When you think of bucket list adventures, your mind might gravitate to experiences like summiting Mount Everest, or maybe hiking the Appalachian Trail. But there’s a rarer quest, completed by only about 150 people per year—and for Coastal Virginians, you don’t even need to get on a plane to do it.
It’s called The Great Loop. It’s a 6,000-mile boat trip through the eastern US and Canada, comprising a myriad of locks, canals and rivers, as well as the Atlantic Ocean. The first record of its completion was in the 1890s, when three boys navigated the waterways in a sailboat. But it was popularized in 1994 by Eva and Ron Stob, who detailed their adventure in the book “Honey, Let’s Get a Boat.”
The Great Loop is an opportunity to see some of the United States’ most well-known icons, like the Statue of Liberty, as well as its large coastal cities, small towns, and the heartland landscapes immortalized by the likes of Mark Twain—all from the vantage point of the water.
Preston Midgett, a Virginia Beach native and the owner of Jungle Golf, has been around boats all his life. He’s taken his boats on dozens of adventures throughout the years, including trips to Miami and the Bahamas. But about 10 years ago, Midgett met Larry Harcum, author of Dreamrider: Adventures on America’s Great Loop.
Harcum told Midgett all about his experience taking his jet ski around the loop. Since then, it’s been Midgett’s dream to tackle the Great Loop. Finally, the stars aligned last year, giving Midgett a 6-week window for the trip.
“Most people who do the Loop do it in a 40-foot trawler, and it takes them about a year,” Midgett says. Those who do a traditional Loop usually follow the seasons around the waterways, stopping in many places to sightsee and explore for days or weeks at a time.
“I couldn’t take a year off to do it, and from what I’ve read, six weeks is one of the fastest timeframes to do it in. That’s not a lot of time to spend in all these places, but I still saw so much. And truthfully, I could do this trip 100 times and still not see everything there is to see,” Midgett says.
On August 15, Midgett set sail from Lynnhaven Inlet in his 26-foot panga motorboat, the Pura Vida. Built in Costa Rica, Midgett’s boat is the only one of its kind in the area, and one of only a few in the US. With its bright colors and cheerful palm leaf mural, the Pura Vida was a welcome sight to passerby throughout the trip.
“One of the best things about this journey was how friendly everyone was,” Midgett says. “Along the Erie Canal, there’s a trail on the north side that stretches pretty much the length of the canal—350 miles. People are always out walking and biking. Pretty much everyone who passed by my boat waved. I felt like I was part of a parade.”
There are several routes you can take when you sail the Great Loop. For his trip, Midgett decided to head north on the Atlantic Ocean to New York. From there, he took the Hudson River and the Erie Canal west to reach Lake Erie. It was there that he ran into an issue, after stopping for gas in Sandusky, Ohio.
As he left the harbor, he headed straight across Lake Erie, which would take him to the Detroit River. About halfway across the lake, the Pura Vida’s engine stopped working. The boat had to be towed to Catawba Island, where mechanics discovered it had been filled with diesel fuel by mistake at the last stop.
The repair cost Midgett a week of travel time. By the time the boat was ready again, the winds forecasted for Lake Huron—which Midgett would need to cross to get to Chicago—were dangerously strong for the small panga. Waiting them out would have cost Midgett another full week. To avoid losing more travel time, Midgett had the Pura Vida taken by truck across Michigan to Michigan City, just outside Chicago. There he met up with his son Trey Midgett, and together they explored the Windy City from the Chicago River.
When it was time to continue on the Loop, the Midgetts followed the Chicago River down to the Mississippi River. They traveled through the Kentucky lakes and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, passed through Mobile, Alabama, and then sailed through the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to Apalachicola, Florida. Midgett dropped his son off in Tampa and completed the trip alone. He took waterways across Florida, then headed north up the Atlantic Coast back to Virginia Beach.
Each night of his journey, Midgett would pull into a town and dock the Pura Vida. He had a canvas that he put up around it for cover, so he could sleep on the boat. When there was time, he would take the opportunity to explore the towns where he docked, like historical Mobile, Alabama and downtown Havana, Illinois. Midgett discovered some of his favorite foods at various stops along his journey.
“Once you get into the south, all the specialties are deep fried. Fried crab claws and fried strawberries are amazing,” Midgett recalls. “When my son joined me, we decided to try the fried catfish everywhere we went to find the best one from Chicago to Tampa. Dog River Marina in Mobile was our favorite.”
Midgett documented his travels on his Facebook page, Pura Vida’s Great Loop. He shared videos at the helm, photos of his dining experiences, and humorous updates from Wilson, a golf ball painted to look like the beloved “Castaway” volleyball. Midgett also used a Garmin watch with inReach satellite technology to share real-time information about his journey for anyone who wanted to follow along.
The best part of the trip? For Midgett, it was getting to experience it with his son Trey. “He got to experience a part of the country that he probably won’t see again, in a way that very few people get to see it: from the water,” Midgett says. A close second, though, was meeting people along the way.
“Everybody I met was so friendly. For six weeks, I never met anybody that was mean or harsh,” Midgett says. “The Erie Canal, which is so picturesque, has a lot of really small towns that are all connected by the canal. At the end of each night, you pull into a town wall and tie in. They have a greeter, you can sign their book, and they give you codes to use the restrooms and showers. They tell you about the town and where the best place to eat is. Some of the towns had stuff going on, like a car show I got to see in Medina.
“Everywhere you went, people went out of their way to help you. I think that’s just human nature: most people are helpful and friendly. Most people aren’t out to get you.”
But what about the question he always gets—the one about contemplating life’s meaning from the helm?
“Honestly, you don’t really have time to do that, because you’re constantly working. You’re watching for other boats, checking the water levels, listening to your engine. Most of the time, you have to be paying attention to multiple things at once,” Midgett says. “I wouldn’t say it’s a dangerous trip. Of course you have to know your boat well, and have basic navigation skills and safety equipment. I would say it’s a series of one-day adventures.”