Life on the Loop
The Great Loop Learning Curve
Some degree of a learning curve awaits anyone starting the Great Loop. Even if you’ve been boating your entire life, the Loop will take you to new places that may require new skills or different ways of doing things. If, like me, you haven’t been boating all your life, it may take more work. Regardless, a smart Captain is always willing to learn.
You may be embarrassed at some point, but probably not humiliated. You may ding your boat, maybe a couple times, but probably not sink it. You may get frustrated, but hopefully not lose your patience. You probably will get surprised by some big water, but your boat will handle it better than you. You may need a tow, but that’s why you pay good money for tow insurance. Eventually, you’ll probably drag anchor, curse at your chart plotter, blow up some engine part, argue with Admiral, kick the dog or wish you had more bug spray, but you’ll survive. And the Admiral, dog and bugs will too.
You’ll boat every type of water: inland, tidal and marsh rivers, canals, waterways, lakes, sounds, bays and ocean. You’ll be in fresh water from half way up the Hudson to Mobile Bay but salt water in the Gulf of Mexico, at least 40 miles of the Atlantic and most, but surprisingly not all, of the Gulf, West Florida, Atlantic and New Jersey ICWs. You’ll dock at every type of marina, tie up to sometimes crumbling walls and anchor in some beautiful places under all sorts of conditions.
You’ll lock through big locks on the Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee or Cumberland and the Ten-Tom Waterway, smaller ones on the Erie Canal and maybe across the Okeechobee. You can choose to explore historical ones through the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and the Trent Severn and Rideau in Canada.
Occasionally, you’ll be out of sight of land. At some point you’ll have to work your way through some shallow channel that needs to be dredged and others plenty deep but less than 100 feet wide lined with semi-submerged rocks within spitting distance on parts of the Georgian Bay and North Channel small craft routes.
You’ll need to pay attention to long range forecasts, especially if you have some open water ahead, but you’ll mostly enjoy nice weather, usually only having to pay close attention to local thunderstorms and high winds. You may get some chilly evenings if you tarry too long on the Great Lakes or start late on the Tennessee like I did (and deal with duck hunting season: don’t anchor anywhere near duck decoys). The temperatures in Canada, just like on the Great Plains, can hit triple digits, though not on the sensible, but strange scale they use.
You’ll undoubtedly see dolphins, probably alligators and snakes, manatees if you look hard, whales if you’re lucky and, like me, a sea turtle in open water if you’re very lucky. You may even have a fish land in your boat. And you’ll meets lots of very interesting people.
Welcome to the Great Loop Learning Curve.
There was a saying in the Volunteer Fire Department where I served for two decades. A lot of the volunteers could ‘drive’ our monstrous ladder truck, but only a few could back it up. The same could be said of Docking. Most of the time it’s like driving the ladder truck forward, but occasionally you have to back it up. You’ll be surprised by the number of people who will give you a hand, including virtually every Looper, especially if things get dicey with some wind or strong current. To be honest, they also want to make sure you’re not going to hit their boat. There’s no way around it: docking takes practice and experience.
Tide, current and wind make each docking unique. Tide is obvious, even without a chart plotter. How many barnacles are showing on the piles? A lot may mean that you have to keep an eye on your sonar. Current can be checked by standing off the dock in neutral for a moment or two. Every marina has a flag, so wind is easy to determine too. Be patient and use common sense. Sound familiar?
You’ll come to appreciate floating docks. The worst docks are those with no, or very short finger docks. You have to tie your bow to single piles. They stand there gleefully giving you the finger – at least it felt that way to a solo boater trying to lasso them with no help from the helm. You’ll develop a preference for bow or stern in but understand that you generally don’t have as much control in reverse. Don’t become overly dependent on thrusters. After watching some real debacles, I think boaters should be forced to do at least some simple docking without their thrusters to appreciate that it is possible to dock without them.
Too many marinas have scripted instructions to your assigned slip read by people who have never had to dock at an unfamiliar marina. Many don’t have very good dock signage or they place signs where they’re blocked by other boats. The better ones will have someone meet you at your slip, but don’t depend on it. Make sure you have directions that you understand and that you know which docks to go between as well as which dock your slip is on.
