Written by Grace Pytell for the April 2018 edition of The Great Loop Link
When Emily and I meet fellow Loopers and share our story, we often get looks of surprise and a lot of questions. “You’re 23 and 24?” Yes. “You’re by yourselves?” Yes. “No men on board?” No. “How?” We keep a crew stashed down below…
Emily and I grew up racing small boats in the junior program at Crescent Sail Yacht Club near Detroit, and we’ve always had a love of sailing and the water. While in college, we heard about Katie and Jessie, who at similar ages did the same trip on a small sailboat. I read their entire blog while pretending to study, and though I was on track to have a normal life, I couldn’t help but feel inspired and couldn’t let go of the idea of sailing the Great Loop. Emily and I were just about to start applying to graduate school when we started joking about taking a boat around the United States, and it wasn’t long before jokes turned into reality. We somehow convinced my parents that it was a good idea to take their Columbia 8.7, and the work began.
Getting the boat ready to leave has probably been one of the most daunting missions I’ve faced in my life. With Emily working for a non-profit in Chicago and doing trip research, my dad and I took on the boat work. My understanding of mechanics quickly went from trying to figure out how vice grips work to being able to change all the filters on the engine, and everything in between. We completed ten years of my dad’s dream projects in about six months, and I felt like I had achieved an amateur status as a jack-of-all-trades by the time we left.
Growing up with a racing background, it took a while to learn the cruising language. Our first anchoring experience involved us sitting on deck for an hour staring at landmarks and fending off imaginary sea monsters while we prayed we weren’t going to drag into land. We had to call a friend to ask how to radio a bridge operator when we encountered our first bridge. Our first lock experience was a terrifying one-foot drop in perfectly calm conditions, fooling us into thinking that locks are no big deal. Our second lock really was terrifying: 42 feet down in the dark in the rain. The first two months was a constant stream of new experiences, and it took a while to get adjusted to this lifestyle that was so different from what we had always known.
On top of figuring out how and where to go, we also have to balance the challenge of life on a 28-foot sailboat. It’s convenient that Emily and I are such good friends, because personal space is no longer an option. We both sleep in the front bunk, squeezing into weird angles and trying not to kick each other too many times. Sometimes we sit at opposite ends of the boat and admire how far away we can get from each other. With two entire drawers each to fit in clothes for every season, I try and see how many days in a row I can wear the same t-shirt before anyone notices—laundry adds up! We’ve learned to identify what we really need and simplify our lives. The hair straightener was traded for an extra set of tools, we only have two bowls, and our post-graduate budget means we’re frugal with our purchases.
Beyond adjusting to living in a space similar to the size of most people’s living rooms, we’ve come to appreciate simple luxuries that are taken for granted on land. We can’t just go to the store whenever we need something; it’s usually a quest that involves taking the dinghy, finding a car, or walking several miles just to acquire fresh groceries. There is no refrigeration on board, so being creative with food has become our life. We occasionally splurge and buy some cheese, which results in a race against the clock to eat way more cheese than anyone should in a period of 12 hours. Regular showers are something we’ve forgotten about. We have very limited water capacity, reserved for drinking and dishes and basic hygiene. The idea of running water for more than ten seconds at a time is unthinkable. We anchor out for a week or more at a time, waiting until we are desperate for a dock before spending the money to stay in a marina. Our focus on the way we live has turned to managing basic needs for survival.
One of the more unique aspects of our trip is our age. Many of the cruisers we meet are incredibly supportive, giving advice and help all along the way. However, there is always the question of “what are you doing with your life?” We are often asked about how we are supporting ourselves and what we had to do to make this trip possible. Looking back, I feel so fortunate to have recognized the opportunity to make this our reality. The stars aligned with the timing in our lives and having awesome parents who are crazy enough to put their boat on loan. We both worked and saved up during the year that we were planning, and doing our own maintenance saves us money and gives us the ability to make repairs on the go. We are definitely going to need to return to employment and continue to stick to our budget, but every frustration is worth it when we can sit on deck and watch the sunset while we marvel at how cool it is that we can take our home far and wide. We’ll be returning to reality and careers when we finish, but with an education that can’t be found anywhere else.
We are currently about half way done with our trip, and I’m so amazed with how different each section has been. Leaving from Detroit, we went around the Great Lakes and enjoyed our last bit of summer weather in crystal blue water touring small towns. The change after going through Chicago made it feel like an entire different adventure. Late in the season, we started the long haul down the river system just on the tail end of fall and just about froze to death (no heat on board). The average temperature was mid-40 degrees, and there were a few mornings that revealed our decks coated in frost. We even got snowed on in Mobile! Once we hit the ICW, we were amazed at the fact that it was warm (ish) and that we had time to slow down and explore. We also had to get used to the idea of tides—there is a little bit of paint sanded off the bottom of the keel, whoops!
Back into our sailing rhythm, we did a couple of overnight crossings to get to the Keys. I’ll never forget waking up for my shift out in the Gulf near Key West, and finding that the water changed to electric teal blue. It was finally hot and it felt appropriate to wear my Hawaiian shirt everywhere. Our next move will be continuing through the Bahamas and then up the East Coast to New York, and I can’t wait to see it all! This trip has been the perfect way to explore how diverse the United States is, mile by mile. Everything we see and do and learn, I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It’s hard work to live on a boat. Things break, plans go wrong, and everything is just a little bit more difficult. However, on tougher days, it helps to remember what our dear Looper friend Tim says: what we’re doing is not a vacation but a lifestyle, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
Follow the rest of Grace & Emily's adventure on their blog: https://emandgracegosailing.wixsite.com/greatloop