Cruising Stories

Dry Tortugas - A Grand Adventure

The Most Remote National Park in the United States

By
Lisa
Carruthers

CRUISING TO THE Dry Tortugas National Park by boat can be the most challenging part of this amazing destination. Locals warn about two seasons: Winter Storm (December-March) that features high winds and rough seas, and Tropical Storm (June-November), that features more of the same. April and May are known to be delightful.

We'd talked about and hoped to visit the Dry Tortugas for the last couple of years, as we spent time cruising Florida and the Florida Keys. With its wide-open waters and nowhere to seek safe harbor nearby, that cluster of islands in the Gulf of Mexico always ended up feeling a little out of reach. But as our experience with the boat and comfort with the shallow Florida waters grew, we decided it was time to head there.

Starting Point: Ft. Pierce, FL

We left Ft. Pierce City Marina on M/V TAPESTRY, our Kadey Krogen 58, in early January to head to the Dry Tortugas before our arrival at Stock Island Marina Village in Key West on February 1. The weather and ocean were unsettled enough that we spent the day on the ICW rather than suffer the wave action outside. Once it all settled down, we were expecting to head outside the next day from Lake Worth.

Lake Worth to Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Estimated Mileage: 45.6 NM

The winds and waves did not abate as predicted. Instead the foul weather intensified, and we needed to find somewhere to ride this storm out safely. Most everywhere was booked, but we finally secured a slip at Bahia Mar Resort and Yachting Center in Ft. Lauderdale. Surely this would soon blow by, and our adventure to the Dry Tortugas would continue. After several days, which turned into 10 days, we had to admit defeat. The Dry Tortugas would have to wait; we were out of time. Suddenly, the weather improved, and we headed to Key West. Maybe there is something to this Winter Storm season.

Key West to the Dry Tortugas, FL

Estimated Mileage: 67.8 NM

During the last week of our stay at Stock Island in Key West (so named because that's where the Navy and Key West kept their livestock), a window opened up to cruise to the Dry Tortugas before arriving at our final destination in Marathon Marina on April 2. Our friends aboard Day Dreams, Lauryl Anne, Waterford and Sea Dweller agreed and joined us.

The passage itself was an easy 70-mile cruise by trawler. The north passage to Garden Key is shoaled in, but the south channel is straightforward, taking you past Fort Jefferson and then circling around the fort heading south, then east. The inner harbor is snug and secure, but on our arrival, it was full.

The outer harbor seems wide open but is somewhat protected by the continuation of the barely visible reef. This reef lies at the end of the Florida Reef System, the third largest reef in the world. We rocked and rolled the first night, but it didn't stop our friends from joining us for a Low-Country boil and sunset conch blowing.

Garden Key, home of Fort Jefferson, was our first stop the next morning. While boarding our dinghy for the short trip over, we were startled by a huge goliath grouper hanging out in the shade under TAPESTRY! We beached our dinghies and headed to the fort after registering with the National Park ranger and purchasing Dry Tortugas wear in the gift shop. The fort's history brought full circle what we learned about maritime history the year before in New Orleans, and along the way cruising the Florida coasts over the last four years.

Dry Tortugas | Cruising Stories | Marinalife
Dry Tortugas by Lisa Carruthers

The remoteness of Dry Tortugas National Park is pretty extreme. There is no cell service or internet, no water, and no provisions to be had. You can watch the daily arrival and departure of the ferry from Key West as well as tourists coming and going by seaplane. We felt that the seaplanes took great pleasure in buzzing the anchored boats and landing close by. The ferry also brings a National Park ranger who conducts tours of the fort. We were entertained and educated by a wonderful guy named Hollywood! He's a good storyteller. It's definitely worthwhile to tag along on the tour.

In the afternoon, we decided to explore one of the other keys that comprise the Dry Tortugas -- Loggerhead Key, named for the loggerhead sea turtles that make their home there. Loggerhead Key is a three-mile dinghy ride through gin clear water. On our way we stopped to dive a wreck off its southwestern side. The park provides mooring balls at dive sites to protect the healthy coral reef. Juvenile barracuda hovered around under the mooring but didn't seem interested in our gang.

We landed our dinghies on Loggerhead Key and were welcomed by a couple who are volunteering there for a month. Now that's something I'd like to do! The island houses the Marine Research Center, and volunteers keep up their housing as well as tend to the island's maintenance needs. We walked across to the northwest side of the island and spread out on the beautiful beach overlooking Little Africa, which is a shallow reef just offshore that's teeming with coral, tarpon, barracuda and lots of magnificent tropical fish.

