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.
The month of October is usually a great weather month in our home state of South Carolina, and as we headed east on the Tennessee River, we found it to be much the same in Alabama. Mild sunny days and cool nights were the norm, and we were excited to see a preview of fall color as we made our way through the river gorge on the way to Chattanooga. We cruised in company of “Roundabout” (Ken and Terry Westby) for four days as we made our way across the state of Alabama and through the 30 mile long “Grand Canyon of Tennessee”.
The City of Chattanooga was as wonderful as we remembered when our daughter Katie went to college there in the late 90’s. We could see the Bell Tower of Covenant College on the backside of Lookout Mountain as we came up the river! Our slip at MarineMax was within walking and biking distance of all of the main attractions of one of the most family friendly towns in America (in our opinion). It is obvious that this city has spent a great deal of thought and money on the planning and construction of buildings and infrastructure that emphasize art, history, fitness, family fun and the conservation of natural areas, especially around the river front. As usual, we found it much easier to see the sights from the seat of our bikes. We have grown to really love our ability to secure the boat at the marina and immediately lift the bikes over the rail and onto the dock for a tour of the towns and parks that we visit. We have been able to see so much more on our bikes than if we were restricted to walking and the bikes were particularly great in a city like Chattanooga, where it seemed to be designed with biking in mind.
Our good friends, John and Lori Pitner, drove from Mount Pleasant, SC to Chattanooga to spend a few sightseeing and cruising days with us. After spending a little time in Chattanooga, we shared a bit of our looper life with them by cruising a couple of 6 hour days, spending a night at a pristine anchorage, visiting a couple of small town marinas, and of course, negotiating a couple of big locks. Our days together were filled with beautiful weather, gorgeous scenery, delicious meals, great music, a few southern dance lessons and wonderful fellowship. We thank God for friends who are willing to move into our little home for a while and share a little piece of our cruising life, as well as bringing fun and interesting news from home.
Stel and I are now coming close to the end of our Tennessee River side trip. Our eastward trip to Chattanooga and back added about 500 miles to the loop, which took us a total of 17 days. During this time, we encountered a few stiff winds, swift currents, intense thunderstorms, thick fog and slow locks. But more memorably, we experienced beautiful blue skies, calm water, romantic sunsets, a unique southern city and great friendships.
After 17 days on our side trip up the Tennessee River to Chattanooga, we got back on the Loop route by turning south at the border of Tennessee and Mississippi and onto the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Construction on the Tenn-Tom project began in 1972, and it would go on to become the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the Corps of Engineers, which spent $2 billion to make it happen. By connecting the Tennessee River in Mississippi and the Black Warrior River in Alabama, it provided a direct water route from the Tennessee River to the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay, reducing travel distances from some points in the eastern U.S. by as much as 800 miles. Over the 471 mile waterway, there is a 341 foot difference is water level, which is overcome by 10 locks and dams. We have included a map of the waterway to show the extensiveness of the project. My father’s entire army career was with the Corps of Engineers, so we really enjoyed cruising through these impressive channels and professionally operated locks.
This part of our trip was not without its unique challenges, including a string of cold and windy days, large tow boats appearing around narrow hair-pin turns, logs and water hyacinth floating in our path, foggy mornings, and very long cruising days due to a minimal number of places to stop for the night. In order to ensure that we covered a certain number of miles to get to the next overnight destination, we got up and prepared the boat for departure before the sun came up and sometimes didn’t drop the anchor until the sun set. During the Tenn-Tom days, it was better to travel in a caravan of a few other boats that were moving at the same speed. We stayed in constant radio communication with others as we coordinated passage with lock masters and negotiated the passing of tows in some extremely narrow channels. There were also some situations when fellow cruisers needed mechanical help and it was very reassuring to know that there were fellow loopers near you on this very remote leg of the trip.
One of the highlights of this time on the river was meeting a Canadian couple who was canoeing and camping for 1000 days. Pierre and Jennifer started in Ottawa, Quebec and will be paddling the entire Loop two times and then back up into some northern areas of Canada. We spent a good bit of time listening to their fascinating stories about encounters with nature, their physical challenges and all the wonderful people they had met and helped them along the way. After a few late night discussions with them, Stel and I were very happy to be returning to our cozy cabin on the Estrellita as they wandered back to their tent in the 30 degree temperatures we were experiencing that week.
