Great Loops, With a Twist - PassageMaker

Every once in a while, people would look sideways at Larry and Jamie McCullough.

The couple were doing the Great Loop last year, just the same way that many cruisers do—starting in Florida and heading up the East Coast, and then working their way across Canada and back down through America’s midsection to the Gulf of Mexico. But they were doing it in Hull No. 1 of Nordhavn’s N59. Their Independence was so much bigger than most other Loopers’ boats that she elicited stares.

But the size turned out to be a godsend, especially when they were going through some particularly tough locks.

“They’d tell us to go forward into the lock, and I was the first one in,” Larry recalls. “The tug had just left, and I had all these boats behind me, but the tug was really powering up to make a turn immediately after leaving the lock, and he put me almost sideways. I had to use a lot of power to get through that. I was really appreciative of my boat’s power. It’s a big boat for the Loop, but I was glad I had it.”

This railroad bridge in Chicago is the reason why many Great Looper cruisers choose smaller boats. Another option? Put a hinge in the boat's arch to reduce air draft.

This railroad bridge in Chicago is the reason why many Great Looper cruisers choose smaller boats. Another option? Put a hinge in the boat's arch to reduce air draft.

A lot of cruisers who do the Great Loop choose to do it a little differently. Whether it’s having a bigger-than-usual boat, a smaller-than-usual boat, a fly-in-fly-out schedule, or any number of other personalized approaches, everyone’s Great Loop experience can be different.

But the result is almost always the same: memories to last a lifetime, and the realization that when you do the loop your way, you can have exactly the experience you want from the start.

The same boat in open water.

The same boat in open water.

SECOND TIME’S THE CHARM

Susan Pellett’s first attempt at the Great Loop didn’t go well at all. She spent three years rebuilding a 1985 21-foot Sport-Craft, and she took off in April 2017, only to see her loop end in Chesapeake, Virginia, at Mile Marker 12 on the Intracoastal Waterway.

She’d tied up for the night and was sleeping aboard a friend’s boat when she felt a whoosh in the middle of the night. The next morning, with the benefit of daylight and a few conversations on the dock, she realized the whoosh had been a towboat smashing right into her SuzyQ.

“The skipper of a tow missed his mark, and there’s a bend in the canal there,” she says. “They have to hit that mark and back down the stern of the towboat to swing the bend. Well, he missed his mark and got my boat. It folded it right in half against the dock.”

So ended her first attempt to cruise the Great Loop. But she didn’t give up; born and raised in Pittsburgh, her goal was to visit her 38 grandchildren, all of whom lived near the water.

She was 57 at that time, and found a 28-footer to try and keep going, but its necessary repairs turned out to be never-ending. That’s when she saw online chatter about a man looking for a co-captain to do the Great Loop. He had a 40-foot Silverton—quite the upgrade for her.

“It was beautiful, a floating condo, and it had done the Loop in 2017,” Pellett says. “I’m telling you, it was great.”

They left the dock in March 2019 in Louisiana, just north of New Orleans. The Allons-y! completed the loop right back to that exact spot, where she and the boat’s owner, Thom Frederick, celebrated with Champagne up on the flybridge.

“It felt amazing,” Pellet says. “It was a letdown because of the height of wanting to do it for so long, and it finally being done. That was sad, and happy. But my pictures say it all. We were all smiles, all along the way.”

Susan Pellett and her Great Loop cruising partner, Silverton owner Thom Frederick, at Singer Castle in Chippewa, New York. 

Susan Pellett and her Great Loop cruising partner, Silverton owner Thom Frederick, at Singer Castle in Chippewa, New York. 

Going through locks taught the Pelletts about a different type of U.S. history. 

Going through locks taught the Pelletts about a different type of U.S. history. 

COMING AND GOING

Sandra LaMontagne was thrilled when her husband, Bob, asked her about cruising the Great Loop. She’d always been the boater in the family, and she missed the days when, before their daughters were born, they’d owned a 42-foot aft-cabin motoryacht.

“We had been out of boating for years, and he read about this trip, and in order to do it, we had to get another boat,” she says. “When he mentioned the trip to me and said, ‘Do you want to do this trip?’ I was all in, because I knew we’d have to get a boat.”

They went to boat shows and bought an Aspen C-100, which, at 32 feet, turned out to be too small for them. They made it from Marco Island, Florida, to Oswego, New York, on the 32, and then sold her for a Prestige 500S that felt more in line with the way they liked to live on board.

They cruised the 32-footer to Oswego, New York, before opting to trade up to a larger boat.

