Inspired To Travel: The Looper Lifestyle
By Michael Vatalaro
America's Great Loop is, first and foremost, an idea. The idea that you can navigate, thanks to locks and canals intended to aid commerce, all the way around the eastern half of the U.S. in your boat. Forget for the moment the logistical challenges of this 6,000-mile adventure. Forget that many of us never regularly spend more than a weekend aboard, let alone the months required to complete the journey. Forget too, the mental hurdle of leaving behind your life on land, even if only temporarily.
Instead, imagine joining the select group of boaters who've completed the Loop, voyaging through at least 14 states and a Canadian province or two. It may not match the physical challenge of summiting Everest, say, but this idea grabs hold of some boaters and drives them in much the same manner. And in their quest, they become positively infectious with enthusiasm towards their goal.
Because It's There
Founded in 1999, the America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association (AGLCA) is a tight-knit community of around 4,000 members who gather at spring and fall rendezvous, and online, to exchange information (and inspiration) about the Loop. The group's founders, Ron and Eva Stob, completed the Loop in 1994. Five years later, they published a book about it, called Honey, Let's Get a Boat, and discovered a small, but energetic demand for information on how to go about the journey.
"We inadvertently kicked off a movement of sorts," says Ron. Migration might be a better term. Each spring, a small cadre of mostly powerboaters (fixed bridges along the route mean sailors must un-step their masts to complete the loop) set forth along the East Coast, with the goal of reaching the Chesapeake Bay in May. Not coincidentally, the AGLCA Spring Rendezvous is held in Norfolk, Virginia, at the mouth of the Chesapeake in early May each year. From there, Loopers continue north on their journey, circumnavigating the eastern U.S. in a counter-clockwise fashion, which allows them to time the seasons to be in the higher latitudes in summer, and not exit the protection of the western rivers until after hurricane season. This pattern also allows "Loopers" to go with the flow of the Mississippi and other river legs. Of course, like in all groups, there are those who go against the grain.
Wrong Way Loopers
To be fair, Galen and Becky Dunmire didn't set off to do the Great Loop when they purchased a Silverton 392 motoryacht on Lake St. Clair. "We just thought we'd drive the boat home," says Galen, home being on the Chesapeake Bay, where they do their boating, though they hail from Inwood, West Virginia. But after arriving on Middle River in the upper Bay, and having a great time on the cruise, the couple decided not to winterize Mooring Dove that year, and set off for Hilton Head, South Carolina.
It was there that a fellow cruiser, after hearing of their trip, asked if they were doing the Great Loop. Becky and Galen had ever heard of it. And though it had only been their goal to cruise the ICW, they quickly expanded their horizons to include a return leg to Lake St. Clair. Their Great Loop was nearly halfway completed. Except for one teensy detail.
"I'm not much for turning around and going back," says Galen, a retired airline pilot. "In a car or on the water." So they set off for Florida, eventually hopping to Carrabelle on the Gulf Coast and making for Mobile Bay and access to the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway. Along the way, they'd get delayed for a week, waiting to be towed through the electric carp barrier on their way to Lake Michigan, and would pause to fly home three or four times in all. Eventually, one year and three months later, they completed their Loop. Now they want to do it again, the "right" way this time, and take longer to enjoy themselves along the way.
From Definitive Goal, To Infinite Lifestyle
Galen and Becky certainly aren't the first to be turned into long-term cruising junkies by a Great Loop cruise. Over and over at the Rendezvous, a similar refrain can be heard, along the lines of: "I had to talk her onto the boat. Now I can't talk her off it!" One couple was introduced as having taken a year to do their first Loop, three years for their second, and were planning on five years for their third. Others opt to return to a particular portion of the Loop and make these "side trips" into a main event.
David and Barbara Doyle, from Jacksonville, Florida, did the Loop in 2005 in their 27-foot Rinker, MemoryMaker too, and are back cruising up the East coast this spring towards the North Loop, or Canadian-American Canal cruise, up the Hudson through the canals to the St. Lawrence, across Canada through yet more canals and Lake Ontario, popping out on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. What makes the Doyles stand out is their decision to do both the whole cruise on a mid-size express cruiser, while many of their fellow Loopers elect for larger aft-cabin yachts or trawlers.
