The Great Loop By Pontoon Boat
By Brigid Schulte
The captain of a souped-up pontoon boat takes on the historic Great Loop, and makes his dream of seeing the heartland come true.
For many boaters, The Great Loop is a trip of a lifetime. People save and plan and anticipate for years. Walter Cronkite even wrote about how he yearned to take this near mythical journey. Books, websites and an entire community of enthusiasts offer advice on which kind of large, 30 to 50-foot live-aboard boat is best, and what places to stop to soak in the local sights. With the special burgee of a "looper" fluttering off their boats, the trip is also one of the most social — with meet-ups and parties and reunions all along the way. But the one cardinal rule of the loop is this: Take Your Time. The idea is to slow down, loopers say. Take at least nine months. Take years. Just don't rush. And then along came Lyn Morgan.
Morgan beaned through 120 locks and 5,300 miles around the entire eastern seaboard at about 40 miles per hour, with stops for two major repairs, in eight weeks and one day. He traveled as far in one day, usually 200 miles, as most loopers do in one week. And, instead of cruising in a big boat, he steered a souped-up, 24-foot pontoon boat. "I'm probably the only person to do the Loop in two months," Morgan said. "But it was not a race. I wasn't trying to set any records. I was just enjoying America from the waterways."
Yes, people have done the loop in sailboats, on a jet ski, and even in a 17-foot aluminum boat. Morgan himself ran into someone doing the loop in a kayak — traveling 30 miles a day for an entire year. But his detractors say Morgan not only missed the point with his trip, he missed the boat.
Lyn Morgan en route, aboard his dream boat.
"Eight weeks? Why bother?" said Eva Stob, a looper who, along with her husband, Ron, co-founded America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association. (www.greatloop.org) "We advocate going slow, not just putting a notch in your gun."
The inspiration for this trip, came to Morgan at a stop on a cross-country road trip a few years ago. He was sitting in a restaurant with his wife in Hannibal Missouri thinking about Mark Twain and the Mississippi River. He wandered down to a nearby dock and struck up a conversation with some locals. He'd been thinking about buying a pontoon boat, the slow-moving, boxy vessels favored for lazy afternoons of fishing or family picnicking more commonly known as the "party barge." How would that do on the mighty river? Mighty fine, the locals answered.
So Morgan, 64, drove back to his home in the Rocky Mountains in Avon, Colorado, determined to float the Mississippi in a pontoon boat. Not long after, a friend called from Chicago and mentioned her parents had just completed something called The Great Loop. Ten minutes later, after a quick Google search to see what the heck it was, Lyn Morgan decided that he, too, would cruise the Great Loop, the interconnected flow of some of the mightiest rivers, prettiest bays, serenest intracoastal waterways, and most treacherous open waters of the Great Lakes that circle the entire eastern portion of the United States and Canada. A loop some 5,000 to 7,000 miles long, depending on the route. And he decided to do it in that pontoon boat.
"He's just like that," his wife, Joanne, explained. This is a man who grew up on a ranch in Kansas, started his adult life as a marine corps officer in Vietnam leading a platoon in combat and worked for years as a paramedic running an entire ambulance district that spanned 700 square miles. He's climbed all 54 peaks in the state of Colorado that are over 14,000 feet, as well as volcanoes in Mexico. He's biked from California to Kansas. He has a black belt in karate, and cross-country skis about 10 miles a day. "He doesn't like to leave things undone."
For eight months, Morgan planned the trip. He bought what would turn out to be 55 pounds of maps and navigation charts. He read books and talked to others who'd done the Great Loop, known as "loopers." And when it came time to buy his pontoon boat, Morgan went high performance. He bought a $50,000 Premier Pontoon S-series 235 with three pontoons – a "tritoon" – 85-gallon gas tank and a Yamaha six-cylinder 250-hp engine; most pontoon boats have anywhere from a 40- to 75-hp engine.) Its top cruising speed is 40 miles per hour. "This is not your grandfather's pontoon boat on Lake Woebegon," Morgan said. Some friends admired his unconventional adventure. Others thought he was a little, well, loopy. His brother-in-law, Jerry Kolb, said he was crazy.
In February, 2010, he christened his new pontoon, Ranch House, in honor of his parents' place in Kansas. In March, he tried out all his electronics and navigation equipment on Lake Powell in Utah, where he and his wife usually go powerboating. In May, he was ready. He figured he'd make 100 miles a day, five days a week and finish the loop in three months. Jerry Kolb and his wife, Morgan's sister, Brenda, came to see him off in St. Louis. "We watched him go through the first locks," Jerry Kolb said. "His tiny pontoon boat next to all hose huge barges looked like a mosquito."
Morgan persevered. Everyday, he got underway often at 6 am, when most loopers are still sleeping soundly, powering through lock after lock, quartering waves, watching for rocks and shallow waters, subsisting on power bars and snack food, being protected from the elements only by a bimini top and arriving at a marina usually sometime in the late afternoon. He'd take a taxi to a nearby motel, where he'd write up a blogpost and transmit the photos he took by phone to his wife, who'd then post them on the web. (ranchhouseloop.blogspot.com/2010_04_25_archive.html)
He'd spend the evening pouring over his maps, and plan the next leg of the journey, check weather reports, get a bite to eat, and hit the pillow early to do it all over again the next day. He met a few folks on his journey. One night he had dinner with some loopers in New Jersey. "One guy said, 'This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. You can't be doing the Great Loop in this boat,'" Morgan said. "The guy was practically yelling at me. But he didn't seem to be someone who'd gone too far himself."