After a fun potluck aboard Sea Dweller, we went to bed, sad that we'd be leaving in the morning. This was Tortugas 101 for us! We'll be back for more: lots of beaches to walk, other areas and wrecks to dive, and birds to watch.

Thousands of migratory birds stop at the Tortugas in the spring and fall. They begin arriving in late February, and by March you see herons, ibises, hawks and shorebirds. From late-March to mid-May, the songbirds come by, up to 70 species per day for a total of about 300 species.

Dry Tortugas to Boca Grande Key, Marquesas, FL

Estimated Mileage: 50.3 NM

On our way to Marathon, we dropped the hook off Boca Grande Key in the Marquesas. Only one palm tree decorated the island's silhouette. That was enough. The island, the ocean and the sunset were all we needed -- that and time to reflect on our adventure.

Marquesas to Marathon, FL

Estimated Mileage: 58.1 NM

We arrived at Marathon Marina and relished the comforts of shore power and unlimited water. We had finally made it to the Dry Tortugas! The introduction left us wanting to come back and experience more. It was exhilarating to have made the trip to the most remote U.S. national park.

Step Back in Time at Fort Jefferson

In 1821, Spain sold Florida to the United States, and the U.S. Army decided to construct Fort Jefferson to protect the Gulf of Mexico trade route from pirates. Long before that, the trade ships used the outer harbor as a stop en route to and from Europe and New Orleans. Early maps identified the area as The Tortugas (Spanish for "turtle" or "tortoise"), so sailors would know that turtles could be found there for provisioning a protein source.

Snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park by Ajith Rajeswari | Cruising Stories | Marinalife
Snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park by Ajith Rajeswari

Later charts expanded the name to The Dry Tortugas to warn sailors that they'd find no fresh water on the island. The fort was constructed in 1825, but never completely finished. It was manned with military personnel during the Civil War but soon afterward became a prison where deserters were sent.

In 1865, Samuel Mudd, the doctor who famously sheltered President Lincoln's assassin, was confined at Fort Jefferson for hard labor. However, in the yellow fever outbreak at the fort in 1867, Mudd volunteered to care for the sick. He is credited with saving hundreds of lives and was pardoned by President Andrew Jackson and released. He is the reason for the saying, His name is Mud.

Fort Jefferson was abandoned as a military fort in 1874 due to ongoing hurricanes and yellow fever outbreaks. After that, it was used as a quarantine station by the Marine Hospital Service, as a coaling station by the U.S. Navy, sometimes left abandoned, home to the American Fleet during the war with Spain in 1898, and declared a federal bird sanctuary in 1904. In 1935, Fort Jefferson was declared a national monument, but it wasn't until 1992 that the Dry Tortugas, including Fort Jefferson, was established as a national park.

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Chartering Canal Du Midi
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Canal Du Midi bike trebes

The scenic Canal du Midi in southern France is a must for boaters! Cruising this 300-year-old waterway, you will savor the slow easy French pace, passing medieval villages, country farms and vineyards in the heart of the Languedoc wine region. Le Boat, the largest charter boat operation in Europe, offers surprisingly affordable, entry- level charters to this canal (and hundreds of other waterways). This historic passage is easy to navigate, scenic, fun and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Boating at a mellow 5 kilometers an hour aboard your vessel of 30-45 feet, the big excitement is passing through the lock system every few kilometers and arriving in ancient villages as your daily destination on your personal private cruise ship.

Don’t expect a luxury yacht holiday, however, because you are the crew and captain, you will be driving the boat or donning gloves to handle the dock lines in each “écluse” (lock). But it’s entertaining and affords a sense of freedom by chartering your own boat and navigating these centuries-old canals. Le Boat provides itineraries of how far you should voyage each day, but it’s truly up to you.

Our weeklong voyage started in Castelnaudary, a small, pretty village. Le Boat’s base in Castelnaudary is in the Grand Basin with a lovely view of the cathedral and village across the waterway, just a short walk over an old stone bridge to town. We could also see the majestic Pyrenees Mountains to our southwest along the French-Spanish border.

