Life on the Loop

Now You're a Captain

Most people picture someone like Admiral Chester Nimitz in starch whites saving America’s ass at the Battle of Midway or Captain Edward Smith heroically going down with the Titanic (knowing his career was finished regardless) when they think of a ship’s Captain - or at least a commercial fisherman or tug driver trying to earn an honest living. There’s a different reality for those of us who spend, rather than earn money on the water. Bought a boat for the Great Loop? Congratulations! You’re now a Captain.

There’s a myriad of responsibilities that go with the title, especially in the view of the Coast Guard, customs and insurance companies. But it’s the more mundane every day decisions that you have to master. These will usually involve the Admiral, so most Loopers will need to work out their Captain/Admiral decision making, the earlier, the better. Decision making needs to be a process, not a concept on a boat.

Your first and maybe biggest decision is Where and When to Start. From the Loop’s perspective, where really doesn’t matter. Your boat’s location will probably decide. When, within a calendar year, is perhaps best determined by ‘follow the 70 degree weather’. If it’s at least supposed to be 70 degrees a few weeks ahead of you, you’re good to go. Just don’t get to Florida before hurricane season is officially over. Your insurance may not cover you.

When, within a lifetime, is the sooner, the better once you get past those annoying retirement and financial issues. Most important, don’t wait until you think you have everything perfectly planned.

The most common question I was asked by non-Loopers was how many miles I covered in a day. Most Loopers don’t think in terms of daily mileage goals, at least once underway. Mileage is the distance to the next destination or two. And that’s used mostly to determine if you need an early start or have time for an extra cup of coffee. They’re too many hiccups to be hamstrung by mileage goals: the weather kicks up, high water closes something, boat maintenance or repair. The most common hiccup is finding a great anchorage or town and hanging around an extra day or two to enjoy it.

Schedules are generally frowned upon too. There’s the vague timetable to be off the Great Lakes by the end of September or mid October and not getting to Florida before early December. You may need to schedule a short stretch to meet the kids or grandkids or get to a particular event on time. Otherwise, enjoy a slower heartbeat. Give or take, you have 365 days to go 6,000 to 7,000 miles. That’s 20 miles per day. Even the slowest trawlers can get a 100 miles in a day if they have to. Sometimes weather may force the issue, but it’s really all about what you want to see or do next, with the option to change your mind if something more interesting comes along.

You do, eventually, have to decide what Route to take. There are many variations of the Loop. The major ones should at least be considered before leaving: across the Okeechobee or down to the Keys, a side trip to the Bahamas, the Lake Champlain/Montreal/St. Lawrence Loop or the Erie Canal, explore Canada via the Trent Severn, Georgian Bay and the North Channel (very much recommended) or Lake Erie and Lake Huron.

Secondary route choices may be better decided on the way since they are often influenced by circumstance: around the Florida Bend or across the Gulf, side trips up the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland or St. Johns Rivers, how much time to explore the Chesapeake, ‘outside’ stretches on the Atlantic, particularly along the New Jersey ICW, a side trip to the Thousand Islands, the east or west side of Lake Michigan.

Then there are almost daily route decisions about which channel or small craft route to follow, particularly on the ICW and in Canada. These daily decisions are what make the Great Loop fun and interesting but can become a chore if there is no decision making process in place.

The unavoidable daily decision is where to stop. All Loopers have (or should have) a daily plan which includes an anchorage or marina, with alternatives in case Mr. Murphy shows up. Most are thinking of their stops a few days ahead and have a flexible idea of where they’ll be in a week. If you’re a marina Looper or in busier stretches like south Florida, the Keys, New York and Chicago, it’s good to reserve marina slips at least  two or three days ahead.

I was in the (small) minority of Loopers who operated more by the seat of my pants. It’s kinda who I am, and L.T. was small and fast enough to get away with it. I always had a daily plan but seldom committed to an anchorage or marina until I was within sight of them. I enjoyed the flexibility to stop somewhere else if I spotted something more interesting. I paid for that sometimes. I had to skip Mackinac Island completely and put in a very long day because there were absolutely no slips available and anchoring in that small harbor with all the ferry traffic was not an appealing thought.