Continuing south through Alabama, we started to see more and more wildlife and vegetation that we are used to seeing in South Carolina. Deer swimming across the river, big gators, turtles sitting on logs, southern bird life and tall pines got us excited about getting closer to the Gulf of Mexico. We are thankful for the experiences that we have had on the inland river systems over the past 2 months, but we are really looking forward to reaching Mobile Bay, where we will finally be in the saltwater environment that looks and feels so familiar.
Our re-entry into a familiar feeling salty and sandy environment was grand, to say the least! During our week of cruising east beyond Mobile Bay, we were greeted by the best of weather, water, wildlife and wonderful friends. Coastal Alabama and the panhandle of Florida have some beautiful water and sugar white beaches. And of course, as soon as we entered saltwater, we were welcomed by an abundance of brown pelicans, dolphins and good fishing. Ahhh……we feel like we are close to something that resembles our familiar home waters. But….what’s the deal with the temperatures??? We were hoping for higher temperatures, but obviously we are not quite far enough south yet! We will remain patient and thankful that we are not hung up in Kentucky or Tennessee, where they are experiencing some really nasty weather for this time of year.
A highlight of the past 10 days was our visit to the Pensacola area, where we anchored at beautiful Ft. McRee Cove with “Sundowner” and “Free Bird”. Wow, what a gorgeous spot!! We were surrounded by playful dolphins and beautiful white sand dunes, which were a great venue for watching the Blue Angels perform their homecoming air show on a clear 70 degree day. We were all impressed, to say the least! We also got to do some fishing from the beach and were fortunate enough to find a prime redfish hole, which produced a great seafood dinner for “Sundowner” and “Estrellita”. We rejoiced in this meal and anchorage as one of God’s special provisions for our enjoyment. After two nights at the anchorage, we moved to Palafox Pier in the historic downtown area of Pensacola. We spent time eating out with cruising friends, attending a locally produced musical one night and a Mannheim Steamroller concert the second night. The air had cooled down substantially, so the weather and the music got us in the Christmas spirit in a big way. (Here
Our biggest Pensacola treat was the arrival of our friends, Jo and Boogie Tudor, from Beaufort, SC. We have been hanging out since we were young marrieds, with most of our time together being spent on a boat of some kind. Jo and Boogie cruised with us for a while through the Trent-Severn Waterway and Georgian Bay earlier in the year, so it was good to have them back. We were hoping that they would accompany us on the Gulf crossing, but later found that the weather would limit us to just a few days with them on Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. During our final day in the Pensacola area, Boogie and I enjoyed the Naval Air Museum while the girls spent some good time shopping….perfect arrangement! We left Palafox Marina the next morning and cruised until after dark (not normal procedure) until we dropped an anchor behind Spectre Island in near freezing temperatures. We ran the heater that evening a little too intermittently , so I had to ask for forgiveness the next morning to prevent mutiny on the “Estrellita”. I immediately planned the next day’s cruise toward comfortable Baytowne Marina, a fun little spot in Sandestin, Florida. The captain was eventually forgiven for his thoughtlessness.
We are now hunkered down in Panama City, waiting for things to thaw out a bit. We were a little misty-eyed when Jo and Boogie hopped into a rental car this morning and headed back home. Thank you friends, for your companionship and support along the way, both on this Great Loop adventure and in life.
“Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done.
The things you planned for us no one can recount to you;
were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.”
Weather has been a determining factor for us over the past 8 months, unlike any other time in our lives. We have learned a great deal about the weather (and about ourselves) as we have dealt with the power of it from the perspective of life on a relatively small vessel. We knew that some tough weather days were approaching as we continued east along the Florida panhandle, so we decided to take a short diversion to a small town called Port St. Joe. We decided that this would be a good location to sit for a while as we waited for conditions to improve for making the open water jumps across the Gulf to Florida’s west coast. We had gotten used to getting up early and moving the boat forward on our journey just about every day, but Port St. Joe was a great place to get another lesson in the virtue of patience as we waited for the cold rainy weather to pass.
During our week in Port St. Joe Marina, Stel and I read some devotional material on “gratitude”, appropriate for Thanksgiving. A quote by theologian Charles Edward Jefferson… “Gratitude is born in hearts that take time to count up past mercies”. He encouraged us to remember God’s past mercies, write them down and then read over these things often. When you let your mind be saturated with the goodness of God, you’ll be amazed at how the goodness of God becomes real! During the week, we took some long walks in the rain and spent many hours sheltered from the “Florida” cold, wind and lightning aboard Estrellita as she was tied to the dock. We had an opportunity to spend time remembering and listing some of the many things we had to be thankful for during our 37 years of marriage as well as the past 8 months on this special journey. It has made quite an impact on our level of faith, gratitude and joy!!