Greg on the Canal

Our first night, after our swift check in and orientation aboard our 40’ Horizon, we strolled to town, enjoyed local Languedoc wine and dinner at the Maison du Cassoulet sampling the specialty dish of slow-cooked white beans, tender pork and duck. Traditional “cassoulet” was a staple historically, especially in meager winters. Wow is it yummy and filling!

While returning over the old stone bridge back to our boat within the fleet, twinkling lights of the village reflected in the canal. We were excited to embark the next morning after a quiet comfy night’s sleep in the berth of our Horizon — Le Boat’s most modern vessel, equipped with a head, shower and full galley kitchen.

Before bed, I read about the fascinating history of the Canal du Midi. It was initially commissioned in 1516 by King Francis who hired Leonardo DaVinci to survey and create the route. Canal construction didn’t commence until 1667 and was completed in 1694, connecting 240 kilometers from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean with aqueducts, bridges and 91 locks to overcome the 620 feet height change in water level.

Designed as a trade route to shorten the otherwise long passage around the Iberian Peninsula, it’s also called the “Canal des Deux Mers” or canal of two seas. This vital trade route for two centuries is now a meandering waterway for pleasure boaters as well as bicyclists riding the tow paths paralleling the canal.

On the first morning, our first lock was the most dramatic, departing Castelnaudary via a series of four locks that descend 9.5 meters in consecutive rushes of water. Captain Greg (my husband) and I established our duties: he’d drive into the narrow stone chamber (thankful for bow thrusters) while I secured lines to the lock shore, ready to adjust as the water floods out.

Canal Du Midi Boat Locks

We traveled in tandem with two other boats, a Swiss family and a German couple. All were experienced boaters, so we developed an efficient rhythm of entering the locks sequentially, tying up, descending and exiting in order.

We cruised 15 locks by noon, then tied to a canal bank for the daily lunchtime lock closure of 12-1:00 p.m. We’d provisioned in Castelnaudary for the perfect picnic of flaky croissants, local ham and cheese, and a glass of Languedoc rosé on our boat’s top sun deck.

When the “Eclusier” (lock operator) returned to open the lock for us, we cruised the canal again with the occasional excitement of encountering oncoming boats in the narrow canal. Some boat captains were better at steering than others.

Our first day, we clocked 19 locks, 26 kilometers from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. We chose to stay overnight in Villesèque, a lovely anchorage with a few other boats tied to the shores. There was no marina, but we could walk to the tiny village over a charming stone bridge to see the church and the Sully elm tree planted in the square, among the last elms still alive in France.

We toasted to our first boat day with wine and cheese on our top deck, and invited over our boat neighbors, a delightful South African couple who proved Le Boat’s international appeal. He’d never boated before, but Le Boat states that you need no prior boating experience.

On Day 2 we cruised under sunny early October skies, loving the canopy of iconic Plane trees that drape some of the river. Unfortunately, much of the 40,000 Plane trees along the 240- kilometer stretch are diseased. Over 25% have the blight and are systematically being cut and burned, a huge undertaking. In parts of the river, trees are being removed, and replanting different species is underway, but it will take time to reestablish the majestic trees.

Carcassonne de la Citi

We arrived midday at the marina of Carcassonne and docked our boat well-positioned for exploring the city, with views of the waterfront park and tour boats coming and going across the Aude River.

Carcassonne exceeded my expectations, and I know now why it’s the second most visited tourist attraction in France (#1 is the Eiffel Tower). La Cité is a massive, fortified castle with 52 spiraling turrets and imposing double walls of rampart circling 3 kilometers perched above a medieval village.

We immediately rode our bikes, provided by our Le Boat charter, up to the fairytale citadel. You can also ride le Petite Train for 7 Euro. Crossing the castle drawbridge, we stepped in to La Cité and the 13th century. Be sure to pay to enter and appreciate the scale of the ramparts and the view of Carcassonne’s lower city and the Pyrenees to the west. Then stroll the maze of medieval cobblestone streets filled with shops and cafés. Lunch at Comte Roger was a chic culinary treat. A real luxury would be to stay at the five-star Hôtel de la Cité for an elegant evening in the illuminated castle.

Back in Carcassonne’s village, we found the grand pedestrian plazas marked by statues and fountains, boutiques, bakeries and casual bistros. It’s a fun city to explore on foot, with provisions aplenty for boaters.

