When we left Chattanooga on January 15th, we knew we were behind. All of the looper "bibles" we read including Super Loopers, The Looper's Companion Guide and Captain John's great guide book all suggest a particular timeline. Most people want to winter in Florida, come up the Atlantic coast in April through June, and cover the great lakes in the summer and be off of them when the weather turns cold. That leaves September through November to cover the rivers, and most loopers follow some version of this schedule.
When you deviate from that schedule, logistics get a little tougher, and you miss out on the crazy people who think selling a house for a depreciating asset in exchange for an adventure is a good idea. The looper community is one of the main reasons people want to loop. The eccentric group supports all age groups, different economic stations, wildly dissimilar political ideology, and levels of experience ranging from "just bought a boat" to "I was born on my father's yacht." A one-year, 6,000 mile voyage is not one that can happen unsupported, and many times the support comes from within the community. Because we left off-schedule, we encountered practically no loopers early in our journey.
After we turned off of the Tennessee River onto the TennTom waterway, that began to change. Maggie was ducking out of below-freezing temperatures into a tiny marina room with a few washers and dryers, and I heard a shout. "We found loopers!" I dared to peek inside and found the voice came from a feisty brunette sporting a AGLCA hat with the logo of the American Great Loop Cruiser's Association on one side and their boat's name, Argo, on the other. We decided to buddy boat together for a while. The dam that held the loopers away from our doorstep sprang its first leak. We'd encountered the tail end of the wave of loopers sweeping through the Southeast.
Robert, a six-pack captain, and his wife Jennifer worked with us for a bit. They'd handle communications with the locks, and we'd find marinas with good rates and availability. Of course, in the dead of winter, everyone had availability. We ran down through Mississippi, visited our daughter, snuck into Alabama and began to anchor out for a few nights. We survived Bobby's Fish Camp together and eventually pulled into Demopolis.
Once we got there, we spotted the telltale flag of the loop, the burgee. This one was a gold one signifying a completed loop run, and belonged to Jim and Pat on No Agenda. We ran with that couple in a while, anchoring out a couple of nights before crossing the invisible barrier between the strange frozen tundra Alabama had become and into a new state, the Alabama coast. We found out what buddy boating was all about. Jim helped us navigate the busy waters of Mobile Bay and taught us how to tie up our boat in the variable tides of the coast. In turn, we helped Jim fix an alternator, at least enough to get him through the next few marinas.
We spent a few days pinned down in Pensacola due to windy weather, and lamenting the coming cold that pursued us from Alabama, the miserable Winter in Bobby's Fish Camp version rather than the delightful place made famous by the marina owned by Lulu, Jimmy Buffet's sister. Eventually, we moved on to teach our class in Apalachicola, where we saw our first Platinum burgee sported by the iconic Eddy and Linda on Spiritus. Their legendary hospitality and service taught us what looping was all about.
Then, we crossed the Gulf, and burgees were everywhere. In Clearwater, Gerry stopped by our dock for a bit of looper hospitality. We told him we felt like we were behind, but he answered "No, you're in the thick of it." We flipped on Nebo, the social media app that Looers favor. We saw the AGLCA icons on boats all around us! We were indeed "in the thick of it."
Along the way, a funny thing happened. We began to encounter loopers with less experience than ourselves. Future cruisers with grand plans asked us if we liked our boat, or how we bought provisions, or how we went about our daily tasks like navigation. Some early loopers were looking for companionship, the first few glimpses of legendary looper hospitality. This occurrence is common on the loop.
As we worked our way South along the Intercoastal Waterway, we also encountered loopers. We'd see burgees as they flew by, read the boat's name, and call them on the radio. Invariably, we'd find some common connection, and Maggie would gather yet more boaters in her growing social web.
Today, we were in Cayo Costa State Park. The anchorage was full of boats. We counted fifty boats overall, and ten of them were flying burgees. Some were white, some gold, and we might have even seen a platinum one signaling two full loops. Maggie and I found a new favorite activity. We'd take out our dinghy with it's silent Torqedo electric motor and cruise among the other boats, hunting those white looper flags. We took a burgee as an invitation into a conversation, and it seems those flying them felt the same way.
Since boaters at anchor inherently enjoy their outdoor spaces, we'd strike up a conversation. We experienced none of the awkwardness that we found meeting others in a new town because we were already part of a community with a great common interest: looping. We'd talk about where we came from, and where we were going. We'd chat about adventures, common friends we'd met along the way, and the great loop made greater by a small triangle of canvas. Sometimes, we'd be invited aboard, and sometimes not. It didn't matter either way because the sea was our front porch, a turquoise invitation to something deeper.
Hunting these triangular Easter eggs, we met one couple from Minnesota and hit it off immediately. We chatted from dinghy to boat, and as time moved on, they invited us aboard. Craig made fresh salsa, tantalizingly slicing through fresh cilantro, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. We'd tasted the peppers, quite mild as those we've found in Florida tend to be despite the heavy Latino population. We could smell the faint whiff of lime. With the burgee as a common bond, we spoke like old friends. We brought over fresh banana bread, a little bland because we'd left out one ingredient or another, but it didn't matter.
Throughout the next couple of days, we'd see them each time we took out our dinghy, and Craig seemed to be everywhere, returning from a walk on the beach or his daily run. Sometimes, magic happens with no more assistance than a tiny white burgee, just as it did today.
But that's another story!