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The Great Loop - North America’s Biggest Boating Adventure with Kurt & Leanne Penfold

By: Scott Way

Gold Burgee for completion of Great Loop
The Gold Burgee for 1st completion of The Great Loop (Photo courtesy Kurt & Leanne Penfold)

The Great Loop is everything its name implies- a circular journey through the eastern half of North America that takes boaters on an adventure befitting the ‘Great’ in its name. The route involves navigating the Great Lakes, making passage through the Illinois and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico, along the eastern seaboard of the United States, and back to the Great Lakes waterway. You can of course start at any point along the way, or run it in reverse, but no matter you begin crossing your wake upon your return solidifies your success at one of boating’s best adventures.

For lifelong boaters Kurt and Leanne Penfold of Elmira, Ontario, their adventure was 12 years in the making and includes everything that makes for a great story: obstacles to overcome, sacrifices to make, tragedies to endure, risks to calculate, and luck to catch. Succeeding in doing ‘The Loop’ twice consecutively (once 2017/18 and again in 2018/19) the Penfolds have experienced just about everything a boater can imagine while travelling over 19,000 kilometres by water. Kurt was born in Perth, Ontario, a quaint town on the Tay River not far from Lake Ontario. His youth was spent on the nearby Rideau Canal, working seven summers as a canal man throughout high school and university. He met Leanne at Queen’s University in nearby Kingston and their love for the water, and one another, has kept them together as captain and first mate since 1978.They raised their family in the small town of Elmira; a rural hamlet in southern Ontario where Mennonites in horse drawn buggies gallop down main street and only three stoplights signify the town’s beginning, middle, and end. It’s a world far removed from a harbour town. But Elmira, like much of Ontario, has a sneaky proximity to the Great Lakes in almost every direction, creating a reachable passageway to waterways far beyond Elmira’s endless corn fields. Within couple hours of driving, boaters with an eye for open water can tap into one of the Great Loop’s many veins and begin a journey through the heart of North America. The Penfolds, like so many boaters, had their eyes on the Great Loop long before a serendipitous mix of timing and ambition kickstarted their expedition. Their experience on Ontario’s North Channel ignited a passion for something bigger; a dream of completing ‘the Loop’ becoming the circled entry at the top of their bucket list. As landlocked boaters with a case of wanderlust, The Great Loop had captivated their imagination.

Boats moored in bay
Festivus (Photo courtesy Kurt & Leanne Penfold)

Life has a habit of surprising us with its unpredictability, changing our worlds on a whim with unforeseen trials and tribulations. For the Penfolds, a life altering family accident in 2001 did just that, making life’s fragility clear and, in the process, serving as proof that traffic jams and conference calls can't satisfy our hopes and dreams. As an executive with an Elmira-based engineering firm, Kurt began working remotely occasionally, affording him and Leanne more time with their two sons Chris and Matt (both of whom are also engineers), daughter-in-law Lauren (a school teacher), and granddaughter Avery. Time with family brought healing, and life began to move forward again by 2005. That period ingrained a newfound and hard-earned desire to build new memories, a desire formalized by Kurt launching plans for a Great Loop adventure. But even with the dream set, it would be another 12 years before they pulled away from shore, those years spent as they often are; working, raising a family, and pushing the departure date further back with the belief that you’ll have more time later.

Navigating 'The Loop' usually takes between 10-14 months depending on your scale and timing, but before untying the last cleat there’s a wealth of knowledge to absorb. For the Penfolds, preparation required finding the time to educate themselves about the journey and its lifestyle, a laborious but enjoyable task all its own. With a growing family at home and an equally fledgling desire to partake in the trip of a lifetime, it was clear by 2017 that a departure date was no longer a distant hope but a realistic possibility. Planning for the Great Loop often takes longer than the trip itself, and with a departure date looming the Penfolds became increasingly aware what the trip would require:

Leanne: “Kurt picked this dream in 2005 and we started researching at that time, which included joining the America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association (AGLCA) and reading their information and studying the charts and geography for the journey. We had been navigating by boat up the east coast of Georgian Bay and north of Manitoulin Island since 2001 and in the process learned about navigation, weather and associated sea state, currents, seiche, anchoring, boat operation and systems during our vacation time every year. We attended one Trawler Fest in Florida in 2015 and took the courses offered there. Two months prior to moving on board in June 2017 we attended a four day AGLCA Rendezvous in New Bern, North Carolina, and the seminars and discussions with people who were navigating and living this lifestyle were very helpful. They covered stuff that we didn’t know, like where to obtain help or find local information wherever we were, tides, tidal currents, navigating the Bahamas and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as navigating the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and the waterways from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Life often keeps a boat moored longer than we’d like for all the usual reasons; boardroom meetings, Thanksgiving dinners, and the notion that ‘next year will be the year.’ But with a date in June circled on the calendar, the trip was becoming a reality. The thrill of an impending departure brought a mix of emotions, something Kurt and Leanne both felt in their own way:

Leanne: “Kurt has many years of boating experience. His family lived on the Rideau Waterway and they always had a boat, plus he worked seven summers on the Rideau Canal as a canal man through high school and university, so I wasn’t concerned about knowledge on the water. For me, the concern was the weather.”

Kurt- “Before departing I stressed about the stuff I hadn’t experienced yet. Fast currents in the interior U.S, the commercial traffic especially in the big rivers south of Chicago, the wicket dams and large locks, open ocean and Gulf passages, the large tidal swings and associated currents and shoaling up the Intracoastal Waterway. All that stuff I read about and attended seminars on before we left and, as it turned out was all manageable with no huge surprises. We planned based on weather and that was not a concern prior to initial departure, but there were surprises there, like good forecasts but bad actual weather, where in one case there was no Plan B. That was scary.”

The departure was a euphoric moment after 12 years of pent up excitement. Looking back, Leanne confessed that the “the biggest emotional high was that we had actually finally departed on this big adventure. After so many years of thinking about and planning it, we were finally on our way.” For his part, Kurt was equal in his assessment: “it was a big surprise to our friends and family that the dream started.” Their dream was indeed underway.

Boats moored in Shotgun Bay North Channel Lake Huron
Shotgun Bay, North Channel Lake Huron (Photo courtesy Kurt & Leanne Penfold)

Travelling aboard their 44 foot Regal Express Cruiser Festivus, the Penfolds departed the Port of Orillia on Lake Simcoe in central Ontario in late June 2017, heading west for the United States via the Great Lakes. At its most basic, the route they traveled is as follows:

They headed west through the North Channel before checking into the United States at Sault Ste. Marie. They ran south through Lake Michigan and entered the Illinois River system through Chicago, eventually linking up with the almighty Mississippi River. Then they headed up the Ohio River and down the Kentucky Lakes and Tom Bigbee Waterway into the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile, Alabama. Travelling the big waters of the Gulf they followed the Florida Panhandle to Carabelle, then crossed the corner of the Gulf of Mexico to Tarpon Springs and turned south down to the Intracoastal Waterway to Ft. Myers. Next they crossed Lake Okeechobee to Stuart and then south to North Palm Beach on the Atlantic side. From there they headed east across the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic to the Abaco in the Bahamas for a 6 week tropical sabbatical before beginning their return and starting their northern ascent. They headed up the Eastern Seaboard with stops in Charleston, South Carolina and Chesapeake Bay via the Dismal Swamp to Norfolk, Virginia. They continued running north to New York City and then traveled the Hudson River to Troy, NY. They followed Troy north through Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River, then west to Montreal, north up the Ottawa River to Canada's capital, and then followed the Rideau Canal system to Kingston. From Kingston they traveled west and entered the Trent-Severn Waterway, crossing their wake at Port of Orillia in July 2018 on their first voyage, and again in July 2019 on their 2nd trip.