A SIP OR TWO AT LOCAL VINEYARDS

Greg and Heather at Chateau du Pennautier

The next morning, after fresh pain au chocolat, we hopped on our bikes to cycle to wineries. Greg guided us with his iPhone’s Komoot app, which maps out recommended hiking and biking routes. Château Auzais (est. 1872) was a wonderful tour and tasting. Our guide described the Occitanie wine’s bouquet as the convergence of Atlantic winds melding with the Mediterranean, as we sipped our favorite wine aptly named “La Cité des Ventes.”

Château de Pennautier was another fantastic estate. The gorgeous 1620 castle was home to the financier of the Canal du Midi construction — the same architect who designed Versailles. The château’s authentic furniture is gorgeous. Reserve an interior castle tour or just stroll the beautiful gardens. From here, we visited the sister winery and restaurant for a lovely lunch and wine tasting of Pennautier’s whites, rosés and reds.

We planned to boat the next day to Trèbes from Carcassonne but biked instead. The tow paths along the canal are ideal, in fact you can cycle faster than you can boat. We waved to fellow charter boats as we breezed by vineyards, farms, locks and bridges. Our return into Carcassonne provided stunning views of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites at once — La Cité Castle and Canal du Midi.

Heather biking in the winery

Our return trip from Carcassonne to Castelnaudary only took a day through 24 locks and 30 kilometers with our now well-orchestrated rhythm of navigating locks. Our timing was good for the opening of most locks, and we traveled solo, as mid-October is end of the season the lock keeper told me. Summer is very busy on the canal, with boats in a queue for their turn in locks, and busier marinas.

As for the voyage, I recommend you plan one-way (for an upcharge) for the adventure of all new places along your voyage. The round trip had us retracing our passage, viewing previous scenery. We prefer the excitement of not knowing what’s around the next river bend and discovering new villages.

Also ascending the locks, going upriver, is more difficult. Captain Greg would let me off on a dock before the lock, I’d walk ahead and retrieve his tossed lines to secure the boat, we’d adjust during the rush of cascading water, then I’d board our boat when it came to the top of the full lock.

We felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment, having completed our week with success (i.e. no one fell in, no damage to boat). Our final day was leisurely aboard the boat, walking Castelnaudary’s village to a delightful bakery, to the cathedral and up the hill to the windmill, a wonderful 17th century Moulin with splendid views of Black Mountain and the French countryside. We biked along the canal, then relaxed on our boat’s sun deck viewing the Spanish peaks where we planned to ski in winter.

Our check out was quick but thorough. Le Boat’s fleet varies in age, so I was happy we’d opted for the newer spacious Horizon model. Funny, other couples posed for selfies by our boat preferring our more sophisticated-looking vessel for their posts. Some of the older boats are a bit banged up from lock passages, a testament to the “no license or experience required” policy of Le Boat.

We’re already browsing Le Boat’s itineraries: Italy, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, England, the Netherlands or Canada for our next charter adventure.

PHOTOS BY GREG BURKE

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Croatia's Coastline & Wine
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Croatia's Castles | April Winship

“WOW!” WAS ALL I COULD COME UP WITH when my neighbor asked, “So, how was Croatia?” I simply ran out of adjectives to express the beauty and allure of this country. With its unique combination of history, culture, cuisine, friendly locals, rugged mountains, long coastline and crystalline blue waters, not to mention hosting a world-class boating scene, it’s easy to see how Croatia is becoming a popular destination with something to excite everyone.

If you are looking for history, then exploring one of the many Croatian UNESCO World Heritage Sites will quench your passion for the past. Transport yourself back to the 4th century AD with a stroll through the remnants of a Roman emperor’s palace. Wander through one of the best-preserved Roman coliseums in the world, and you can almost hear gladiators’ swords clashing against wooden shields.

Croatia’s story is woven together with charming medieval hill towns where regal bell towers seem to pierce the heavens. Climb the ancient tower’s stone steps spiraling to the top and be rewarded with breathtaking vistas. Look straight down past the windows with a line of colorful laundry fluttering in the breeze and on to the delightfully twisty cobblestone streets just wide enough for a donkey cart to pass. Now, centuries later these lanes are lined with enticing artisan shops, gelato stands, and tucked into every bend, a little sidewalk café begging to be discovered.

Ruins of castles and fortresses dot not only the coastline but many of the islands. Standing guard, their thick limestone walls once provided safe haven to the residents within, and now only serve as a testament of a more turbulent time. Walk along the massive stone fortifications and peer down into the moat, and one can almost feel the thunder of horse hooves as knights ride across the drawbridge.