They cruised the 32-footer to Oswego, New York, before opting to trade up to a larger boat.

“We bought it in October 2015, brought it south for the winter at Marco Island, and started again from Florida,” Sandra says.

Because they own a home-building business near their primary residence in New Hampshire, they arranged their Loop itinerary so that every nine days to two weeks, they’d be near an airport and could fly home. They were able to do the whole Loop that way during 2016, flying in and out of New Hampshire and then continuing to cruise. While their daughters are now grown and didn’t go along, they did have their 8-year-old Shih Tzu-Poodle mix Rudy with them.

Marco Island, in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida's West Coast, is where Sandra and Bob LaMontagne began their first Great Loop attempt. 

Marco Island, in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida's West Coast, is where Sandra and Bob LaMontagne began their first Great Loop attempt. 

“He was great,” she says. “We had a fake grass pad on the back deck of the boat where he would go to the bathroom. He could go days without leaving the boat.”

And they’d cover a lot of nautical miles every few days, she adds.

“Not only did we do the Loop unconventionally with going home, but we also had a go-fast boat,” she says. “We covered a lot more ground per day than a traditional trawler. They’re an 8- or 10-knot boat; we were a 24-knot boat. And we really didn’t spend a lot of time in any one place. We’d spend one night here, one night there, take a look and go on.”

They still own Karine, which is named for their daughters, but are trying to sell her because they bought a Prestige 630S to add more space for their growing family, which now includes a granddaughter. The Bahamas is on their new bucket list.

As for doing the Great Loop again, Sandra says, “Never say never. It would be more difficult in the larger boat we have now, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done. You never know.”

BIGGER IS BETTER

For the McCulloughs, Larry was the driving force behind the Great Loop idea.

“I probably started dreaming about getting a boat when I was growing up with Flipper,” he says with a laugh. “We’d look in Passagemaker, and we saw ads for the Great Loop and thought, Oh my God, I can do this whole thing. I infected Jamie with it.”

They lived in California and had a house on Lake Tahoe where they kept a 23-foot Cobalt. Once they sold that house, they bought the Nordhavn N59. They were so excited to show her off to other boaters they met along their Loop route, but because Independence had been Nordhavn’s demo boat, people responded to their invitations with a chuckle.

“We’d say, ‘Come aboard,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh no, we saw her a few times at a bunch of boat shows,’” Jamie recalls.

Their route started in Marathon, Florida, in April 2019. Because of the N59’s air draft, Nordhavn put a hinge in the boat's radar arch, so it could be lowered. Even still, they had to divert from some waterways they couldn’t get through; at one point, they ended up in the Welland Canal.

“That’s made for big ships,” Larry says. “It’s really something. It takes you from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. We were told that within 15 minutes, you have something like 20 million gallons dumped in. You really have to hold onto the lines tight.”

Some of their favorite memories include spending July Fourth at Cleveland’s Rock and Dock Marina, behind the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; being at the Chicago Yacht Club, just steps away from Navy Pier, museums and architectural tours; and by chance sitting down next to a historian at a bar in Alton, Illinois, along the Mississippi River. He explained to them that Abraham Lincoln, who stood 6-foot-4, once campaigned there, and was challenged to a duel.

Mackinac Island in Lake Huron is a popular Great Loop stop. The entire island is a National Historic Landmark, with its history dating back even farther than the Great Lakes fur trade of the 17th century.

Mackinac Island in Lake Huron is a popular Great Loop stop. The entire island is a National Historic Landmark, with its history dating back even farther than the Great Lakes fur trade of the 17th century.

“The guy who challenged him found out how long Lincoln’s arms were, and he backed out of the duel,” Jamie says.

Those memories are great, Larry says, but now that he’s 61, he feels that he’s done the Great Loop and doesn’t need to do it again. He is, however, thinking about renting a smaller boat just to cruise the Trent-Severn Waterway in Ontario.

Jamie says she’s ready to go along whenever he’s ready.

“He knows I love people and the water,” she says. “You’d be insane to turn down this experience.”

The Rideau Canal connects Ottawa, Ontario, to Lake Ontario. The 125-mile waterway dates back to the 1800s and has 45 locks. They're filled more with recreational boaters than commercial ones nowadays.

The Rideau Canal connects Ottawa, Ontario, to Lake Ontario. The 125-mile waterway dates back to the 1800s and has 45 locks. They're filled more with recreational boaters than commercial ones nowadays.

For more info about America's Great Loop Cruisers'Association, visit greatloop.org

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