By John SimonsOur 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.
Our six weeks in Key West flew by like a drunk Friday night. If you want to have lots of visitors during your Loop trip, just spend time in Key West. We spent the first four weeks at the Galleon Marina and the final two weeks at the large Stock Island Marina, where we got a slip on short notice.
Originally, we had planned to depart Key West and cruise to the Dry Tortugas. When King Neptune brought on a big blow, we adopted plan B: a 7-mile cruise to Stock Island Marina Village. We spent a delightful two weeks meeting many other Loopers and liveaboards on Coconut Row. The marina’s bus makes continual roundtrips to Key West.
Stock Island ≫ Marathon, Florida
The 47-mile cruise from Stock Island to Marathon was relatively flat. After going under the Seven Mile Bridge from the Atlantic to the Gulf side on the Moser Channel, we took the ICW for 5 miles to the Marathon Yacht Club, where our Looper mentors, George and Pat Hospodar, got us in. They keep Reflection at the nearby Banana Bay Marina. They came over for docktails, and we had an excellent dinner at the Marathon Yacht Club.
Marathon ≫ Key Largo, Florida
The next day started out warm, sunny and breezy. Winds out of the east had built up 5- to 7-foot waves along with small craft warnings on the Atlantic side of the Keys, but we had a flat ride on the Gulf side with waves of a foot or less. With the current running against us, our speed over ground was 1 mph lower than our boat speed through the water.
Along the Intracoastal Waterway, we found water depths running a consistent 8 to 9 feet with some thin spots having depths as low as 5 feet.
Docking at Key Largo’s Anchorage Resort & Yacht Club Marina had its moments. The wind blew at 20 mph on the beam. When I tried to pull onto the face dock, I couldn’t get the boat to move over. I thought the wind was too strong for the bow thruster. I didn’t know I was fighting an outbound current as well as the wind. I should have turned around and docked into the current.
After safely tying up, we saw a brand new 56-foot Meridian spinning like a top while trying to dock in the channel next to us. That’s when I realized how strong the current was. Dale, I and another Good Samaritan pulled on lines to keep the Meridian from hitting the boat in the next slip while tying up.
Key Largo ≫ Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Running at 25 mph, we enjoyed a fine, two-hour cruise from Key Largo to Fort Lauderdale. As we cruised up Biscayne Bay, we got our first glimpse of the beautiful Miami skyline. We planned to stay at Fort Lauderdale’s Marina Bay Yachting Center for three weeks before heading to the Bahamas.
We chose to cruise the 6 miles up Fort Lauderdale’s New River against the current, which turned out to be the right choice. Down-bound boats swung their sterns in wide arcs, and expensive mega-yachts were tied up on both sides of the narrow, winding river.
Along the way, three bascule bridges had to be raised. At one bridge, we waited for six boats to pass down-bound before we could go up-bound.
During our stay, we took the dinghy up and down the New River, looking at the homes, marinas and boats along the way. Before heading to the Bahamas, we needed to fuel up and pump out, but the marina had no fuel dock or pump-out facility.
We arranged for a pump-out boat to pump us out for $40 a tank, $80 in all. Head pump-outs are usually free at a gas dock or $5 a tank at a marina. Then we called a fuel truck to fill our tanks.
Things are done differently in Fort Lauderdale.
Preparing to cross the Gulf Stream
We moved the boat to the Coral Ridge Yacht Club, only an hour or so away, and spent a beautiful day in paradise waiting for a weather window to cross to the Bahamas. While we waited, we went to Costco to provision for our month-long Bahamian cruise.
Bimini is only 60 miles away, but to get there, we must cross the Gulf Stream. If we fail to account for its 2 to 3 mph northerly current, we could end up north of our intended destination. However, crossing at 25 mph wouldn’t cause us as many issues as it does for slower-moving boats.
Large waves can also be a problem when crossing the Gulf Stream. North, northeast or northwest winds create large waves when they push against the north-flowing Gulf Stream. Waiting for a weather window with winds from the east, south or west makes for a much flatter crossing. As our friend Bill Valters advises, “If you see elephants (huge waves) on the horizon, do not try to cross.”