He made the whole length of the open waters of Lake Michigan, which can be the most treacherous part of the journey, in three days. Morgan's wife was supposed to join him on the trip in August. But he was done July 17, putting more miles on his pontoon than most pontoon boats see in 15 years. The only times he envied the loopers in their cozy cruisers was when he was stuck in the rain. "They could anchor, make a meal. Those were the only times I wished I was in a bigger boat."
For most of the loopers in those bigger boats, they got the idea for their trip from Eva and Ron Stob. The Stobs were not the first to cruise the Great Loop — which they did in 1994. The first record of such a trip was back in the 1890s, Eva Stob said, when three boys took the journey on a sailboat. Nor were the Stobs the only ones who knew about it. Walter Cronkite once wrote in a Waterway Guide how it was a trip he'd always wanted to do. But it was the book that the Stobs wrote about their adventure, Honey, Let's Get a Boat, that popularized the Great Loop and made doing it seem accessible to a whole new generation of Baby Boomers with boating dreams.
Now, the association that they founded boasts about 5,000 members, several hundred of whom do part or all of the loop every year, said executive director Janice Kromer. "Most of our members are retired and they finally have the time to do something like this," she said. "They don't want to think the adventures of their lives are over." Loopers hold a rendezvous every year, Kromer said. And the association encourages loopers to hoist a special burgee to more easily connect with other loopers on the voyage. White when the boat is in progress. Gold when the journey's done. "Boaters are friendly people who like to help each other," Kromer said. "But when you're a looper, that's magnified about 100-fold."
Morgan started out the trip with the white burgee, but, he said, at 40 miles per hour, it made a god-awful flapping noise and he took it down. "Some people say, 'You went too fast, you didn't see everything,'" Morgan said. "Well, there's no way you can see everything, I don't care how many years you take to do the trip. There's so much American history, it's incredible. My goal was to see it from the waterways. I'll go, if I want to, by car to see Savannah, Georgia, parts of Florida, and other places I'd like to see more of."
Morgan's blog was, like he is, short and to the point. Most days, he kept to a straight travelogue. Some days, he went into detail about his boat and his equipment and safety gear. But there were those special moments, however short-lived by traditional looper standards, that touched his soul. When he finally got on the Mississippi, he cut the motor and just floated, imagining what it must have been like for Mark Twain and Huck Finn. On Lake Erie, George Gershwin's "Summertime," kept playing in his head. As did Carl Sandburg's poem, "Chicago," once he cruised into that town. And on Collins Inlet between Beaverstone Bay and Killarney in Georgian Bay, he was struck by the sheer beauty of it all. From his blog:
The banks are granite rising out of the water and leaning inland covered with pine trees. Water lilies with white blooms lay along the shore, muskrats were playing and an occasional eagle flew reconnaissance. I cannot recall ever before having a lump in my throat for "just terrain." This is perhaps a magical kingdom.
Mike Starick, who went through officer-training school and later Vietnam with Morgan, brushed aside the looper criticism. "Lyn's not much of a museum guy," he said of his friend, who's a pistol-competition shooter and also teaches orienteering classes in the wilderness with only a compass. "He's more of an action guy." What people need to understand, he said, is that the intensity of being a platoon leader, under fire, in combat, shaped the rest of his and Morgan's lives. Once the war was over, they've always been on the search for activities that would match the intensity of combat. "By ratcheting it up like that, he created his own superior challenge — the quick decision-making, being in the elements, in unknown waters," Starick said. "Putzing along and having a beer and spending all day doing not much of anything. That's not his style."
In the end, Morgan said, with the gas, motels, maps, taxis, food and other costs, the trip ran him about $25,000. And, he said, it was well worth it. "It was an amazing adventure. I learned so much history. All my life, I'd read about these places, like the Okeechobee Swamp, and always wondered what they were like. I got a chance to go right across it," Morgan said.
But Morgan, man of few words, said he'd written something in his journal that he'd meant to post on his blog, but never did. It says it all:
Why did I do this trip? To push my own boundaries, to do something that could fail, to build on past experiences, to plan and execute a complex trip, to meet the people on America's waterways, to see an earlier industrial America, to bookmark road trips, to honor my parents (Ranch House) and the 58,000 Americans of my generation who gave their young lives and never enjoyed the opportunities of America, a tribute to what the Marine Corps taught me, to face the unknown of each day, to give thanks for a healthy body and mind that should not remain unchallenged, to expand my small book of a mariner's world, and to temporarily take leave of a beautiful, wonderful and small mountain community. Semper Fi.
Visit Morgan's blog at
Brigid Schilte is a staff writer for The Washington Post. She lives in Alexandria, VA, where her boat of choice is the family canoe.
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