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The Not-So Great Loop

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The author (in the green shirt) and his brother Mike.

“Seasick?” I asked in a tone that mixed sympathy with infernal edginess. My brother Mike looked straight back at me and, as if the possibility of growing queasy under the circumstances was preposterous, replied, “Nope, doin’ fine, Billy.” A rainbow of spray came forth from Betty Jane’s starboard bow and whooshed back across her flying bridge. I shook my head, blinked a few times, put more rake into the brim of my cap (which I tend to do when I’m trying to appear staunch), and returned my focus to the road ahead.

We were cruising the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico at six knots, nine nautical miles off, heading for the entrance channel to St. Joseph’s Bay. The plan was a simple one, hatched a few weeks before amid a pile of pestiferous anxieties. I was struggling with concerns over the state of our nation’s economy at the time, as well as with the state of my own economy, and the deplorable fact that I wasn’t spending enough time actually going places aboard Betty Jane. I talk to myself when I struggle:

“Bill, you need to do The Great Loop so you can relax, forget about your cares, and enjoy life. But let’s face it, pardner, a jaunt of several thousand miles around the eastern half of these United States (including the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal waterways, the Great Lakes, the Heritage Canals of Canada, and a whole passel of our country’s inland rivers and waterways) just ain’t in the cards for you, at least right now. Heck, the trip takes a year or more, depending on how seriously you take the whole it’s-not-the-destination-it’s-the-journey thing!”

Talking to yourself’s not cool around others. So I clammed up as a friend of mine strolled by—Bay Point, Florida, marina director Steve Arndt—who by serendipitous coincidence, put the marina on the Great Loop map last year by joining America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA) and then endeavoring to host as many loopers as possible. For some reason, Arndt’s smiling face reminded me of a phenomenon he advocates all the time: “partial looping,” doing The Great Loop in dribs and drabs. I began talking to myself again: “Bill, “If The Great Loop’s not happening’ for ya this year, what about The Not So Great Loop?”

I seriously considered the idea for a week. And what I finally came up with as a NSGL inaugural involved a snippet of skinny water that had intrigued me for years: the part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway that lies between Panama City and Port St. Joe. Friends who’d traveled the stretch always came back with tales of the wild, empty, spectacular beauty they’d seen. If I combined it with an offshore jaunt (from Panama City to wilds of Port St. Joe Bay and then to the city of Port St. Joe and the ICW beyond), I’d have my Not So Great Loop. “You wanna take a boat ride?” I asked my brother on the telephone. It was April. And still snowing at his ranchero in northern New York. No-brainer, right?

“There she is,” I said, pointing to a red flasher straight ahead, the first of a series of navigational aids marking the St. Joe Bay entrance channel. Mike was gnawing on a Three Musketeers bar, his favorite rectangular confection. Selflessly ignoring the wooziness I’d felt since first tangling with the Gulf’s sporty rollers that morning (no doubt due to my uneasiness over Mike’s ability to withstand the rigors of offshore cruising), I fired up a long lecture on windlass operation, anchoring techniques, first-aid procedures, and survival at sea under windy conditions. It was a bit much, I admit. “Relax, man,” Mike mumbled as he munched.

We arrived at Eagle Harbor about mid-afternoon. To my knowledge, this pretty little spot offers the only designated anchorage on the St. Joseph Peninsula, a long scimitar of white sand dunes, salt marshes, piney flatwoods, and scrub oaks that borders St. Joe Bay to the south. We dropped the hook in ten feet of water, followed up with 60 feet of scope, set the alarm circle on the plotter, and settled in to study some trees serving as impromptu ranges ashore. Betty took a few 20-knot easterly gusts right on the nose—not good. “Ham sandwich?” Mike asked, heading below. “Nah,” I replied, warily eyeing the shallows astern.

We bailed out not long after. Well before the anchor alarm kicked in, I noticed a gradual shift in our orientation to the “ranges” ashore. A little scurrying was required to pull the hook, but the whole process went off with surprising smoothness, considering the sporty weather and my brother’s unfamiliarity with the procedures involved. As I set a northerly course for the calmer waters of the city of Port St. Joe, the sun wallowed in gold and crimson on the horizon and Mike took the wheel—he’d become a pretty good helmsman as the day had worn on.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.