If you asked most Mobilians what they knew about the Loop, they would assume you were talking about the area of Midtown where Airport Boulevard, Government Street and Dauphin Island Parkway merge. But ask a boater, and you may get a much different answer.
The Great Loop is a circumnavigation of the eastern half of the United States. While the trip can stretch from 5,000 to 7,500 miles of rivers and coastlines, Mobile Bay has played a critical role in the adventure since a group took the helm and organized those wishing to test these American waterways.
“A few people were doing it in 1999, and it was slow process for four or five years,” said Christie Turner, one of the owners of Turner Marine Service located along Dog River. “But since then, it has really gotten popular.”
Boaters can start anywhere on the course. Once they “cross their wake,” they have gone full circle.
Say a boat left Gulf Shores, it would head east on the Intracoastal Waterway before turning south. Once at Fort Myers, vessels can cut across to the Atlantic Ocean using the Okeechobee Waterway, or sail to the Florida Keys. Eventually the compass turns north toward New York harbor, where Loopers (as they are called) go up the Hudson River. Following historic canals, the boats pass Chicago and veer south along the Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers.
What makes our region such a key player is the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Originally built in the 1980s for commercial purposes, it has proven to be a boon for recreational boaters who can sail directly into Mobile Bay, avoiding the busy and dangerous Mississippi River.
“When the government built the Tenn-Tom, it turned out too small to handle a lot of barge traffic,” said Sonny Middleton, the longtime owner of Dog River Marina. “But it was the best thing to happen for our industry.”
The genesis of this adventure can be traced back to Ron and Eva Stob, authors of “Honey, Let’s Get A Boat.” They were the founders of America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association, and in 2000 recognized 13 members for completing the journey.
While many boaters are isolated and on their own, Loopers form more of a floating community. They meet each year at events called a “rendezvous.” The first gathering was on Lake Michigan in August 2001, and attracted 20 boats. The response was so positive, another was planned for Fairhope the following November.
The fall rendezvous eventually grew too large for the Eastern Shore, and was moved to Joe Wheeler State Park in the northwest corner of Alabama in 2004. The AGLCA will put on instructional and navigational classes, along with a Looper Crawl, an event where interested parties can see what kind of boat they might need for the trip.
Middleton and his staff have attended every meeting at the state park, and this year sponsored a breakfast for the Loopers. They must have made a good impression, because more than 50 of those boats have docked at Dog River Marina since Nov. 1.
Among those stopping were Karen and Jeff Siegel aboard their 53-foot trawler “A Capella.” The Maine residents have been cruising for years along the eastern seaboard, but this is their first trip on the Great Loop.
“From Chicago to here, there is no boatyard like Dog River Marina,” said Jeff Siegel, who runs an interactive cruising website titled Active Captain. The couple originally intended to stay in Mobile for one week, but unexpected repairs and weather stretched the visit another seven days. Despite the delay, Mobile Bay was praised on their blog.
Even as experienced boaters, the Siegels said the Great Loop journey has been quite a surprise. “It is very different crowds,” Karen Siegel said. “Most cruisers are independent, but Loopers tend to stick together.”
“Unlike most trips, doing the Loop is not about the places you go,” Jeff Siegel said. “It is about the people along the way. We rely on each other. We share experiences, which makes this a great environment.”
On the night of this interview, several couples were gathered in the salon of another Looper’s trawler. It was a bon voyage party, as three vessels were leaving the next day. Their destination was Sandestin, Fla., where they had dinner reservations for Thanksgiving. The convoy had meet previously on the Loop, and decided to make the trip together.
“This is a fabulous experience,” said one Looper. They had come from as far as Wisconsin and Connecticut. One captain’s goal was to keep heading south until he did not see another snow shovel (he had left 18 inches of snow in May).
THE ECONOMIC IMPACT
As when any tourists visit the Gulf Coast, local businesses are ready to step up to meet their needs. The marinas and boatyards are no different.
“A lot of Loopers have not stopped since Demopolis, so they are looking for provisions, food and supplies,” Turner said. “If they have an accident or a prop problem, they will stop in Mobile for repairs.
“They could be here for days to weeks. They will tour Mobile, hit the restaurants and visit our attractions. Some will even leave their boats for the holidays, fly out of our airport or take rental cars, and then come back to renew the trip.”
Middleton said after Labor Day, their fishing business slows. The Loopers give them a good amount of business through the winter.
“They spread a lot of money throughout the area,” Middleton said. “We thank them with specials. If they fill up their tanks, we give them a free night at the docks. If they spend $1,500 or more, we will haul out their boat for free. This way everyone benefits.”
The influx of tourist dollars has not gone unnoticed. Turner said officials in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are working to entice the Loopers to spend more time with them.
According to the AGLCA website, Dog River Marina is an Admiral Sponsor for Loopers while Homeport Marina and Saunders Yachtworks in Gulf Shores are Commander Sponsors. Turner Marine is on the list as a Lieutenant Sponsor, as are Eastern Shore Marina and Alwgrip/Interlux in Fairhope, Barber Marina in Elberta, plus Orange Beach Marina and The Wharf Marina in Orange Beach.
The AGLCA is doing its part to promote the area, thanks to podcasts on www.blogtalkradio.com. Segments have included Vickie and Bob Riggs of Fairhope talking about visiting Mobile Bay, while Roger Turner – Christie’s husband – discussed stepping — raising — a mast for sailboats on the Loop.
“We want to keep them in Mobile,” Christie Turner said. “We would love for the city officials to know how big this is, and how much these people tour the historic homes. They don’t have access to vehicles, so it would be great if we could get a bus to take them to see downtown and visit Bellingrath.”
Turner Marine shows its appreciation to the Loopers each year by hosting a pre-Thanksgiving dinner. In 2012, Turner said 135 people were served.
“Loopers are special visitors,” Turner said. “They really enjoy the trip. To them, it is not just a journey.”