Fort Lauderdale, Florida ≫ Bimini, Bahamas
We chose the perfect day to cross the Gulf Stream with sunny skies and flat seas. Curiously, with the throttles at high rpm, we cruised at 18 to 20 mph instead of our usual 22 to 25 mph. Did our racehorse of a boat have a fouled bottom or fouled props?
When we finally arrived at the Bimini Big Game Club Resort & Marina on North Bimini at 1:30 p.m., Cisco took our lines and gave us the customs and immigration papers to fill out.
Staying at the marina made the customs process easy. Since the marina provided all the papers, it was easy to have each person fill out the forms before taking them to the appropriate government office. Boaters anchoring out had to dinghy in to pick up the forms, dinghy back to their boats to have them signed by the crew, and dinghy back again to clear customs.
After checking in, I grabbed my mask and snorkel and jumped in the warm, crystal clear water to determine what happened to our speed. The bottom was smooth and clean; however, I found a bunch of crab pot lines wrapped around our port propeller. Grabbing my dive knife, I went back in the water, cut off one piece of line and went back to cut more. Since I couldn’t hold my breath long, I got out to get my scuba tank, as my wife, Priscilla, exclaimed, “Look at that!” Two large bull sharks swam by. Hiring a local diver who had experience diving with sharks was $80 well spent.
Bimini ≫ Great Harbour Cay
Although exiting the shallow entrance at Bimini was lumpy, the cruise to Great Harbour Cay was relatively flat, with winds and waves on the aft starboard quarter during the entire 90-mile crossing. Changing Latitudes was a bit more fleet of foot without 50 feet of crab pot line on its port prop.
The entrance to Great Harbour Cay Marina was cut through coral rock. After entering, we fueled up at a tiny fuel dock and called the marina. They were all full up, but they said we could stay for one night. Next time, we’ll call ahead.
Great Harbour ≫ Nassau
After departing Great Harbour, we had to head north around the top of Great Harbour Cay before turning south and heading directly to Nassau. The Tongue of the Ocean (TOTO), a deep oceanic trench, separates Andros and New Providence islands. The trench begins at about 70 feet deep and plunges to more than 11,500 feet. For a while, high waves on our bow rocked the boat and rang the ship’s bell.
We had to contact Nassau Harbor control to get permission to enter the main harbor. By the time we arrived at Nassau Harbour Club Hotel & Marina, it was pouring. We didn’t have many rainy days on this trip.
Nassau ≫ Exumas
Since the long-range forecast called for several days of strong east winds at 20 to 25 mph, we planned to stay at Highbourne Marina our first night then decide if we wanted to stay longer or anchor out. Stretching north to south, the Exumas offer good protection from east winds.
We crossed from Nassau to Highbourne Cay with 1-foot seas and sunny skies. A playground for the rich and perhaps famous, the Highbourne Cay Marina is surrounded by beautiful, white sugar sand beaches. The marina charged us $52 a day for electricity and $15 a day for Wi-Fi for one device. They also charge for trash.
At this five-star resort, hamburgers cost $22, a glass of house wine, $14, and a cup of coffee, $10. Our boat is the size of the mega-yachts’ dinghies. The marina has Adirondack beach chairs, giant floating rubber carpets, plush couches and chairs with water views, a bonfire pit, free kayak use, and golf cart rentals.
Winds continued to blast out of the east, but we were fully sheltered on the west side of Highbourne Cay. Megayachts came and went. Even those on the 100-footers said the inside passage was rolly. We decided to stay a day or two until the winds abated before heading south to Shroud or Hawksbill cays to pick up a mooring ball.
After five days, we headed to Big Major Cay, just north of Staniel Cay. Big Major is home to the world-famous spotted swimming pigs; they swim right up to you, expecting to be fed. We were told they favor carrots. Be careful that they don’t mistake your finger for one.
Staniel Cay was our southernmost destination in the Exumas. From there, we planned to cruise back north to Nassau then to the Abacos. We chatted with boaters who’ve been cruising the Bahamas for over six months, which made our one-month cruise feel very short.