Although most of the week was rainy, windy and cold, we had one beautiful day when we took the boat from the Port St. Joe Marina to nearby Eagle Cove and anchored for the evening. We got to take a walk on a deserted sugar white beach, did some surf fishing, and then witnessed one of the most awesome sunsets that we had ever seen. After a few more rainy days back at the marina, the conditions finally improved on Thanksgiving Day and we cast off our lines while eating a turkey sandwich and a pumpkin pie that the dock master had given us on the way out. After a long day of cruising, we dropped the anchor in a quiet spot, anxious to make some holiday calls to our family and friends…..and then discovered that we were too remote to get a cell phone signal. We apologize to the family for our lack of holiday communication! Happy Thanksgiving
“Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done” Psalm 105:1
There are two ways to cruise around the “big bend” of Florida’s Gulf coast, an area that does not offer the protection of the Intracoastal Waterway. You can cross the Gulf between Carabelle and Clearwater, which involves an overnight cruise. Or, you can make shorter day crossings from one small town to another as you make your way around the bend, which involves entering some very shallow water inlets. Because Estrellita draws relatively little water, Stel and I decided for the latter. Either way, the weather needs to be watched very closely for selecting the days when open water cruising will be kind to the boat and to the body. The weather was good for several days, so this 3-day jump across the Gulf allowed us to visit the small fishing villages of Steinhatchee, Cedar Key and finally Tarpon Springs. All three legs of the trip involved about 8 hours of cruising a day, which we did along side cruising buddies Andy and Julie on “Fruitcakes”. We will always have fond memories of our days and evenings with them as we finally made our way into a WARMER climate!
Stel and I have visited the west coast of Florida in the past, but have never gotten a chance to explore the waterways. We welcomed the clear and warmer water, but were surprised at the consistently shallow depths of the inland waterways and bays. We are starting to get used to it and have never been so happy to have a relatively shallow-draft boat. And with these waters come hundreds of dolphins! The sound of Estrellita’s engines combined with the forward wake from our bow seems to be a magnet for these wonderful creatures. We very seldom cruise for 15 minutes before a pod of dolphins comes along side with acrobatic jumps, turns and occasionally a flip. It brings us pure joy to watch them and we are confident that God put grace in their movement and a smile on their face to express their love for us as well.
Did I think that I was going to get away with not decorating our home for Christmas this year? Not a chance! Our Looper friends, Ken and Ann Shandley, invited us to attend their Christmas Boat Parade in Venice, so the pressure was on to get Estrellita dressed up a bit for the occasion. Our friends allowed us to use their car to make a trip to Lowes where we purchased the lights and garland needed to get the job done. To tell you the truth, I have never enjoyed decorating for Christmas more. The parade was lots of fun and we followed it up with a wonderful Advent worship service at First Baptist Church of Venice the following morning. We were officially in the Christmas spirit. And a extra bonus….I had promised to take Stel on a boat ride in Venice some day. Done!
Well….maybe not shocked, but pleasantly surprised by the abundance and beauty of the shells that can be found on the beaches of southwest Florida. We have been looking forward to this part of the Loop for its shelling and fishing. You can probably guess who prefers what, but I found myself really enjoying my time with Stel searching for different kinds of shells. We were able to find at least 30 different shell types, some of which we were familiar with, and some not. We are having a great time learning the common names and then finding color variations that make each shell a little different. Because of the abundance of beaches, shells, fish and natural beauty of the water, we have slowed ourselves down a good bit and spent a number of days at anchor around the islands of Cayo Costa, Captiva and Sanibel. We ended up in a marina on the south end of Sanibel, took the bikes off the deck, and spent 2 days biking the full length of the island. We have been to a lot of bike-friendly places on this journey, but nowhere quite like Sanibel. Great exercise and fun!
After leaving Sanibel, we cruised up the Caloosahatchee River a few miles and found a beautiful and secluded anchorage called Glover Bight. It was a great location to watch the meteor showers that were expected in the northeast skies on the night of the 13th of December. It was a cool night, so we wrapped up in some blankets and reclined on the bow for quite a show while we listened to some James Taylor. We spent 2 days and nights at Glover Bight doing over-due boat chores and some fishing in between. Some people have asked us whether we ever get bored on the boat for extended periods of time. We both are in agreement that we have not yet had a moment when we were at a loss for something to do. This life style is much simpler, but is extremely active and fulfilling. Boat cleaning, maintenance, buying groceries, doing laundry, planning, exercising, preparing meals, socializing, exploring, reading, blogging, keeping up with family & friends and the time spent cruising makes for full days. Did I forget fishing?? We even unpacked a few Christmas decorations from our “attic” (called lazarette on a boat!) and enjoyed some final decorating.
