In 2015, we completed the Great American Loop on the Estrellita, a 6,000 mile, 364-day cruise around the eastern half of the U.S. Our blog is the story of this wonderful adventure. By reading and looking at the photos, we hope you are inspired to spend more time on the beautiful waterways of our country.
Memorial Day was a spectacular cruising day on the bay! We enjoyed weaving through hundreds of sailboats leaving the MIles River as we approached St. Michaels. Since the holiday crowds were leaving, we were able to get a beautiful anchorage inside the harbor just as the festivities were coming to an end. As we were setting our anchor, we were greeted with the sound of the town church bells playing ” America the Beautiful”! We couldn’t wait to go ashore and get a closer look at this place! We took a quick dinghy ride to the dock and walked the waterfront before having dinner at the Crab Claw Restaurant. The next morning, Katie, Galen, Mary Katherine and Nate joined us for the day and we enjoyed the town’s maritime museum, shops and restaurants. Wow, what a treat! St. Michaels is one of the most picturesque and friendly boating towns that we have ever experienced. Later in the afternoon, threatening thunderstorms sent us hurrying back to the boat. Thankfully the worst passed us by and all we got was rain and some late-night gusting wind, which makes for a restless night when depending on an anchor to hold your position.
Early the next morning we started up the bay and as we waited for the opening of the Kent Narrow Bridge, we were joined by 2 other looper boats that we cruised with for about 7 hours until reaching the C&D Canal. These couples had a lot of local knowledge, so it was great to communicate with them on the VHF radio as we cruised through waters that were unknown to us. At the end of the canal, we were ready to call it a day, so we slowly cruised up to the docks of the Delaware City Marina where we were greeted by the owner and his dock master. After helping us get docked, he informed us of his daily weather briefing for the following day’s journey down the Delaware Bay. The briefing was quite an education as he combined data about wind, current and tides to help the 8 attending loopers make a decision about the proper timing to start the next leg of our journey. The consensus was to have the first boat depart at 5:30 the next morning and have each boat follow at 10 minute intervals to take full advantage of the tide flow down the Delaware River. We came away from the meeting wondering if these people were taking all this a little too seriously. We were used to pulling the anchor no earlier than 8! This is supposed to be fun, right? Well, we fell into line and agreed to be the last boat to leave, which ended up being at 6:30. Stel and I were up and ready to go after pulling on 4 layers of clothing and rain gear. It was our second dreary and overcast morning and only 50 degrees at departure time! We started to understand the wisdom of this plan as we shot down the river at a record breaking pace of 12 knots for the first couple of hours of our 55 mile trip. We welcomed the sight of historic Cape May as we entered their harbor with 6 other looper boats close behind. It was time to rest a bit from the long cruise, but would have time to check out some of the sites and find a good restaurant before we called it a day. We hope to see more of Cape May during our short time here, but will then look forward to planning and preparing for the trip up the coast of New Jersey and into New York Harbor.
Our 3 day stay in Cape May was an opportunity to get some boat projects completed, which included installing a new captain’s chair on the bridge (a back saver for me) and modifying some of the upper seat cushions as a result of the new chair position. It was a great creative outlet for Stel to re-sew the cushions to fit, and the result of her work was a beautiful and comfortable improvement. We also had a great time getting to know some more of the 15-20 loopers who were there getting ready to make the trek north to NYC. We met some great people from all over the country and Canada, with one thing in common…their love for traveling on their boat. Nightly 5pm gatherings at a designated boat are part of the daily schedule, and as a result, there is no lack of crazy stories and enthusiasm.
At this point of the trip, there is a decision to make about how to proceed to New York Harbor. Do we wait for great weather to leave Cape May and go off-shore for the 100 mile journey, or do we travel up the inland New Jersey ICW, which can be done regardless of the offshore conditions? Based on the windy forecasts for upcoming days, Stel and I decided to travel on the inside. The NJ Intracoastal Waterway has the reputation for being very shallow, so we had to plan to travel during incoming tides and with sharpened attention to the charts, navigation markers, color of the water and our depth sounder. It was hard to get comfortable running our boat through hairpin turns in 4-8 feet of water for 8 hours at a time. They were the two longest and most tedious days that we had ever spent on the boat. I am not sure that I would make the same decision again. Yes, we grounded the Estrellita on the 2nd day after getting ever so slightly out of the channel. (Stel said we had to admit this to “be real”) It was a humbling experience, but thankfully the tide was coming in and we eased her off of the flat after sitting for an hour or so. Fortunately, no damage to the props. All in all, it was a gorgeous trip, with beautiful marshlands, expansive bays, and uniquely attractive homes. Unfortunately, our impression of NJ had always been formed by our trips traveling through the state on I-95 or flying into Newark Airport. As we have tried to share with some photos below, it is a beautiful state and we are so happy that we had the opportunity to experience it from a much different perspective. As we anticipate our cruise into New York City tomorrow morning, we continue to thank God for safe passage and the opportunity to enjoy the diversity of His unbelievably beautiful creation.
