Cruising the 7,000-mile Great Loop leaves one couple in awe of the many moments that 'take your breath away'
"Life-changing" is the way Louis and Diane Wade rate their year-long, 6,800-mile Great Loop cruise around the eastern third of the United States. The Morehead City, N.C., couple returned to their hometown in April 2009 aboard Bella Luna, their Cape Dory 40 Explorer, to banners, cheers and champagne from family and friends.
After achieving enough of life's goodies to afford whatever lifestyle they choose, the Wades, married 41 years last November, left May 14, 2008, northbound on the Intracoastal Waterway. "We soon learned two things: how much 'stuff' we could live without and that our best memories are the people we met along the way and cruised with," says Diane, 62, a stay-at-home mom and volunteer extraordinaire. "It's so rewarding to get to know others and to share their lifestyle."
Following the weather, the Wades, like other Great Loop cruisers, headed north on the Atlantic ICW in the spring, summered in New York and Canadian canals, cruised down Midwestern waterways - the Mississippi River, its tributaries and canal systems - in the fall, then wintered in Florida. Side trips along the Loop or to the Bahamas can add 2,000 miles and dozens of locks to the basic 5,000-mile cruise. The Wades transited 164 locks.
The American Great Loop Cruisers' Association's website, www.greatloop.org, serves as a home base and liaison for "Loopers."
"The AGLCA flag is a door-opener," says Louis, a consultant to his former company, Southern Coach. He is 64, although he thinks of himself as 38. "We just walk down the dock to meet other Loopers. We gather for cocktails or dinner, share rental cars and experiences, help each other with all those little problems you encounter living on a boat. Loopers became our family, especially Robert and Kay Creech [of Southport, N.C.], with whom we've traveled for thousands of miles.
"We Loopers are all living a dream, with enthusiasm and an appreciation of the experiences on the water that you never see on land," Louis says. "We're all Type A personalities. That's how we got here. However, if you don't relax, take your time and enjoy the sights, it's just a long boat ride."
"I can't name a favorite place or single highlight - they're like comparing apples and sofas," Diane says. "Each area was beautiful, for we cruised through during its best season, and each day had its own highlight. Passing the Statue of Liberty. High Mass in a Montreal cathedral [though I'm not Catholic]. The friendly people in Canada's beautiful Chambly Valley. The thrilling eight-lock climb on the Rideau Canal into Ottawa. The greenness of that city. Being lifted over the Big Chute. Sunset cocktails in a quiet anchorage with friends. Seeing, hearing and feeling the space shuttle being launched. Our first eagle sighting - in fact, every eagle and dolphin sighting."
Both recalled being stuck in Grafton, Ill., for 12 days after Hurricane Ike with 10 other Looper boats, watching trees, docks and other debris rush past on the flooded Mississippi. Once the river reopened to recreational boats, Diane says, the cruiser association staggered the departures of the 71 Looper boats marooned between Chicago and St. Louis to ease congestion at the few marinas downstream.
Also memorable was the top-speed approach of a Coast Guard patrol boat, blue lights flashing, machine guns at the ready, warning them away from a submarine near Kings Bay, Ga. "That gets your heart going," Louis says.
"When you start out on a 7,000-mile trip you've never done before, it's daunting, but it was easier than we expected," Diane says. "We learned to take one day at a time. People were so helpful when we had minor problems, and we never had major problems to our [twin 300-hp Caterpillar diesel] engines."
They met only one boat with children aboard - a single mother and her daughter. "We were surprised that more parents don't take their kids," she says, "because of all the history you cruise through."
The Wades bought a 1993 Cape Dory, hull No. 3 of five, in fall 2007 for this cruise. They spent most of their cruising time on the spacious flybridge. Although the Wades own 10 small craft and have boated together for almost 50 years, they'd never cruised extensively.
"Our best preparation was to live on Bella Luna for 10 days at the marina," Louis says. "Spending at least three months on board before departure would have been better because then we would have been fully familiar with all the systems and layout."
They evolved into a routine of cruising 30 to 50 miles each Monday through Thursday. They weekended in port, doing laundry and maintenance, shopping, seeing the sights from their bicycles or a shared rental car and "letting the locals have fun on the water," says Louis. At first they usually tied up in marinas to easily take Buddy, their 10-year-old black Lab, ashore. After he passed away in New York State, they anchored more often.
"We decided to spend whatever it took to enjoy this trip," Louis says.
Supplies included 175 pounds of maps, charts and guidebooks, which he wished they had studied more in advance. They outfitted their boat with full electronics, "giving us the luxury of computer and cell phone communication with family and other Loopers via their individual blogs and the AGLCA website," he says.
As members of the White Rocks Yacht Club in Rock Hall, Md. ($60 annual dues), they received docking reciprocity at yacht clubs en route. Including two trips home, frequent weekend meals out and only a few minor mechanical problems, expenses averaged about $1,200 a week.
"I spent my life being the best, having the best and doing the best, accumulating too many toys," Louis says. "We've been blessed. Now that we know what little we need, we're going home to simplify, to declutter our lives and to help others achieve this dream trip. Life isn't measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away."
In fall 2009, they leisurely cruised Florida's St. Johns River and took the ICW down to Marathon in the Florida Keys for the winter. This year, they plan to spend the summer cruising the Little Loop - following the ICW, the Hudson River, Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, then returning home via the Erie Canal.
"We're finding a way to share our lives between our family and cruising," Louis says. "Doing the Great Loop helped us find an exciting new lifestyle."
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This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.