Surround yourself in the art of the ages by stepping inside Croatia’s sacred churches and splendid cathedrals, the architecture spanning the Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque periods.

Seaside Towns in Croatia | April Winship

Although it is possible to stay in a Hilton-style hotel or rent a Mediterranean villa by the sea, you have other options. We chose to immerse ourselves in the medieval world by staying in the heart of the old town centers in family-run studio apartments. Sleeping under a roof that dated back 600 years enriched our Croatia experience while also supporting a local family business. These cozy apartments are refurbished to modern standards and are as comfortable as any four-star hotel.

If you’re a nature lover, Croatia boasts eight national parks. One can hike a lake rim and descent onto a series of wooden boardwalks meandering among turquoise waterfalls giving a unique on-the-water view of Mother Nature’s power or try backpacking through an island forest. However, you do not have to go to a national park to be enveloped in nature, as Croatia is a wonderland anywhere you turn.

If you’re into adrenaline sports, Croatia can provide all you need from bungee jumping to zip lining. For those leaning toward adventure with less heart stopping action, cycling, paddleboarding, sea kayaking or snorkeling are popular choices. My favorite jaunt was an all-day off-road dune buggy ride with a final stop at a local winery for a tour and tasting.

Croatia has a long history in winemaking, and wine tourism is becoming increasingly popular. Croatia cuisine reflects the flavors of central Europe, Italy and the Mediterranean. The coast of the Adriatic Sea is famous for its fish and seafood dishes while the inland menu features hearty meat platters. Sharing a border with Italy, it’s not unusual to be enticed with handmade pasta or even pizza.

Wrapped around all these sensory experiences is the Croatian people. Perhaps it’s due to the mild Mediterranean climate that the locals exude, a version of a “malo po malo” or “little by little” attitude that entices us fast-paced city dwellers to slow down and take in life. Pausing for a wine spritzer or cappuccino at a sidewalk café could last hours, and it’s not only quite all right...it’s expected. As a local told us; “There’s no such thing as coffee to-go in Croatia.”

CRUISING CROATIA’S DRAMATIC SHORELINE

This small country is touted as the number one sailing destination in Europe, and with good reason. Rivaling the West Coast of the United States in length, Croatia’s shores are lined with protected ports and marinas that support a wide range of options for visiting the more than 1,200 islands. So, it’s no wonder that each year many visitors opt to explore Croatia by water.

Croatia's Coastline | April Winship

If your taste leans toward a traditional cruise line, you will find an ample supply of lavish cruise ships capable of hosting more than 3,000 guests making overnight stops at the most popular ports of call.

For those seeking a more intimate experience, it’s increasingly popular to book a cabin on a 20 to 40 passenger luxury yacht. Croatia specializes in these small ship cruise lines, because they can explore tiny islands with hidden coves and access regions of the coast larger ships can’t navigate. Becoming your mobile boutique hotel, these opulent yachts boast the finest service, cuisine, spacious teak sundecks and even jacuzzis to enjoy your final nightcap.

Looking to be captured by the romance of exploring the Adriatic under sail? Then your hot ticket may be booking a cabin on one of the smaller eight to 16 passenger schooners known as gulets. Handcrafted of mahogany, pine and teak, these motor-sailing gulets offer a marvelous blend of modern-day comforts with charms of tradition. Potentially a little more laidback, swimming, sunbathing and just plain relaxing become a favorite pastime of the guests.

If you’re a bit more on the adventurous side, contact one of the many charter boat companies servicing Croatia to reserve your own sailboat or powerboat. Both are available as bareboat or skippered charters. Many choose a local captain to handle the boat and play guide, allowing you to kickback and gain a sense of the culture, all the while discovering his favorite anchorages, villages and local restaurants you would have missed along the way. You just might end the cruise with a new best friend.

If you’re land trekking and want a quick taste of boating life in the Adriatic, wander down to the harbor and book a day cruise from a variety of island tours or dinner cruises offered on small excursion boats.

After a full day of exploring, we often found ourselves joining the locals sitting on the rocky shoreline and hoisting our drinks to yet another magnificent Adriatic sunset.

A WINE LOVER’S SECRET PILGRIMAGE

Grk Wine tasting | April Winship

Ever tasted Grk wine? If not, don’t feel bad. Most people, including wine connoisseurs, have never heard of, much less tasted, Grk “Gerk” wine. This Holy Grail of wines is one of the more elusive vinos in the world that ironically enjoys an almost cult-like following in Croatia.