But it usually worked for me because L.T. could fit in almost anywhere. “What was your length again? 23 foot? Really? Oh, come on in. We’ll find someplace for you.” Anchoring and marinas are a big part of any cruising, but there’s no right or wrong way to pick them. You’ll get a feeling for what works for you.

Marinas come in all sizes, shapes, purpose and pedigree. Some don’t cater to ‘transients’ at all. Many don’t have fuel or pump outs. Some offer repair services. Some are right downtown (yippee, but more expensive). Many, but not all more remote marinas offer courtesy cars, particularly along the Ten-Tom. Some of the ones that offer cars make it plain that they expect you to pay for gas, others don’t. I got into the habit of leaving a $5 bill on the counter regardless. I suspect it bought more beer than gas, but either way I had a clear conscious.

Almost all marinas have wifi, but it can be spotty, and speed is not often a priority. Usually, you can find reasonable reception somewhere on premise. I did more than one load of laundry while taking care of business on my laptop. Most town and canal walls (the majority of the stopping places along the Erie Canal and Trent Severn) do not have wifi but you can usually find it in nearby coffee shops. In Canada, the ubiquitous Tim Hortons serve wifi with their doughnuts.

Most, but not all marinas treat power (electricity) as an add on to the per foot rate. If you’re on a tight budget check the power charge when making a reservation. It’s seldom mentioned and can be exorbitant at some corporate marinas trying to milk every penny out of you. If you’re staying more than a week, ask if they’ll meter your power.

When choosing a marina, look at the number of reviews, not necessarily what the reviews say. Check the dates of the latest reviews too. Just like an anchorage, 15-20 reviews usually indicate an acceptable marina. Less than 4-5 generally indicate a marina that doesn’t cater to transients, though they are more likely to offer repairs and may have better fuel prices since they’re catering to locals.

The one thing to scan for in the reviews are the handful of marinas that offer a daily briefing on the route ahead. Local knowledge is a good thing.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also admit that my standards are flexible. I’ve showered in some third world countries off the tourist path; it takes more than an occasional cockroach to bother me. If you’re looking for gold plated bath fixtures, well, you’re not going to find them at marinas. More important, if you take what reviews say too seriously, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed. Everyone has their own opinion of what a 5 star, or for that matter, a 3 or 1 star facility is.

As a career small business owner, I looked for owner operated marinas and enjoyed sharing stories about struggling to get started and competing with the ‘big boys’ with the ones I found. Many of these prioritized good service over fancy facilities they couldn’t afford, which suited me just fine. I experienced corporate or town owned marinas with better, but poorly maintained facilities. And yes indeed, I experienced a few just plain bad marinas regardless of who or what owned them.

There are times when your needs will dictate a marina. You may desperately need fuel or a pump out. You may need a repair or to stock up on groceries. Or you may just want a nice meal after suffering through your own cooking for several days. And yes, sometimes you’ll just be grateful to find any marina.

A few have overbearing dockmasters. Mention the ‘Nazi’ dockmaster on the Ten-Tom and most everybody immediately knows who you’re talking about, even if they frown on the description. On the Chesapeake I was once told to leave a marina if I didn’t tie up the way the dockmaster insisted – which I did and suffered through a long night at a lesser facility. When I told this story to a wiser Captain than me, he said yes, he had had the same thing happen. He listened patiently, tied up the way he was told, then retied his way after the dockmaster left.

There’s a handful of websites promoting ‘free’ docks along the Great Loop. Useful information but be wary. They depend on postings and usually contain a least one or two postings to the general effect of “my private dock is not available, much less free”.

And finally, L.T.’s V-berth had an advantage that even some big trawlers didn’t: I could rotate 90 degrees to sleep. Some poorly designed marinas put you broadside to waves or wake. Rocking head to toe isn’t fun but it’s better than side to side and being rolled out your bunk or throwing up. But then, bigger trawlers don’t rock and roll like L.T. either.

Bottom line, selecting a marina is more an art than science. Don’t waste too many brain cells over it.

 

There are Personal Decisions that should be considered, if not decided, before you begin.

