Ohio natives prepare to take on America’s Great Loop
BY BENJAMIN TREVIÑO
There are many ways to explore the country, but for Shane and Beth Saukko of McAllen, the best way to see America is by boat.
“We originally talked about getting an RV like other people do,” said Shane. “But, then we met a guy in Port Mansfield who told us about America’s Great Loop. He had already done it, but we had never heard of it before. So, we got real interested and started looking into it ourselves.”
America’s Great Loop is a system of waterways that encompasses the eastern portion of the United States and part of Canada. It is comprised of natural and man-made waterways, including the Gulf and Atlantic Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, the Rideau Canal, the Mississippi River, and the Tennessee- Tombigbee Waterway.
“Loopers,” as they are known, circumnavigate the route (usually counterclockwise) until they return to their starting point — a feat known as “crossing your own wake.” The journey is approximately 6,000 miles long. The first recorded instance of someone completing the Great Loop was three teenage boys who did it in a sailboat in the 1890s.
“Most people do the loop with a trawler, but trawlers only go about nine knots,” said Beth. “We have the need for speed, so we got a motor yacht instead, because it’ll go like 22 knots.”
The Saukkos found their ideal boat last October in Jacksonville, Florida — a 46-foot 1995 Jefferson Marlago. They christened it “Wet Mess,” and piloted the vessel back to Port Mansfield in order to get used to the boat and to prepare for their Great Loop adventure. The Saukkos have been avid fishers for many years, but neither had ever driven a boat of this size. Undaunted, they navigated their new boat down Florida’s east coast, crossed the state via the Okeechobee Waterway, then made their way home along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
“The broker helped me learn the maneuvering,” said Shane. “Also, a friend of ours, Captain Morgan, came out there with us for the first week because he’s very knowledgeable about boats and water and everything and it all went very well. The biggest issue was just getting used to the mass of the vessel, because it’s a little nerve-racking when you have to back it into a slip that’s only a foot and a half on each side.”
It took the Saukkos about three weeks to complete the roughly 1,400-mile trip from Florida to Texas. Navigating America’s Great Loop will take anywhere from a few months to more than a year to complete, depending on how many side trips a boater wants to make. There is no single route or itinerary to complete the Loop, but boaters generally traverse the Great Lakes and Canadian waterways in summer, travel down the Mississippi or the
Beth Saukko and friend, Martha Tansel, are seen aboard the Wet Mess on Nov. 10, 2017, on Florida’s Okeechobee Waterway. Below, Beth and Shane Saukko are pictured aboard the Wet Mess docked at their home marina in Port Mansfield.
Tennessee- Tombigbee Waterway in fall, cross the Gulf of Mexico and Florida in the winter, and travel up the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in the spring.
“If you’re up north in November, you’ll find the marinas aren’t open,” said Beth. “You can’t get fuel. Besides, you don’t want to be stuck up by Chicago in the winter.”
“You have to winterize your boat,” added Shane. “You might have to shrink wrap the whole boat and protect it from freezing and haul it out of the water. That’s what they have to do up north, but the Loopers don’t winterize their boats. Loopers are like Snow Birds, because they follow the weather.”
The adventure has created an entire subculture of “Loopers” known as the America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association (AGLCA). The association has about 6,500 members, about 600 of which are making the journey at any given time of year.
“The biggest mistake is having a fixed schedule,” said AGLCA Director, Kimberly Russo. “When people have that fixed schedule they make some poor choices on when to leave a safe harbor. People who are pressed for time sometimes leave the docks when, weatherwise, they’d be better off staying put.”
Time is not an issue for the Saukkos. Shane is from Youngstown and Beth is from Ottoville, but they never crossed paths until a chance meeting five years ago brought them together at a McAllen bar. Although they enjoy the speed capability of their motor yacht over a trawler, “slow and easy” will be their motto when they become “Loopers.”
“Everything is nuts in the world today,” said Beth. “When you’re cruising at nine knots you can really see the country and cruising in a boat allows you to unplug and forget your cares.”
“You see things that nobody gets to see,” added Shane. It’s all beautiful, like Louisiana, it’s all back woods and just pretty nature. You pass cool, little, weird fishing boats to $10 million yachts. Everyone is there to help everyone else. It’s just a way of life. Beth and I have a theory that people who live near the water or on the water are generally happier, easy-going people. And so you get to meet all kinds of great characters along the way.”
Canada’s Rideau Canal, above, is one of the many scenic adventures awaiting “Loopers.” The Rideau Canal is a series of rivers, lakes, 47 connecting locks, and canals that form a continuous waterway from Kingston to Ottawa, in eastern Ontario, Canada. Pictured below is a map of America’s Great Loop, which allows boaters to circumnavigate the eastern half of the United States by boat. The route is approximately 6,000 miles, but dozens of side rivers and waterways offer more than 29,000 miles of boating opportunities.