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Pro Files (Great Loop Edition): Learning Underway

As the Bowlin crew aboard the Cruisers 4450 "Light & Salty" found, there's no shortage of grand moments on the Loop.

Some people dream about it. Others seize the wheel and do it. America’s Great Loop is a unique venue that encompasses the eastern third of the United States, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. Experiencing all or part of the Loop is a bucket-list goal for numerous power cruising enthusiasts. Passagemaker found several families for whom the Loop has played a central role in their boating lives. They’ve done, or are in the process of doing, the Loop in different iterations on different types of boats. Here, they share the joys, challenges and tribulations they encountered along the track. We hope their experiences and insights inspire you to cast off on a Great Loop adventure of your own.

The Bowlin family explores sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in North Carolina.

The Bowlin family explores sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in North Carolina.

The Bowlin Family: Learning Underway

Crew: The Bowlin family 

Ages: Brent and Sarah (both 39), Mary Grace (13), Miller (8), puppy Captain (16 weeks) 

Home Port: Charlotte, North Carolina 

Boat: 2003 Cruisers 4450 Motor Yacht Light & Salty (Fun fact: Our boat has already been around the Loop once.)


Boating experience prior to the Loop

Very little. Brent and I both grew up on the water, and when we were dating, we dreamed of one day owning a boat. But life happened, and we spent more time growing our family and careers than focusing on our dreams. Five years ago, we got serious about making it happen.

Length of trip in months and miles

We left Brunswick, Georgia, on June 1, 2020. To date, we are more than 4,000 miles into the Loop.

Route

We’ve done a traditional Loop route (counterclockwise) with the exception of Canada. Unfortunately, because of Covid, we were not allowed into Canada this year. After researching and exploring our not-so-many options, we ended up having to hire a captain and crew to take our boat through the Welland Canal. Our whole family is hoping for a “Canadian redo” this summer.

How did you decide to do the Loop?

We’ve been traveling with our kiddos since they were babies. It’s been our goal to take them to all 50 states (we only lack Alaska and North Dakota). About five years ago, we realized that we’d like to make it a lifestyle, even if just for a short period of time. Brent presented the idea of the Great Loop, and I favored the idea of RVing across the country. We took a family vote, and the Loop won 3-to-1. In hindsight, I’m thankful I lost the vote. Living full-time on a boat and traveling around the Great Loop has pushed me outside of my comfort zone, big time. We also love knowing that pursuing our dream is inspiring others.

How long did the idea gestate?

When we zeroed in on our dream to do the Great Loop, the date we set was May 2020. Back in 2015, that felt like forever away. But we planned and prayed and sacrificed. Admittedly, we really had no idea how it would all come together. Brent has a corporate job that he loves. Our kids were very involved in sports and activities in our community. We had a lot tying us to Charlotte. Oh, and no boat! Most days, I look back at the chain of events that led us to the Loop and I can hardly believe it. A dream was born. We prayed and worked for it for five years. In February 2020, we made an offer on a boat and put our house on the market. The day we signed all the papers for the boat was the exact same day the world shut down. (I couldn’t believe I was buying a boat when most people couldn’t buy toilet paper.) Brent’s job went remote. Our house sold. And the next thing we knew, we were living full time on a boat, in May 2020.

web-Home Sweet Home Boat copy

What made you choose this boat?

We shopped for and purchased our boat specifically with the Loop in mind. Honestly, Brent narrowed down our criteria so much ahead of time that when it was all said and done, we only looked at a few boats in person. In fact, our boat is the first and only one that I looked at. Besides meeting the bridge requirements for the Loop, the main criteria was three staterooms so we would each have our own space. Among our other non-negotiable features were diesel engines and a good spot for a dinghy.

Sunset on Tangier Island Boat-SM

What modifications did you make to your boat for the Loop?

At the time, it felt like we were doing a lot, but now that I’m looking back, it wasn’t really all that much. Right off the bat, we hired professionals for some engine tune-ups. We also enclosed the back of our boat with Strataglass and screens, creating another living space. But the biggest modification we made was to make our boat a floating hot spot. We researched and outfitted our boat with the best internet and cellphone boosting technology we could find. Since we rely on connectivity for our careers, it was imperative to have a signal even in the most remote locations. (Not to mention our kids are big fans of Disney+.)

web-Great Looping To Chicago copy

Why did you decide to undertake such an endeavor with the family?

