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Floridians find thrill in Great Loop boating expedition

Jib and Teresa Davidson navigate their way out of Port 32 Marina in Jacksonville during a trip in April. The couple are among the hundreds of boaters who have completed the Great Loop in recent years. (Cooper Bates/WUFT News)

Jib and Teresa Davidson were looking for a new adventure.

After over 30 years as avid sailors, the Davidsons, who live in Gainesville, were tired of the maneuvering and inconveniences of the sailing lifestyle. By spring 2022, they were ready to upgrade to a larger, more hospitable boat.

Specifically, they were looking for a boat sufficient for an expedition called the Great Loop.

The Great Loop is a 6,000-mile boating journey that spans across eastern North America. “Loopers,” which are boaters on the loop, travel through a series of interconnected waterways, including the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and other various rivers and canals, according to greatloop.org. The route takes boaters through many tourist destinations, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, among others.

“You have to enjoy boats, you have to enjoy exploring, you have to enjoy meeting new people and you have to enjoy new food,” Jib Davidson, 71, said about the Great Loop.

There’s no set starting point, but the route starting from Florida is designed for loopers to go north along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway during the spring, west to the Great Lakes during the summer, south through the Mississippi River in the fall and east through the Gulf of Mexico in the winter to arrive back in Florida.

“It is not a vacation; it is an adventure,” Teresa Davidson, 69, said. “I call it an adventure because we're seeing and exploring areas we've never been. Tides, wind, current, weather, all of that, you've got to monitor, and you need a good navigation system to get you through that.”

The Davidsons, who graduated from the University of Florida in 1977 with degrees in forestry, found out about the Great Loop 10 years ago.

However, they didn’t become serious about traveling the loop until 2022 when Teresa Davidson attended a Gainesville Sail and Power Squadron meeting. At the meeting, fellow Gainesville residents Steve and Jane McKinney gave a presentation about their experience on the loop.

The presentation featured several photographs from their voyage, including notable statistics and important information about the route.

Following the meeting, Teresa Davidson was adamant that the loop was something she and her husband needed to do.

“We were approaching retirement, and we love boating,” Teresa Davidson said about wanting to do the Great Loop. “It was something to look forward to.”

And so two years ago, they bought a 42-foot Grand Banks Europa and named the boat “Make It So.”

The name of the boat is a reference to a line from Captain Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

The Davidsons started the loop on April 1, 2022, and finished the loop on March 23, 2023. They launched for the loop at Port 32 Marina in Jacksonville, Florida, and completed their trip in just under one year.

The Davidsons traveled 5,200 nautical miles and stopped for 107 locks, which are key to raising or lowering boats to cross different water levels on their journey.

“It’s just a marvelous, wonderful way to spend a year,” Jib Davidson said.

(Data source: America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association | Chart by Cooper Bates/WUFT News)

Jane McKinney, 72, heard about the Great Loop from one of her dermatology patients, who recommended her to read a book called “Honey, Let’s Get a Boat!” The book was written by America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association founders, Ron, and Eva Stob.

After reading the book, Jane McKinney did exactly as the title instructs and talked to her husband, Steve, 72, about buying a boat.

The McKinneys bought their 36-foot Albin boat at the end of 2017 and named it “Sabbatical.” They named it “Sabbatical” because the plan was to take a sabbatical year on the boat, dedicated to traveling the Great Loop. Then, they were going to go back to work in Gainesville.

In preparation for the loop, the McKinneys took a course on boat maintenance and repair and joined the America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association and the Marine Trawler Owners Association. They began the loop in January 2018.

Although the original plan was to complete the loop in a year and then get back to Gainesville, Jane McKinney was becoming quite comfortable out on the water.

“We didn't get three or four months into [the loop] before Jane starts with this talk about ‘Oh, I love being on the boat. I'm not going back to work. I want to just stay on the boat.’” Steve McKinney said. “So long story short, that's what we did.”

The McKinneys are now platinum members of the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association, indicating they have completed the loop multiple times.

Association Director Kimberly Russo said publicity around the Great Loop has grown tremendously in the last five years.

“When I first became director [of the association] in 2015, I want to say we had about 3,000 active memberships,” said Russo, who is the daughter of association founders Ron and Eva Stob. “Today, we have about 6,000 active memberships, and it is growing on average about 10% a year. Not only is membership growing, but more boats are completing the Great Loop.”

Prior to 2020, the record number of reported loops completions in a year was 180 boats in 2019.

Russo said that although many people were buying boats as a good way to social distance when the coronavirus became prevalent, people were putting off the Great Loop in 2020 and 2021 due to several closures along the loop.

In 2022, the previous loop completions record from 2019 was broken with 227 boats completing the loop. That number went up to 249 boats in 2023.

Russo has primarily attributed the rise in members and boaters completing the loop to social media.

“In 1999, and up to maybe even as far as 2010, if you were doing the great loop, the only people who knew about it were close family and friends,” Russo said. “Fast forward to today, loopers are posting about their journey to social media and because of the power of social media; it is shared exponentially.”

Cooper is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.