BOATING IN AMERICA
Trip of a lifetime on The Great Loop
Retirement presented something of a challenge to Ian – the spectre of boredom loomed, but not for long. For the previous six years, we’d owned a share in a narrowboat, a syndicate with Carefree Cruising, and while we were both working full-time, our four weeks a year on nb Scallywag suited us well.
The base changed every two or three years, so we saw a fair expanse of the British waterways, from Limehouse Basin and the River Thames down south, to the Standedge Tunnel and the Huddersfield Narrow up north.
Progression to a narrowboat of our own seemed an obvious and logical step. On Scallywag, we’d been limited to one or two-week trips, and the temptation to travel as far as possible and see as much as we could each time, had led to some rather hectic schedules and rushing to get the boat back to the base in time for the next owners to come on board. So I looked forward to narrowboating in a rather more leisurely way, revisiting favourite haunts and choosing my own carpets, curtains and kitchen utensils.
But Ian had read Terry Darlington’s book Narrow Dog to Indian River. We had even seen Terry and Monica’s boat, the Phyllis May II moored at Aston Marina, where Scallywag was based. In the book, Terry describes how they shipped the Phyllis May to Norfolk, Virginia, and with their whippet, Jim, travelled down the Intra-Coastal Waterway (ICW) to Indian River, Florida. Negotiating Pamlico Sound and the 30-mile wide Lake Okeechobee sounded a bit more challenging than the good old Trent & Mersey.
Ian then discovered that the Atlantic ICW is but part of a larger system of waterways in the eastern United States which comprise what is known as the Great Loop. With a few variations, you can travel in a loop across Florida, up the coasts of Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, stop in New York City, up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes and back down to Florida via the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.
There’s a whole Great Loop culture. Lots of people do it and there’s a lot of information on the web. There’s the American Great Loop Cruisers Association, which runs an internet forum for Loopers to share their experiences, as well as being full of helpful advice. They have a big meeting every year for Loopers to get together and socialise in style.
Most Loopers do the trip in a single journey, leaving Florida in the spring and travelling north in time to get through the Great Lakes before the end of September, when the route becomes impassable to small craft because of frequent storms.
With a feeling of anticipation and renewed purpose, Ian enrolled on
‘One thing we had found difficult was working out how much the trip would cost, separating out one-off costs from ongoing ones’
several online courses in navigation and boat safety, and passed the RYA day skipper course. He spent hours on the internet deciding what sort of boat we might buy.
At this point, the negotiations started. I didn’t want to leave my family, house and garden for a year. I didn’t want to give up my friends and interests for a year. The biggest fear though was the boating itself. I had stood on the banks of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, where it is two miles wide, and never imagined that one day I might be expected to go down it in a small boat. The Loop also included a 30-mile stretch in the Atlantic, off the coast of New Jersey. It was way outside my comfort zone.
My fears were airily dismissed, and a compromise was reached. We would do the Loop, but in stages, for a maximum of three to four months at a time. An advantage of doing it this way was that we could combine the journeys with visiting our son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Virginia. On 7 January 2014, we flew to Orlando, where the weather was remarkably similar to that we had left behind in Newcastle.
One thing we had found difficult was working out how much the trip would cost, separating out one-off costs from ongoing costs, and how these would compare with what we would normally spend at home. We basically had no clue so, at this stage, we tried to do everything as inexpensively as possible. Budget hotels and the low-cost dining experience did nothing to alleviate the miserable effects of the weather, or the feelings of disorientation and trepidation about the boat purchase.
Part of the planning process had involved going on a flotilla holiday in the Greek Islands, to test my tolerance levels. Lefkas and Ithaca were indeed delightful, but it was clear that a week was my limit of endurance on a 32ft sailing yacht with an uncomfortable bed,
a very rudimentary shower, two gas rings to cook on, a very small fridge and no storage space. Given that we would be spending a good proportion of the time anchored out, and would need to provision for several days at a time, the minimum requirements were a decent cooker, a good fridge, a shower that worked, somewhere to store our stuff, and a comfy bed.
Ian hankered after a sailing boat. He seemed to think there was something more manly about them. It took some time, and the force of reason, for him to admit that our purposes would be better served by a motor cruiser. The fairly narrow channels on large parts of the Loop, where the waterway passes between barrier islands and the main shore, or the cuts between inlets, did not lend themselves to sailing. And the mast would have to be lowered to pass under most of the many bridges along the way.
He had identified several boats as possibilities and made appointments to view two of them. Time was of the essence as our return flights were booked for mid-March in time for the arrival of a new grandson who was due to appear at the beginning of April. There was not really any time to dither about which boat to buy.