We left Big Major early to arrive at Warderick Wells Cay before the park ranger departed at noon. We got mooring ball #18 in the north harbor. As we entered the harbor, we saw friends Craig and Day Olney on Toucan Deux. Having spent two nights on a mooring ball at Shroud Cay, they had come over first thing after hearing that mooring balls were available at Warderick Wells.
We stayed in Warderick Wells for two nights, cruised to Shroud Cay for one night and cruised back to Nassau.
Nassau ≫ Abacos
After two nights, we bid farewell to Nassau and cruised 94 miles across the Northeast Providence Channel to Little Harbour in the Abacos, best known for Pete’s Pub & Gallery, a renowned bar and eatery.
On our layover day, all but two other boats left Little Harbour at dawn, using the tide to traverse the shallow Little Harbour channel. The next morning, we did likewise so we could exit Little Harbour and enter Hope Town. Both have thin water at low tide.
I called two marinas in Hope Town. Captain Jack’s was full, and the Hope Town Marina said it had some open first-come-first-serve moorings.
The Hope Town harbor was jammed. We resigned ourselves to heading to nearby Marsh Harbour. As we exited the harbor, I noticed several open slips at the Lighthouse Marina.
When I called, the marina had two cancellations, and we got a slip at $1 per foot. As pleasant as it is to be swinging on a mooring ball, it was nice to be plugged in again. The next day’s weather report called for winds out of the northwest at 20 to 30 mph. Since we were tucked into a Class A harbor with protection on all sides, we decided to stay a few days.
After finally bidding farewell to Hope Town, we cruised 6 miles to Man-O-War Cay for a change of scenery. Loyalists sympathetic to King George, the Albury family settled the cay after the Revolutionary War. Today, many of the island’s inhabitants are named Albury.
After a relaxing day of dinghy rides, walking the beach on the Atlantic side and exploring the town, we left Man-O-War Cay and cruised 9 miles to Great Guana Cay, where we picked up a mooring ball and went ashore. We took a golf cart shuttle to the infamous Nipper’s Beach Bar & Grill on the bluff overlooking the Atlantic to enjoy the stunning view. After walking the beach, we enjoyed the obligatory rum punch and walked back to town. Now at the halfway point of our Great Loop adventure, we had six months behind us and six more to go.
We departed Settlement Harbour on Great Guana Cay headed toward Whale Passage. At the same time, a Nordhavn 72 called Trixie had pulled anchor and was on a converging course. I hailed the boaters on the VHF radio and asked if we could fall in line behind them. Their boat must draw 6 feet, so it could easily show us the way. They agreed, and off we went. It was a fine day to transit the Whale, with 4- to 6-foot rollers from the Atlantic with a long interval in between.
As we cruised past Great Abaco Island to Little Abaco Island, we passed the Center of the World Rock. The water surrounding the huge rock is 16 feet deep for miles in every direction, making the rock appear to levitate in the middle of the ocean. The Bahamas archipelago consists of 29 islands, 661 cays and 2,387 rocks.
Next, we cruised 136 miles from Green Turtle Cay to Great Sale Cay. We spent the night on the hook in Northwest Harbour, using the GPS as our anchor alarm. Fortunately, the night was calm enough that the weight of our anchor chain would have kept us in place.
Abacos ≫ Stuart, Florida
At dawn, we disconnected the bridle from the chain and hauled anchor. Getting underway in flat calm seas made for a nice way to start a long trip across the Gulf Stream. After five and a half hours, we arrived at the St. Lucie Inlet at 12:30 p.m. We cruised another 9 miles up the St. Lucie River to Sunset Bay Marina & Anchorage in Stuart, Florida. Little did we know that we would be cruising past the condo we would purchase later that week.
We arrived at the marina, fueled up, pumped out and moved to our slip with five minutes to spare before a torrential downpour. We planned to stay in Stuart for four nights before heading north.
Friends spending the winter in Stuart gave us a ride to the West Palm Beach airport to clear U.S. Customs and Immigration, which you must do within 24 hours of your return to the U.S.
After that, we spent four nights at the marina and visited with our friends Dan and Iris Carlson from Lake Bluff. Since we planned to sell our boat after completing the Loop, we bought a condo to spend our winters in Florida.
In the next issue, I will share our adventures cruising north on the AICW from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay.
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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