84 Days in the Loop

Thousands of boaters have completed the Great Loop, but Katie and Elizabeth McPhail added a twist by doing it in their Duroboat.

The current sneaked up on us. The weather was nice and the water calm, but as we idled near the mouth of the Steinhatchee River trying to look up marinas in our Florida Cruising Guide, the current pulled us over an oyster bed. Emotions were still high from our first day of open water on the Gulf of Mexico, and now we were struggling for control.

“Could you at least pretend to do something?!” barked Elizabeth, trying in vain to use helmsmanship to counter the water’s force.

We were 23 days into our three-month trip and 1,000-plus miles from our starting point in Chicago — an accomplishment that mattered little right now in a deceptive and unceasing current outside a waterfront restaurant. A group of onlookers, likely waiting for their dinner reservations, leaned out to watch our debacle. We’d prepared for rough water and mechanical failure on the trip. But a strange crowd gawking at our tight little boat, adrift ... moments like this would test our breaking point.

Day 1: Post-Graduate Work
The adventure started as a solo maneuver when I pointed the boat south out of Chicago on June 4. Elizabeth was finishing final exams, and for me it wasn't exactly a stressfree send-off with a cozy prelaunch. The electronics, Suzuki outboard and even the console had been rigged in the final hours leading up to the boat's first long haul — a tow on the highways from Seattle to mid-America. I'd have preferred a longer break-in period for the motor and my willpower.

Nevertheless, a few days after cruising out of Chicago, I arrived in Galesburg, Illinois, where Elizabeth was graduating from Knox College. Her first day after graduation would be spent close to me in the 16-foot Duroboat — same as the next 80-some days.

Day 15: Tight Quarters
For the first two weeks, complete strangers shared their charts, advice and even the guest quarters on their liveaboard boats. (They were sympathetic once they heard we planned to sleep on the Duroboat.) This became our first real overnight test. We arrived at midway marina in Fulton, Mississippi, around 4 p.m. The marina is just before the Fulton Lock on the Tenn-Tombigbee Waterway, and our boat was predictably dwarfed among an assortment of liveaboards, all retrofitted and refurbished to varying degrees. We set up our little ritz: a 4-foot-by-5-foot pop-up tent that I'd purchased for $9.99 from a convenience store back home in the Seattle area. I bought it because it would be small enough to fit on the front deck. The tent had been stowed for two weeks under a specially fitted set of floorboards, and only now did its shortcomings occur to us.

“OK, get out,” Elizabeth said as she waited for me to unzip the tent. Movement in a tent this small had to be planned and communicated.

“I’m waiting for my legs to wake up,” I answered and stretched my body diagonally across the tent, an option made possible only when one of us was sitting up.

Day 19: A New Itch
Don't think our three-month plan was confined to the boat. We had to take in some sites from angles that didn't include leaning over the gunwales. Our excitement in the days before hitting Destin, Florida, was sparked by thoughts of a little beach time on the Panhandle's white sands.

We should have been a little skeptical, however, about a place nicknamed “Crab Island.” It wasn’t crabs that had us flopping back into the boat with painful, invisible stings on our legs, though. We suspect the culprits were sea lice — microscopic jellyfish larvae, which are common in warm waters like the Gulf of Mexico. We learned that using diluted vinegar or alcohol, or applying hydrocortisone, will relieve the stings. We also found out that the smaller the swimsuit, the better, because sea lice get trapped in the material and then sting as a defense mechanism. This was a new peril for freshwater boaters from the northwest.

Day 32: Strange Meeting
After surviving the opening day of scallop season on Florida's Gulf Coast, we were cruising south against heavy Fourth of July boat traffic headed north. We were trying to get to Fort Myers. Everyone else was trying to get to Sarasota for the cigarette boat races. The convergence of boat wakes had created the perfect dolphin playground.

“Can I touch it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. It’s still a wild animal, isn’t it?”

One especially friendly dolphin had swum alongside our boat, bobbing his head and waving his flipper. I wanted to reach out and pet him, but our jovial playmate had an intimidating mug — his snout was mangled and scarred. He dove under the boat and surfed below our prop from one side of the wake to the other.

