Editor’s Note: Dr. Jerry Reves retired June 30, 2010, as vice president for medical affairs and dean of the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. The next spring he and his wife of 43 years, Jenny, and their black Labrador retriever, ACE, embarked on a yearlong circumnavigation of “the Great Loop,” departing from their hometown of Charleston. Each year about 200 boats complete the Great Loop, traversing the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, the Canadian Heritage Canals, and inland rivers of America’s heartland. It is a voyage of 5,000 to 6,000 miles.
This sampling of adventures on the Reveses’ 41-foot trawler, Sweetgrass, has been adapted from their blog. After docking Sweetgrass in Mississippi for the winter, Captain Jerry, Admiral Jenny and ACE are set to begin the final leg of their journey. Follow their progress, and view maps, videos and more photos at sweetgrassadventures.com.
We plan on departing May 2 for our long-cherished dream of “doing the Loop.” Our cruise in 2010 to Martha’s Vineyard and back was spectacular, and we learned a great deal. Now we have upfitted Sweetgrass for the longer voyage. Things we have added include a wind indicator, Sirius weather to communicate with our Raymarine chartplotter, and a glass gauge to see how much water is in the water tanks.
The great thing about this trip is that you get to see how things are along the way. There is never a dull moment, whether passing a statue of the Neptune family, an osprey setting up a home on a navigational marker, or a Confederate flag that reminds you where you are—especially as the 150th anniversary of “the war” has just begun.
One of the biggest mistakes one can make on these cruises is planning to be somewhere at a certain time. We must be in Norfolk, Va., on May 13 for the Great Loop Cruisers Association semiannual, and we have promised ourselves it will be the last firm date for the Great Loop—although there is a soft one for Nov. 16 on the Tennessee River at Knoxville for the Vanderbilt–University of Tennessee football game, about 4,000 miles from where we are now.
We made a long, slow passage on the New Jersey intracoastal route, and it was very shallow the whole way, sometimes down to 4.5 feet. We never hit bottom, so it was a harrowing success. When we started out this morning, it was very foggy again and the wind was up to 25 miles per hour with waves of 4 feet. So we took the slower, shallower route—the lesser of two evils. We are in a nice anchorage in a place called Glimmer Glass.
ACE swam over to a huge, dead, foul-smelling fish and ate half of it. He has been swimming and we have washed him, but he still stinks.
We are leaving the Atlantic Ocean. Sweetgrass has been in Atlantic waters the entire time we have had her—since 2005—and long before that.
The Atlantic for me has always been that water just outside the place I was born, Charleston. This certitude and this familiarity are what we now leave as we venture inland, first up the Hudson River, then the St. Lawrence Seaway, then two Great Lakes, and deeper and deeper into our country’s inland river system.
Traveling along this route has provided several challenges. One was a bridge with a height listed at 15 feet 6 inches. The height of our boat is 15 feet. We were concerned because the water level was very high after excessive rain. We slowly approached with Jenny sitting on top of the boat, holding a boat hook above our mast to see if we could clear the bridge. It was a railroad bridge, and a train went across just as we went under. We cleared it by 3 inches!
Most of these small towns are showing effects of the bad economy. Empty storefronts and boarded-up buildings are all that remain of the downtowns. The only things that seem to survive are an occasional diner, tattoo parlor, antique/consignment shop or barber shop. It is sad to see.
With some last-minute fussing, we left Rouses Point, N.Y., and the United States. Adding to the anxiety was the captain’s realization that we were not legal for Canada with our “black water” overboard discharge for the aft cabin. We made preparations for the international border crossing by putting up our yellow quarantine flag and flying the Canadian flag from our mast.
Early in the morning the captain also discovered he had the wrong software to load on the chartplotter. This meant we were setting out to Canada with no electronic charting capability, which added a great deal of new stress. But with Jenny’s charm and the officer’s indulgence, we breezed through customs. We were in canals and did not need the charts.
