The fiberglass hull of the sailboat Louise knifes through the water as her crew members, Katie Smith and Jessie Zevalkink, both 24, sit quietly on deck, tossing jokes to each other across the wind as their dog, Reggie, naps at their feet. It's a pristine, unbroken moment on the ocean—the kind Smith and Zevalkink have come to savor. A cracked freeze plug, a broken tiller, a split rudder, leaky windows—the next repair could already be looming, but it's these moments that make their journey spiritually viable.
Smith and Zevalkink are in the midst of sailing America's Great Loop, a water route through river systems and open ocean that runs from Lake Michigan down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, around the tip of Florida, up the East Coast, and winds back into the Great Lakes area. Ten months into the trip and the crew of Louise has completed half of the Great Loop, pausing for a quick break Stateside after a jaunt in the Bahamas. That means Internet access, which is how we caught up with Zevalkink, who didn't hesitate to fill us in on the finer (and not so fine) points of life aboard Louise.
How did you learn to sail and man a boat?
Good question. Honestly, we learned by leaving. Both of us grew up sailing with our families on Lake Michigan, but by the time we left, our sailing knowledge was very basic. We knew enough to move the boat in the direction we desired. Kind of. Both of us worked at the Santa Barbara Sailing Center for over year, which got us comfortable. Boating is in our blood, so it all felt very natural even though we'd never captained a boat before. When we were on our own, things got pretty hilarious … and scary.
You began this journey setting out to sail America’s Great Loop. How far did you get, and where are you now?
We have now completed half the loop. It took us three months to get down the river system to Florida. This included the Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and Tombigbee rivers. When we ran out of money, we stopped to work in Fort Myers Beach for four months. After we saved enough, we took the Okechobee waterway across the state, and followed the coast down to Miami. On May 2 we crossed over to the Bahamas. It’s been a little over two months, and we made it as far south as Staniel Cay, Exumas.
Do you have animals aboard? How do you keep them comfortable?
Reggie, our captain, the man of the house. Reggie is Katie’s pup, and she has had him for nearly six years. When we starting planning the trip, there was no question about if we should bring him or leave him. Reg is part of the crew. He goes where we go. Katie does an amazing job making sure he is comfortable aboard Louise—he only goes to the potty on land so Katie dinghies to land multiple times a day so he can run on the beach and take care of business. He even has an entire side of the boat to himself. Reg is spoiled. We used to have a kitty named Bird who traveled with us for eight months but Bird had a peeing problem. We tried everything we could to fix the problem, but it was unsuccessful, and kitty pee on a small sailboat is not fun. We took Bird back to Michigan before we left for the Bahamas.
What’s been the scariest moment so far?
Scariest moment … too many to count. The first day we entered the river from Chicago, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing, not even where we were stopping that night. That day sticks out in my mind because we were too naive to be scared when we should have been. We had never anchored before, and barely knew how far Louise could go in a day. Recently, here in the Bahamas, we have had some not-so-lovely weather. Last week we were in the biggest seas either of us had ever seen, 10- to 15-foot waves. We could hardly breathe. We barely spoke. I death gripped the tiller, and closed my eyes every time I saw a wall of water approaching us. We should have turned around, but the waves were so big I was to scared to turn around, fearing a wave would hit us the wrong way and knock us down. So we kept going. It was the longest 13 miles of our lives.
Any frustrating boat issues yet?
Yes, when we had to replace our transmission. Every time something breaks and we don’t know how to fix it. Not being able to Google things when we need answers. Not being able to make a phone call. Not having running water and showers. Sleeping in humid 90-degree weather. Bugs. Twenty-seven feet of living space. Always being in each other's way. Lack of refrigeration, fresh food, and ice. Having nowhere else to go when things get shitty. You get the point.
But there must be so many awesome moments to make up for it.
The most blissful was crossing the Gulf stream and arriving in the Bahamas. It was one of the greatest days in our lives. There are also fellow boaters who take us in for the night and feed us a real meal, sunrises, sunsets, a change of scenery every day. There's taking showers in the rain, crystal clear, Tiffany-blue water. No itinerary. No plans. Snorkeling. Kayaking. Fishing. Sea life. Being topless. Happy hour in the cockpit.
You’ve had to edit down your belongings to fit on a boat. What were some “extra” things you couldn’t leave behind? Anything you wish you had with you now?
You would be impressed on what we’ve managed to store on Louise. Items we could not leave without include Reggie, guitars, a French press, a water filter, an inverter, a memory foam mattress topper, a 12-volt fan, lucky underwear, a Hawaiian sling, and a 38 special. What do we wish we had? Honestly, I don’t know. I just asked Katie, and she couldn’t come up with anything either. Maybe a 12-volt fridge, and a normal toilet. Oh, and an underwater camera. Maybe a better set of tools. So apparently there are some things.
Have you had any issues yet with living so close to each other with so little privacy?
Sometimes I go for what seems like days without talking. Katie talks. I listen. We only get sick of each other's presence, not personalities. Privacy does not exist. It’s something we were prepared for before leaving. We are just always in each others way, and that's the way it is. Our only “tussles” come from not trusting each other when we should. We have no one to ask questions to, and no one to help us solve problems but each other. When we don’t trust each other's opinion, or instincts, is the only time we get frustrated with one another. We have equally proved each other right or wrong on several occasions. Now we know better than to not trust the other. Put all of that aside, we are incredibly thankful for the other. I don’t think I will ever have a better friend.
What do you do to feel better when you miss home? How do you beat boredom or are you too busy?
Louise is our home. Quite frankly we don’t really miss Michigan. Our families on the other hand, are dearly missed. When we have bad days, we have Vodka orange juice to look forward to. Boredom? This is a case at least once a day. We get weird. Blast Broadway or Disney music and laugh about weird shit. In fact, these are the slowest days of our lives. But somehow, time is flying by.
Where’s the next stop for you?
Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s been nearly a year and we are ready for a break. We will store Louise in Florida through hurricane season and go find work! This winter, we plan to do the northern Bahamas, head up the East Coast and spend next summer in Canada, eventually returning Louise to where we started.
Do you have any practical advice for someone looking to embark an adventure like this?
Just do it. Stop thinking about it so much. You can’t learn everything about your adventure before you start it—you just have to leave (then you will learn very quickly). Find the right partner in crime, who can financially split everything fifty-fifty with. Be brave. Know everything will be OK. Do your research, and don’t let the “know-it-alls” scare you. Don’t make too many plans. Don’t have a deadline. People are helpful, and always lending a hand. Take every opportunity you can. Always say yes. Common sense can go a long way. Use it. It’s okay to make classic mistakes. It’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to be terrified. In the end, you will learn far more than with any college education.
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