We want to show our kids the world and hope to inspire others to do the same. I love that my kids are learning from experience rather than just a textbook. For example, they’re both studying American history this year. When they studied Jamestown, Virginia, they actually know what it was like to walk through the first settlement. When their textbook mentioned the Erie Canal, they both could think back to holding lines and having a dance party in the locks. And most recently, they visited Shiloh Battlefield on the Tennessee-Mississippi border. It brought their studies of the Civil War to life. All of these were things we experienced on the Loop. More than that, we cherish the time we’re spending as a family. We are acutely aware of what a short time we get with our kiddos. It’s been such a privilege to fill their childhood with travel. The other day, Miller casually mentioned over dinner, “When I grow up, I’m going to do the Loop with my kids.” My heart melted. There’s nothing better he could have said to us.

Mary Grace Bowlin handles the lines while locking into downtown Chicago aboard the family’s Cruisers 4450 Motor Yacht Light & Salty.

Mary Grace Bowlin handles the lines while locking into downtown Chicago aboard the family’s Cruisers 4450 Motor Yacht Light & Salty.

What challenges did the Covid-19 pandemic present along your Loop cruise?

Other than not being able to take our boat into Canada, we really haven’t experienced any Covid-related challenges. Since we’ve already had the opportunity to visit many of the big cities along the Loop, we were always planning to be more focused on the boating aspect of this journey.

What have been your kids’ favorite and least-favorite experiences so far?

Mary Grace’s favorite experiences:

• “Getting to work with other boat captains to gain knowledge. One captain gave me several lessons on celestial navigation. Another let me drive his boat and practice spinning it and stopping it at a fixed point. And another spent hours with me teaching me knots. Everyone we meet has unique specialties, and I’m really appreciative when they take the time to teach me. I even learned how to splice line, and then I was able to teach two other boaters how to do it.”

• “Anchoring out behind the Statue of Liberty on my 13th birthday. Two of our buddy boats were with us, and we cooked my favorite dinner and had cake with the backdrop of the city lights. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”

• “Visiting all kinds of places that we couldn’t see by car. I got to swim next to a waterfall, and pet goats on an island. We also visited a few remote islands that are only accessible by boat like Tangier in the Chesapeake Bay and Mackinac in Lake Huron.”

Mary Grace’s least-favorite experiences:

• “When it snowed while we were boating in Chicago.”

• “When our new puppy, Captain, chewed on the end of my favorite dockline.”

web-Captain with Anchor

• “I don’t like when something unexpected happens when we’re docking. I’m in charge of setting up all of our lines. And I help Mom with the fender placement. It’s nerve-wracking when we have to change sides last minute.”

As you can probably tell, my girl is pretty incredible (I don’t say that to brag. Honestly, she’s nothing like me, and her independence has driven me crazy since the day she was born). She’s already logging hours for her captain’s license and she’s memorized Chapman Piloting & Seamanship. Mary Grace is totally in her element on the boat, and I’m excited to see how this experience shapes her future.

Miller’s favorite experiences:

• Catching his first fish at Jarrett Bay in North Carolina with an audience of professionals. They all cheered and congratulated him.

web-Miller's Red Drum Catch Jarrett Bay copy

• Trying to find the best ice cream on the Loop. It’s a tough job, but Miller takes it very seriously.

• Being the official lock DJ. He takes song requests from other boats and the lockmasters. It makes the lock go by really quickly and makes everyone really happy.

Miller’s least-favorite experiences:

• Having to say goodbye to friends we boat with when we are on different schedules or going in different directions.

He could only think of one thing. I often say that Miller is here for the snacks. He’s also my social guy and has never met a stranger. He’s found tons of adopted grandparents along the Loop that all slip him candy behind my back and have endless patience for his silly stories.

How did you plan your route?

At first, I did a lot of the research on my own. Being in the travel industry, I already had a pretty long bucket list. Admittedly, I’m very type A, and I like to know exactly what to expect. But the further we’ve gone on the Loop, the more I’ve begun to trust and rely on other boaters. We’ve found that the boating community loves to help each other. Whether it’s a restaurant recommendation or help finding an impeller on Thanksgiving Day when all the stores are closed (true story), other boaters jump in and make it happen. We also take advantage of the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association seminars and network. We’ve made a lot of friends who offer suggestions and recommendations.