Among wine specialists, there is no consensus whether this peculiar three letter name comes from the wine’s taste (to locals, Grk translates to bitter) or the origins of the first grapes brought to this area by the Greeks, which is also Grk in Croatian.

Around the 3rd century BC, ancient Greeks settled just off the coast of what is now mainland Croatia to a small island called Korčula bringing their precious vines. The southern slopes provided what Grk likes the most: excellent sandy soil and temperature stability under the influence of the surrounding sea. Vines enjoy sunny days, and locals swear that the grapes also benefit from the added reflection of the sun both off the water and the rocky hillsides behind.

These factors seem to be the sweet spot for cultivating this rare variety; however, the precious microclimate only exists in less than 100 acres of coastal land, which is the entirety of all the Grk planted in the world. Cultivation on other islands or in other parts of the country and the world have failed for the most part, making this one of the rarest grapes and categorized as “almost endangered” by the State Institute for Nature Protection.

To make matters worse, Grk is among the 1% of grape varieties in the world that cannot self-pollinate. Because Grk has only female flowers, it is always planted with the male grape vine nearby to enable pollination. This additional complication also hampers the desire to upscale commercial production.

Limited in production, it’s rare to see Grk wine served or sold outside Korčula. So, the best chance to savor this wine is to visit the handful of family wineries producing Grk. During summer when Korčula welcomes a massive influx of tourists, almost the entire production of Grk wine can be consumed within a season.

MEET ME AT THE WINERY

April Wine Tasting

Time to start my Grk quest. I took the two-hour ferry ride to the island of Korčula, and a short bus ride left me within walking distance of three family wineries. Confession: I had planned to visit all three wineries, but after I got settled into my wine sampling accompanied by a delectable charcuterie board, I began easing into island time and whiling away the afternoon at just one winery.

A tour of the production was accomplished practically from my seat overlooking the vineyards. I did walk over to view the wine cellar, which had enough room to house only eight wine barrels. These are tiny boutique wineries, and the labor of love that goes into making this wine is evident. I asked the owner if they bottled their wine to sell or import off the island. Looking at me quizzically, he replied that it was for sale only for individuals that came to visit the winery, and they sold out each year.

But was it good? As more of a full-bodied red wine lover, I didn’t know what to expect when he poured this pale golden wine. It was fabulous. It displayed an astounding depth and complexity I usually do not associate with white wine. The taste and texture were dry with hints of pine, citrus and saltiness leaving a subtle touch of tartness or bitterness at the finish.

I left the winery feeling my quest was accomplished. I smiled knowing that the bottle of Grk swaying in my backpack wasn’t going to make it back to the United States in my carry-on luggage, so I’d just have to enjoy it here. Now I have one more reason to return.

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FAQ About Doing the Great Loop
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Tim and Kate

My husband, Tim, and I spent most of 2021 and part of 2022 completing the Great Loop on our 31-foot Camano trawler, Sweet Day. One of the most unexpected and best parts of the trip was the opportunity to share our experience with friends and family. Guests stayed overnight, family members joined us for a day cruise, and generous friends brought over meals when we passed through their hometowns. For those who couldn’t experience Sweet Day physically, we shared our journey through our blog and Instagram, and caught up with stories when we got together off the boat.

Boaters who are familiar with liveaboard life know there is no shortage of questions that curious people ask about a nautical lifestyle. Those who are exploring this way of life may feel like there is no end to the questions you could ask.

Below is a compilation of the most common questions we posed to us about our year doing the Great Loop and living full-time on Sweet Day. Hopefully the responses will get you ready for your adventures on this incomparable waterway.

WHAT IS THE GREAT LOOP?

The Great Loop is a 6,000+ mile “loop” around the eastern U.S. and Canadian waterways. The journey takes about a year, if done consecutively, and covers 15+ states and two countries, depending on your route. A few hundred “loopers” complete the journey each year, some doing it all at once, and others covering segments year by year. Loopers plan their journey traveling by seasons to avoid hurricanes in the South and tough winters up North. The America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA) is the resource for all things related to the Loop, and we highly encourage checking them out when planning your trip.

Kate's AGLCA Flag on her boat

WHAT DOES THE FLAG MEAN ON THE BOW OF YOUR BOAT?

