Cruising America’s Great Loop Part Five

By John Simons

Our Great Loop adventure took one year and covered 6,500 miles. We departed from Waukegan Harbor in mid-September 2015 and, after making a series of left turns, returned to Waukegan Harbor in September 2016. Our crew consisted of John and Priscilla Simons and Dale and Andy Arnold. Hundreds of “Loopers” make this trip each year. America’s Great Loop Cruising Association conducts seminars to help Loopers prepare for the adventure.

Don’t forget to read part one, part two, part three and part four.

After four lovely days at the Sunset Bay Marina in Stuart, Florida, we cast off the dock lines and continued our cruise northward. We successfully navigated the place where the St. Lucie River meets the Indian River Lagoon system and the channel marker colors switch sides as the channel weaves through thin water. A TowBoatUS captain stationed nearby gets new customers daily.

Vero Beach ≫ Cocoa, Florida

After a 46-mile cruise up the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, we stopped at the Vero Beach Municipal Marina. This well-protected harbor had both mooring balls and slips available.

After two days, we left Vero Beach. The 15 to 20 mph winds from the north gave us a slight chop on the nose for the 55-mile straight shot to the Cocoa Village Marina in Cocoa, Florida. We barely had to turn the autopilot knob all day.

After departing Cocoa Village Marina, we enjoyed a delightful 55-mile cruise up the Indian River through the Haulover Canal to Mosquito Lagoon.

Cocoa ≫ Saint Augustine, Florida

With light winds from the east, the AICW was flat. Our only challenge was slowing down to request permission to pass the sailboats and trawlers. Since our fuel burn doesn’t vary much whether we’re going 9 mph or 25 mph, we prefer to get up and go. We depart several hours after the sailboats and trawlers, pass them along the way and arrive early at the next marina. It works for us and gives us time to visit the areas surrounding the marina.

At 3 p.m., we pulled into the Daytona Beach Halifax Harbor Marina, fueled up and pumped out. The next day, we cruised 53 miles north up a flat AICW to Saint Augustine.

One of the turns on the waterway, the Devil’s Elbow, earned its name as a hazardous area to navigate before being dredged some time ago. Populated with many small islets, sandbars, and creeks, the Devil’s Elbow is a great fishing destination. A large sailboat had wandered out of the channel and got stuck in the mud. The skipper had the jib up to tip the boat on its side. With engines running full speed, the sailboat spun like a top but didn’t get anywhere. The folks aboard three nearby government vessels seemed disinterested in helping. Be sure to watch the channel markers and your GPS because the markers get moved as the sandbars shift.

Cruisers John and Priscilla visit the Castillo de San Marcos, in Saint Augustine, Florida

John and Priscilla at Castillo de San Marcos, Saint Augustine, Florida

We spent the next two days exploring St. Augustine. As the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement within the borders of the United States, St. Augustine has a host of interesting historical sites, including the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.

St. Augustine ≫ Amelia Island, Florida

From St. Augustine, we cruised 62 miles up the St. Johns River to the South Amelia River to Amelia Island and the Fernandina Harbor Marina on a blowy day with winds from the west. The tide gave us a 2 mph push, which had us cruising at 11 mph. A blue Sabre 40 cruiser blew by, rolling us and all the boats ahead of us. With no radio calls to alert his victims, the captain made few friends that day. On the rivers and AICW, as long as you call ahead on the VHF and ask for permission to pass, it doesn’t matter if you rock a sailboat until its spreaders hit the water on both sides; they’ll give you a hearty wave, and off you go.

I’d called the Fernandina Harbor Marina for a slip a couple of days earlier. Kevin, the dockmaster, said we’d have to tie up on the rolly AICW side of the dock. Before we arrived, I called back to see if an inside spot had opened up. It hadn’t.

However, when we arrived at 3 p.m., Kevin said we could tie up on the inside. We saw a few boats on the outside rocking and rolling. The tide was low, and the marina entry was narrow with a strong current and a thick mudbank a few feet away on the east side. In we went; the tiny space was only about 4 feet longer than our boat, and we had nearly 30 mph winds honking on our beam.

After a few passes, I realized the bow thruster was useless against the wind. I had underestimated the windage. As the crew tossed the lines to the dockhands, the wind blew them back. To allow the crew to get the lines to the dockhands, I had to get in really, really close.

I pulled up past the dock space and backed into our tiny slip. Victory! The dock hands caught the two spring lines, and I brought Changing Latitudes in just as nice as you please using only the engines.

