After the 2016 May Rendezvous, Vancouver Chapter member, Ken Christie, located solo woman skipper, Tanya Binford, who did the Great Loop on the Eastern seaboard.
Loop? What’s a Loop?
It is not open ocean sailing, but precise circumnavigating of the eastern United States and through Southern Ontario, using canals, rivers, and open ocean.
There are songs about this: ‘How Many Locks Today?’ and ‘That Raging Canawl’. They are good old folk songs. Then the one, ‘I Love Sailing’, is another song, but for another story.
Let’s Go Find Out About the Great Loop
Tanya Binford, a pixie of a woman, did it all. As a small woman, she jokes that she is shorter than the average fifth grader.
Setting her sailboat aside, she chose the most appropriate boat, a 25-foot Ranger Tug, which needed some upgrades. She took a year off work in 2014 to make a journey of over 5,000 miles. Here is part of our interview:
Ken: How did you decide to take such a journey? Did you grow up on a sailboat?
Tanya: For most of my life, I lived in the desert and only dreamed of sailing. I originally wanted to go sailing for six months. I moved from Arizona to the North Carolina coast, so I could live in a boating community. My son came along with me to North Carolina, so we both learned how to sail. After buying a couple of small boats, I bought a 28-foot sailboat. The open Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean were within reach, but then I learned about the Great Loop, which made much more sense to me than solo sailing across the Atlantic. I liked the idea of being around other people for my first journey and started researching what I would need. When I bought my tug, I added some swirly girlie-girl décor to her masculine lines, and christened her Annabelle, after my granddaughter.
Ken: Did you have any experiences in which you felt it was difficult for you, because you are a woman, never mind just being new to boat life?
Tanya: Initially, both men and women thought I was crazy to do the Loop on my own. Some people didn’t take me seriously at all. My knowledge of boating was minimal at first. The first time my son and I rented a boat, the oil alarm went off. We stopped at a marina to get oil and the storekeeper asked if we needed two-stroke or four. We had no idea what he was talking about. That same day, we almost sunk, we ran aground, and we learned about channel markers. Despite it all, we both still wanted more.
When I bought my first boat, I went to a local marine store to purchase a VHF radio. The clerk looked down at me and said, “Sweetheart, save your money and just use your cellphone.” My son was furious. Fortunately, that store clerk was the exception; most people were very helpful.
A local dockmaster took me out to find an outboard motor for my dinghy. I had been told to get a Yamaha, 2-stroke, and brand new. The dockmaster took me to this one shop, which happened to have some older outboards, from before they stopped making 2-strokes, and still brand-new. And yes, it was a Yamaha. Our local aluminum welder designed and built a crane on Annabelle and made a housing unit for my outboard motor, which I could easily maneuver from my boat onto the dinghy. The crane was multi-purpose and helped me avoid any back injuries.
When I had mechanical issues on my boat, I think it was easier for me to get help because I’m a woman. Men were especially supportive when they saw me trying to fix things on my own.
While on the Erie Canal, a local woman took me and my bike to a bicycle shop so I could get a new chain, but I wonder if she would’ve done the same for a man. Other times, men took me to marine shops to get parts when I needed them. I was offered rides to grocery stores, and even offered hot baths in people’s homes. At one marina, during a particularly stormy day, the dockmaster and his wife offered to let me spend the night at their home. So, to be perfectly honest, I think being a single woman was an advantage, as supportive people noticed my efforts.
Ken: Let’s talk about the work side. How long did it take you to prepare and go on the trip?
Tanya: Once I moved to the coast, I spent the three years learning about sailing and boating, while I still worked full-time. After the second year, I began to focus and bought my Ranger Tug. The list of preparations never seemed to end. I would finish two tasks and add three more to the list. The voyage took me 6 months, while most boaters take a year to do the Great Loop. Some friends took 14 years, as they flew back and forth to home to continue working.
Ken: How did you do it so quickly? You said you appreciated nature a lot.
Tanya: I actually went quite slowly, averaging 7 knots. On traveling days, I averaged about 50 miles per day. Being alone on a small boat, I learned quickly that wind, weather, and seas determined when I would travel and where I would spend time. Most boaters that do the Great Loop are on much larger vessels, many on 40’ to 50’ boats, and some are even on 60’ boats, which could handle more than my little boat. At times, I bypassed the spots I was told I “must stop”, simply because the weather was great and the seas were calm. Although I spent most of my nights at marinas, there were plenty of quiet anchorages along the way. My favorite part of the day was waking up before sunrise, so I could enjoy my coffee as the sun came up and the water was peaceful.
Ken: Did you ever feel like you weren’t safe on your boat? Women can have more intuition than men.
Tanya: There were times I was definitely scared, but usually it had to do with the waters or situation. For instance, that moment when a rogue wave is coming at you and you have to brace yourself as you see the wall of water approaching, then find yourself momentarily in utter darkness.
Ken: What about feeling safe regarding the people around you? Like when you docked?
Tanya: Mostly, I found everyone to be incredibly helpful. Once I got a text from another “Looper”, also single-handing, and he asked why I avoided a free dock. I responded that if I didn’t feel safe or comfortable, then I’d stay somewhere else. I had to trust my intuition. On one occasion, I avoided a free dock where many “Loopers” stay overnight, only to hear a story a few weeks later about a “Looper” who had a bad experience with some young thugs trying to untie their dock lines in the middle of the night.
