Meet Kim Russo. She’s the Director of America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association (AGCLA). I called her out of the blue over two years ago to ask questions about the AGCLA, or Loopers. The questions could not be answered by browsing their website. I needed to know more about the spirit, the camaraderie, and the collective nature of the Loopers. I knew one couple. Were they the norm? Who are these people who live on boats?
You see, I hit a snag in the plot of my third novel.
As a plotter, I had planned out certain events in the story to happen a certain way. Inspired by movies like The Guardian (2006) and Finest Hours (2016), I wanted to feature the Coast Guard in my book. In my mind, the nearest Coast Guard station in the story was supposed to be involved in the search for a kidnap victim. I had planned for them to gear up, arm themselves, and launch a search mission.
Then I visited the actual station mentioned in the story.
It was an Auxiliary Coast Guard station manned by retirees who taught boating safety classes and did boat inspections. They weren’t allowed to carry weapons.
Egad. I needed boaters willing to risk their own safety to help FBI agents find someone being held hostage on a boat in the 10,000 Islands of South Florida.
On 9/11, an untold number of men and women launched boats toward Manhattan to rescue strangers. This unplanned flotilla sprang up because boaters saw a need and were willing to risk themselves to save others. A poignant video tells about this. “Boatlift, An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience” is narrated by Tom Hanks.
I needed to know the group character of the Loopers. As the Director of a huge boating group, Kim would know the character of her group. She told me about their website and newsletter and the Great Loop Radio Podcasts. She told me about Harbor Hosts and the kinds of activities that happen when Loopers find one another in the same harbor. The Loopers can track one another through their own mobile app “America’s Great Loop Cruisers.”
The popular image of people who live on houseboats comes from TV shows like “Miami Vice,” and movies like African Queen. In books, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series features a womanizing private investigator who lives on a houseboat. Other Florida authors have written crime stories set on boats, such as Carl Hiaasen’s Skin Tight and James W. Hall’s Off the Chart. Charles Martin’s 2013 novel, Unwritten, features a loner who lives on a houseboat. In all these stories, houseboat dwellers come off as loners, con men, pirates, outcasts, and people who live on the fringes of society.
Kim said, “The typical Looper is nothing like the impression you might get of those who choose to live aboard a boat from movies, TV, or a lot of novels. AGLCA members tend to be very social and lifelong friendships often form among them because they all share a common interest…The Great Loop. And because cruising the Loop is seasonal (you want to be on the Great Lakes in the summer when it’s warm and Florida in the winter when the northern part of the route is frozen), there are several boats cruising in the same direction at roughly the same pace, so you tend to run into the same people repeatedly, making it even more likely that you socialize with others along the way.”
I asked about the demographics of the AGCLA membership.
Kim said, “My guess would be that 90% or more of the boats out there cruising the Loop are retired couples. But we are seeing more and more Loopers who don’t fit that ‘typical’ demographic. Over the past few years we’ve had about ten different families cruising the Loop, and technology is making it easier for folks to do the Loop while still working. It’s also become more common for people to single-hand all or parts of the Loop if they don’t have a friend or family member willing to serve as their crew for all 6,000 miles of the route.”
Do they come from military or civilian backgrounds?
Kim said, “I would say that we have a higher percentage of military members than other groups our size. We also seem to have a higher percentage of people from technical occupations, like pilots and engineers. However, we have school teachers, nurses, firefighters, politicians, yoga instructors, you name it. The Loop has been called ‘the great equalizer’ because once you’re out there cruising, it doesn’t matter what you did before, how old you are, or how big your boat is. Everyone has the same challenges and triumphs.”
I sent Kim an eBook version of West of Famous for her opinion. She read it and I got to catch up with her in Stuart, Florida on March 5th when she was on her way to Trawler Fest. I asked what she thought of how the Looper community was depicted in the book.
Kim said, “I would say that the Loopers depicted in West of Famous were very true-to-life. Besides being friendly, most Loopers are super helpful and are generally willing to assist others they meet along the way. It’s a pretty close-knit community so they look out for each other and lend a helping hand whenever they can.”
Paul and Caryn Frink hosted me during my research. They earned their gold burgee after finishing their first loop in 2018. Kim will get to meet them at the The AGCLA Spring Rendezvous in Norfolk Virginia from May 5 to 9.
“I have not met Paul and Caryn Frink,” Kim said, “but I’m really excited because they volunteered to speak at our upcoming Spring Rendezvous, so they’ll be sharing their knowledge of the inland rivers with our attendees. They’re covering the details of the route from Chicago to the Tennessee River, including things to see, places to go, hazards to navigation, and more.”
“We have two Rendezvous each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. Each are about four days long and include two seminar tracks: the route sessions (like the one Paul & Karen are presenting) and a Looping 101 track that covers topics like weather, marine electronics, handling emergencies aboard and provisioning. In the afternoons, the action moves out to the docks where there are typically 50 to 60 Loopers boats tied up. Many of the owners will allow other attendees to board their boats, which gives those so are still planning for the Great Loop some wonderful ideas on the type of boat they might like to purchase, and to ask questions of the owners. It’s also a very social time with many enjoying ‘docktails’ as they tour the boats in the marina. Meals are also included, so the event offers a lot of time to socialize as well as a large amount of educational content.
Kim said more about the Looper community.
“They are honestly the most kind and fun group I’ve people I’ve ever had the privilege to spend time with,” Kim said. “I find them to be a ‘self-selecting group of really nice people.’ I say that, because the Great Loop is not for everyone. Someone who is very high-strung or ‘type A’ may not enjoy it as much as those who are laid-back and easy going. It doesn’t take long on a boat to realize that mother nature will determine when you travel and when you don’t, and you have no control over mechanical issues that might arise, for example. So those who are intent on keeping a schedule or maintaining control of every aspect of their life may quickly weed themselves out. So overall, the AGLCA community is group of really fun-loving people who are out there enjoying the adventure of a lifetime!”
If you go, look for SEEKER, a lovely Nordic Tug, docked at the Waterside Marina. She’s the boat in West of Famous and her owners are Paul and Caryn Frink.