America’s Great Loop, a 6,000-mile circumnavigation of the eastern United States and Canada, tests boaters with river currents and ebbing and flowing intracoastal tides. But it was worthwhile for Durango couple Rick and Theresa Marshall, who goggled at enormous barges, fished the Florida Keys and enjoyed Canada’s scenic shorelines.
The Marshalls set out to complete America’s Great Loop on July 17, 2019, but their trip was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. They returned to Durango to wait for vaccines to be released and resumed their trip after a year in spring 2021. Overall, they traveled about 800 miles more than the loop’s defined perimeters.
The loop goes through the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, through the New York State Canals, into the Great Lakes, down the inland river system, across the Gulf of Mexico and around the southern tip of Florida, according to America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association.
Rick Marshall carried ambitions to complete the loop for the last 15 years before he and his wife decided to take on the challenge in 2018. He learned about it from Passagemaker Magazine, Theresa Marshall said.
The Marshalls had never owned a boat and found the notion of a 12-month journey across fresh and salt water daunting. But it is important for people in their 60s to challenge themselves and learn new things while they still can, Theresa said.
Theresa is 65 and Rick is 67.
In 2018, Rick joined an online class hosted by the United States Power Squadron and the University of Western Florida to educate himself about the necessities of seamanship and boat handling.
“It showed us the rules of the road, as they say,” he said. “What the buoys mean, what the markers mean while you’re on the water. And the use of the radios, anchoring procedures, all of those kinds of things that you need to know to be a competent boater.”
The couple decided a trawler would be the best vessel for their journey. They hired a captain through the America’s Great Loop Cruiser’s Association to “show them the ropes” of operating a long-distance Monk 36 trawler.
For a week straight, the captain trained the couple about how to dock and undock, how to plan their course, how to operate the trawler’s electronics and how to tie knots, he said.
They bought their own boat of the same model, named “Elaine May,” in June 2019 on Lake Michigan where they planned to “cut their teeth,” Theresa said.
The trawler was 36 feet long and contained an aft cabin with a queen-sized bed and two V-berths, or smaller cabins, in the bow of the boat. It came with a single 135 horsepower engine. The trawler was economical to operate and “extremely seaworthy,” Rick said.
In the month or two leading up to buying the boat, the Marshalls were “terrified” every morning, Rick said. Their nerves peaked the day they were given the keys.
The Marshalls set off on the waters of Lake Michigan where they would eventually complete the loop. As they cruised down the east side of the Great Lake, they measured depths of up to 616 feet. Theresa said they felt like they were already on the ocean.
The general cruising speed was a leisurely 7 mph or 6½ knots, Rick said. Every night, Theresa would plot their course for the next day, including where to anchor and when to check the weather for signs of incoming storms.
From there, the couple dipped into the coast of Illinois and cruised past downtown Chicago, Theresa said. They got onto the Illinois River and eventually connected to the Mississippi River. Then it was on to the Ohio River, the Cumberland River, Kentucky Lake and the Tennessee River.
With about 2,000 miles logged, the Marshalls arrived in Mobile Bay, Alabama, where the fresh water boating gave way to salt water.
The Marshalls were greeted by dolphins that swam alongside their trawler. It was an enjoyable experience, but making way for the large shipping barges, avoiding wing dams and traversing river locks proved challenging and stressful, Rick said.
The river systems also had a lot of currents, but after successfully navigating through it, the Marshalls’ confidence was boosted, Rick said.
Mobile Bay introduced the Marshalls to the southern end of the Intracoastal Waterway, a 3,000-mile inland waterway stretching from Norfolk, Virginia, to Brownsville, Texas, Rick said.
The waterway lies between the mainland and smaller islands dotting the coast, Theresa said. The waters presented new challenges such as new currents and ocean tides – the waves reached higher than 2 feet, the Marshalls anchored and waited for more favorable conditions.
From Mobile Bay, they traveled east to Apalachicola, Florida, then they crossed the Gulf of Mexico to reach Florida’s west coast.
The cruise, which lasted all night, went smoothly up until the last four hours or so, when the Marshalls were faced with 4-foot waves crashing into the “Elaine May” from every direction.
Docking and undocking the boat while avoiding collision with other boats was the most challenging part of navigating the salt waters, Rick said.
Whether fishing and snorkeling for lobsters in the Florida Keys, watching wildlife near the Canadian coast or just enjoying the scenery, the Marshalls found their loop to be a memorable experience. Canada has “some of the best cruising waters,” Theresa said.
She recalled watching a great blue heron stalk its prey above the water. Another time, she saw a bald eagle swoop into the water about 20 feet away from the trawler, catch a fish and take off again.
When the Marshalls completed their loop in Michigan on July 25, they swapped their white burgee for a gold one to symbolize their success, Theresa said.
Rick said that in total they traversed about 6,800 miles of water.
Rick said Colorado doesn’t offer the same boating experience as America’s Great Loop and so he and his wife are looking to sell the “Elaine May.”
A previous version of this story contained misnomers for “aft cabin” and “V-berths.”