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Cruising America's Great Loop

'Loopers' from Buffalo travel 7,000 miles by boat from Great Lakes down to the Gulf and up the East Coast

By Ed DuBois

Seeing America on a 7,000-mile voyage was great all by itself, but another wonderful aspect of a year-long adventure enjoyed by Dave and Colleen Wray of Buffalo was sharing the experience with other boaters and being welcomed by local residents just about everywhere they docked or anchored.

"The trip was very social.  There were so many others on the same trip, we often spoke with them and shared stories," Dave said.  "Everybody was on the radio, so it was easy to arrange meetings and enjoy 'dock-tails' at 5."

"We saw the same people in many places, and we would meet with them and do some catching up," Colleen recalled.

The journey they were on is called America's Great Loop.  Aboard their 40-foot cabin cruiser, Moon Shadow, they started in June 2016 at Mackinaw City, Mich.  After cruising south on Lake Michigan to Chicago, they continued on the Illinois River to St. Louis.

The Mississippi River, the Ohio River, the Tenn-Tom Waterway, and the Black Warrior River took them to Mobile, Ala. and the Gulf of Mexico.

They cruised along the Gulf Coast to the Florida Keys and then up the East Coast to New York City.

The Hudson River and the Erie Canal led to the Great Lakes, and they arrived back at Mackinaw City on Aug. 9, 2017.


They are called 'loopers'

About 100 boats complete the Great Loop every year.  They call themselves "loopers," and they enjoy camaraderie as they share the journey and meet new people everywhere they go.

"People were very friendly wherever we stopped to visit.  They invited us to their homes.  Some of them even offered to let us borrow their cars," Dave recalled.

"I was so impressed," he added.  "We saw the good side of America."

He and Colleen found it hard to believe the people they met were so trusting that they would invite strangers to their homes and let them borrow their cars.

"It's the boater way," Dave commented.

Marinas offered free courtesy cars.

"How nice people are was the most memorable part of the whole trip," Dave stated.


Cruised at 8 mph

Dave and Colleen received a BaccaLOOPerate degree from America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association.  The degree is given in recognition of completing one of the world's most unique adventures.

Along the way, the usual cruising speed was 8 mph.  Dave and Colleen made about 25 fuel stops during 14 months on the boat.

Altogether, they traveled just over 7,000 miles, and their total fuel cost was $8,113.

They mentioned they were fortunate the cost of fuel was not as high as it was a few years ago.

Dave joked that their biggest expense was "eating out."

Actually, most of the time, they tried to buy food at grocery stores and prepare their own meals.

When they arrived in Chicago, Dave needed to install a hinge for the radar mast.  It was too high to pass under a bridge in Chicago.  The new hinge allowed the mast to be lowered and laid down on the upper deck.

Later while cruising down the Mississippi River from St. Louis, the decision was made to get off the big river at Cairo, Ill.

"The Mississippi River is fast-moving and has a lot of debris in the water," Dave explained.


River barge politeness

He mentioned that river barge pilots were very considerate of smaller watercraft.

In fact, when Dave and Colleen anchored near shore for the night, they reported their position on the radio.  The barge pilots responded, noted the position and slowed down when they approached the position.

One night, Dave saw two warships coming toward the boat.  When he asked about them on the radio, he learned the warships were being pushed by a tugboat and were not moving under their own power.

Dave and Colleen planned to arrive in Mobile at the end of October 2016.

Dave explained that, due to the hurricane season, loopers are seriously advised not to cruise in the Gulf of Mexico before Nov. 1.

Dave mentioned seeing wrecked boats on the East Coast that had been damaged by Hurricane Matthew (Sept. 28 to Oct. 10, 2016).


Dolphins performed

One of the joys of cruising along the ocean shores was seeing dolphins swimming next to the boat.

"Families of dolphins were often seen doing barrel rolls in the waves," Dave said.

"They were performing for us," Colleen added.

Sometimes Dave would bang on the side of the boat when anchored, and dolphins would pop up to see what was going on.

The first voyage out to sea (beyond the point where they could see the shore) was from Apalachicola, Fla. to Tarpon Springs, Fla.

"It was 175 miles at sea with no shore in sight," Colleen said.

The reason for cutting across the Gulf was to avoid crab pots in relatively shallow water along the coast.

