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Not Your Average Looper
By Julie Shea
Posted on 3/6/2019 12:07 PM
Imagine you are attending a boating event and you find a speaker presenting on the Great Loop. You and your Co-Captain have heard of the Loop, but don’t really know much about it. You attend the seminar and the speaker is sharing great information, but it is regularly punctuated with “I ran aground here”, and “I ran aground there”. Even if you’ve been boating for decades, would you be at least a little intimidated by the thought of getting out there on the Loop?

Now imagine one of you is blind. Dan & Mary

Dan lost his eyesight suddenly about nine years ago. He, quite literally, woke up one morning blind. It was concluded that a stroke caused by Agent Orange exposure, from his time spent overseas in the Vietnam War, was the most likely culprit. This changed everything for this spontaneous couple who loved to travel and explore. It was difficult at first, but they refused to allow this to hold them back.

When talk of the Loop turns to action

After their initial concern from the presentation about the Loop, Dan and Mary decided they weren’t going to let a little story about running aground discourage them. They already owned Gammel Dansk, their 26’ Nordic Tug, but she was in Washington State. That meant moving the boat from Washington to their new home base in Red Wing, Minnesota. It was during the transport process that the reality of what they were about to do became very real. They were no longer just talking about doing the Loop in an abstract way, they were now taking real steps. Mary said, “Our days of dreaming were over. We were not only involved ~ we were committed.”

When they purchased Gammel Dansk in Washington back in 2013, the boat was already 30 years old. She needed some work, but they needed to re-out her anyway, with equipment to enable Dan to drive her.

“Being blind today is so much better than years ago.” Dan muses. Technology has made things easier. He gives me an example of the PenFriend. This device uses small little dots adhered to objects to identify the object. For example, say you're standing in front of the spice rack looking for Dill. The PenFriend will use the system of dots you have applied to each spice to identify them. You’ll hear, in your own voice, the name of each spice. They have applied the same PenFriend technology to the panel of the helm station so Dan can find what he needs. They have a bow thruster, auto pilot, a large screen GPS, auto inflate life vests, and the marriage saver headsets so many Loopers rely on.

One of the most important things is that Mary is comfortable on Gammel Dansk. The boat is large enough for them to be comfortable but small enough that Mary feels she can manage the boat when necessary. Dan says he is “only the helmsman”, turning the wheel when he’s told and in the direction he’s told. “Mary is the Captain” he says.

How does it all work?

As you can imagine, this well-oiled teamwork didn’t just happen overnight. There was a learning curve during which they had to learn how to communicate effectively on the boat. After some trial and error, they have settled on the clock as a reference point for everything from logs in the water to where the boat is in relation to the dock.

Dan affectionately calls Mary his Seeing Eye Wife. “Mary tells me what’s coming up and I can tell by the tone of her voice how urgent it is.”
Dan & Tori, His Seeing Eye Dog
And Mary has no problem jumping in if she feels Dan is not responding quickly enough to her instruction. In Ice Harbor, Dubuque, IA, Mary jumped up to use the thruster to avoid a possible meeting with a concrete wall.

But, as all boaters know, the best laid plans can sometimes go awry. In 2015, they attended a Nordic Tug Rendezvous and cruised into Canada before coming back for fuel. Mary was trying to get the center line in place and wasn’t holding on to the railing. She fell in. Dan couldn’t hear her, with the ear piece submerged and he was headed toward the fuel dock. There was a skiff of 6 or 7 guys watching on the dock and she called out to them, “my husband is blind, can you help us?” They shot into action, one guy getting on board Gammel Dansk with Dan and the others pulling Mary into the skiff. Once out of harms way, Mary asked the guys, “Can you save my shoes?”

They have used this experience as a learning tool and have developed strategies to deal with man overboard situations should they ever arise again. They have a safety checklist they go through every time they prepare to leave the dock ~ and all passengers must go through it too. Everyone aboard has life vests, they learn how to use the Lifesling, the DSC VHF Radio with the Distress Signal Calling button if additional help is needed, and how to operate the boat and follow the man overboard information on the chart plotter. Mary and Dan participated in a MOB class at the Nordic Tug Rendezvous; all Loopers would benefit from simliar classes. Above all, remain calm. Mary notes, "Dan's mantra is Slow and Steady like a pro." Dan adds, "What caused Mary to go overboard was ill planning before we moved the boat."

Out on the Loop

“You will meet people you will be friends with for the rest of your life.” There is a smile in Mary’s words.

They are only about halfway through their Loop, hanging out at Bradenton Beach Marina, but they started making Looper friends not long after setting out from Red Wing. They got stuck at Rock Island, Illinois because the Mississippi River was flooding downstream and Locks 16-24 were closed until the water receded.

Other Loopers were also stuck waiting out Mother Nature, and seeing the AGLCA Burgee, came right over to introduce themselves to Dan and Mary. The group spent most of the two weeks at Rock Island sharing information, meals, and laughs.

Still Waters II, with Loopers David & Claudia Fuller aboard, became their regular buddy boat. “David and Claudia helped guide us on everything -- from anchoring to staying in between the Channel Markers. Being a Blind Helmsman is no excuse for being outside the channel.”

The Fullers have also been known to take Tori, Dan’s Seeing Eye Dog, in to shore to do her business when Dan & Mary weren’t able to get into a marina. Tori does an amazing job taking care of Dan and keeping him safe on and off the boat, but she was not taught to use the boat as a potty and doesn’t seem much interested in adding that skill to her resume.

The Biggest Challenge

“The Locks”, Dan says. He steers the boat in there under Mary’s direction (the clock system helps Mary direct Dan to move the boat into place), but it can be challenging to keep the boat close enough to the lock wall and keep the bow facing straight ahead even when you can see. Mary puts a line around the bollard that is long enough that Dan can hold it steady from the helm while Mary tends the lines and fenders.

So far, they are proud to report no dings on Gammel Dansk and they have not run aground once.

Dan jokes, "It's the blind leading the naive...or the naive leading the blind."
Gammel Dansk arrives from WA
“People have been so nice and helpful”, Mary says.

Their advice to would be Loopers

Mary notes, “The hardest thing to do is throw off the line and get started.”

Dan adds, “You can’t wait for perfect conditions – just get going and adjust as you go.”

Life After the Loop

The Stroeings expect to cross their wake this October in Grafton, Illinois. Gammel Dansk might then find herself being shipped again – to the canals of Europe!

Follow them on the rest of their Loop on their blog.

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