Early Wednesday morning, we checked the weather forecast one last time and then cast our lines off of the marina dock in Manasquan Inlet and headed out for our first offshore leg of the trip. Once we cleared the inlet jetties, we turned north and headed up the coast of NJ in rolling, but glassy, seas. It would take about 3 hours to reach Sandy Hook and the entrance to New York Harbor. It continued to be smooth cruising and as we rounded Sandy Hook, filled with anticipation and a little anxiety about what the busy New York Harbor would REALLY be like. As the Manhattan skyline came into view, it was rather hard to believe. Here we were with our little boat from Johns Island getting ready to cruise through one of the most magnificent cities in the world! Our destination for the night was an anchorage that we had been informed about, located near the base of the Statue of Liberty. As we started to dodge an onslaught of sightseeing and commuter ferries, we spotted the Lady and headed in her direction. We happened to be in the lead of several other Looper boats entering the harbor, so we called them on the radio and asked if they wanted to rally around the Statue and take mutual once-in-a-lifetime photos of our boats in front the Lady. It was great fun as we all took turns moving into position, getting the shots, and sharing them by email. We found the anchorage spot that we were hoping for and enjoyed the views with friends throughout the afternoon and evening. What an experience!
It was raining the next morning, so we stayed at anchor until noon and then proceeded to Half-Moon Bay Marina which was about 30 miles up the Hudson River. As we slowly cruised up the river, we experienced a dramatic change between the intensity of the city views and the lush and peaceful mountain ranges of the Hudson Valley. When we arrived at Half Moon Bay, we had a reunion with some looper friends that we had met early on our trip, so we decided to jump in a rental car and do some sightseeing for the next couple of days. Our visits included West Point, Hyde Park, one of the Vanderbilt mansions and a special dinner at the Bocuse Restuarant at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America).
Four days traveling north on the beautiful Hudson River has been one of our favorite parts of the trip so far. We cruised for about 5 hours a day along side lush foliage, sheer cliffs, impressive suspension bridges, historic lighthouses, beautiful homes, trains speeding on the edges of each shoreline and solitude for miles and miles along the entire stretch from New York City to the entrance of the Erie Canal. Stel and I thought there was no better way to share our experience than to include some of the pictures that we took along the way as well as part of a devotion that meant a lot to us as we considered the gift of this experience. Hope you enjoy!
“Somewhere deep inside, we know the truth about ourselves. Everything we have was given to us. None of us asked to be born or specified the conditions under which we came into this world. We did not choose our talents or our physical features. We did not select our place of birth or our native language. We may have been industrious and careful in choosing our paths, but our drive and our wisdom was given to us by our Creator. We did not make our own circumstances, build our own brains, or control our own relationships. Everything we have is a gift.”
“Even so, we take an awful lot of credit for the good things that God has given. We take pride in our work, display our accomplishments, advertise our abilities, and use our relationships for our own esteem. For people who were created, we act an awful lot like creators.”
“God will find ways to undo our pride. We often need reminders of our neediness. We can’t relate to God properly unless we understand that all we have and all we are is by grace. When we take credit, we deny God’s generosity. That is not a minor offense. His love will correct us.”
“Wake up each morning with a self-reminder that your life is all about grace. It will keep you humble and it will open God’s arms to you. It will ground you in the truth!”