If you forget everything else, remember that nobody ever made docking harder by slowing down, though a strong current going the wrong way can make that interesting too.
Boaters will often pull out the binoculars when they see a boat about to Anchor nearby. It’s a reflex, just like helping someone dock - they’re curious to know if their boat is in any danger. No pressure, but they’re going to check your amount of chain, type of anchor, rode angle, circling to check depth within your swing and testing your hold to see if you know what you’re doing!
You’re going to anchor or dock at a marina, town or canal wall every night so it should be part of your daily plan, with alternatives in case Murphy’s Law shows up. Good choices are usually indicated by the number of reviews in Active Captain (or whatever resource you’re using). But reviews can be subjective, so don’t get overly excited about what they say, though I admit that the phrase ‘good holding’ gives me the warm fuzzies. 15-20 reviews generally indicate an acceptable anchorage, or marina. There’s probably something sketchy about those with less than 5, though you may never find out what it is.
You’ll eventually get used to the rocking and the sound of small waves slapping the side of your boat inches from your head. But don’t ignore bumps in the middle of the night. Once you get the taste of fear out of your mouth, your best chance to take corrective action is immediately. Who cares if you’re in your underwear?
Strong wind or current may keep you up late but the hardest thing to get used to is how different things look on the water after dark. Did I really anchor that close to the shore or that boat? Probably not, but that may not help you get back to sleep. Give yourself the gift of extra room when you can.
Locks and Dams are the backbone of river travel. The dams hold enough water back to make the rivers navigable. Locks move you up or down past the dams. Locks are not as intimidating as they look, though circumstances can make any lock challenging. It helps to understand that none were built for pleasure boats. Even the locks on the Erie Canal and the Trent Severn Waterway in Canada which seem quaintly recreational today were built for commerce.
The Corps of Engineers locks on the Tenn-Tom Waterway and Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers are the biggest, most professionally run and leave no doubt about their primary purpose. I locked through the newest, the Olmsted Locks and Dam, just upriver on the Ohio from its confluence with the Mississippi on September 20, just 3 weeks after its official opening. Yes, locks as in plural – two 110’ wide x 1200’ long chambers. Each chamber can hold up to 18 barges or 720 L.T. Loopers, give or take, if packed in efficiently.
Each lock system has its own idiosyncrasies, sometimes even within a system. For relatively simple mechanisms that function virtually the same, that can be frustrating. It’s best to relax and appreciate, not curse their differences - much like starting each new section of the Loop.
The locks on the Ten-Tom are sticklers for having your life jacket on – which they should be, but it gets old being lectured at every lock. The ones across the Okeechobee insist that you have spare fuel cans tied down. These are also the only ones who fill and empty by opening their gates a foot or two – somewhat disconcerting the first time you experience it. The locks on the Trent-Severn in Canada don’t have radios. The ones on the Erie Canal have them but rarely answer your call.
Most, but not all Corps locks have huge floating bollards (also called bits) to loop your lines around. Remember, they’re not designed for recreational boats; looking graceful while looping your line can be a challenge. Others have cables or pipes. Some throw you a line from the top of the lock. Occasionally, a bigger lock with only one or two pleasure boats will let you free float while they drain the tub.
As a solo boater, I would always check wind direction when entering a lock – just like marinas, all locks have a flag. It didn’t always work in deeper locks but, in many, I could often use the wind to push me sideways the final foot or two, making it easier to catch the bollard, cable or pipe since I was away from the helm. Bigger boats might use their thrusters for the same thing. But some locks will specify which side to tie up, usually because turbulence created by an older, side instead of bottom value system, but in some rope throwing locks because they’re too lazy to go around to the other side. Most, but not all, will let you wrap your lines how you want.
Once on the Trent-Severn, I was told by the lock master to leave the lock if I wouldn’t loop my lines around two separate cables on the lock wall. In most bigger locks it’s not even possible because the bollards are too far apart. Being single handed, it’s a pain and, in my mind, less safe than the way I had developed through some 50+ locks. I was tempted to think that her by-the-book brain didn’t have much real boating experience and being a woman lockmaster, she felt a need to prove she had balls – a thought that will not please my wife and daughter after their years of indoctrination effort. No lockmaster had insisted on this before or since. Except the next day at the next lock where I learned that lockmasters on the Trent Severn occasionally rotate positions.