“Cut the engine,” Elizabeth screamed. “You’ll hit him!”

I figured the dolphin had done this a thousand times. Rather than surprise him with an abrupt change of speed, and perhaps clip him with our prop, I maintained speed. When he finished playing with us, he went on to entertain other boaters.

Day 43: Generational Clash
After leaving Beaufort, North Carolina, we spent an entire day in rough water crossing the Pamlico Sound and heading up the Alligator River. We, and the entire boat, were soaked from the wild water that had spilled over the gunwales. The weather was sour and we were tired.

“You can’t stay here,” said the marina operator without diverting her attention from the groceries she was bagging for another customer. “no trailer boats allowed.”

“Ma’am, we don’t have a trailer and we’re 3,000 miles into our trip,” Elizabeth pleaded. “We don’t even need electric or water hook-ups — just 16 feet of dock space.”

We also had just purchased full tanks of gas — only 18 gallons, but still, $60 should have given us a little eye contact.

“You’ll have to pay for the 25-foot minimum,” she finally conceded.

After charging us $50 to grudgingly allow us to rest our fenders on her empty dock for less than 12 hours, she sternly reminded us that she didn’t want to find us “sleeping on the floor of my shower room either!”

Wow, thanks!

We did stay at a motel, not because our plans of sleeping on the floor of a public shower had been thwarted, but because thunderstorms were in the forecast. The motel owner apologized for the rude reception we’d received at the marina. His grandmother had been a good friend of the marina owner.

“Sometimes older women have strong views about what’s proper for younger women,” he said. “I think you two are stressing those boundaries. They didn’t do stuff like this.”

Day 57: Ego Alley
The size of our boat and a few humbling experiences held our pride well in check. But before leaving Annapolis, Maryland, we couldn't resist taking an unnecessary trip down "Ego Alley," a dead-end route through the downtown waterfront area of Annapolis.

This short channel deserves its name. There’s no practical reason for the parade of expensive yachts that navigate down this narrow waterway, except that for some captains the opportunity to cruise past thousands of onlookers is worth the tight maneuver to turn around at the end. We had no such problems making the turn.

Day 76: Rocky Situation
Our day had begun before sunrise, and we were determined to make progress before the afternoon wind kicked up. Unfortunately the wind wasn't today's only nemesis. Our navigation skills left us wandering the small-craft route in Canada's Georgian Bay. We debated whether the buoy in front of us was the same buoy under Elizabeth's finger on the chart.

“Let’s go back,” Elizabeth suggested.

“What, so we can do this all over again tomorrow?”

We had the boat in gear, with just enough power to keep us from drifting into the rocky shallows. Armed with a pile of charts and a GPS we’d forgotten to equip with charts of Canadian waters, we puttered through the wilderness, alone, debating whether to press on blindly or turn back.

The very moment we resigned to turn around, another boat appeared from behind a small island. It slowed and began to turn toward us.

“Need a tow?” offered the middleaged captain of an older outboard-powered boat.

“Um, no, but where are you going?”

“Pointe au Baril,” answered his passenger.

We followed them to the Ontario community, giving us a chance to match their course to our chart and to get our bearings straight.

Day 84: Last Blast
Our last day on Lake Michigan seemed relatively uneventful compared with the days before it. The five-foot waves had subsided; the small-craft advisory that halted our progress was over, and we had no rip currents to worry about. This was, in fact, the culminating event we'd been looking forward to for the last three months.

Our 6,000-mile loop down the Mississippi River, through the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, across the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, up the east coast and through the waters of Canada and the Great Lakes had returned us to the place it all started: Lake Michigan.

It was a quick and easy ride from Marinette, Wisconsin, to the mouth of the Fox River in Green Bay, where we turned west and, for the first time in nearly three months, navigated away from the Great Loop. We had one important stop to make: Waupaca, a small Wisconsin resort town where Elizabeth and I, and three generations of family before us, had spent many of our summer vacations. The summers we spent here helped grow our love of boating and planted the interest for the adventure we’d just completed. There could be no more fitting finale to this ridiculous boat ride than to spend a few days along the Waupaca Chain o’Lakes, relaxing on the water.

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