A one-eyed dog and its owners take on the American Great Loop aboard an Aquila 44.
All photos courtesy of April and Larry Smith.
A liveaboard couple discovers that cruising the Great Loop is even more comfortable on a catamaran.
For most of their adult lives, April and Larry Smith had very little knowledge about boating. Aside from short stints on vessels in their 20s—with April serving as a crew member on an 86-foot yawl in Marina Del Rey and Larry spending nine months as first mate on a 43-foot trimaran—the couple hadn’t spent much time on the water at all. They were in their 60s and living on their 10-acre horse ranch in California when they almost decided to buy a sailing catamaran to keep in the British Virgin Islands. Then they heard about the Great Loop and their boating plans changed.
“We ended up buying a monohull, because a catamaran is not your usual Loop boat,” April explains. “But the whole time we were doing the Loop on our 52-foot Hatteras, we still wanted to have the catamaran.”
Despite being on a monohull, the Smiths loved their first Loop experience, which they completed in 2017. To prepare for the trip, they took boating courses, and Larry did some training with the Power Squadron. But mostly, they just started boating and learned everything else along the way. (Today, both April and Larry have a USCG 100-Ton Master Captain’s License.)
After just a few months of boating along the Loop, the couple decided to sell their ranch, change their residency to Florida and move aboard full-time.
The Smiths had been interested in Aquila catamarans since they saw one for the first time at a boat show in Charleston, South Carolina. When they finished their first Great Loop on the Hatteras and crossed their wake in Fairhope, Alabama, they planned to charter one in the BVI. But right before their trip, Hurricane Irma struck, devastating the region. The Smiths instead took a trip to the Ft. Lauderdale Boat Show. There they looked at just about every catamaran available before officially deciding on the Aquila 44. In 2018, they ordered a new 44, sold the Hatteras, and moved onto the catamaran.
“We really liked the Aquila for its livability, size, maneuverability, and the full-beam master,” April says. “We had ours built for us, and the starboard stateroom is a storage room instead. We now have a space with extra refrigerators and freezers and a full-size washer and dryer. It’s really comfortable for us to live on this boat with our little dog.”
The Smiths named the boat One Eye Dog after their 10-year-old Maltese, Abby, who lost her eye when she was younger. According to April, Abby has adjusted well to the liveaboard life and loves swimming, kayaking, and greeting every guest that comes aboard.
The couple’s decision to do another Loop, this time on the catamaran, was very spur-of-the-moment. “We were coming up to the Chesapeake to drop our friends off, and then we were going to turn around and go back to the West Coast of Florida,” April explains. “I was drying my hair one morning, and I said to Larry, ‘We can just keep going, and it would be a short way around to do the Loop a second time.’ So, that’s what we did.”
The Smiths can’t name a single favorite destination along the Loop, but they say that as foodies, they “travel by stomach” to the next restaurant, whether it’s a Michelin Star restaurant in New York or Chicago or simply a good hotdog stand.
“We love hitting the big cities, but we also love the little towns,” April says, “There’s Fairhope and Orange Beach in Alabama, and along the ICW we like to visit Beaufort, North Carolina, and Beaufort, South Carolina. Georgetown, South Carolina, is another one of our favorites. And we love Baltimore. It has tremendous restaurants and nice marinas.” The Smiths also enjoy traveling the inland rivers on the Loop, which can lead to interesting destinations, such as Green Turtle Bay in Grand Rivers, Kentucky.
The Hatteras was fairly large for a Loop boat, and yet they set out on their second tour of the waterway system on an even less conventional cruiser. But even with the 21-foot beam on the Aquila, the Smiths say that it was actually easier to do the Loop on the catamaran. “The Aquila is so easy to maneuver and so comfortable in how it handles that it’s easier in the locks,” says April. “The Hatteras was longer, heavier and had a very high freeboard, so it was more difficult to get lines out.”
The Smiths have done 230 locks to date, and while the couple was intimidated by the structures at first, they gained more confidence with time. The more challenging part about running rivers, April says, is learning how to navigate around barges and debris.
“You have to learn how to read the river gauges, because the debris coming down reacts differently [at different tides],” April says. “If it’s at flood state, the debris all comes down the middle of the river, so that’s more dangerous. If it’s at receding stage, the debris all moves to the side of the river. You learn to read the rivers and know when it’s safe to go or not go.” Similarly, April says that Loopers must also learn to navigate around barges while always remaining respectful of these “kings of the river.”
Other sections of the Loop present challenges that boaters must learn to conquer as they go. April recalls being stuck for 11 hours on the ICW one day when a bridge broke, preventing them from getting to the marina slip they had reserved. They had to tie up for the night at a small dock connected to a boat ramp instead. Then there was the first time they crossed the Gulf Stream on the Hatteras, which they did at night. It took them 21 hours at 7.6 knots, which April says was the worst experience of their lives. “There’s all those little challenges, and you just roll with them,” April says. “You have to be fluid like the water when you live on a boat.”
As for dockage, April says that they never ran into a problem on the Loop with the catamaran. The only real concession they made for the beamy boat was skipping the Trent-Severn Waterway, which connects Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. Instead, they traveled the Welland Canal, which connects Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. When they did the Trent-Severn on their Hatteras, they had a close call in a narrow cut when passing another boat that had misunderstood their security call. “They were holding a tree, and I walked along our sidedeck to push their rail off our boat. That’s how close we were,” April recalls. “If that had happened on the cat, we’d still be there today.”
In 2019, the Smiths became Platinum Loopers, a designation bestowed by the American Great Loop Cruisers Association to those who complete the Great Loop twice. The Smiths are the 96th participants to ever do so.
Currently, the Smiths are enjoying some downtime on the boat in Hampton, Virginia, but they have more adventures planned for the Aquila, including a third run of the Loop next year. This time, they plan to do the Downeast Circle Loop, which goes up the Hudson, through Lake Champlain, around the Gaspe Peninsula, down the East Coast of New Brunswick past Prince Edward Island, along the East Coast of Nova Scotia, and down the coast of Maine. They also want to do the rivers one more time.
According to the Smiths, the Loop gives boaters two amazing opportunities: to learn about the nation’s history and form new friendships with people from all over the world. “The history was just tying itself together the whole way, which is something you don’t expect,” says April.
But perhaps even more significant than the history lesson was connecting with so many other boaters along the way. “We have a book of more than 400 boat [owners’] cards, and we talk to these people constantly,” April says. “It’s a small community, and we have friends all over the world. This is a very fun lifestyle for people who like travel, food, and people.”
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