HUMANS are a restless lot.
It is our nature to explore and our nature to be curious, and traveling by boat is by far one of the most satisfying ways of keeping this explorer’s curiosity alive. The growing popularity of the “Great Loop”—a continuous waterway circling the eastern half of the U.S. and portions of Canada—is good evidence that many agree.
No one is sure who first navigated the “Loop,” but it had to be some time after 1848, when the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which connected Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, joined the previously constructed Erie Canal. These two canal projects created an island of sorts of the eastern half of the continental United States. A collection of interconnected rivers, lakes, and waterways enabled a boater to circumnavigate the Loop without portaging any land obstacles.
Stories are told of three boys completing the route in a small sailboat sometime around 1890. While these waterways were built for commerce, not for recreational use, it is not inconceivable that these young lads saw this system of canals as a challenge and set out on a journey. The first documented voyage, however, wasn’t until nearly a century later in 1971 when John Wright and Terry Richards completed the route on a 27-foot, single-engine Chris-Craft Cavalier.
John Wright, or simply “Captain John” as he has come to be known, has gone on to complete the Loop numerous times and has been a leader in encouraging others to follow. One of the couples that followed Captain John was Ron and Eva Stob. While on a charter canal boat vacation along the Trent-Severn Waterway in Ontario, Canada, Ron and Eva learned of the Loop from a couple traveling along the route. Ron and Eva had no boating experience, but certainly had an adventurous streak. The seed was planted on that vacation that they would someday not only complete the Loop themselves, but in doing so foster an enterprise that would enable thousands to follow in their wake.
Risk and Reward
Adventures come in all forms, and we get to choose those which suit our tastes as well as our risk tolerance. Circumnavigating the Loop delivers one of the highest rewards imaginable, with a level of risk lower than almost any other boating activity.
Depending on the route and number of side trips taken, the Loop can take a boater on a 6,000-mile odyssey through 20 states, the coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean, all five Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, six major rivers, and two historic waterways (the Erie Canal and the Intracoastal, both over 200 years old in their concept and planning). Add to this an international experience in the French-Canadian province of Quebec, and one can see why many Loopers are on their second or third cruises; it’s too much to take in on a single voyage.
Balance this breadth of experiences with the relatively low risk of boating almost exclusively within sight of land, and of boating in the most predictable seasonal weather as you progress around the Loop, and it’s easy to see why even people with little or no boating experience feel comfortable taking on this adventure.
Loopers repeatedly cite the friendships formed along the way as one of the most rewarding aspects of their trip. The Stobs tapped into this quickly after completing their first Loop adventure. As a travel writer, Ron was accustomed to sharing their travel stories with others, and he turned their Loop experience into a bestselling book, Honey, Let’s Get a Boat. In April 1999, at TrawlerFest in Melbourne, Florida, the Stobs promoted their new book and an idea for a new club: America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA). At that event they collected the names of the first 14 members of their new club. The following years showed steady growth and interest in the shared information between experienced and prospective Loopers. A monthly newsletter kept everyone informed of the group’s activities along with relevant information about the Loop. Clearly there was strong interest from an ever-growing group eager to learn more about this adventure.
At a canceled TrawlerFest scheduled for Grand Haven, Michigan, in August 2001, Ron and Eva attended their first impromptu “rendezvous” created from a potluck dinner organized by Loopers gathered for the show. The chemistry and camaraderie of the group was too good for this to be a one-time event. The Looper’s Rendezvous was born and has only increased in size and frequency over the past 17 years.
Today the AGLCA holds two seasonal rendezvous, along with multiple shorter educational sessions. A Spring Rendezvous is held every year along the East Coast for Loopers starting on the leg north, followed by a second Rendezvous in the fall, typically located at Joe Wheeler State Park in Rogersville, Alabama. These have become sellout events. This year’s Spring Rendezvous in Norfolk, Virginia, had 300 attendees and over 50 boats, and the Fall Rendezvous was already sold out with a wait list by mid-July.
