Life on the Loop
When I think of common sense, I think of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s test for obscenity in 1964: “I know it when I see it.” With common sense, it gets flipped: you know it when you don’t see it.
Recreational boating took off in the United States after World War II. Fiberglass made boats less expensive and more durable. The Greatest Generation, the whole country, had earned some R&R. The war had introduced radar. The Space Program and Silicon Valley added bits of magic and by the mid 1990’s, early chart plotters were making recreational boating even safer and easier.
You no longer had to have years of experience to be comfortable in unfamiliar waters or out of sight of land. With GPS and a chart plotter, you really have to try hard to get lost. Modern sonar almost makes fishing unfair. Modern radar teamed with AIS not only shows you the boats near you, but gives you their name, size and direction at a glance. For the slow witted, the ‘target’ can be color coded for the amount of danger it represents. Satellites can pick up an emergency beacon, pinpoint your position and have help on the way in minutes.
None of it replaces Common Sense. Common sense can overcome gaps in electronics, equipment, and even knowledge. Equipment and knowledge have a harder time overcoming gaps in common sense. If that doesn’t make sense to you, you might want to spend more money on training, equipment and insurance. You may need it. Common sense is a Captain’s best friend and key to enjoying the Great Loop.
It starts with the most simple of commandments. Pay Attention. Any honest Captain will admit to something really stupid because they weren’t paying attention. On the Loop, there are reasons why, but none the Admiralty Court or your insurance company will be happy with:
Many sections of the Loop are distractedly beautiful or interesting.
Unfamiliar waters take more focus. Loopers are almost always in unfamiliar waters.
Being on the water for long and/or consecutive days is deceptively tiring.
On any given day, parts of your boat may need more love than you have the energy for.
The hardest chore of the day comes when you’re most tired: anchoring or docking.
Chart plotters are all but mandatory but are distracting and/or overwhelming.
Watching for snags and debris requires near impossible lengths of concentration.
Navigating at night or in fog is hard, even in familiar water - Loopers generally try to avoid both.
Most loopers are not in ‘the prime’ of their life.
Auto pilots make things too easy.
Pay attention! Come to terms with your body. If you need a nap, take it. If you need a day off, take it, or two or three. If you need to pee… The Loop will still be there. You’re not on a schedule, right?!?
If you think Safety Margins are for sissies, you probably need them more than most. If they seem frivolous, think of them as a constant cost/benefit analysis.
Some safety margins are obvious: only a fool gets close to a tug and barge or freighter - or even takes a chance of getting too close. Others are based on your boat’s design: fuel range, size, speed, maneuverability, air and water draft. Some are determined by weather, others by the Admiral or Coast Guard, or worse, your insurance company or spouse.
A Captain’s ego can make safety margins tricky to set and hard to follow. Be honest about how you handle the unexpected. Confidence is a good thing, but don’t let it saddle you with a slim safety margin. Too big a safety margin is just as bad. It may never be tested, and you’ll start ignoring it.
Murphy’s Law will test your safety margins; you don’t have to go looking for trouble. Experience will change them. What’s important is that they are comfortable enough to follow consistently. Safety margins not followed do little good.
Early in my Loop I watched a bigger boat come into dock with the Captain and Admiral both wearing headsets, also know as marriage savers. I’m thinking “Well, that’s a bit much”. Later I saw another couple in a similar boat coming in with them yelling at each other and changed my mind. Communication is critical on the water. As a solo Looper, I still think headsets are a bit dorky, but if they improve communication and reduce expletives, use them!
VHF radio makes many people sound like they’re talking with a wad of tobacco in their mouth. Never be afraid to ask for clarification. If you don’t want to offend an unfamiliar accent or don’t want to admit you need hearing aids, just lie: “You broke out, please repeat”. You can confess later.
However brilliant you think you are, don’t assume that everyone thinks like you. Many docking incidents happen when someone trying to help puts a line on a different cleat or around a different piling than you thought they would. Communicate what you’re expecting and listen when someone else communicates! Leave back seat drivers on shore.
Boating has its own vocabulary. It takes practice to get comfortable using it. ‘Port'. 'Starboard’. 'One side’. 'Two side’. 'Right of Way'. 'Red Right Return’. ‘Red Right Return to Brownsville’. I finally wrote out an explanation of the ones I stumbled over and taped it next to the VHF. Don’t be proud. Do whatever it takes to improve your communication – something most marriages would benefit from too.
All chart plotters, GPS, radar and even paper charts are not created equal, much less the Captains who use them. Occasionally, your instruments may show you navigating a narrow alley to McDonalds. That’s silly because the only McDonalds with a boat dock is in Madeira Beach, FL and it’s not on a narrow alley. Trust your Eyes over your Instruments. You’ll be surprised how hard that is when your chart plotter is wailing that you’re about to hit a boat that you can’t see.
Unlike driving a car, a Captain’s focus is usually at least ¼ to ½ mile ahead. At 6-9 mph trawler speed, and even at 20 or 25, it takes time for scenarios to develop. Don’t overreact before you know that you’re reacting properly. Yes, barge tows are big, but they don’t move very fast. The answer usually becomes obvious with a bit of Patience.
