“There’s always a campfire story to tell.” That’s boater Will Knudsen’s good-natured way of explaining the challenges inherent in a long-distance river voyage. He would know: In 2015, Will and his wife, Pam Dawson, completed an epic 2,808.1-mile Great Loop Trip on their 315 Conquest. The couple’s positive attitude and trustworthy boat combined to make for one heck of an adventure.
The Great Loop is a system of waterways that encompasses much of the eastern U.S. and part of Canada. A series of both natural and manmade paths—including the Great Lakes, the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, and the Mississippi and Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway—treat boaters to fascinating and varied terrain.
These “Loopers,” as they call themselves, often fly a white burgee to signify their goal. Those who complete the Loop fly a gold one. This established pastime even has its own organization, the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association. Out in the field, Loopers readily lend each other their support, a camaraderie Pam and Will witnessed firsthand.
Will and Pam had covered portions of the eastern Loop before, including tracing the Florida panhandle up to the Alabama state line. But it wasn’t until they acquired their Boston Whaler, purchased in 2015 at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, that they felt confident enough in their boat to attempt the Mississippi River segment.
Soon after taking delivery from MarineMax Fort Myers, the Conquest was shipped up to Detroit. Just two months later, on September 2, 2015, they set off on their journey, departing from Wyandotte, Michigan. “You could call it on-the-job training,” Will says. “But with the joystick pi-loting and satellite anchoring technology, the boat is really user-friendly.”
The couple traced a path from the Great Lakes, through downtown Chicago and down the Illinois River, on to Mississippi past the St. Louis Arch, the Ohio and Tenn/Tom waterway all the way south to Mobile Bay, Alabama. From there, they crossed east along the Gulf of Mexico to Tarpon Springs and on through Florida’s Intracoastal, until they arrived home in Cape Coral. October 1, 2015, marked the conclusion of their 28-day adventure.
Every evening of the trip, they pulled into a local marina and spent the night on the Conquest. They used a laptop to keep in touch with the outside world and share their expe-rience on Facebook. “If we went too long without a post, our friends started to wonder about us…” Will says.
Along the way, they often found themselves passing through heavily trafficked locks where the big barges get priority, which could mean waiting through four or five extra 45-minute cycles. “Part of the adventure is being flexi-ble,” Will says. “Patience is part of the deal.”
It helped that they were in comfortable surroundings. “The Whaler has a generator, so we had air conditioning, we had heat and light—we weren’t ‘roughing it,’ so to speak,” Will says. They graciously offered to heat water and make coffee for fellow boaters stuck alongside them in the locks.
The couple says a highlight of the trip was cruising the Chicago River, passing under the skyscrapers of the Windy City. “In Illinois, we came to a railroad bridge that had been marked on the map with 12 feet of clearance. In reality, it was only about six,” Will recounts. “We made a lot of phone calls that day, looking for someone who could open the bridge!”
Farther along, Will and Pam reached a section of Kentucky just outside Grand Rivers where “the internet disappears, your cell phone service disappears… it gets so remote that even the banjo music stops!” Will laughs at his Deliverance reference. “I don’t think we saw a single animal or another person for two days.”
Now home safe and sound, they are contemplating future adventures. They joined Boston Whaler’s 2016 Bimini Ren-dezvous, adding a jaunt through the Florida Keys on their way home. Wherever they go next, they won’t be shy about racking up the miles.
“We’ve put an exceptionally high number of hours on our boat, covering some 4,000 miles in two years,” Will says, adding with a smile, “I think it’s safe to say we’re getting our use out of it.”