Parallel parking used to be part of the test to get your driver’s license. Now you can do it with a touch of a button. It used to be that an older brother or Dad, (if Mom wasn’t looking), would let you get behind the wheel on a back road or in a field when you were 13 or 14 to start learning to drive – unless you were brought up on a farm, where driving was already a chore by 14. It used to be everyone could drive a car with a manual transmission.
Paper charts have gone the way of manual transmissions. Although regulations still call for them, few boaters carry paper charts, much less the rules, dividers or knowledge to manually chart a course or skill to follow it. The one Coast Guard inspection I was boarded for in Port Royal Sound, South Carolina didn’t even mention them.
To be honest, few Loopers would make it without a Chart Plotter or at least some navigation app with GPS. I’d like to think I could because I grew up watching for the buoys my Dad would plot on paper charts, but smart enough to not test the idea. VHF radio, depth finders (sonar), auto pilots and radar are trusted friends that have been around for a while, but modern versions pack a lot more punch. Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) is newer and adds another layer of safety. Satellite weather is less stressful than listening to NOAA on your VHF.
There’s a lot of debate about how much electronics you need. I had all the toys (except an auto pilot) but seldom used anything other than my chart plotter, VHF and sonar. There are two important things to remember: no amount of electronics replace common sense and all of them take practice. If chart plotters are new to you, learning to use one effectively will be your biggest Learning Curve challenge.
Most navigation systems now run everything through the chart plotter. The resulting maze of menus can be frustratingly frustrating. The only people I’ve met who think they’re user friendly are the ones selling them. Menus often suffer from the software they try to organize, evolving so fast that nobody takes the time to debug thoroughly or rethink the big picture.
I never met a Captain who thought they knew, much less used everything on their chart plotter. I’m sure there’s probably a few who do, but I suspect it’s more a hobby (or challenge) than a necessity for them. Master the basics: plotting a course is a necessity and knowing where you are at a glance is downright useful. But information overload can be a real issue and a false sense of security from a bunch of electronics winking and blinking at you can lead to trouble.
If, or more accurately, when, you call for support, make sure you’ve downloaded the latest update/fix. It’s the first thing they’ll ask. They’re certainly aware of (even if they don’t admit) problems and will not be excited about spending time with you on something that’s already fixed.
VFH Radios are a fact of life on the Loop. You need to know protocols, what channels to use and overcome any shyness about using them. Around the Loop they’re broadcasts like Roy's Net Cruiser (Ch 71 @ 9 am) in Little Current, Ontario to catch up on news, weather and where your boating buddies are. The relatively isolated area around Little Current doesn’t have much wifi so it’s both useful and downright enjoyable to listen and participate. You can even join Roy for a morning cup of coffee at the Anchor Inn while he’s producing it.
But some Captains go overboard, especially when a tug and barge is involved. Tug Captains are professionals and to varying degrees, tolerant of recreation boats and our chatter. They don’t want to wind up in Admiralty Court, so they’ll talk to you, especially if they’re bored, but most would probably prefer that you just stay out of their way, which is usually pretty easy to do.
If a channel is the least bit narrow, I simply pull out of it as much as depth allows and putz or even stop, until the tug gets by. They’re the ones trying to make a living and to be blunt, they’re a lot bigger than you or me. Watching a tug pushing 30-40 barges is watching a real Captain at work.
It’s common to overhear tow barge captains setting up passes with each other over the VHF; don’t hesitate to communicate if you feel it necessary. But very few recreation boat/barge passes need radio traffic – patience and common sense are the real requirements.
I worked to keep this story basic, more to get you ready to learn than to tell you everything you need to know, which I don’t know anyway. If some of it doesn’t make sense now, don’t get excited. You’ll have your ah-ha moments as you experience them, maybe quicker than me because you’ve had a head’s up. Embrace your Learning Curve. It’s part of what makes the Great Loop rewarding, interesting, and occasionally exciting.