–The One Year Walk with God Devotional
As the Hudson River narrowed, we arrived in Troy, NY where we turned left toward Waterford and the entrance into the historic Erie Canal. This is where the infamous “locks” begin to appear with great frequency. Before we planned this trip, we always thought of a lock as something you put a key into. We South Carolina folk have never put our boat into a lock! These locks are high-walled water chambers that you drive your boat into, secure it to a vertical cable or pipe in the lock wall, and then ride upward on a water elevator as the lockmaster fills the chamber with water to lift you as much as 40 feet to the level of the canal above. Sounds easy enough, right? We had been thoroughly briefed on how to perform this maneuver and had been through a few small locks in the Dismal Swamp of Virginia. We felt ready after taking inventory of our special lock fenders, line handling gloves, boat hooks and tie-off lines. We had even been to a fellow looper’s boat for u-tube briefings on how to safely negotiate a lock. After spending the night tied up to the town dock of Waterford, we left the next morning ready to pass through the Waterford Flight, which is a series of 5 lock chambers that lift your boat a total of 169 feet over a cruising distance of 1-1/2 miles. To tell you the truth, it was one of the most interesting days that we have had. As we experienced the tons of water rushing into the chamber from under the boat, it jostled the Estrellita around like a little tub toy and it took all the muscle we had to hold the boat securely against the wall. There were a few times when Stel and I looked at each other with anxious eyes, but eventually admitted that each ride up was a pretty cool experience.
We pulled into a slip at the Schenectady Yacht Club, a relatively small marina, for what was planned to be a one night visit and opportunity to ride our bikes on the Erie Canal Trailway. It had been lightly raining throughout the day, but we needed the exercise and decided to ride the trail despite the drizzle. We had a great time along the beautiful wooded and hilly route, built and maintained by the state of New York. After riding about 10 miles of the trail, we returned to the Estrellita just as the rain started to fall a little harder. It rained throughout the night and the entire next day. As the unusual amount of rainfall worked its way down the surrounding mountain ranges, the speed of the current and the water level grew at an alarming rate. We were told to secure the Estrellita to structures on land if possible in case the flooding waters caused any problems during our second night. Needless to say, these suggestions were acted upon, but didn’t allow us to sleep very well. As a result of the fast moving water, a great amount of shoreline debris, including large logs, struck the hull of the boat with continuous thunking noises. I crawled out of bed at 2 and stepped out onto the dock to find a torrent of debris-filled water flowing around the boat and the water level up at least 2 feet. The dock appeared to be very stressed along with all of our mooring lines, which were so tight that I feared they would break loose. It didn’t look good, but all I could do was add more lines and push away the big logs that became lodged against the side of our boat. I got up again at 5:30 to find the water level still rising and one of our buddy boats being pulled away from its dock mooring due to the crazy current. I woke up all the loopers and we did what we could to keep the docks and boats from coming apart until a large group of local club members came to the rescue. During the busy morning, we met some of the nicest and most helpful people that we have met thus far. The locks in our area are closed temporarily and we are patiently waiting for the “dynamic waters” of the Erie Canal to settle down a bit before we venture back out. God continues to be very good to us.
The lock closings due to high water kept us at Schenectady Yacht Club for five days. We spent time restocking the galley, doing laundry, finishing a few boat projects and riding our bikes along the beautiful Erie Canal Bikeway. The members of the small owner-run club were extremely kind to us and went out of their way to ensure that we enjoyed our stay and had what we needed to continue our journey. After getting notice that the locks were again open for safe passage, we got up early on a beautiful Tuesday morning and continued west.
Search for the “Erie Canal Song” on Google and listen to Bruce Springsteen sing his version! You will then understand the title of this blog post. I thought we had some low bridges in South Carolina, but not nearly as many as on the Erie Canal. Around every corner there seems to be a fixed bridge with a clearance of between 20 and 25 feet. The top of the radar mast on the Estrellita is 20 feet off the water, so we were rather anxious every time we approached a low bridge. I found myself sitting lower in my seat every time we passed under…..like that was going to make some kind of difference! The water level in the canal was unusually high due to the recent rains, so we made the decision to reduce our anxiety by taking the mast down and laying it on our deck. It didn’t look too nifty, but it definitely kept our hearts out of our throats.
We are about half way through the Erie Canal and we have passed through 18 locks, some lifting us 10 feet and others lifting us as high as 40 feet. The big ones continue to be quite an experience as we enter the cavernous concrete chamber at idle speed and then bring the boat up against a sheer wall where we grab slimy ropes to hold ourselves secure. Gloves and telescoping boat hooks are a must! What a transition it is to be lifted from the bottom of each lock holding muddy water and overwhelming diesel fumes…up to a fresh cool breeze and the sight of the lush mountains of the New York. We will have approximately 125 more locks to pass through before we finish the Great Loop.