We look forward to making our way up the Caloosahatchee a little further to Ft. Myers, where we will pick up our son Sam from the airport. We will then make our way south, through the Everglades and on to Key Largo where we will meet the rest of the family for a tropical Christmas celebration.
The joy of Christmas, primarily the celebration of the the birth of our Lord, is surely much sweeter when you are with family and friends. Even though we were further from home than usual this year, our family was able to travel to the Florida Keys to spend the holidays with us. Our son, Sam, flew into Ft. Meyers a week before Christmas and cruised around the tip of Florida, through the Everglades, and up to Key Largo, where our daughter, her husband and our two grandchildren met us for Christmas week. Christmas morning on the boat was a new and memorable experience. Gifts were limited to what could fit in stockings, so it was fun to see them strung up on heavy cord across the ceiling of the salon. We listened to our six-year old grand-daughter quote the Christmas story from the book of Luke, sang, and had a ball opening presents, producing quite a mess of paper and bows all over our little living space. The grandchildren were given the gift of swimming with the dolphins (a 3-generation family tradition) at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key. We all looked forward to that event scheduled for the following day.
We all were given the gift of beautiful weather during Christmas week, with lots of sun and temperatures in the mid-70’s and 80’s. We had the opportunity to take the Estrellita out to Molasses Reef which is a great diving location about 6 miles off-shore on the Atlantic side of Key largo. Snorkeling, fishing, swimming and sunning is how we spent these glorious days with the family. Enjoying some great waterside dining and island-style entertainment was a treat in the evenings.
When the family left us a few days after Christmas, our good friends Jo and Boogie Tudor flew down from Beaufort, SC to join us for a week. They had already visited us twice since we started the Loop, so the boat routine was second nature to them. We had a wonderful New Years anchored just off Lorelei’s Restaurant in Islamorada, known for gorgeous sunsets. We fell a little short of staying up to see the new year start, until the fireworks started over our anchorage at mid-night. We all got up to enjoy one of the most fantastic fireworks shows we have ever seen. We pulled anchor the next morning and headed to Marathon, one of the popular cruiser hangouts for snowbirds from the north. After some memorable days with Jo and Boogie, we are now on our own again and will probably spend a few weeks in Marathon before we get the itch to pull the anchor and make a move. Our latitude may not change much….this January weather is hard to beat!
The previous 9 months of our great adventure have involved moving the boat from one wonderful location to another every few days, on the average. Most cruisers on the loop have historically found that southern Florida is a great place to stop for the winter months to enjoy the tropical climate before continuing up the east coast or jumping over to the Bahamas. After enjoying a little taste of warmer weather, it didn’t take us long to adopt that mindset. Florida’s west coast, the Keys and the Bahamas are the 3 most popular places to hang out until spring weather calls most cruisers northward. These areas are also winter homes for thousands of snowbird cruisers who regularly make the journey down the east coast from the northeast in September and October and then return home in April and May. After spending the holidays with family and friends in Key Largo and Islamorada, Stel and I decided to move the boat down to Boot Key Harbor for 2 months. Boot Key Harbor is located in the middle section of Keys called Marathon.
Estrellita is now attached to a mooring buoy among over 250 other boats within the same little harbor. For those of you not familiar with a mooring buoy, it is a large float that is securely anchored into the floor of a well protected body of water, arranged in a well-planned grid. Boats are connected to the buoys with room to swing, with confidence that they will not be pulled off the mooring by strong winds or currents. As Stel and I look out from the windows of the Estrellita, we see a neighborhood of boats about as far as we can see. As cruisers fill the mooring field during the winter, the harbor becomes a thriving community with plenty of well organized activities, services and opportunities to meet new friends.