A smallish boat and being solo gave me a lot of flexibility, but I learned the hard way that I couldn’t stop just anywhere, and gas was not available everywhere. I still wonder about those who feel a need for meticulous plans for weeks ahead, but a Daily Plan is a good idea. It should include alternatives for both good and bad weather, as well as Murphy’s Law.
Have you ever circled around the block back home to make sure you locked the door? Check Lists help avoid the really embarrassing things: forgetting an anchor, talking on a VHF that’s not turned on, running with your anchor light on all day, the head overflowing, rapping a loose line around your prop, things blowing overboard or something, usually your bed, soaked because the hatch wasn’t locked down. Been there, done that, no need to do it again. Put it on the check list.
Leave the ego at home. Learn from Others. There’s lots of good knowledge traveling with you on the Loop. Don’t ask people to fix things for you - laziness is frowned upon. But virtually any boater, especially fellow Loopers, will take time to offer suggestions or help diagnose a problem. I never met a Looper who wouldn’t share their experience from marinas, anchorages, routes or special places. The problem was usually getting them to stop!
You can learn by watching too. Docking is a good example. If you’ve hit a dock a few times, you might improve by watching how others do it. Test yourself. Anticipate what a Captain is going to do, then watch. If they do something different, who had it right based on the results? Never stop learning.
Mother Nature will be the biggest test of your common sense.
Weather is not my strong suit. My eyelids start to droop when I try to sort out nimbus, cumulus, stratus, cirrus, and all their cousins. I know that big black ones are bad, especially with funnels coming out the bottom. I do pay attention to wind. Other than pouring down rain, wind is the best indicator that it may not be a fun day out there, or even in a marina.
The Chesapeake is notorious for sudden summer squalls. I was docked on the Middle River at Bowley’s Marina near Baltimore, having just stumbled back to L.T. after helping It’s Someday celebrate crossing her wake when one blew up. I watched fascinated as the wind blew one of those old fashioned 3-4 foot diameter cork life rings horizontal, wondering what kind of damage a miniature white Enterprise might do to my windshield if it lifted off its hook.
Wind is the biggest, but not the only indicator of wave height. Wave height and wind is a good place to start with safety margins. Generally, anything less than 2 feet and 15 mph – a bit less if on my beam – I’m good to go. I’m asking L.T. her opinion and looking to see if everything is put away and tied down if 3+ feet and 20 mph. At 5 feet and 25 mph I’m heading to the movie theater and L.T. is on her own at the dock. If I’m looking at a long day, I lower these margins 10-20% unless there are really good Plan B and C bailouts along the way.
Going GOLD/crossing your wake/getting back to where you started is surprisingly emotional. A year is a long time.
Not a clue of the squall that was coming in less than an hour.
Everyone knows about Tides though the Loop will probably teach you more. Every section of the Great Loop goes up and down, either daily (coasts), seasonally (Lake Okeechobee), annually (the Great Lakes) or irregularly (rivers, often due to weather hundreds of miles away). This affects more than the obvious. Things like:
Getting into a marina or maybe even if it’s open.
If a lock is open and sometimes even if you go through it rather than up or down in it.
Sneaking under a bridge instead of waiting for it to open.
What route you take or when you leave.
If you wake up on land or water.
It was starting to get dark along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal prompting me to take a shortcut along the original C&D Canal to the Delaware City Marina. L.T. was doing her thing in narrow and shallow when I spotted a fixed low bridge about ¾ of a mile in. I began regretting not checking the route more carefully. It didn’t look like we could get under, but I noticed it was low tide by the water line on the marsh reeds. I went from feeling pretty stupid to pretty smug as we crept under it by 2-3 inches. High tide the next morning revealed a clearance of 4-5’. L.T. needs 9’ with her antenna down. Tidal lesson learned.
Current is also a fact of life on the Loop except on the Great Lakes. There are numerous places along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) where you don’t want to buck the tide, which is just a current that turns around every 6 or 12 hours. Ellicott Cut in South Carolina and Snow’s Cut near Wilmington, North Carolina are two narrow channels where L.T. expressed her unhappiness with my timing the tide, or lack thereof. I heard one trawler Captain describe the current in Pt. Pleasant Canal in New Jersey as an opportunity to film a feature length (but pretty boring) movie trying to get past a single buoy.
River current, especially on the Mississippi, can be deceptively strong, strong enough to add or subtract 3-4 mph, a significant percentage for trawlers making only 7-9 mph to start with and one reason few Loopers do the Loop clockwise. The lower Ohio is controlled by dams, but if the Mississippi has it’s dander up, which it did when I went through because the Missouri was flooding, the turbulence at their confluence at Cairo, Illinois reminded me of the 3-4 foot deep whirlpools and ‘picket’ eddy lines in the Grand Canyon, or the Room of Doom in Westwater Canyon – things you don’t want to explore in either a raft or boat.
The strongest consistent current I experienced was on the Tennessee at flood stage, an adventure I describe in in ‘Pickwick Lock and Dam’. It was strong enough to pull buoys completely under water. Yogi Berra would say to stay away from buoys you can’t see.
All of this is Common Sense. But inevitably it takes a close call or two, or worse, to sink in (pun intended). Don’t stress but keep your eyes open. Part of the challenge as well as the charm of the Great Loop is that different sections require different boating skills. About the time you think you’ve got things mastered, you start all over again. Never stop learning and check your common sense regularly. Don’t leave the dock without it.