Over the last few days we have made an effort to cruise at least 40 to 50 miles and then stop in one of the small towns that are a part of the rich history of the Erie Canal. Most of the towns have a free docking wall that we can tie up to for the evening, where we are often greeted by local people who are glad to have cruisers come and support their small-town communities. The walls will sometimes have water and electricity hookups which allow for powering up the boat without use of our house batteries. The greatest thing about tying onto the town wall is that you immediately become part of the town. We are a temporary, but an important part of their community and we feel their sincere hospitality.
There is a point about half way through the Erie Canal where you can branch off in a northerly direction towards Canada. This route is called the Oswego Canal which involves a series of 8 locks bringing us down to the level of Lake Ontario. At the last lock, we completed our day by tying up to a concrete wall that ran the length of the waterfront of the town of Oswego. That evening, we took a long bike ride through the village and down the canal trail way, then enjoyed dinner and live entertainment with some other couples at an outside cafe overlooking the ocean-like expanse of Lake Ontario. Our time at dinner was an opportunity to discuss the plans for venturing out onto the Lake for a eastward approach to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River with the idea of spending time in the Thousand Islands. After many long days in narrow canals and locks, we were looking forward to cruising in some open water.
The next morning was overcast as we cruised out of the canal, passing the Oswego Lighthouse and into the expanse of the Great Lake. The surface of the lake resembled a mill pond that day. It was so slick that is was hard to detect the line of the horizon. We could look back and see our wake trailing behind us for miles. It was a very relaxing 5 hour, 30 mile cruise east toward the village of Cape Vincent. We stopped at a free city dock for the night, a place where we could look down through 20 feet of crystal clear water and see the bottom! It was a beautiful sight after spending so much time in the swift moving and muddy waters of the New York canals.
After a nice overnight stay in Cape Vincent, we cruised to Clayton, remaining on the U.S. side for 2 more days. Clayton was one of our favorite stops so far, featuring one of our country’s best maritime museums. This community thrives on the love of boating and the art of boating craftsmanship. Classic wooden boats are everywhere and are understandably in good condition, considering the fact that they live under beautifully constructed boat houses and sit in pristine fresh water only 3-4 months of the year. During the winter, these boat lovers are dealing with ice that is 2 to 3 feet thick across the full width of their river. I have become very thankful for the boater-friendly climate of South Carolina, but it sure is nice to be in this part of the world in the month of June!
We spent several days in the Thousand Islands area of the beautiful St. Lawrence River. While aboard a guided tour boat which took us around small islands where the wealthy of the “gilded age” built their mansions and castles, we learned much of the history of this area. During our visit to the Boldt Castle I even learned the origin of the name of my favorite “Thousand Island” salad dressing! George Boldt, a penniless immigrant, had worked his way up through kitchens of Philadelphia and New York hotels until he became the proprietor of the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Having amassed a fortune, he bought an island after falling in love with this area. He began building a replica of a Rhine Castle for his beloved wife, Louise. (Apparently he introduced and named this salad dressing and introduced it at his hotel – along with the “waldorf” salad.) The story ends sadly when Louise died suddenly and he halted construction on the castle, never to return to the island. After years of neglect, vandalism and exposure to the weather, the historic castle was purchased by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority and major renovations have been done. It is the number one attraction in this area now.
We have been anticipating our time in the Trent-Severn Waterway ever since we started our trip. It has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful cruising grounds in North America and makes a great place to spend the summer with its warm days, cool nights, fresh water and friendly people. The waterway is 240 statute miles long and runs west from Trenton on Lake Ontario to the Georgian Bay. It contains 44 manually operated locks and meanders through lakes, rivers and canals that are dotted with quaint towns, parks and bicycle paths along its entire length.
After crossing the U.S.-Canadian border, stopping in the town of Gananoque, checking in with Canadian Customs, exchanging our money and raising our Canadian courtesy flag, we cruised to Trenton, the gateway of the Trent-Severn Waterway. We were fortunate to arrive on Canada Day (Canada’s Independence Day, July 1), with the Estrellita situated in a marina slip that gave us a front row seat to a fantastic fireworks display. We also celebrated our son Sam’s 22nd birthday with his arrival in Trenton after a fragmented journey from Charleston to DC by train, then by plane, bus and automobile! Since his arrival, he has been in awe of the beauty of Canada and of course, enjoying the relief of cool temperatures as compared to what he left in Charleston.