We celebrated another landing we could walk away from.

Overnight, the wind seemed to shift or quiet down. We woke to discover that a 197-foot cruise ship, Independence, was blocking most of the wind. We could have used the ship’s help yesterday.

Amelia Island ≫ Brunswick, Georgia

Farewell, Florida. On Sunday, we headed off on a 53-mile blowy run up the AICW to Brunswick, Georgia. We got to experience the rolly Atlantic at St. Andrew Sound and St. Simons Sound.

Along the way, we passed a restricted area, a U.S. Navy submarine base with several patrol boats on duty. We kept our distance.

The Polynesian sailing canoe tied up next to us in Brunswick, Georgia.

Polynesian sailing canoe Hōkūleˇa

The Brunswick Landing Marina rocks. In 2016, the marina’s rates were $1.80 a foot, and it had the cheapest diesel we’d seen at $1.68 a gallon. Plus, it had a free laundry and free beer in the boaters’ lounge 24/7. Our friends Craig and Day Olney keep their catamaran Toucan Deux here when they’re not cruising. Later that evening, the 60-foot Polynesian sailing canoe Hōkūleˇa tied up across from us.

A 1975 reconstruction of a traditional Hawaiian blue water vessel, Hōkūleˇa has sailed around the world. With no engine, the sailing canoe is true to the original design. A chase boat tows the ship in and out of the marinas.

Brunswick ≫ Savannah, Georgia

On Monday, we shoved off from Brunswick Landing Marina at 7:45 a.m. and exited St. Simons Sound. We headed out into the Atlantic Ocean on a 107-mile cruise to Savannah. The predicted southeast wind shift made for a flatter ride, though the seas were still confused, and we took 2- to 3-foot waves on our beam.

On the Atlantic, the rolly conditions made moving around the boat difficult. When I went off watch, I lay down in the aft bunk wearing Bose noise suppression earphones. Andy sat on the aft deck and went into a Zen trance, reminding herself that she’d taken Bonine and wasn’t getting seasick. She dozed off until we hit a wave large enough to ring the ship’s bell. After two hours, I took back the helm from Dale. We slowed the boat down for bathroom breaks during the ride, so we didn’t roll anyone off the toilet seat.

Once we turned the corner to follow the channel into the Savannah River, everything flattened out nicely. We docked at the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa at 2 p.m.

The river current runs swiftly past the dock, making docking exciting. Although we were told to tie up on the inside, the space between the dock and concrete wall was narrow. Because of the strong current, I tied up on the outside to give me plenty of room to maneuver. To control the boat in the current, I had the throttles wide open, which was a first. Usually, docking is a gentle maneuver with slight taps of the throttles. Despite the current, we parked the boat with no drama.

Savannah ≫ Beaufort, South Carolina

During our stay, we had overcast skies and cool temperatures. Hōkūleˇa departed Savannah early to take advantage of the outgoing tide. We enjoyed a leisurely morning as we waited for the tide to come in before transiting Fields Cut from the Savannah River to Ramshorn Creek. It turns out we had plenty of water under our keel all the way.

As we crossed in front of a large freighter, the ship signaled danger with five blasts of its air horn. I altered course to get farther away from the ship. We were well clear from our vantage point, but from their wheelhouse 200 feet in the sky, we must have looked too close. At least they got to test their horn.

After arriving in Beaufort, South Carolina, we took a delightful carriage ride. Jake the horse and Ken the docent explained the history of Beaufort and told us about the numerous movies filmed there, including “The Great Santini,” “Forrest Gump,” “The Big Chill,” and “Glory.”

Tom Hanks and Barbara Streisand rented houses in Beaufort while filming movies. Noise from the warplanes flying overhead from Parris Island Marine base made filming difficult. After Mrs. Streisand called the base commander to complain, there were no planes overhead the next day. At
4 a.m. that night, four planes buzzed the rented house where Streisand was sleeping, kicking in their afterburners right overhead.

Beaufort ≫ Charleston, South Carolina

Departing Beaufort at 9 a.m., we made the 67-mile slog up the AICW and arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, at 4 p.m. We had current from the tide running against us, 20 to 25 mph winds on our nose, and a moderate 1- to 1½-foot chop. To some, the AICW may look like a straight shot up the coast, but that couldn’t be more wrong. Two days before, we’d cruised up the appropriately named Ramshorn Creek. You could describe much of the AICW as crooked as a ram’s horn.