We typically plan about a month at a time and do a decent job sticking to it. Most weeks, we stay in a marina Monday through Friday and then move the boat on the weekend. This allows Brent to focus on work and the kids to focus on school without the distractions of moving the boat. It also gives us time to explore the area. That being said, we try to stay as flexible as possible. Weather occasionally dictates our plans. Safety trumps plans every time.

web-MG Boatschool on AMI
Miller employs some creative workspaces while homeschooling underway.

Miller employs some creative workspaces while homeschooling underway.

What would you recommend to anyone considering the trip?

Do it! Similar to having a baby, there’s never a right time. Far too many people fail to pursue their dreams. While it might not be the smartest financial decision, we’ve chosen to invest in our family. I can confidently say that we will never regret the decision to Loop at this stage in our lives. On a more practical note, I would say it’s important not to give yourself an out. There are occasionally hard days. Really hard days. But it’s the hard days that build character and make the good days that much sweeter. I have the utmost respect for everyone with a Gold Burgee because it truly is something you work for and earn. On a lighter note, I would also say to be realistic. There will always be someone with a nicer boat, bigger boat and more glamorous features. But guess what? The same is true in reverse. If we waited for Brent’s dream boat, we’d still be on land. I was certain I couldn’t live without a dishwasher or laundry room, but somehow I don’t miss those things nearly as much as I thought I would. Things are not always perfect. In fact, they are rarely perfect. But we’re making a lot of memories.

web-MG Jumping off The Roof

What were the three most valuable lessons you learned?

There are a lot of moving parts in boating. For example, there are like 10 steps and switches just to turn on our boat. We strongly believe everyone should know how to do everything. While Brent prefers to be the one driving the boat, it’s important that I can confidently do everything (including dock our boat).

Check and recheck the weather. We crossed Lake Michigan in terrible conditions because we failed to take two minutes to recheck the weather. When we went to bed the night before, conditions looked OK for the morning. Unfortunately, overnight the wind kicked up, making the waves almost unbearable.

Separate spaces are important. We went from a 4,000-square-foot house with a big yard in the suburbs (where Brent went to an office 40-plus hours a week) to a 43-foot boat. Having multiple areas on the boat where we can work and play is important for everyone’s sanity. Brent typically works in the main area, which sometimes leaves the rest of us crawling around to dodge being on camera for his Zoom meetings. But we also take advantage of the “back porch” of our boat for school. Or, we hop off the boat and use marina picnic tables. We try to proactively look for ways to get one-on-one time with each other or even time by ourselves.

web-Miller catches a crab GA copy

Is the Loop a one-time deal, or will you do the whole thing or parts of it again?

We’re taking it one day at a time, but I can’t imagine being done. As I mentioned, we would love the opportunity to go to Canada this summer. We will keep checking in with our kids and assessing their happiness with our lifestyle.

What were the three pinnacle experiences you had on the trip?

On the Loop, there is no shortage of grand moments. Boating through the heart of downtown Chicago, passing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis on the Mississippi River, and navigating New York Harbor are a few things that come to mind. However, for me it’s the little moments that we’ll be talking about forever: stumbling on a pod of dolphins feeding in the Chesapeake, singing karaoke in a cave in the middle of Alabama, countless sunrises and sunsets, shopping at local farmers markets along the Erie Canal, jumping into the freezing waters of Lake Huron, getting caught in the rain after walking miles to town in Georgetown, navigating in fog so thick we could barely see the end of our bow, the steak at Coinjock Marina in North Carolina, celebrating Halloween tied to a barge, playing hopscotch across the top of a dam—the list goes on.

The Bowlins enjoy a Chesapeake Bay joyride up front.

The Bowlins enjoy a Chesapeake Bay joyride up front.

What two or three things would you tell people to avoid?

I make a point to avoid negativity. It is far too easy to grumble about the never-ending boat project list, or the constant disorganization that comes from a lack of adequate storage space or even a string of cold, rainy days. But the bottom line is that we’re living our dream. We get to wake up every morning on a boat. It’s not lost on me how truly blessed we are to get to do what we do.

Want more? You can follow the Bowlins’ travels on their popular blog at momwithamap.com


Trawler Talk Podcast: The Great Loop

In this episode, special guest Kim Russo (AGLCA) shares her “local knowledge” about the Great Loop and how to make this bucket-list item a reality. LISTEN NOW!


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