To the best of my knowledge, there’s no requirement for the typical Looper to maintain a log. But this is the trip of your life. If you’re not looking at it that way, you should go to the beach instead. You’ll definitely want to keep some type of log. If for no other reason, after some time on the water, towns, locks, marinas, bodies of water, days of the week and even months start to blend together – the older you are, the faster this happens. Eventually you, or your Grandchildren will want to be able to sort it all out.

I am not at the forefront of social media. My kids would say that I'm not even on the ass end. I only grudgingly accept that Goggle knows where I am as the price to pay for something as useful as Goggle Maps. I am less than charmed that Goggle thinks it knows what kind of restaurants I like, Amazon what I want to order, or You Tube what I want to watch. And thank you very much, but I prefer to be look at (and actually read) a wide range of news and opinions.

Having gotten that off my chest, there are log keeping downloads available as well as apps that will do much of it for you. Some act as a tracker so that fellow boaters as well as family and friends know where you are. A lot of Loopers use Nebo. I didn’t. I’m not on Facebook either. I kept a relatively simple excel spreadsheet of my own design for my log. I may succumb to the Brave New World eventually, but not just yet.

I finally realized (with a sense of relief, as I’m not good with names) that most Loopers remembered their more casual acquaintances by boat name, cross referencing with boat cards if they needed people names. That makes boat cards a social necessity, especially for ass end social media folks like me - something that never occurred to me prior to the exasperated looks I got when I finally started catching up with the Looper fleet after my late start on Kentucky Lake.

I commissioned an artist I found at the Historic Charleston City Market to design one for me. I was in Delaware before he got it done and on the Erie Canal when I finally got it printed and shipped to where I could pick it up – he’s an artist, what did I expect? The nose didn’t have to be quite so accurate and I never wear a Captain’s hat but at least the grey in the beard doesn’t show too much. Yes, it’s amusing how most boat cards reflect the personality behind them.

My card shows a yellow kayak mounted on top of L.T.’s cabin, a rigging that had the unintended benefit or quickly identifying L.T. to my boating friends. The kayak was my dingy, pretty much required for all Loopers, not as a lifeboat (though it could be that too), but as your way to explore or get to shore when anchored. Getting your dingy into and out of the water is one of the many mechanical challenges you’ll face, but there are myriad ways of doing it. All of them are more expensive than the muscle power I used, but then, I’m not sure how many more years I’ll be able to wrangle that thing out of the water and up to its perch.

Unlike logs, there are absolutely requirements about life jackets. The Coast Guard requires a life jacket for everyone on board and that anyone 12 or under must wear one. Anything else is a Captain’s prerogative, though you won’t be permitted in some locks without one on.

No sane Captain would make fun of anyone who wants to wear a jacket full time and no passenger has the right to deny a Captain’s demand to wear one. But life jackets, even the inflatable version, are not the most comfortable thing in the world. Most boaters don’t wear one in calm conditions, especially inside the cabin. Some would castrate me for that observation because their religion demands wearing one. But it’s the truth.

My own rule was to wear my jacket if in more than 2 foot chop and/or if outside of desperate swimming range to shore. As a solo boater, I did have a registered PLB (Personal Location Beacon) attached to my life jacket. Few thoughts chill me as much as the thought of being overboard, no communication and L.T. merrily going on her way – though some would rightly question how L.T. was even in gear if I was overboard.

 

There’s a lot of discussion about buddy boating among Loopers, most of it mired in semantics. Buddy boating, as in traveling together or in sight of each other really doesn’t work that well – similar to trying to herd cats. Some places along the Loop merit the effort: crossing the Gulf, a serious amount of open water, and canals where locks are bunched together and lockmasters frown on locking through single boats. If buddy boating means meeting at a particular marina or anchorage, that actually happens a lot, but that’s more a social matter. Bottom line, all boats should be willing and able to travel on their own. If that’s a scary thought, make sure you have good tow insurance.

Congratulations Captain! The most important part of the title is common sense, a willingness to learn and a good decision making process. Leaving your ego onshore will compliment all three. There are bigger adventures out there, but the Great Loop will be the trip of a lifetime for most who do it. It’s worth earning the title.

Epilogue