No Right Boat
Other than the 19-foot, one-inch, vertical clearance of a fixed bridge south of Chicago, and preferred draft of five feet or less, just about any recreational boat can conquer the Loop, provided it has sufficient range for some of the more remote northern legs (about 250 miles). But Loopers gravitate towards trawlers, perhaps understandably, with the twin desires of interior volume and fuel efficiency. However, the Doyles wanted a boat they could live with after they finished their Loop, and so found ways to make the Rinker work as a long-term liveaboard.
"I disassembled the boat," says David, "looking for unused spaces." Under a seating console he discovered enough room in the bilge to stash their full canvas enclosure, after lining it with carpet. In the emptiness behind another panel he built a shelf to hold non-perishable food items. David owns an automotive repair shop, so he's not intimidated by getting his hands dirty. But perhaps the most important change he made to the Rinker is in plain sight on the swim platform: a bike rack. Part of the attraction of the Rinker was speed. "We get where we're going first each day, compared to other Loopers, and have time to take the bikes into town and explore," says David. And as for fuel consumption, "We may burn more an hour, but we travel much faster, so it's a wash."
Plans Versus Realities
Practical realizations like the Doyles' experience with fuel consumption make the AGLCA meetings invaluable for Great Loop dreamers. The meetings offer both structured seminars and plenty of time to chat with experienced Loopers and novices alike about the best places to visit, best routes for the trip, and of course, what sort of tweaks they've made to make their boats better liveaboards (see sidebar).
In fact, the highlight of the Rendezvous for many is called The Looper Crawl – basically a group open house or home-and-garden tour in a marina. Each afternoon Looper hopefuls get to board and chat with the owners of a variety of boats during cocktail hour. Tom Blair, a BoatUS member from Boca Raton, Florida, attended the Spring Rendezvous with the goal of narrowing down his search for a Loop-compatible boat. A longtime boater, he only discovered the Great Loop when he read "Lyn Morgan Is A Man In A Hurry," BoatUS Magazine's October 2011 profile of a former Marine Corps officer who tackled the Loop in a pontoon boat in just eight weeks. "I've been boating more than 20 years, and I'd never heard of the Great Loop till that story," says Tom. "Now I think it's something I really want to try."
— Published: August/September 2012
The captain of a souped-up pontoon boat takes on the historic Great Loop
Tackling the Great Loop with three young kids turns out to be doable and rewarding for this family of five
The Chicago waterways that access to the Gulf of Mexico also provided a path for invasive species
How To Make A Good Boat Better
Craig and Barbara Wolf's 43 Sabreline trawler Blue Heron absolutely gleamed dockside at Waterside Marina in Norfolk in May, but even this relatively new boat had been modified. "We bought the perfect boat, and then made it more perfect," was how Barbara described the work they had done by Virginia's Deltaville Boatyard. With two large retrievers as members of the crew, getting to, and off, the swim platform was an issue. The original transom design of the Sabreline featured two tall steps from the platform cut into the transom to get up and onto the aft cabin trunk, which were difficult for the dogs. The solution was to extend the swim platform and add a third step, making each shorter and more gently sloped.
Aboard Karma, Ivy and Bob Neubauer, 18-year liveaboards from Coconut Grove, Florida, showed off a simple, effective solution to a problem created by a shallow anchor locker. Bob, a former TowBoatUS operator, rigged a self-aiming anchor-rode washdown out of PVC tubing that allows one crewmember to be below in the forward cabin flaking the rode, while the windlass retrieves it. In engineer's jargon, this is known as a "kludge," a crude but effective solution. "I'd like to add one or two more nozzles to make it more effective," said Bob.
But one of the busiest boats on the Looper Crawl hasn't been modified at all. A brand-new Beneteau 34 Swift Trawler embarking on a Great Loop cruise this summer has made the trip to Norfolk specifically for the Rendezvous. Beneteau, along with numerous partner sponsors, is sending the boat around the Loop to showcase both this new model, from a builder known for quality performance and cruising sailboats in the U.S., and to promote awareness of the Loop itself. With its distinctive blue bow-wrap and NASCAR-worthy smattering of logos, the sleek Beneteau Swift Trawler should make an impression at waterfronts all along the route. Follow the boat's progress at www.TheGreatestLoop.com.
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