to Lake Michigan. It was in this protected Round Lake harbor that we took a leisurely dinghy ride on a sunny afternoon, something we always enjoy doing when in port.

While puttering around, we noticed a 48-foot pilothouse trawler named Bacaruda anchored in the harbor with a hailing port of Seattle, Washington. We were intrigued. What would it be like to travel from the West Coast, we wondered, through the Panama Canal, all the way up to the Great Lakes? We introduced ourselves, and invited the Millers over to our boat that evening, and over cocktails they answered all of our questions about their travels. The rest is history, as they say. That chance encounter made us take a second look at our future.

What we were surprised to learn from the Millers was that a boat their size, or even ours, could make a journey around the eastern United States on a circular route. The Millers had cruised the West Coast, the Panama Canal, and the Caribbean. Lisa and I became hooked on a similar idea.

Jim and Lisa proudly displaying their American Great Loop (AGLCA) burgee in September 2005, shortly before they left on their life-changing first Loop

America’s Great Loop is best described as a 6,000-mile circumnavigation of the Great Lakes, inland river system, Gulf of Mexico, ICW of Florida and the American East Coast, Chesapeake Bay, the Hudson River into the Erie Canal or Lake Champlain, through to Canada’s Trent-Severn Waterway or Rideau Canal, Georgian Bay, and the North Channel. The “Loop” can be started from any of these locations.

While we’d become avid boaters during our marriage, Lisa and I were never aware that pleasure boats could do this trip as easily as the Millers were describing. From that moment on, we became obsessed about retiring early, and began planning to make this adventure a reality. We were surprised, and then happy, that we were both in total agreement about focusing our energies toward one thing. We wanted to become “Loopers.”.

It was a magical feeling watching the Chicago skyline grow in front of our eyes as we approached on a perfectively calm fall day

As a financial advisor I was acutely aware of what it took to make retirement work. So after determining where I thought we needed to be financially, we set some goals so that our new dream could become a reality as soon as possible. We’d already been preparing for retirement for years, but our preparations now picked up steam. We set up the goal of paying off our debt, continuing to maximize the contributions to our respective retirement accounts, and save whatever else we could. As time passed, our plans began to jell. Our next decision was what to do with our home.

Selling the house was a tough decision, and one we didn’t take lightly. We’d spent 15 years remodeling and upgrading it and it was in top shape. I’d wanted to rent it; Lisa wanted to sell. She felt that we’d worked so hard to get the house the way we wanted it, why risk renting it and letting it get run down. For us, putting the house up for sale turned out to be the right decision. The house sold at the top of the market, before the real-estate slump in Michigan, and relieved us of housing concerns and worries while we were on our adventure.

This was our family home that Lisa was wise to suggest that we sell. We don’t miss the house, just our neighbors.

In 2005, Lisa and I were in our mid-fifties – a little young to hang it up workwise, and we both enjoyed what we did for a living. But, at the same time, we felt so lucky to have our health, and were excited to broaden our horizons and experience new adventures. After talking and thinking and talking and thinking, we decided we had enough money, that we didn’t need to keep accumulating, that we wanted to experience new challenges. Beyond the fact that we love everything about boating (except for the cost of fuel), we felt the 6,000-mile journey would be an adventure that the two of us could experience together, doing what we both love. We wanted to learn more about our country, meet many interesting people, and see places we’d most likely never see unless we were traveling by boat.

Most importantly, I’d come to a point in my life where I no longer felt like I’d live forever. I think this happens to all of us at some point. We realize we’re mortal. For me, the realization hit close to home because of the deaths of some people I knew, most of whom were my age. We decided to simplify our lives, and focus more on what we enjoy doing.

Lisa kept our first Loop’s progress posted on our blog page; here you’ll see all the major stops we made during our 9-and-a-half month journey

The Great Loop may be an extraordinary 6,000-mile circumnavigation of the waterways in the eastern half of the United States, but for Lisa and me it was always more about the day-to-day experiences, more about the journey itself rather than it was about the final destination. We tried to find the uniqueness in all the small river towns, large cities, or quiet anchorages during our trip. What drew us deeper into the experience and what we found, soon into our journey, was that the Great Loop travelers were as varied as the members of any large family. As we met these fellow boaters, who, it became apparent, shared the same interests as we have -- boating and adventure -- we realized that we’d all left behind the self-importance of our home and work life. It didn’t matter where we came from, where we worked, or what our social, economic, or educational background was. We found that the camaraderie of this group was akin to belonging to a benevolent civic organization, all willing to help each other out without expecting anything in return.

We also found that when you’re traveling the Great Loop and have been communicating with other Loopers via VHF radio, Internet, or while visiting while anchored together or docked at marinas, you share your knowledge about the “must stops” along the route. Hearing about these places and finally experiencing them yourself are part of what can make a day’s travel unique and in the end make the trip more memorable.

Hoppies is one of those “must stops” on the Loop. This is a one-of-a-kind mom-and-pop marina that’s been in business since 1935

One time, Lisa and I heard from other Loopers about the heralded Riverdock Restaurant in Hardin, Illinois, on the Illinois River. We were told that they had the best beef brisket and homemade pies anywhere on the river, so we decided to stay a night at their dock and partake. As we were tying up, a red-and-blue helicopter landed about a hundred feet from us. Three people got out, secured the chopper, and proceeded up to the restaurant. It’s not every day you have a helicopter land next to your boat.

We took a walk, something we do every chance we get when tied to shore, and forgot about the helicopter. We stopped at the restaurant on our way back to find out how long they’d be open, not wanting to miss that brisket. As we entered the restaurant a waitress was getting two fresh pies out of the pie case. I said, “You’re not going to eat both of those yourself are you?” And she said, “Oh no, these are for Mr. Busch” -- as in Auggie Busch of Anheuser Busch beer in St. Louis, Missouri. Apparently, he flies the short distance up to the Riverdock a few times a month in his helicopter or float plane, his mind set on brisket and pie. I guess you’d call him a regular.

Lisa and I had dinner that night and the food was everything we were promised. Funny how certain meals seem to taste even better because you got to them by boat! Whenever we arrived in a new area, we’d always try to seek out and sample the local cuisine. We ate well while going down the river system -- plenty of barbequed pork and fried chicken, beans and rice, and catfish.

The Abacos Islands are one of those places that take your breath away. The crystal clear water, sandy beaches, remote islands and great weather. It’s one of favorite places.

When Lisa and I left on our Great Loop journey in 2005 we thought nine-and-a-half months would be more than enough time to see everything we’d ever want to see. Boy, were we naïve. Although the nine-and-a-half months were extremely educational and rewarding, the time flew by. In hindsight it was not nearly long enough to absorb the places we visited or to have the time to explore places we’d heard about.

So Lisa and I came to the conclusion that we wanted to continue our boating lifestyle, and embark on a more ambitious two-year Great Loop adventure, including the Bahamas, with a departure date of early September 2008. We also agreed that we really wanted a different boat for the journey this time, one that offered us greater speeds, and better fuel economy. We had a lot to do to make all these things happen. As The Byrds sang out all so well, again it was time to Turn! Turn! Turn! And get to it. We’re so excited to see what the future holds, and we look forward to embarking on this new voyage, with BoatUS readers aboard our new Kismet.

While anchored behind the Statue of Liberty with the sun going down and the glow of Lady Liberty’s torch growing we could not help but marvel in symbolism the Statue represents for us as Americans