These events are a “Looper’s University,” taking the non-boater from entry-level 101 courses to graduate-level instruction in a single weekend, with classes taught by a mix of experienced Loopers and other boating professionals. Each rendezvous is also a reunion, giving Loopers a chance to reconnect with others they’ve met along the way.
The AGLCA, originally formed by the Stobs, has changed hands and evolved over the years into a smoothly run professional organization. Having attended a couple of their events, I can tell you they are some of the most efficiently run programs I’ve ever attended. The enthusiasm of past Loopers is infectious, and prospective Loopers leave the events not only excited to make the trip but also confident that they can do it.
A Life-Changing Experience
Mike and Judy Hechtkopf always joined their friends from the Cavalier Yacht Club for the annual Memorial Day cruise to nearby Cape Charles, Virginia. However, this particular year was a little different. On Monday when everyone from the Club headed south back to Virginia Beach, Mike and Judy turned north to begin a long-held dream of cruising the Great Loop. The Hechtkopfs first learned of the Loop from friends at their yacht club. Like so many Loopers, Mike still had several more years to work, so he researched and planned and dreamed for the eventual trip.
Finally the time had come. Prior to getting underway, the Hechtkopfs signed up for the Spring AGLCA rendezvous in nearby Norfolk, Virginia. They attended all of the classes on what to expect, how to do this, and what to bring aboard. Packing their Viking Sport Cruiser 50 with everything they needed and probably more, they locked the house and set off. The plan was to complete the Loop nonstop, bringing them back to their home in Virginia Beach.
Mike and Judy had heard the stories, but they had no idea how their lives were about to change. Judy remembers meeting people at the rendezvous. While they all collectively said they looked forward to seeing each other along the way, Mike and Judy felt quite content, but also quite alone, when they left their yacht club friends that Monday morning to set off on the Loop.
The stops through the Chesapeake were mostly familiar to them, having spent vacations enjoying the bay’s rivers and tributaries. When they reached the New Jersey Shore, they were in new territory, however. And that’s when they started seeing the familiar burgee of fellow Loopers. It wasn’t until they fell into a group of cruisers who would become lifelong friends that they fully understood and appreciated the stories they had heard.
The Hechtkopfs took 13 months to complete their loop, taking a few breaks along the way for family responsibilities. They will tell you it was everything they dreamed it would be and encourage anyone dreaming of it to find a way to make it happen.
Some Can’t Get Enough
Don and Barb Cavin lived a slightly more adventurous life than the average couple. After Don retired from his career as a U.S. Air Force Reservist and commercial airline pilot and Barb retired from her career as a flight attendant, they traveled extensively. But it clearly wasn’t enough to satisy their craving for adventure.
In 2009, the Cavins purchased Cavara, a 1988 49-foot DeFever raised pilothouse with plans to continue their travels: by water now, instead of by air. The Cavins spent several years refurbishing Cavara, personalizing the boat to suit their tastes and making it cruise-ready. When they attended their first AGLCA rendezvous in the spring of 2013, they hadn’t committed to starting the Loop yet. They continued to cruise the eastern seaboard and Canada, even completing what is known as the “Down East Circle Loop.” This route starts at New York’s Hudson River and goes through the Erie Canal, Lake Ontario, out the St. Lawrence Seaway, and back down the East Coast.
Four years later, having gained confidence in their boat and their own abilities, they made the decision to officially begin the Loop in February 2017. They worked their way around Florida and started north where we met them at the Spring rendezvous in May 2018. They are currently in the Great Lakes and enjoying their cruise more than they could have imagined. They will “cross their wake” in Sarasota this winter. And while they will have completed the Great Loop, they have no plans to end their adventures there. Cavara will take them north again next summer as their journey continues.
The Cavins, like most Loopers, know that while the Loop is indeed a circle and their route will return them to where they started, they won’t come back the same people.