Day to day travel by yacht brings about usual concerns like weather and water levels, but to ensure steady progress Kurt and Leanne began each day began with a dizzying checklist. Their protocol involved analyzing the weather report, tidal report, swell and wave forecasts, wind expectations, and more localized issues like lock schedules, marina slips, and resupply options. But no amount of studying can prepare you for the inevitable surprises of life at sea. Few had greater impact on their journey than crossing the Gulf Stream from the Bahamas back to Florida in March 2019, where a clear weather report belied dangerous waters ahead:

Leanne: “Two times in two years the weather reports were incorrect to the extent it caused us trepidation. The first was on our second Loop trip on our return from the Bahamas. The first 2/3 of the 180 mile trip from Green Turtle Cay in the Abaco was awesome. Once we entered the Gulf Stream from the Abaco continuing on to the Lake Worth Inlet in Florida the seas became rougher and travelling was very uncomfortable. If Kurt turned the boat around we would have breached it. So we kept on towards Florida, reducing our speed to make things as comfortable as possible – but it wasn’t great….water came over the bow regularly and we also had a beam sea meaning that the boat was rocking side to side as well. It felt like being in a washing machine. That lasted for about 60 miles. Five miles from the inlet, it finally calmed down.”

Crossing of the Gulf Stream by boat
A moment of calm in the Abaco before crossing of the Gulf Stream (Photo courtesy Leanne & Kurt Penfold)

Having escaped the Gulf Stream and landed safely in sunny Florida, the Penfolds passed the halfway point. With the Eastern seaboard now always to port, the remaining section would take them north past Georgia, the Carolinas, the southern tip of Virginia, and into Chesapeake Bay. But it was here they endured their second daunting experience:

Leanne: “After leaving Norfolk, Virginia on Chesapeake Bay again in 2019… after about 10 miles, visibility became very poor and a nasty, on the nose sea started. The larger waves that were coming over the bow pushed the anchor and chain up and dislodged the chain from its locking device near the windlass and our anchor slipped down about 2 feet and was occasionally banging on our bow. Thankfully the windlass held the anchor suspended in that location because there was no safe way to fix the problem in the sea state we were in. We headed to the nearest port 8 miles away, Port Charles on the southeast shore of the Chesapeake. It was nasty all the way into the harbour. If the weather reports in both cases had predicted that weather, we would have stayed put until it improved and the seas calmed. Captain Kurt kept his cool and did a wonderful job in both instances.”

After repairs in Port Charles and a chance to recollect themselves (and the contents of the cabin), they continued northbound towards New York City. But the trip wasn’t without some other surprises not caused by wind or waves. Even with years of preparation behind them, including attending a seminar run by the Loopers Association (AGLCA) who organize resources and help boaters plan their trips, they were nearly scuttled early on when American bureaucracy left them docked:

Kurt: “The number one surprise was finding out in year one (2017), when we were well south of Chicago going down the Illinois River and near entering the Mississippi, that we required a cruising license to proceed. It was illegal to be living in our boat inside the United States and the only way to obtain a cruising license was from outside the USA through an application and waiting period. We found out about it from another live aboard traveler from Canada and confirmed it with a boating couple who we encountered who came across the Atlantic from Norway to do the Loop. We called US Customs immediately and were required to interview with them when we reached Florida, and we had to call into Customs every time we made a passage en route to Florida. We interviewed with a nice senior officer once we got there and he awarded us the cruising license. He had the authority to break the rules, thankfully.”

Like the waves and the tides, all great adventures include highs and lows. What the Great Loop asks of boaters is to put aside a conventional sense of routine and live by what’s off the bow for long stretches of time. Being away from regular life inevitably becomes painful; the demands of the trip make it clear that success sometimes means being away when you’d rather be home:

Leanne: “For me it was Thanksgiving weekend of 2017 a few months after we departed. Our sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter were spending Thanksgiving with Kurt’s sisters and family and we weren’t with them for the first time in many years. I had a good cry, we Facetimed, and I never had the same sad feeling again. I still missed everyone, but it was OK.”

Kurt: “Also in 2017 one of our good friends back home passed away of a heart attack and that was a shock to everyone. We were 200 miles or so north of Mobile, Alabama, not close to civilization. Over the 26 months we were gone there were three others back home who left this earth, including a lifelong friend, my first friend, and not being there as we would have been if we were living at home were low points for me.”