If you are currently looping for the first time, it is traditional to fly a white AGLCA burgee or “flag.” Once you complete the loop, it is customary to replace your white burgee with a gold AGLCA burgee to indicate to other boaters that you already completed the full loop. Those who have done the loop more than once fly a platinum burgee. All burgees can be ordered from the AGLCA website. It’s a great way to easily spot and meet other loopers.

HOW DO YOU MEET OTHER LOOPERS?

Since many of us on the loop travel the same segments of the trip at the same time, it is common to see loopers at a dock, anchorage or cruising by. The AGLCA burgee makes it easy to spot cruisers on the journey, and a lot of loopers also use the Nebo app, which shows where other loopers are physically located, so you can message each other. Sometimes we travel a few days with the same boats; others you may see one day and then meet up again a few weeks later.

DID YOU GET STUCK IN BAD WEATHER?

Having a flexible schedule and keeping a close eye on the weather kept us mostly out of uncomfortable waters. We used services such as Windy, AccuWeather, and NOAA to anticipate wind speeds and wave heights. We tried to only cruise when waves were under three feet, although twice we found ourselves in five+ foot waves (once on the Chesapeake heading to Annapolis and another heading to Presque Isle, MI, on Lake Huron), because our final destination happened to be closer than trying to find an alternative place of refuge. We also encountered strong wind while at anchor and tied up to docks, especially when the wind was going against the tide outside Savannah. By staying vigilant about our lines and anchor holding, we luckily were never in any danger. They say the boat can handle more than the captain, and thankfully the only thing we ever lost due to weather was a few hours of sleep.

Kate and Tim enjoying the Superbowl from their deck

DID YOU SLEEP ON THE BOAT EVERY NIGHT?

Our trawler had a v-berth with enough room for us to sleep comfortably. Often when we were near friends and family, they would offer for us to stay on land. Sometimes we took them up on it, but we preferred to stay on Sweet Day. Just like a land house, Sweet Day had all our comforts of home (because it was our home), and anytime we didn’t have to pack a bag was a plus.

WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT FOOD?

We ate about 75% of our meals on the boat using our tiny kitchen equipped with a small oven, three-burner stove, microwave, fridge and some pantry space. We ate out if we found a must-see place or were exhausted from a long day and not in the mood to cook. But often we were not close to a restaurant and had to be creative with what was in our pantry. We went to a grocery store two to three times a week by bike and would get enough fresh food for about three dinners (and snacks for lunches) but were limited by what we could carry and store in our boat. Because we didn’t have space for a ton of food, and sometimes our meals were whatever we had on board, so we wasted a lot less food than when living on land.

WHAT WERE YOUR FAVORITE PARTS OF THE TRIP?

We get this question all the time, and it’s still challenging to answer. Each part of the trip (inland rivers, Gulf of Mexico, Intracoastal Waterway, Chesapeake Bay, Delaware and Hudson Rivers, Erie Canal, Great Lakes) posed their unique challenges, breathtaking scenery, regional cuisine and character. The loop has too many special places to mark our favorites as each place we stopped shaped our journey, whether it was having a conversation with a dock hand to enjoying a locally made beer, to attending a community BBQ. Our country’s waterways are beautiful and a critical part of our infrastructure, and the life that is built around them is always worth experiencing.

Kate and Family on their boat

DID YOU EVER GET SICK OF EACH OTHER?

Mostly no, but sometimes we were very aware we were living together on a 31-foot boat. We learned communication is key and ultimately felt very fortunate to be on this journey together. Before the trip, we heard about the “80/80 Marriage,” which is the concept that spouses should not try to ensure each is doing their fair share (or 50/50), but each should aim to do 80%. This mindset helped a lot. At night lying in bed, I may say, “I forgot to turn off the water pump. Tim, can you do an 80 for me and get up and turn it off?” Or Tim would comment, “Kate, you really pulled an 80 on cooking dinner and doing the dishes.” We couldn’t imagine doing this trip with anyone else.

WHO WAS THE CAPTAIN?

We consider us both the captain. While we both have our strengths, each of us was involved in almost every aspect of the boat. We both drove, troubleshot boat problems, navigated, planned routes, grocery shopped, cleaned and so on. From a safety standpoint, it was important both of us could take on responsibilities should something happen to the other. This was our journey, and it was vital to us that we both were involved in decisions and operations that made this adventure possible.

Article and photos by Kate Carney

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