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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.