It’s hard to say anything when you have so much to say.
About 7 days ago, RJ and I decided to flip our plans completely upside down and backwards. About a year ago, when we first started talking about and planning this boat trip, our big idea was to take Patches around Michigan, through the Great Lakes, out the Erie Canal, and down the East coast to warmth and sandy beaches.
For that entire year, we have only lightly been able to sprinkle on details to that plan whenever anybody has asked to know more. And in all honesty, it’s because we weren’t doing the research.
RJ was busy working on the boat. Getting it ready for this trip. What trip? He didn’t really know. Any trip would have likely made him happy.
And me, well, I was only half convinced I was going on the trip until we finally departed.
Last Sunday, we joined America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association, and we officially decided to be what they have coined as “Loopers.” Since joining, every boater we met has also been a “Looper,” which is welcoming and a relief. We’re not alone! Though, I think they all look at us kind of funny when they see how we have our sailboat rigged up. Patches lives up to her name, especially with the mast down and lines everywhere. Dirty paint. And RJ and I aren’t the cleanest ourselves, either.
“What is the Great Loop?” you ask. Well, me too! Someone fill me in because we still have no idea where we’re going. Partially serious, partially joking. It’s basically a big circle around the east side of the United States, using waterways, the gulf, the ocean, and the Great Lakes. You can basically do it however you wish, with lots of side trips and all that.
I can already feel the community that I long for with trips like this.
Anyhow, the point is not that. The point is, that we left our dock in St. Joseph, MI at 4:55 AM on Saturday and now we are making our way down the rivers that cut through the center of the United States. It’s not just the Mississippi, it turns out. Actually, it’s almost barely the Mississippi at all. I’m learning a lot.
The Chicago River, the Ship and Sanitary Canal, the Illinois River, the Des Plaines River. At this point, I’m not even sure which river we’re on (kidding).
Leaving when we did was a treat. The Tri-State Regatta is this weekend and that morning, over one hundred sailboats were arriving in St. Joe as we left. We saw the first racers tie up their boat and head onto land with their packed bags. We saw the horizon full of green and red lights, turning back and forth, until they transitioned into ghostly sails cutting through the black water. We saw shooting stars. We saw, and heard, what we thought was a helicopter far away, but we cannot be sure about that one.
A little over an hour after leaving, it was time for me to go back to sleep. RJ stayed at the helm for about three and a half hours on his own, until I woke back up to warmth. I was surprised to be sweating as when we first woke up that morning we were shivering. But the sun was out and I saw blue water out our windows so I climbed out from below and looked towards the bow to see… Chicago! How exciting, yet at still over 25 nautical miles away we had about five more hours ago. We are slow as a motoring sailboat.
RJ prepped us some food. We ate. He went to relax and I started a new book. In between pages I continuously checked the engine pressure, engine temperature, and rpm’s, as instructed by RJ. I also looked up to see Chicago slowly approaching, or in turn, us slowly approaching Chicago.
Getting closer to shore was frightening as the waves got bigger and we could only bounce and bounce. Everything inside our boat was on the floor. I panicked, thinking the mast (unstepped: which means in laymen’s terms, taken down and kept on wooden stilts to be able to get under some short bridge clearances on the river) was going to roll off of the stilts and smash my head to pieces. By then, luckily, RJ was awake and I ran to hide down below. I guess I’m a big baby, but hey, we survived.
After filling up on gas at Burnham Harbor, we finally arrived at our mooring in Monroe Harbor (NH14), just south of Navy Pier. The high rises were to our West and boats were surrounding us in every direction; we felt immense joy. We made it. Day 1.
Now, I know, I know, for the most part we are trying to do this as frugal as possible, but we had to reward ourselves with a good dinner at one of our favorite vegan restaurants for the evening. We tidied up the boat a bit (barely), and made ourselves presentable (not at all), and headed to the Chicago Diner.
That is just the appetizers. We indulged ourselves, left with vegan milkshakes in our hands, and after grabbing what we guessed should be a weeks worth of groceries, headed back to our boat.
More exhausted than a cat with no legs trying to catch a mouse (I’m clearly tired, what kind of comparison was that?), we immediately headed to bed. Less than an hour later, though, fireworks jolted me awake (luckily, I’ve gotten better about where to lift my head up), and I looked out our V-berth window to see a fireworks show out on Navy Pier. Too tired to actually go outside and watch, though, I sat through the finale bouncing along in the waves, and then went back to sleep.
Now, now now now, you will never understand the length I went to research how to go through a lock. I listened to a 30-minute podcast almost entirely on the Chicago Harbor Lock. I watched at least ten YouTube videos of people going through locks. I read up on the history of the Chicago Harbor Lock. I watched videos of people going through locks on the Erie Canal. I still felt like I would never be prepared.
Even today, as I sit here two locks behind us, I still don’t feel fully prepared for future locks.
Which is why we woke up at 5:40 AM, left our mooring ball at 6:15, and entered our first lock at about 6:45 today. We didn’t want any other boats there. Boats we might crash into (at least this is how I felt). The Chicago Harbor Lock is a pretty easy one, though. I had read horror stories about having to hold onto ropes that mimicked what you would imagine to be a two thousand year old octopus leg, rotting in your hand. Alas, this lock is well traveled, and by lots of tourists, so it seemed as though these ropes were frequently updated. Also, this lock only dropped us about four feet, leading us through downtown Chicago.
I’ll let some pictures speak to that.
But I’ll also say, even if today is our last day, this will have been entirely worth it.
Cruising down the canal, we haven’t seen more than ten other boats today. A few of those being barges or tows.
I’d like to say that we have this all figured out, but we barely even knew where we were docking tonight until a few hours ago. I didn’t know what I was having for breakfast this morning until I was eating it. We didn’t know how to work together and communicate when mooring until I was hanging over the side of the boat. But we’re learning. Something new. Every hour.
We learned the barges do whatever they want. And you just get out of their way.
We learned that people can be really helpful, and it changes your entire mood.
We learned that people can get really mad, and it makes you shrug your shoulders, and move on, because hey… you still learned something.
We learned to stop hitting our heads on the damn mast. Well, we’re trying to learn that one.
What we’ve really been learning, is that we would be lost on this trip without one another.
RJ is the muscle, the engineer, the semi-knowledgeable boater. I am the navigator, the listener, the one with a knack for preparation. It works. We are both the cooks and the cleaners and everything else.
I won’t go into too, too much more detail about the day, as there is too much to say and almost nothing I can say about it.
Motoring down the river at only about 5 mph seems slow and tedious, but every flock of birds sitting on the water, then flying away, interests me more and more. The splashes from their wings starting big and becoming smaller and yet, smaller until they completely disappear.