We zig-zagged from river to river via canal, channel and creek. Some are wide, some are narrow, and some are very shallow. You might say the AICW is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

With some current and a 20 mph breeze on the beam, we had a little thrill docking the boat at the Charleston City Marina. I brought the boat right against the dock, which was perfect, except the dockhand tied off the spring line too short for us to get into the slip to pass over the stern line. I kept the starboard engine in forward to hold the stern against the dock, but the brisk wind blew the bow over. He did not secure the bow line, and we drifted close to the boat across from us. Both Dale and Andy went to that side to fend off. Realizing I couldn’t maneuver the boat anymore, I abandoned the helm, grabbed a line and tossed it to the dockhand. He finally pulled us over, and all was well.

Another landing we could walk away from. No harm, no foul. No tip.

Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston, South Carolina.

With so much to see in Charleston, we stayed three nights. One day, we took a trolley tour of the city, and the following day, we took the ferry to Fort Sumter. The marina’s free shuttle runs every hour on the hour and takes you wherever you want to go.

On Saturday, we enjoyed cool weather, bright sunshine, and a visit from Looper royalty, Kim Russo, director of America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association. She’s also the Charleston harbor host. We’ll get to see her again in Norfolk, Virginia, at the Looper rendezvous.

Charleston ≫ Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

At 9 a.m. the next day, we pulled out of the Charleston City Marina. We bid farewell to Fort Sumter as we passed by on its port side.

The AICW was flat as a pancake. I kicked up the throttles a bit to blow out the carbon after cruising at 9 mph for three days. Before we knew it, we were blasting along at over 30 mph. I pulled the throttles back to 28 mph, and it felt like we were on a superhighway—not a lump or bump. After an easy 67-mile cruise, we arrived at the Harborwalk Marina in Georgetown, South Carolina, at 4:30 p.m.

We stayed one night. The next day was an easy one, a 30-mile jaunt to the Osprey Marina in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

We awoke the next morning to a wretched smell, the odor from the International Paper plant a mile away.

After departing Myrtle Beach, we transited the Rock Pile, a human-made canal section of the AICW lined with submerged rocks and a rock shelf a foot or two below the surface. When the Army Corp of Engineers built this portion of the AICW in the 1930s, it encountered a solid granite shelf. The Corps blasted through this obstruction, but over time, the soft silt above and below the rocky outcropping has washed away, making the canal appear wider than it is. Over the years, pieces of the rock shelf broke off, leaving all sorts of underwater rocks waiting to trap keels and propellers.

Cruisers should hold as close to the middle of the Pine Island Cut as possible and announce their presence on VHF. Otherwise, a large commercial vessel approaching could force you out of the channel’s mid-line and onto the rocks, especially at high tide when the rocks are submerged.

Myrtle Beach ≫ Southport, North Carolina

We transited the Rock Pile without incident and cruised 64 miles to Southport, North Carolina. On our way up the AICW, we bumped a sandbar and sucked a cubic yard of sand into the raw water intake strainers. We found out about it when the starboard engine’s temperature alarm went off.

We arrived at the South Harbour Village Marina in Southport, North Carolina, at 4 p.m. We ran on one engine so the starboard engine could cool down and started the starboard engine just long enough to complete our docking maneuver.

After both engines cooled down, we spent a few hours in the bilge cleaning the raw water strainers. They already had several levels of sediment, so the sand just topped them off. We must inspect them more often.

There are two types of Loopers: Those who have bumped the bottom and those who will bump the bottom. We made it 209 days without a bump. Thankfully, we had no damage, just sand in the raw water strainers.

Southport ≫ Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

On Friday, we had a short cruise to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. We stayed one night before moving on. To make it to Norfolk, Virginia, for the Looper rendezvous on April 30, we planned out the rest of our itinerary as follows: April 23, Swansboro; April 24 and 25, Beaufort; April 26, Belhaven; April 27, Columbia; April 28, Elizabeth City; April 29, the Dismal Swamp Welcome Dock; and April 30, Norfolk, Virginia.

Low bridges make this section of the AICW a bit more challenging. We had to pass under four bridges to get from Wrightsville Beach to Swansboro. Since we transited at high tide, we had no leeway and had to wait for the bridges to open. Although Wrightsville Beach bridge claims a height of 20 feet, the Waterway Guide warns cruisers not to trust that height.

The real limitation is the bridge opening times. Some bridges open once an hour, and others open twice—on the hour and the half hour. The challenge is to time your arrival to be five minutes before the scheduled opening rather than five minutes after when you’ll have to wait an hour.

