“Is this a good day for a boat ride?” was the question Dale Hartwig asked his wife, Merna, as they traveled America’s Great Loop, a 6,000-mile journey that circumnavigates the eastern part of the U.S. and Canada.
From March 1, 2018, to April 18, 2019, Dale and Merna took the opportunity of a lifetime to travel the loop with the guide of the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association. They completed the trip in their 2002 Navigator 4400 Pilothouse Classic power boat, The Journey. Within 14 months, they left from the Morningside Marina in Thunderbolt, Ga., and returned to complete their journey on the same dock.
As longtime sailors, the Hartwigs said they took opportunity of their retirement time and love for the water to explore the adventure. Their adventure led them through the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the New York State Canals, the Great Lakes, the inland river system, the Gulf of Mexico and around the southern tip of Florida.
“It was a year of exploring and experiencing things that we have not,” Dale said.
He said he’s not sure where he had heard about the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association, but after learning more about it, he decided it would be a trip for Merna and him.
“The more I read about it, the more interested I became. It’s not something you can do on the weekend. It’s a commitment,” Dale said. “I thought it sounded like a great adventure.”
With 340 days on the boat, Dale and Merna traveled 153 of those days, visiting various small towns along the ports where they made their stops. They said the entire trip was full of the history of the port towns and even the history of the establishment of this country.
“Even if it’s a small town that you have never heard of, when you get off you find out they had a big influence in the rice industry. For instance, Georgetown, S.C.,” Merna said. “Instead of driving to all of these places, you get a whole different perspective coming in by boat.”
Harbor hosts from America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association were also available at the port towns to help the boaters with any necessities such as rides to the stores or even as tourist guides. Despite taking the route in their own boat, Dale and Merna said they often came across other people taking America’s Great Loop and they would bond together about the trip and their adventures.
“It makes you feel like you are not all alone,” Dale said. America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association has a system where the boaters in their programs have to fly white, gold or platinum flags to let other boats know their purpose. Dale and Merna had a white flag hung on their boat, since it was their first time taking the loop trip.
“When we were in the Chesapeake Bay, we saw another boat flying a white burgee and we went up to say hello to them,” Dale said. “Typically, the conversations start, ‘So are you doing the loop?’ ‘Where did you start from?’ ‘How long have you been doing the loop?’”
Through each interaction with other loopers, Dale and Merna made close connections and relationships that will last a lifetime. They have two large business card books filled with business cards and contacts of the many people with whom they interacted while on the yearlong journey. They met individuals from around the globe, such as Australia, New Zealand and England.
On average, 250 to 300 boats start the loop journey and only about 130 finish each year. Many boaters decide to extend their travels for more years. Dale and Merna said they met a couple that had been on the loop journey for eight years and would spend months in towns and areas they enjoyed.
Dale and Merna also came in contact with many barge boats on the trip through the locks. Within the 123 locks, they went through the Erie Canal, Oswego Canal, Canadian locks such as the Trent–Severn Waterway, locks in the Inland Waterways and many others. Merna said some of their largest adventures were finding their way to the docks or getting through the locks.
To complete the loop in 14 months, with a six-week break for the holidays, Dale and Merna spent six hours traveling on average each day. Dale said they covered approximately 50 miles a day at a speed of about 8 mph.
They said their previous sailing experience helped them navigate the trip because they had to work with the changing seasons, know the river systems, check the water routes and heights every day and navigate their loop in a counterclockwise manner to follow the adequate weather.
“I would ask Merna, ‘is this a good day for a boat ride?’ and we would decide from there,” Dale said.
Since crossing their wake, which signals they completed their entire trip back to their starting point, Dale and Merna are now planning for a boat trip to The Down East Circle Loop.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to explore big parts of this country. So different than anything we have ever done before,” they said. “It gives a really different perspective of America.”
For more information about the Hartwigs’ 6,000-mile journey, check out their blog: www.journeysway.net