Ken: Were there ever times when you got into trouble because you didn’t listen to your gut?
Tanya: Yes, we all have that hindsight. When I was first preparing for the trip, I thought there was a problem with my engine mounts. Two different marine shops looked at the mounts and told me they were fine. However, within a week of leaving my home port, I was in rough seas crossing the Albemarle Sound, and my stuffing box started leaking. Well, more like pouring. At the marina where I had docked, there was an auto mechanic who took a look at Annabelle, and informed me of the cracked engine mounts. This could have been taken care of ahead of time, and if I would’ve known better, I might have pushed the issue harder before the trip.
Ken: So this Great Loop Voyage, my BCA folks don’t get it, they generally deal with big seas. Were you mostly in protected waters?
Tanya: The Great Loop is diverse in the types of waters. It is like a Rendezvous Pot Luck Dinner, where you get a little of everything, from inland canals and rivers, to lakes and open ocean.
Ken: Now that sounds like a worthwhile experience. Were there any bluewater sailboats doing the Loop? Any dock parties?
Tanya: There was only one sailboat that I ever travelled with and they only did a ‘half-loop’, going up from Florida, then through the Erie, and up the St. Lawrence Seaway, back to the Atlantic, and then back to Florida. Keep in mind that there are many bridges to go under, including a 19-foot bridge. Sailboats have to take their masts down for a large portion of the trip. Mostly, “Loopers” are on trawlers or power boats.
Ken: You mentioned that you learned how to sail with your son. Why didn’t you take him as crew? I have reports from women that they had to maintain ultimate patience and forgiveness in sharing a voyage where they did all the work. Like being the only deck monkey, rebuilding the holding tank at sea, always night watch, daytime cooking, and getting yelled at.
Tanya: Ken, let’s hope that most men don’t think of women that way. But there are going to be two parts to answer your question.
Whenever I was on any boat with my son, he’d start telling me what to do and how to do it, then I’d get frustrated and hand him control. He was willing to take risks that I wouldn’t take. Yes, there were adjustments and boundaries I could see the need for. I had four boats altogether. The first was a $1,000 beater boat, which died quickly. The second was a fishing boat, which my son took out all the time. The third was a sailboat, which he ended up living on, while I worked to pay the bills. So, when I finally got the Ranger Tug, I made it clear it was my boat and only my boat. He could stay away on the sailboat.
The second part of the answer is that I needed to quit financially supporting my grown son. I needed to cut that cord. I wasn’t helping him learn how to be a self-supporting, independent adult as long as I was paying for everything. It was hard for me to do, because I wanted to help my son. Sometimes offering financial support isn’t helpful, it’s just easier.
Ken: What about taking other people with you as nice energy crew? And the dock parties?
Tanya: Even for me, my boat felt quite small for such a long journey. I had my Mom aboard for three nights, and we were very cramped. We anchored out one night, and spent the next at a fixed dock, with an 8’ tide, making it difficult for either of us to get on or off the boat. One man offered to be ‘paid crew’ for me and told me straight-out that I couldn’t do the trip alone. He was really obnoxious, and although I’d like to imagine he was trying to be helpful, I couldn’t imagine spending ten minutes with him, much less six months. I’d want someone I was intimately comfortable with, the right person.
Most of the couples whom I met doing the Loop had been married for 30 years or more, and I imagine there was tension in the tight quarters on their larger boats.
There were a few days I was fortunate to have boating companions. At the Big Chute Lock in the Trent-Severn Waterway, I asked a stranger to go through with me, just for the fun of it. He had been going there for decades, since he was a young boy, watching the boats go through, but had never gone through the lock himself. We sat quietly on the bow of the boat, taking pictures. When I went through Chicago, another “Looper” came through the city with me, since her and her husband’s boat was too tall to go under the Chicago bridges.
Ken: BCA has a course on ‘The Psychology of Cruising’. Umm, you’re not ready to tell me about the near-crash with the barge are you? Or the dock parties?
Tanya: I’m still feeling pretty humble about the near-crash. I was focused on a decision I needed to make a couple miles up the river, instead of what was happening right in front of me. Fortunately, I’m still here to be able to talk about it.
Ken’s Notes: Tanya’s journey was not just one of learning and self-discovery; she shared the trials and tribulations of her ancestors.
History of the Erie Canal
Long layoff periods between hauls, stretches spent in port loading and unloading cargo and passengers, and waiting in line at locks provided canal-ers a great deal of leisure time. Recreational activities included fighting, playing games, and racing anything from caterpillars to frogs. Perhaps the most popular diversion, and one that provided entertainment for all ages and types, was music. Canal travellers and boat crews had an apparent inclination towards song, and it became the most enduring and recognizable feature of Erie Canal culture.
Lionel Wyld, in his book Low Bridge! Folklore and the Erie Canal, divides canal music into three categories: songs about the canal, sung by canal-ers; songs that gained popularity at the inns and taverns along the towpath; and imported music, brought from other waterways and regions. Here are some lyrics from one of those songs.