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Single-handing the 5,000-mile Great Loop

Sailor Joe, with his signature cap and mermaid figurehead, cruised the route in a Cal 25

Sailor Joe, with his signature cap and mermaid figurehead, cruised the route in a Cal 25

Joe Kozak, or “Sailor Joe” as he calls himself, has made a rich contribution to the lore of America’s Great Loop.

Setting off last summer from Deltaville, Va., the 68-year-old retiree cruised the 5,000-mile loop — also known as the Great Circle Route — on his 25-foot sailboat, Compromise — a name he liked because the boat “is big enough to live on but not too big to handle.” Kozak sailed most of the route single-handed.

Alone in his faded but seaworthy 37-year-old Cal 25, Kozak became a fabled figure to other cruisers on the loop, a route that runs inshore, offshore and inland while circumnavigating the eastern United States. Compromise carries a vinyl foam-filled mermaid on its bow — Kozak’s trademark. The figurehead is actually a boat fender. And the skipper is just as distinctive as his boat. He wears a ball cap with gold braid on the brim, “Compromise Cal 25” printed on the crown, and a handkerchief sewn into the back to protect his neck from the sun.

Laid over in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for rest and repairs, Kozak describes the loop as his greatest adventure in 11 years of sailing. The cruise took him up the Hudson River and through the Erie Canal, across the Great Lakes, down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, up the Ohio and Cumberland rivers, down the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, over the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida and up the East Coast on the Intracoastal Waterway. Before this trip, Kozak already had logged 30,000 miles on the ICW as a snowbird running between Deltaville and Fort Lauderdale, where he winters on his boat and cruises with Sailing Singles of South Florida.

“I figured it was now or never,” says Kozak, who has lived aboard Compromise since buying it 11 years ago. “I’m not getting any younger.” Retired from an electronics job on a government work vessel, Kozak has a prosthetic heart valve, a replacement titanium knee, and two glass replacement lenses in his eyes. He is on medication and must check his blood coagulation periodically with a special machine he carries with him — but none of this was insurmountable.

He decided to do the loop — alone, if necessary — in 2004-’05. As it happened, friends came along on several short legs, but most of the time it was Kozak alone with Tillie (his autotiller), Ginny (his GPS) and Dina (his depth sounder). There were times when it was lonely, and “I could have used crew going through the locks and making the 200-mile sail across the Gulf of Mexico,” he says. “But I coped.”

And it wasn’t as if he was really alone. He met many other cruisers along the way who became fast friends — cruisers on boats with names like Guardian Angel, Chinook, Boom, Act II, Quicksilver and Miss Teak. Many cruised the loop last summer to attend the 100th anniversary of the lift locks at Peterborough, Ontario. Forty-six boats gathered for the celebration.

“I was almost adopted by four or five trawlers I met along the way and saw over and over again,” he says. They invited him for dinner, shared computer printouts about hurricane damage on the ICW, and fed him weather information if he couldn’t pick up a television weather channel.

“He’s a character,” says Bob Smith, a retired policeman from Wareham, Mass., who cruises aboard the 50-foot motoryacht Guardian Angel. “Most people we talked with knew Joe. Sailorman Joe. He always wore the white hat with the braid and the hankie sewn on the back. He’s a good-hearted soul. He was a good influence on everybody.”

Smith and companion Cindy Tobey helped Kozak out of a tight spot that could have stranded him for a while. Last season’s blitz of hurricanes — Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan — required loop cruisers to keep alert to inland flooding and to tarry so they wouldn’t reach the Gulf of Mexico until late November, the end of hurricane season.

Hurricane Jeanne, downgraded to a tropical storm, dumped so much rain on the Ohio River its current accelerated to 4-1/2 to 6 knots. Compromise, powered by a 9.9- or 15-hp outboard — depending on which of the 20-year-old engines was working — couldn’t make much headway in that, or if it made headway it would run out of gas before reaching the next fuel stop 150 miles away on the Cumberland River. “It was beyond my range,” Kozak says.

Smith and Tobey towed Compromise up the Ohio, a trip Kozak won’t soon forget. “The bow went higher and the stern became lower,” he wrote in his log. “What if too much water came over the transom? I stuffed some rags around the motor to prevent some of the water from coming aboard. What if my bow cleat pulled out? What if the towline snapped?”

Kozak says he thoroughly enjoyed doing the loop, but some situations gave him pause. “There were parts of it when I gritted my teeth.” This was one.

Another was when a ship nearly ran him down on the St. Clair River, and when he sailed 200 miles — alone — across the Gulf of Mexico from Carrabelle to Tarpon Springs, Fla., in a 15-knot wind and 5- to 7-foot beam seas. Kozak describes the experience in his log:

“The water slooshes and gurgles and splashes and roars, the sails whump as the boat rolls and spills the wind out of them, and then they fill again forcefully, the hull creaks and groans, the wind whistles and roars, and things go click and clank and sometimes crash!”

He worried that his old boat might fall apart until he realized one thing. “This is exactly what this boat is made to do, and I stopped worrying. Then everything was good.”

While under way, Kozak pounded out a detailed account of his cruise on an old Canon Starwriter 30 word processor that he bought for $33 at a consignment store. It’s in log format, and he sent it out every couple of days as a newsletter to friends. He has compiled those newsletters and packaged them as a book, scouting out a publisher. Meanwhile he’s planning his next cruise, to Maine and the Northeast.

“I’m really glad I did this,” Kozak says. He’s not sure he’d do it again, but he has logged a lot of memories and polished his skills as a seaman.

“I was a seasoned, knowledgeable boat captain before I left,” he says. “And I still learned a lot on this trip.”