WHITEHALL – There are very few truly unique experiences in this country, but the chance to complete America’s Great Loop, a 6,000-mile boat trip that circumnavigates the entire eastern United States and parts of Canada, is one of them. Ron and Cathy Russell, from Whitehall, have discovered it for themselves over the past year, completing the loop between September 2021 and last August.
The Russells found themselves asking, “What’s next?” after closing their bed and breakfast, White Swan Inn, and embarking fully on retirement. It was only a matter of time before they decided to take the Loop on their boat, Third Swan, which they have owned since 2010 and from which Ron runs a charter business.
“We’ve been sailing Lake Michigan for years, and Ron is a licensed captain, and we’ve been on sunset cruises for years,” Cathy said. “(We thought,) what else can we do? Ron had a cousin, and she and her husband did the loop several years ago and it seemed intriguing to us. We put it on the backburner and said, “This might be interesting one day.”
The idea gained momentum when Cathy surprised Ron with a membership in the American Great Loop Cruisers Association (AGLCA), and his white identification flag that flies on Loopers’ boats, as a Christmas present ago. a few years. Finally, planning for the trip began in earnest.
Planning is an important part of making the loop, which usually takes a good part of the year. For the Russells, that included fitting their boat with an automated identification system, which uses satellite technology to help boaters see who is nearby. (They actually had to wait in Illinois at some point early in their journey for a special chip that allowed the system to work in rivers; their original model was only equipped for lakes.)
Although there are several possible routes to do the loop, there is one, Cathy said, that is the most popular. If travelers start from West Michigan, the route sees Loopers traveling south to the Chicago River, through Illinois, along the Mississippi River for a while, then through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama to the Gulf Coast. From there, the loop loops around Florida to the Atlantic Ocean, hugging the east coast most of the way north before briefly crossing Canada, through the North Channel, around Lake Huron and back into Lake Michigan.
After completing the loop, the Russells were rewarded by the AGLCA with a new gold flag signifying a successful trip. (Loopers who make the trip three times get a platinum flag.)
Whether white, gold or platinum, flags aren’t just for vanity. Throughout the Russells’ journey, they marked other Loopers and served as instant icebreakers — and in turn forged friendships. Ron and Cathy displayed a photo album full of boat cards (think business cards, but for a boat) that they collected from other boaters along their trip, including Loopers.
“The flag was the connector that brought everyone together,” Ron said. “It was fascinating to hear their stories: what they do, what their plans are and all the experience they have. We heard amazing things during our trip.
Many of these exchanges took place during what Loopers call “dock stories,” late-night gatherings of boaters after their trips for the day are over. As Ron said, boaters gather at a marina with a drink of their choice and just chat.
A modified version of “dock tales” comes when “porch tales” become an option; the Russells said a Looper who lives on the water in Southport, North Carolina, happily greets other Loopers as they pass by.
Sure, the day’s commute is a common topic at these gatherings, but inevitably the conversation changes, and that’s where the bonds are forged. Ron likes to play the guitar, so that was also part of the festivities.
Even aside from other boaters, the people the Russells met during their various ports of call were also a highlight, and they say it’s been a two-way street, especially this year. The Great Loop had essentially been on hiatus since 2019, as due to the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying travel restrictions in Canada, it was essentially not possible to complete it in 2020 or 2021. L he influx of travelers was warmly welcomed at Russells many stops.
“I handed out boat cards everywhere,” Cathy said. “It wasn’t just for the other Loopers. We would be in a restaurant and the waiter could say, ‘Are you visiting?’ And we would say, ‘Yes. We do the loop. Here is our boat map.
“A restaurant in Mobile said, ‘I’m going to start putting them on the board and letting others know these people have arrived.'”
Due to the two-year absence, there was “a backlog” of Loopers this year; Cathy estimated they encountered a few hundred Loopers along the way, when only about 150 boats make the trip in an average year. This makes the Grande Boucle a feat statistically comparable to swimming the English Channel (around 1,900 people have completed it) or climbing Mount Everest (over 500 people per year).
