Faring 10-foot waves en route to the Bahamas, sailing 25 hours straight across the Gulf, waiting in canal locks full of barges – Rafe Williams’ trip around the Great Loop was far different from the lake boating he was used to.
The Great Loop was Williams’ dream trip since he first discovered it in the ’80s – a giant loop along the Gulf from Mobile, Ala., around the tip of Florida, up intracoastal waterways along the east coast, then into the Hudson River, traversing the Great Lakes, through the Chicago Sanitary Slip Canal to the Mississippi and the Ohio and the Tennessee rivers, all the way back down to Alabama.
It’s a massive undertaking – more than 8,000 miles – and Williams bought a PDQ 34 catamaran four years ago to sail for the trip. Prior to buying this boat, dubbed “Cat Daddy” (“You want a name that’s unique but not too embarrassing or hard to say”), Williams had stuck mostly to smaller lakes. But from September 2015 to September 2016, right after he retired and finally had time for the trip, Williams was one of a few hundred boaters making the Loop.
“About 100 complete it each year. Some people take more than a year and just do it in segments,” Williams said.
“The rumor is more people climb Mt. Everest in a year than complete the Great Loop – I’ve read that; I don’t know it to be a fact.”
Williams was aiming for the year-long journey. He took Cat Daddy from Houston in September so the winter months would be spent on the Gulf and the east coast portions of the Loop, which can be completed in any season. The goal was to take on the northern portion – up through the Great Lakes in Canada – during the summer, then be back to Mobile, his technical starting point, in the fall.
Members of America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association, called loopers, fly flags with the Great Loop logo along the route so that they can spot one another. Williams flew a white flag to signify his first trip around the loop. Once he crossed his wake – or completed the loop – he’d trade it for a gold flag, the mark of a boater who’s made one trip around.
He spent around 85 percent of the trip sailing solo – Williams’ wife Annette joined him for side trips to Key West, Chicago and the Bahamas, and the whole family came to see him in New York City – but Williams said he made many lifelong friends in fellow boaters he met along the way. He joined a group of loopers in catamarans just like his in the Georgian Bay and traveled with them in a flotilla for a month. He ran into familiar faces constantly along the route.
“That’s why you fly the looper flag – you see people and you have an instant connection,” Williams said.
He sailed through the occasional bout of rough seas – after one leg in gale winds Williams said “I finally learned my lesson” and he stayed at port during weather advisories – and he once ran aground in the Florida keys, but for the most part the trip was smooth sailing.
“It’s easily doable by virtually anybody,” Williams said of the Great Loop. “There’s no necessary skills or toughness, no knowledge that you can’t gain. You’re rarely not within sight of land.”
There’s no one sight that stood above all else along the Loop for Williams – he loved seeing the country from the water, from the New York City harbor to the waterways in downtown to Chicago to Niagra Falls and Fort Jefferson in Florida. The best sailing was in Canada – the water was beautiful and the scenery was stunning, Williams said.
After a year on the water, Williams was looking forward to going back to his home in Boyd once he hit Mobile Bay, the starting point of his loop and the place where he traded his white looper flag for gold.
“I got sort of sad when it was over. It’s an easy lifestyle to get used to,” Williams said. “I was very appreciative to be able to take the time to do it. You do get a feeling of accomplishment.”
His sailing days weren’t over – Williams then had to take Cat Daddy on his longest leg yet, a 25-hour nighttime trip from Carabell to Clearwater, Fla. Cat Daddy is in Florida for the rest of the winter months, where it will undergo maintenance so the Williams family can take it to the Bahamas this summer.
All told, including side trips, Williams spent nearly a year on the Great Loop, traveled 8,218 miles, used 2,575 gallons of diesel fuel and passed through 19 states and three countries.
Williams hasn’t planned it yet, but he’s not discounting another, segmented trip around the Great Loop to get a platinum (multi-trip) flag.
“I’d say there’s a good probability,” he said. “There’s places that deserve more time than you’re able to spend.”