Some may wonder what we are doing with our time these days. Well, we always have a long list of home improvement and maintenance projects on the Estrellita, so we spend an average of 3-4 hours a day at work on those! (We are finding this much more enjoyable than cutting grass and trimming shrubs!) There are endless bike paths in Marathon, so we have been doing a good bit of riding for exercise. We spend much more time reading, writing, exploring and interacting with our new neighbors in the harbor, as well as enjoying the fellowship of Calvary Baptist Church, which is a 15 minute bike ride from our boat. Over the last few years, Stel has had an great interest in studying about the health advantages of a plant-based diet. It has taken me a while to come fully on board, but we have found that learning, shopping and eating as a unified couple has real advantages, especially since we are together 24/7. We have had a great time realizing the benefits in reference to energy, weight control, blood chemistry and the pure enjoyment of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and getting away from meat, dairy products and processed foods. While Stel is in the galley trying out new recipes, I have picked up the guitar again and have been doing my best to serenade her with something that resembles a romantic melody. MUCH more practice required!
Friends from home have joined us in Marathon. Gene and Shannon Beckman flew down and spent 3 wonderful days with us in the sunshine and warmer weather. It was fun introducing them to our boat life and taking a day trip to Key West and then leisurely cruising up the coast on the Atlantic Ocean side. Thank you Gene and Shannon for making the trip to see us!!
As we prepared for our departure from Marathon, we did so with very mixed emotions. It took us a good while to get used to being in one place after we first cruised into Boot Key Harbor. We had been moving from one place to another just about every other day until we arrived there. But after being there for a while, we truly enjoyed the feeling of community among the other boaters and the small town of Marathon. It was also a great place to have friends from home join us for a while, exploring the Keys, and getting some relief from winter weather.
We will miss our mooring field neighbors, the numerous activities that are organized for the boaters, the church that we have been attending, and of course, the unbelievably beautiful weather of warm days, cool breezy nights, and no bugs. We got up this morning, March 2nd, and had a simple breakfast celebration of Stel’s birthday up on the bridge of Estrellita. It was a beautiful warm and sunny morning to enjoy some time looking over the harbor full of boats before we departed. We spent some time thanking God for the wonderful years that he has given my wife and then got into the dinghy for a final cruise through the neighborhood to say our goodbyes. I promised I would take her on a cruise for her birthday, and of course I always keep those special promises. We pulled out of the harbor early this afternoon and headed north along the Florida Bay side of the Keys. It will take us a few days to get to Miami and then we will follow the Intracoastal Waterway route that leads us up the eastern coast of Florida, into Georgia and then finally to our home near Charleston, SC.
It felt great to be underway again. As we spent the afternoon cruising through these clear turquoise waters, the joy and rhythm of this Loop adventure suddenly returned to us. We had really missed being on the move. It will take us about a month to travel the final 600 miles of the Great American Loop, which will put us home during the first week of April, Lord willing. In the meantime….happy birthday to my wonderful first mate!!!
As we were making our way to Miami, we were still a world away in the beautiful emerald waters of Biscayne National Park, which preserves Biscayne Bay and its offshore barrier reefs. 95% of the park is water and the shoreline is an extensive mangrove forest. Elliott Key is the largest island and is formed from a coral reef. The vast shallow water preserve has quite a history of pirates, shipwrecks, fishing, sailing and pineapple farming.
Two days and nights at anchor were spent at peaceful and secluded locations within the Park, where we experienced mild tropical weather, dramatic sunsets, dark star-filled evenings and more swimming than at any other time on our trip combined. I took advantage of the clear water to spend more time under the boat doing some cleaning of the bottom and running gear, which strangely enough, I find relaxing and fun. The absence of crowds and any development in the Park was quite a contrast to what we were about to encounter in the coming days.
As we cruised into Miami Harbor, auto-pilot was no longer an option. It was a busy place, to say the least!
Adding to the excitement, was an inter-collegiante sailing regatta taking place in the middle of the harbor with what appeared to be at least 200 small sailboats flying about, all of which had the right-of-way. We also passed Stiltsville, which is the remainder of an eclectic group of houses first built over the water by squatters between the 1930’s and 60’s. The buildings have a very colorful past, hosting fishing, drinking, social clubs for Miamians and gambling during the prohibition years. Due to several hurricanes and natural decay from exposure, only 7 of the structures still exist and are being preserved as part of the national park’s heritage.
From Miami to Boca-Raton, we traveled up the Intracoastal Waterway. It was quite a contrast to our passage through the remote Biscayne Bay, but was beautiful and awesome in its own way. The waterway, bridges, homes, landscaping and yachts were more than the eye could take in. Only the photos that we have included below can begin to describe what we experienced when cruising through this part of the country!
- April 9, 2014
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- January 8, 2015
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