While the people were the highlight, there was certainly no shortage of sights to see. There were, of course, the typical tourist attractions like the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The Russells were in Washington, DC for five days, able to dock not far from the National Mall and commute to the area each day. Cathy said they could have stayed much longer, calling it “truly a thrill”. Another highlight was the Annapolis Naval Academy.
Then there are lesser-known highlights. Cathy was amazed at how much she enjoyed the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Ky. The National Aquarium in Baltimore amazed them. The Florida Botanical Gardens were a feast for the senses.
Seeing the sights is certainly a good reason to hike the loop, but another, Cathy said, is the challenge. Even for experienced boaters, the voyage is an opportunity to test their skills in uncharted waters. There were narrow channels along the way, especially towards the south in the early parts of the journey; at one point the boat was in an area where the water couldn’t get more than 50 feet wide, with shale walls lining the way. Then there is the obstacle of other boats; this is one of the reasons Russells AIS has proven useful.
At places along the loop, especially on inland rivers, the path twists and turns, and without AIS boats might otherwise sneak up on you. In fact, even with technological aid, it happened once with humorous results.
“We received a safety call from a sailboat in Georgian Bay,” Cathy said. “They were going through a very rocky area, like boulders, winding and windy. They said something like, in three minutes, and I said, I don’t know what you’re referring to in that three-minute time frame. Suddenly I see their mast. (I said,) ‘OK, Ron, you have to slow down and back up a bit because this guy is coming.'”
Navigating the locks, which can raise or lower stationary boats to allow safer passage through the rivers, is a new experience for many boaters like the Russells, who had never crossed one to the Chicago River. at the start of the loop. A lock on the Trent Severn Waterway in Canada saw Third Swan lifted 65ft, Ron said.
The biggest nautical challenge came, coincidentally, on Thanksgiving Day 2021. The Russells sailed from Carrabelle, Florida to Tarpon Springs on Florida’s Gulf Coast. By car, that would be a five-hour drive; using the most direct water route it is about 160 miles and takes almost a full day by boat. The Russells left Thanksgiving afternoon to make this trip and arrived around noon the next day.
“It was definitely, ‘Check the weather, check it again, who else is going?'” Cathy said. “We had some friendly boats that kind of left at the same time, but then your paths diverge a bit.”
A very popular part of the loop happens to be the North Channel, located in the Ontario side of Lake Huron, but the Russells didn’t see much of it. As they got closer to home and encountered favorable weather conditions, they found themselves eager to get back to Whitehall, which led, as she called it, to “longer jumps” on the Great Lakes. They ended up returning about 10 days earlier than planned, a time Cathy said they would otherwise have spent in this North Channel.
“We were looking forward to being home,” Ron said. “We had been gone for almost 11 months. There were things about the house that we had missed, that’s for sure. There was a sense of accomplishment and a desire to be complete.
The nice thing about the North Channel is that for a retired Looper from Michigan, it’s not a daunting trip. Cathy said the Russells are hoping to go there next summer for an extended stay to make up for skipping most of it when they return to the Loop.
The Russells are certainly enjoying being home, but maybe not as much as their two cats, who joined them on the Loop. (They’re indoor cats, Cathy said, so the adjustment might not have been as abrupt as it otherwise would have been.)
In the weeks since their return, however, they have made one concession to their nearly year-long journey: their sleep schedule. Traveling the Loop usually means going to bed early and getting up early to maximize the day’s trip, and they laughed that that hadn’t changed back home.
Laughing, Cathy told the Russells, who have a daughter and three grandchildren, that they’ve been asked before if they’ll ever hike the Loop again: “Let’s think about it! It is unclear if a repeat trip is in their future. But what is clear is that the Loop is a trip they will never forget.
“It’s definitely the trip of a lifetime,” Cathy said. “I feel very privileged that we had the means to be able to accomplish this.”