During a lengthy 4th of July cruise, which included about 15 miles and negotiating 10 locks, the Canadians continually yelled out “happy birthday” wishes to us and our country as we passed by them in their back yards, in the parks and on their boats. The Canadians are genuinely some of the most friendly people we have met and they are extremely happy to have us as guests in their Canadian waters. On the night of the 4th, five “looper” boats tied up to a mooring wall in the town of Hastings and organized an impromptu celebration with flags proudly flying, a pot-luck cookout, great music and wonderful fellowship until dark. Our lack of fireworks tempted us to improvise by firing our flare guns, but we restrained ourselves after discussing the fines that might be imposed for sending false distress signals! Happy Birthday America and thank God for the freedom to travel through the waterways of our country and those of our friendly neighbor of Canada!
Sam’s time with us through the first section of the Trent-Severn Waterway was great fun and memorable for all of us. His impression of Canada was that it was not much different than the U.S., especially in reference to two of his special interests, automobiles and restaurants. But, he specifically appreciated the cool weather which was a relief from Charleston temperatures! We had met a wonderful Canadian couple that was kind enough to offer their car for taking Sam to Toronto to catch his flight home. It blew us away that someone who we had only known for a few days would allow us to use their car to take a four hour trip to the airport and back. We were thankful to meet such kind people, but felt the anxiety of driving a borrowed car through the crazy Toronto traffic. As we said goodbye to Sam, our friends Boogie and Jo Tudor were flying in to spend 9 days with us for the remainder of our cruise down the Trent-Severn and into the Georgian Bay.
We have traveled extensively with Boogie and Jo in the past and most of our trips have involved sailing, so adapting to our new crew was a pleasure. They are very experienced boaters, so turning the wheel over to Boogie was easy and relaxing, especially as we entered shallower waters with unforgiving rocky bottoms. Jo is comfortable and efficient in the galley as she is on deck. As we continued our northwest passage toward the Georgian Bay, the water became clearer and the shorelines became more beautiful with lush foliage, rocky ledges and quaint cottages. The weather was perfect, with 75 degree highs, crystal clear skies and very low humidity. The locks were an adventure in themselves, with their pristine landscaping and creative engineering. The culmination of our locking experience was our passage through the Big Chute, which is a mechanism that lifts your boat onto a giant railway platform and carries it across a highway and big hill to the other side, where it transfers the boat back into the water. During the 20 minute transfer time, you are required to stay on your boat for the craziest ride of your boating life!
We have done a good bit of traveling with Jo and Boogie before, but the days that we were together were full of things that we have never seen or done before. The weather was variable to say the least, requiring jeans and jackets in the morning, changing to shorts and t-shirts in the afternoon. Unfortunately, no bathing suits were ever pulled out of storage. We completed the cruise of the Trent-Severn Waterway, which allowed us to experience some very unique locks, great park-side overnights stays, local restaurants, pristine clear water, and the viewing of hundreds of quaint summer-time cottages along the shoreline.
We put in some lengthy days at the helm so that we could experience part of the Georgian Bay before Jo and Boogie returned home. The Bay is also known as the 30,000 Islands, which is characterized by its clear water and rocky terrain. Cruising through this territory is quite different than at home, where any deviation from the channel results in props biting into unforgiving rock, not sand or mud. Fortunately, the Canadians are very good at marking their channels, so if you pay close attention, the reward for negotiating through some tight places is well worth it. The colorful rock formations projecting up through this beautiful water are quite impressive and provide for some great dinghy exploration. We have been fishing in the evenings, with a great deal of time spent learning how to catch these local fish, including large mouth bass, walleyes (or pickerel as the Canadians call them). A word to my buddies back at home….I have not hurt the fish population in Canada.
We arrived at Britt, Ontario where Boogie had arranged for a seaplane come from Parry Sound to pick them up. It was quite a sight to watch it fly in so low, taxi up the Byng inlet and pull right up to our dock at Wrights Marina! From what we have heard, they thoroughly enjoyed getting to see some of the Georgian Bay from the air as the plane took them back to the mainland to catch a cab to the airport. Thank you Jo and Boogie for another memorable adventure.
- April 9, 2014
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