They spent Thanksgiving Day in Clearwater, Fla. and were at an Everglades rod and gun club for Christmas.  They mentioned seeing manatees in the Florida Keys and took pictures of them as the large animals drank from the boat's air-conditioning discharge.


Side trip to Bahamas

In January, they were in Marathon, Fla.  Next up were Miami, Fort Lauderdale and then the Bahamas.

Dave and Colleen said the sunrises and sunsets were spectacular, and the water was a turquoise color.

During the trip, they spent about 100 nights anchored roughly 100 yards from shore in about 12 feet of water.  They preferred protected bays.

Dave and Colleen mentioned they needed to pay attention to the tides when anchoring for the night.  They didn't want to be in a place where the boat would be sitting on a beach at low tide.

Getting to the Bahamas involved some careful timing.  They needed to cross the Gulf Stream, "which can be dangerous if you go at the wrong time," Dave said.  Because of the strong Gulf Stream current, he needed to point the boat southeast to arrive at a point directly east.

"The docks were a mess because of the hurricane (Matthew).  We ended up having to stay longer than planned because of poor weather conditions, but, nonetheless, it was a nice place to be marooned," Dave commented.


Submarine coming

They spent most of March in the Bahamas and then headed to Savannah, Ga., where they enjoyed seeing plantations and beautiful scenery.

Several Civil War sites were visited during the trip, first in the Tennessee area early on, and then later in South Carolina.

They encountered the modern military when they approached Norfolk, Va. in the middle of May.  The U.S. Coast Guard contacted Dave by radio and told him he was in a restricted area.  A nuclear submarine was coming into port.  Dave was able to get pictures of a gigantic Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine as it sailed by on the surface.

The Wrays also saw one of the world's largest aircraft carriers, the USS Gerald R. Ford.

They cruised up the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, Md., and then they traveled by bus to see the sights in Washington, D.C.


Trump encounters

Incidentally, they encountered President Don-ald Trump a couple of times during the trip.  Before the November 2016 election, Trump was campaigning in a Milwaukee lakeside memorial park.  The Wrays were coming ashore in their dingy when a security boat approached with its lights on, and the Wrays were told they were in a restricted area.  They returned to their cabin cruiser and went to shore later in the day.

Months went by, and then while cruising along Florida's eastern coast after Trump became president, boats were ordered to steer clear of Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.  At the time, Trump was hosting a visit by the president of Japan.


Today Show

After visiting Washing-ton, D.C., the Wrays stopped at Atlantic City, and then they made their way through some rough weather to Sandy Hook, N.J., arriving on June 5.

In New York City, they watched the Today Show and were among those along the city street to be interviewed briefly.  How-ever, their interview was not aired.

They had a good time.  They were with looper friends from Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich.

Cruising up the Hudson River was pleasant, but going through the numerous locks of the Erie Canal was hard work.  Locks they had encountered on the western half of the Great Loop were not as stressful.  In the Erie Canal, two or three boats at a time were allowed to enter each lock.  Boaters had to work to keep the boats from bumping into each other, as well as from bumping into the lock walls.

They went through the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario, and then they made their way to Lake Huron.  It was July, and they spent some time cruising along the Canadian shore, stopping at various places.  The area reminded them of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilder-ness (BWCAW) in Northern Minnesota.

Upon arriving at Macki-naw City on Aug. 9, they sailed on to Bayfield, Wis. and then arrived in Superior, Wis. on Aug. 21.  The boat is staying there for the winter.  The Great Loop is about 6,000 miles, but altogether, the Wrays cruised just over 7,000 miles.


Trip of a lifetime

After living on a boat 14 months, there was an adjustment period during which Dave and Colleen needed to get accustomed to surfaces that do not move.

They look forward to more cruising next summer.  They will proudly fly their new Gold Burgee flag, a well-known symbol within the looping community, acknowledging their tremendous accomplishment.

According to the America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association, "approximately 100 boats complete the Great Loop each year, making it a feat more unique than swimming the English Channel or climbing Mount Everest."  Throughout their "trip of a lifetime," Dave and Colleen relied on the Association to provide them with information and assistance vital to the successful completion of their journey.

For more information on the America's Great Loop, contact America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association, 500 Oakbrook Lane, Sum-merville, SC 29485, 1- 877-GR8- LOOP (478-5667),, or email


Most memorable

Dave and Colleen also look forward to renewing the friendships they made while completing the Great Loop.  The sights and the sailing were great, but the friendliness of many wonderful people is what made the trip most memorable.



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