We got to the exposed part of our route in the Georgian Bay and met waves of 4 to 6 feet—really bad. We almost had mutiny on Sweetgrass. After about 15 minutes of grueling and perilous passages among giant rocks, with waves lifting us in the air and coming from our beam, the crew chorus from Jenny and Paul Samuelson [a friend who was onboard for this leg of the journey] was, “We have to turn around! We cannot possibly make it through Hang Dog Narrows!” while the captain held onto the wheel, trying to make some sort of course through the wave-tossed markers that were barely visible. In all the pitching, God smiled on us since we probably should have hit the rocks beneath, but we did not. There had been a small marked channel that we went back to—the captain overruling his near-mutinous crew, who wanted to go back to Pointe au Baril. This was a nightmare experience for all of us, including ACE, who is still very upset.
When we finally got out of the seas and into that poorly marked little bay, a Canadian man and his young daughter in a runabout signaled us not to go where we were headed, but told us about a safe harbor nearby. He returned later in his boat to Sweetgrass, which was then safely anchored, and offered to host us at his cottage on the safe harbor bay. This gesture of friendship and assistance to strangers who were traumatized will always stand out as representative of the best one can encounter on the seas in a foreign land.
Our route took us over the graveyard of boats in Lake Michigan—nearly 70 sinkings of major boats have been recorded. We went to Sunday morning church at St. Peter’s Episcopal, a small chapel that was full and very lively. During the communion ritual, when the rector, Sam, got to us, he made a very special statement for all to hear—“Bless these and all boaters”—which touched us deeply.
We have been in Lake Michigan 12 days, traveling 379 nautical miles. The lake has the clearest water in the northern part, and it is almost a mystical experience to look 15 or 20 feet down and see the sand bottom as we did at Beaver Island, Mich. What I will not miss about Lake Michigan is its uncertainty of weather and the bad conditions that one inevitably encounters, even when being cautious. On our trip from Beaver Island to Charlevoix, Mich., we were dealing with 4- and 5-foot waves.
In Chicago, I leave Lake Michigan with an ambivalence and deep respect. There were times I hated and dreaded going out, and other times of restful beauty that made me so glad to be alive and on these waters. The changes in mood and feeling were like the lake itself: up and down, with strong winds and gray skies and white-capped waves, or fantastically placid with gorgeous colors of blue and pink making distinctions of sky and sea one seamless transition. We have completed nearly half the Loop now.
Today marked the end of our voyage on two of America’s great rivers, the Ohio and the Mississippi. We were on the Ohio for only 59 nautical miles, and that was enough. It is wide and busy, but had more towns along it than the stretch of Mississippi we were on. There were pretty spots along the Ohio, but its width and hundreds of barges made it hard to enjoy.
We rented a car and drove to Nashville. It took 2.5 hours going 70 miles per hour. That is 10 times faster than Sweetgrass could have done it.
We saw the Vanderbilt men and women beat their opponents in basketball, and then on Saturday attended a “summit” meeting about the future of Vanderbilt athletics that was fascinating. The people who can make it happen—Board of Trust, chancellor and coaches—are all dedicated to a new goal of not just competing in the Southeastern Conference, but being champions in the conference. And earlier in the month, the women’s cross country team did become SEC champions.
The football game was terrific. We had been told in the morning, “Coach Franklin says we will beat UK.” And we didn’t just beat them—we dominated like I had never seen any Vanderbilt football team do against a fellow SEC team.
Today is the day we’ve had on the calendar for about five years—the day on the calendar after my retirement that Sweetgrass could be in Knoxville to see the battle between two schools that have only one thing in common: Both reside in Tennessee. By good luck, the University of Tennessee is having a down year and Vanderbilt under our new coach is playing well. I write these comments several hours before kickoff with enough optimism to think we just might win this year.
We are backtracking. We’re going all the way back to the mouth of the Tennessee River–Tombigbee Waterway at Pickwick Lake. The cruise today was mournful because of the devastating football loss last night. The weather is overcast and gray, and we are having problems with our navigation computer.
Today is Saturday, the second day of duck hunting season. We awoke to volley after volley of shotgun fire because we were in a very duck-intense and protected body of water. Duck blinds were all around us with a lot of shooting around dawn. I looked at ACE, wondering if this would awaken any instinct to go out and see if there were ducks to retrieve, but he was interested only in his food.
We had a nice final cruise for the year. Sweetgrass will spend the winter in Iuka. Leaving the Tennessee River, as we have now done, is another bittersweet time. We hate to say goodbye to such a good friend and a river that holds a lifetime of memories. But we are headed home for the holidays to see our grandchildren and to make more memories before getting back on Sweetgrass for the final leg of the Loop.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.