“DAY 226, approximately. We’re anchored at Crab Cay, just off of the Sea of Abaco. We went swimming under the stars last night, so we’re a little tired today.” That is how Grace and I began today’s video. Every few days we try to record a short clip about our adventures, stating where we are, what we’re doing and how we’re feeling.
We recently rewatched all of our videos since the start of our trip, and it’s almost laughable how different things are since we left our hailing port of Detroit last September. Our hair was longer (Grace has since given herself a haircut in our bathroom), we were really clean and we had absolutely no idea what to expect. We left to start the Great Loop, the continuous waterway that covers more than 5,000 miles, on a sunny, calm Monday morning, motoring along on our 28-foot sailboat, Elpis, named for the Spirit of Hope from Greek mythology.
Elpis, graciously on loan to us from Grace’s parents, had recently undergone a serious makeover. After Grace and I convinced our parents that we weren’t joking about going sailing for a year, they and many “boat angels” at our home yacht club came together to help us make Elpis fit to live aboard. This meant rebedding the starboard toe rail, rebuilding the alcohol stove, sewing panels to cover the bare walls and doing hours of engine maintenance among other projects.
Without the angels’ help and email guidance from the original source of inspiration for our trip (a blog by two female boaters, Katie and Jessie), we might have never left the dock. I found their blog when I was an undergrad at the University of Michigan and shared it with Grace, a childhood best friend from junior sailing.We read about these 20-something girls and their adventures on a small sailboat and were envious of the people they were meeting and the beautiful places they were visiting.
After college, neither Grace nor I were totally sold on a 9-to-5 career, so it seemed like a perfect time to go on an adventure. Grace was on board with the idea from the minute we started discussing the trip, but I took a little longer to commit.
I loved working in Chicago for a year after graduation, but I received some advice from Jessie’s blog that helped convince me to take the journey. She explained, “When you start to lose sleep over the idea of it time and time again, you have made your decision.” With that advice, I knew I had to go sailing.
Our trip began rounding northern Michigan. We spent three pleasant weeks exploring picturesque little towns, learning the boat and trying to figure out how to live without refrigeration or showers.
Four days without a shower seemed disgusting, but we laugh about it now as Grace’s current record is three weeks. We were anxious to reach Chicago and start heading south, so we did 50 miles a day, which meant traveling from sunrise to sundown because little Elpis can only work up to 5 mph.
Our favorite Michigan memory was anchoring at South Manitou. Grace’s sister joined us for the weekend, so we hiked around the island and later braved a cold September swim in Lake Michigan. That night, we sat in the cockpit under one of the most memorable starry skies we’ve seen on this trip and wondered if it could ever get better than this.
The real beginning of our trip was the river system, motoring down the middle of America. Parts of the rivers were gorgeous. We followed fall the entire way down with the trees flashing vibrant shades of red, yellow and gold.
Parts of the rivers were not ideal. In some areas the water was brown and presented more logs to avoid than people to meet. We made our first friends on the river system by being total idiots. We had been so focused on getting the boat ready to go and making it to Chicago to take the mast down that we had not planned what to do once we arrived.
We departed from Crowley’s Yacht Yard in Chicago with no guidebooks on where to go next. “How hard can it be?” we thought. “Just don’t go outside the channel markers.” Through the power of Google, we found an acceptable wall to tie up to for the night.
The next morning, we approached a Ranger Tug with a friendly looking couple on board. I introduced myself then asked, “Are you guys Loopers too? We … ran out of charts.” Seven months later, we still have weekly phone calls with them and they give us a hard time about what they called our “youthful naivety.”
When we think about the river systems now, we remember quiet, calm little anchorages — big enough for two or three boats — and how we nearly froze the whole time. Spending nights tucked away behind small islands or in creeks surrounded by trees and sleeping peacefully in completely flat anchorages is a convenience we didn’t take for granted, but we would have appreciated it more if the temperatures were warmer than 40 degrees or we had some heat on the boat.
We also had a leaky packing gland and no functioning automatic bilge pump, which is not a combination I’d recommend. Much of our river system experience is jaded by memories of setting alarms for 2:00 a.m. to bail out the bilge with a bucket in the cold, but that’s character building, right?
Three months into our trip, we arrived in the Gulf of Mexico. We taste-tested the water to make sure our life wasn’t a dream. Yep, salty. Thrilled to have our mast back, we sailed as much of the Intracoastal Waterway as possible, zooming along and enjoying colorful houses and being accompanied by dolphin friends.
After a quick trip along the Florida panhandle, we started a series of overnight sails. We kept swearing that we were done with overnight passages that wiped us out for two days every time. However, not only were overnight passages more efficient in getting us farther south, but we secretly enjoyed the serenity of being alone on deck during a night shift. Our crossing from Cedar Key to Tarpon Springs was one of my favorites. I have never seen so many stars, and the water was dead calm, so they reflected perfectly onto the water around me. It felt like sailing through a snow globe of stars. The feeling of solitude in those moments, being so completely removed from the rest of the world and without a single soul nearby, was exhilarating and terrifying and humbling all at once.
We crossed from Marathon to the Bahamas in the beginning of February. This part of our trip helped us become real ocean sailors. We found ourselves frequently testing Elpis in 6- to 8-foot swells with 25 knots of breeze. We cruised all over the Bahamas, starting at Cat Cay and making our way through Bimini, the Berry Islands, New Providence, the Exumas, a small part of Eleuthera and the Abaco Islands.
We learned that the people are what make the trip, but the place definitely helps. Elpis accidentally stayed in George Town Bahamas for a month. Arriving just before Regatta (two weeks of activities that our friend described as “summer camp for adults”) we discovered a welcoming community within the 300 other cruising boats.
For the first time, we found people closer to our age and quickly bonded with them over shared experiences, calling each other our “ocean family.” Grace spent her mornings playing on the Bahamian softball league, and I spent my afternoons hammocking between the mast and the forestay and reading books. After leaving George Town Bahamas we spent day after day snorkeling coral reefs and eating as many conch fritters as possible, feeling like we
were living in paradise.
In the Bahamas, we realized why we did this trip to begin with. Friends. Slowing down. Five-mile days. Not moving for over a month. Finding an ocean family. Living with salt on our skin. Fishing for dinner. Washing our dishes in the ocean. In other words, peak happiness.
What’s Elpis up to next? Cruising up the ICW to finish the Great Loop and enjoying our last months on the boat where we have no agenda other than moving with the wind.
Grace is preparing for her captain’s license, and I am headed to New York to get my master’s degree. We are already planning our next adventure to the Bahamas for our five-year Exuma reunion. Every day, we say thank you to the universe for this beautiful opportunity.
To follow Emily and Grace’s adventures, visit emandgracegosailing.wixsite.com/greatloop