Marie Ahlert and her husband, Rick, both love the water and boating. But she had no idea what he was talking about when he said he wanted to do the loop.
Rick gave the simple explanation: “The loop is a circumnavigation of the eastern United States.”
Marie didn’t say yes immediately. She’s not impetuous. She does her research. Ten minutes later she said, “count me in.”
That exchange was more than two years ago. Doing the loop takes a lot of preparation.
Now they are on a voyage that started in March in South Carolina and brought them to Pawtuxet, which actually is a bit of a detour. By the end of the month they’ll retrace their steps to New York City to meet the Hudson River. North of Albany they’ll connect with the Erie Canal and follow that west to the Oswego Canal, which will drop to Lake Ontario and on to Chicago.
On a map, it all looks simple enough – a straight line running up the East Coast, a turn left for the Hudson, and then another left to the canal.
In reality it’s anything but an easy run.
Once in Chicago, after a diversion to visit Mackinaw Island in Lake Michigan and through a series of canals and rivers, they will connect with the Mississippi. At that point, they’ll be halfway through their 6,000-mile loop with a lot to look forward to. The plan is to make it to the Florida Keys in their single-engine, diesel-powered 2014 Cutwater by February. There, they’ll spend the winter.
As Rick puts it, the expectation is “to start the trip in shorts and to end the trip in shorts.”
Starting off in March made that somewhat of a challenge. It wasn’t warm to start with. They found many of the planned stops along the way hadn’t opened. Marinas hadn’t turned on water and they had to pay close attention to their water and fuel supply. The water tank holds 40 gallons. Showers were brief, if at all. They didn’t bring winter clothes, either. Space in the 28-foot “pocket yacht” is at a premium. The clothes they brought fill a couple of plastic bins that look like they would fit in the overhead bin of an airliner. Marie expects to be in a bathing suit most of the time. Everything has its place. The cabin is tight and so is the V-berth. Being tall, they sleep at angles.
Marie grew up in Warwick She worked on Scott Avedisian’s campaign and served as city clerk during his administration. She’s good at scheduling and has a passion for spreadsheets. It serves them well aboard the RAMA (Rick Ahlert and Marie Ahlert).
They pretty much have named every boat they owned RAMA, including the pontoon boat they bought for the excursion boat business they ran from Pawleys Island where “we have a dirt house,” Marie says.
Marie has spreadsheets on fuel and water consumption as well as on boat maintenance. She’s identified the towns and villages along the route, reading up on their history and points of interest.
Rick is especially excited about exploring towns along the Erie canal, where he said they will need to pass through 30 locks before joining the Oswego Canal, which will drop to Lake Ontario and on to Chicago.
One stop for certain on the Erie Canal is Brockport, New York, which is where Rick went to college. Marie has marked charts with colored stickers naming places they want to visit or where they plan to connect with friends.
There’s no pinning them down to a schedule, however.
With one of the Erie locks undergoing repairs, there’s a backup of vessels waiting to make passage. Rick used the delay to help a captain, who needed crew to deliver a 42-foot boat from Palm Beach, Florida, to East Greenwich. Marie is happy to be here with her daughter’s family … for the moment.
The weather has the ultimate say on when they arrive. While the boat is equipped with radar, GPS and AIS – the latter, an Automatic Identification System, enables them to know the locations of commercial vessels and, just as importantly, when navigating river bends lets commercial vessels know where they are – they won’t be doing any night motoring. If the forecast is nasty or the weather bad, they won’t cast off. They’ll wait it out.
They know how quickly conditions can change. Ironically, the most “scary” of episodes occurred in waters off Point Judith as they were headed for Newport. It hadn’t been in the forecast, yet abruptly the wind turned 180 degrees. Now, the wind was fighting the tide. The sea built to short, choppy 4-foot waves. They were rolling, waves breaking onto the boat.
Marie and Rick won’t be alone, although as of yet they have to meet their fellow travelers. Through social media they have been in touch with other “loopers,” and with GPS positioning can locate the other boaters. They fly a common AGLCA (America’s Great Loop Cruiser’s Association) flag. It’s an elite club, there being 150 boaters doing the loop this year. They look forward to meeting fellow travelers as they navigate locks or stop for the night. They anticipate grilling off the transom as they enjoy drinks, share stories and trade information on the passage ahead.
Not all boats can handle the loop. There’s a 15.5-foot height restriction set by bridge clearance. Sailboats do the loop, but they must lower their mast or take them down in order to complete sections of the trip.
If this all seems too adventuresome, consider that Marie and Rick followed their wanderlust in 2015 by taking a 14-week trip across the United States. They and their 6-by-9 pop-up camper visited just about every national park they could find. And what was their favorite place?
“Hawaii,” Marie says without hesitation. They left the camper for that part of the trip.
Already they have left the RAMA for part of the loop. The Warwick stop is all about visiting Marie’s daughter, Kathleen Bohl, and her husband, Brandon, who welcomed their first child, Linnea, on April 5.
It also provided the occasion to connect with friends in person. Former mayor, governor and U.S. senator Lincoln Chafee stopped down to check out “the pocket yacht,” and wherever they are, Marie and Rick are running into friends.
The plan is to shove off this Saturday after watching the Gaspee Days Parade.
With social media and the internet, they plan on bringing everyone who wants to join the adventure to check out their blog at rickandmarie.com or via the Facebook page “Rick and Marie – the great loop.” Already, 620 people have signed up to follow their blog.
Don’t fret – they’ll have lots of company for the loop.