Wrightsville Beach ≫ Beaufort, North Carolina

After making the short 25-mile run up the AICW from Swansboro to Beaufort, we docked at the Beaufort Docks Marina in downtown Beaufort.

Priscilla and I took the National Park Service ferry to Shackleford Banks. The 9-mile-long island is home to a herd of wild horses whose ancestors survived Spanish shipwrecks 400 years ago. They swam ashore and have prospered there for four centuries. The shell collecting on the beach on the Atlantic side was excellent.

A great one-night stopover, the Belhaven Marina has free laundry and fluffy towels for the shower. With the wind still blowing at 20 mph from the south at midnight, we had a rolly night. The face dock offered no protection from the waves on the Pungo River. At least the marina provides extra-large round fenders to keep boats off the pilings.

Beaufort ≫ Columbia, North Carolina

We had a flat ride from Belhaven to Columbia, North Carolina, as much of the trip is on the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal. A combination gas station and marina, the Alligator River Marina has a small restaurant that closes at 6:30 p.m.

It poured all night. At least Changing Latitudes got a bath to wash off a lot of the salt. Casting off at 8 a.m. the next morning, we were the second-to-last boat out of 14 to depart the marina. We had another flat 35-mile cruise over the Albemarle Sound to Elizabeth City.

Columbia ≫ Elizabeth City, North Carolina

On the way, the forward head would not flush. The holding tank light showed mid-full. The easiest solution was to pump out the holding tank and see if that fixed the problem. We fueled up before leaving the Alligator River Marina, but the pump out was broken. Although we had planned to tie up at the free public dock in Elizabeth City, it didn’t have a pump out. Our only other choice with pump-out facilities was Elizabeth City’s Pelican Marina. I called ahead to make sure its pump out was working and got a recording that said they were only open from noon to 6 p.m. As we arrived, Dale called them on VHF and got no answer.

We approached the dock at 10 a.m. and decided to wait until the marina opened. The owner watched us pull up on his AIS and called us on the radio. He said he could do a pump out, and we could stay overnight. The slip fee was $35. What a deal!

The next morning, the herd was up early and restless. Four out of five boats were off the dock by 7 a.m. for the 7:30 bridge opening. Since the bridge was only five minutes away, we cast off at 7:15.

Elizabeth City ≫ Chesapeake, Virginia

Dismal Swamp Canal

From Elizabeth City, we snaked our way north on the Dismal Swamp Canal for 18 miles to the South Mills lock, where 12 boats were waiting to lock through. Immediately past the lock is a swing bridge. The lock tender jumped in his car and opened the swing bridge for the same group of boats. We then cruised 5 miles to the Dismal Swamp Visitors Center. The visitors center has a 150-foot dock that can fit three vessels. Other boats raft up. Fortunately, we were the third boat to arrive, so we got a dock space. Two sailboats rafted off us.

With a dozen or more Loopers headed to Norfolk, docktails were an extravaganza. It was an excellent way to spend our last day in North Carolina.

The entire Great Dismal Swamp Canal is a “no wake” zone, so we put the gear shift in forward and cruised 5 to 6 mph the whole way.

We stopped for the night at the Top Rack Marina in Chesapeake, Virginia. We filled our water tanks and pumped out our holding tanks since we didn’t know what facilities at the Waterside Marina in Norfolk would be open to boaters during the Great Loop rendezvous. The AGLCA advised that the marina’s showers and restrooms were under construction.

Chesapeake ≫ Norfolk, Virginia

The next morning, we made the 9-mile trip to the Waterside Marina for the America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association rendezvous. We had to wait 30 minutes for the railroad bridge to open. You can never be in a hurry on the Loop.

At long last, we tied up at the marina, our home for the next five days. At the Looper rendezvous, over 250 current, past, and future Loopers spent four days together sharing experiences (and a few lies) and learning more about the route ahead.

In the next issue, I’ll describe our trip through the Chesapeake Bay and up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal.


John Simons is a member of Waukegan Sail & Power Squadron in District 20. He has his USCG Masters License 100 ton. In 2015–2016, John and his wife Priscilla cruised 6,500 miles on America’s Great Loop aboard their 2002 Cruisers 4450 Motor Yacht Changing Latitudes. John is a yacht broker with weberyachts.com. You’ll find more of John Simons work on his blog at www.captainfatherjohn.com.

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