We picked up a hire car at Orlando Airport and the next day set off for Fort Myers, two hours’ drive away, to look at the first boat.
I knew within two minutes of boarding that it simply wouldn’t do. But Ian was oblivious to my repertoire of non-verbal communication (raised eyebrows, glassy stares, frowns, rolling eyes, heavy sighs and pointed glances at my watch). I had to endure nearly an hour of detailed questions about engine capacity, service records, fuel pumps and so on, before we escaped. The reason for the sale was that the vendor’s partner had decided that cruising wasn’t for her – and I could see why.
Our next stop was Treasure Island, Florida, just north of Tampa Bay to look at mv Carina, a motor trawler. She was moored up in a little inlet off the waterway, at the bottom of the vendors’ garden. With two bedrooms, two bathrooms (‘heads’ as I was to learn to refer to them), more than ample storage space, a decent galley with a normal fridge, and a top deck equipped with a rattan sofa and chairs, Carina made a much more favourable impression. At 38ft long, with a beam of 13ft and a draft of 4ft, and with a single Lehman diesel engine housed in a pristine engine room, Ian liked her too.
The next day we made an offer via the brokers, to buy Carina subject to survey and sea trial, and our offer was accepted. There followed three weeks of getting formalities sorted out, and the brokers, Page and Norm at St Pete Yacht Sales, were a great help, as nothing is easy for aliens in the U.S. Although we have a Citibank U.S. dollar account, paying large sums of money with it is not simple. Buying things online is impossible if you don’t have a U.S. postal address linked to your credit card. There was only one insurance company willing to insure us, and we could do that only by asking our son, who lives in Virginia, to make the payment on our behalf.
While the formalities were being dealt with we took the opportunity to fly up to Virginia to see the family, and the rest of the time exploring the west coast of Florida. We moved to a hotel in Sarasota, where the highlights, depending on one’s likes and preferences, were a motorbike festival, the Ringling Museum of Art, and the beautiful white Turtle Beach at Siesta Key. At Myakka State Park, we saw alligators being teased out of the water by a group of pelicans who managed to keep at just a safe distance from them. At St Petersburg, we went to the worldfamous Salvador Dali Museum and the St Petersburg Museum of Fine Art.
But soon we were facing the reality of boat ownership. The sea trial and survey were both satisfactorily completed, and the vendors, Tom and Tracey (we were on first-name terms by now) spent an afternoon showing us how everything worked. We took possession of Carina the following day – Norm, from the brokers, drove us over from St Pete to
‘The reason for the sale of the first boat was that the vendor’s partner had decided cruising wasn’t for her – and I could see why’
Tom and Tracey’s house and promised to meet us back in the marina at St Pete to help us dock. We had considered postponing, because the weather forecast wasn’t that favourable – winds of 20 knots, but moderating in the afternoon. If it had been any worse, we wouldn’t have gone.
With some trepidation, and conscious that Tom and Tracey might be watching the spectacle from the comfort of their sitting room, we hesitantly cast off the mooring ropes. Being narrowboaters of some years’ experience, we’re used to boats being carried by the wind, but this was rather different. The manoeuvre consisted of reversing the boat, then turning and going forwards down the channel. But surrounding the dock were several other boats belonging to Tom and Tracy’s neighbours, large poles sticking out of the water and some shallow water.
Although Carina obligingly drifted out away from the two poles she’d been moored to, as Ian reversed, the wind blew us at speed towards the other boats and poles. A hair-raising few minutes passed until we finally got free, the outboard dinghy on the back missing one of the poles by an inch.
Another source of stress was the depth of the water – in many parts of Tampa Bay it’s very shallow and our depth gauge beeped with alarming frequency. But we managed to avoid running aground, only to encounter stronger winds and more swell, and it was a relief as we approached St Pete. Norm met us as promised, along with a small group of gongoozlers who congratulated us on our maiden voyage.
Ian wondered when the trip would stop being stressful and start being enjoyable. The answer proved to be not any time soon – except that the number of stressful episodes gradually decreased and we did start to relax. The weather deteriorated over the next few days delaying our departure, but the following Friday, 1 February 2014, despite cold grey skies and drizzly rain, we decided we’d waited long enough and set off on the 30-mile trip across Tampa Bay to Sarasota, and started our trip for real.
‘A source of stress was the water depth – in many parts it’s very shallow and our depth gauge beeped with alarming frequency’
The marina at Sarasota
Treasure Island to St Pete
On Turtle Beach
The marina at Sarasota
Alligator at Myakka State Park
St Pete to Sarasota