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The Great Loop


Verb: Gunkholing
Refers to a type of cruising in a small skiff, in shallow or shoal water, meandering from place to place, spending the night in coves. The term refers to the gunk, or mud, typical of creeks, coves, marshes and rivers, that are referred to as gunkholes.

The first thing you have to know about Henry Holt is that if the wind had been right, he would have already been gone, heading up the coast to Maine, riding the ocean swells in his 16-foot aluminum skiff. He would not be sitting on the porch of a Sconset house talking about a journey that began three months ago, when he pushed that boat into the currents of the Mississippi River.

He tells you that with a grin. He is happy to chat a bit, but what he really wants is to be back on the water.

His brother James steps out onto the porch and tells an old story about the New England headmaster who is supposed to have defined his job as making sure the young men in his charge would be “acceptable at a dance and indispensable at a shipwreck.”

There is no need to ask James which one his brother is better at.

Henry Holt has been fascinated with the idea of gunkholing since he was a boy, helping his brothers and father push a 16-foot aluminum skiff off the beach beneath Sankaty Light and heading out to Great Point to catch bluefish.

“Miraculously none of us ever got hurt doing it,” Holt said, laughing at the memory. “It was my father who gave me the love of small boats.”

This is how certain outdoor traditions are carried on, from father to son, the teaching of skills and the fueling of dreams, an appreciation for a sliver of the world most people do not even notice.

Holt’s father grew up on the Jersey shore, kicking around in small boats. He took his family to Sconset for the summer of 1964, when Henry was a teenager. They kept coming back until he graduated from college.

“When I was a teenager, we all had boats,” he said. One of his best friends was first mate for Bob Francis, a bit of an island legend as a hunter and charter skipper.

“If you learn how to run a small boat in island waters, you are good in a lot of places. It’s tricky here. Rips and shoals. It’s a good place to learn how to run a boat. We used to catch stripers with a rod and reel and sell them. Sometimes I made more money doing that than I did painting houses.”

Holt is 62 now. The call of adventure that is most often heard in one’s youth, but fades with age, is still strong in him. In many ways he is still that kid, reading his father’s boating magazines and plotting his travels.

“It’s the adventure. I have always loved the adventure,” he said. “I have hunted and fished all my life. I’ve camped in the winter, which most people don’t like. I’ve always wanted to travel by water, by small boat, and it goes back to those articles in the small-boat journal my dad subscribed to, just the wanderlust and the adventure of gunkholing.”

That wanderlust led Holt to a journey called The Great Loop. It is a series of waterways that includes part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, inland rivers like the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Holt pushed off on the first leg of his journey about 200 yards from the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis, sliding his 16-foot skiff into the Mississippi.

“It is almost an indescribable feeling of freedom not having to be anywhere,” Holt said. “I plan my day in the morning. I don’t have a route. I don’t set courses. I figure out which way I am going as I am doing it, using a chart plotter and just reading the water.”

“In some ways there is a swashbuckling element to it. You have the feeling that this was something commonly done historically, but that is not done anymore. People have fallen into a comfort zone. But not that long ago people took off in whaleships and went around the world for three or four years.”

I can see why writers have taken to the sea: Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Jack London. There is an attraction to the water. Not everybody gets that, but it is a beautiful and wild place.”

His grin gets bigger when he talks about the thrill of being on the water all alone, out of sight of land, dependent on his own skills.

“I love the feeling of self-sufficiency, of not relying too much on other people to get something like this done,” he said.

He immediately takes that observation back. Along the route he has often relied on the kindness of strangers.

“When I got into engine trouble in Jupiter, Fla. a guy who had a Yamaha shop helped me out,” he said. “That guy called me two days ago just to find out how I was doing and if the engine had made it. The guys at Madaket Marine and Glynn’s Marine were also great. They got be hauled out of the water and got the boat serviced.”

Holt recently retired. His first career was as an archeologist for an engineering firm, what is called a contract archeologist. Then he worked in environmental health and safety, managing that department at Southern Illinois University.

In 2014, he ordered a kit from a company called Duroboat, constructing the 16-foot aluminum boat over a couple of weekends. There is a small figurehead, a wood carving he picked up on a trip to Jamacia 35 years ago, then gilded with 24-karat gold leaf. He christened the boat Isabel, the same name of his father’s boat all those years ago.

From stem to stern this is a boat fitted out with safety gear and personal gear, extra gas tanks and a small two-and-a-half horsepower emergency motor, a Garmin navigational chart plotter, a Coleman cooking stove. He has a custom center console with a satellite tracking system. There is also a long bamboo pole, decidedly low-tech among the high-tech gear, but which Holt calls essential.

“I use it almost on a daily basis, pushing off, or when I get too shallow,” he said. “In the Everglades it was mandatory. I cut that bamboo pole in Missouri, just before I left. It was green when I left and on the way I put a couple of coats of spar varnish on it.”

This is a boat built and fitted by somebody who knows that understanding what troubles might lie over the horizon is the best way to avoid them. Holt says his motto is simple: Go fast when you can. Go slow when you must. Stay out of harm’s way.

Holt has been dreaming of doing the Great Loop since he finished turning that kit into a seaworthy boat. He has studied the route on Google Earth innumerable times. The boat is sitting on a trailer in the driveway as we visit. An understanding of what makes a boat seaworthy, and what can be accomplished in a small boat, is needed to look at it and imagine this is what you want to use to make that trip.

“On a bigger boat you don’t have the thrill of surfing on a wave that you get with a skiff. I call it skiffing, when everything is working well and all the parts line up,” he said. “And sometimes, in a following sea when you’re going faster than the sea, there are waves around you but it’s gentle, you’re riding up one side and down the other.”

On much of the Great Loop, a sailboat with a five-foot draft might limit where you can go, he said. But his boat has a six-inch draft and allows him to get into little bays and wildlife refuges, places off the beaten path where most boats can’t go.

         “I was camping on the boat. I typically sleep at anchor and frequently would be around bird rookeries, where you hear the squawking of birds all night. Some of my favorite places to anchor were along the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway) where the ocean was just on the other side and you’d be on the bay side half asleep, just listening to the waves crash on the other side onto the beach.”

Talking to Holt has the feel of watching a movie in your head: something about a man discovering almost secret parts of America. Maybe Ry Cooder’s plaintive guitar is on the soundtrack, along with the sound of water and the animals swimming in it that call it home. The tiny boat makes its way through the Everglades, or a small moment in the Intracoastal Waterway, or in the open Atlantic.

"One of the things that I learned, and that I didn’t expect, is that America’s coastline is spectacularly beautiful,” Holt said. “There are sections built up and pretty heavily developed. But there are other areas where you go on for tens of miles in a very wild coastal environment.”

He started out on the Mississippi, taking the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico. He ran up the Florida Panhandle from Apalachicola to Steinhatchee. It was a 105-mile jump, traveling 30 miles offshore, keeping just ahead of a series of slow-moving thunderstorms.

He spent a night on the Suwannee River, sleeping in a cot tent with his feet over the gas tank and his head over the bow. About two in the morning, he couldn’t sleep and turned on his phone. Something triggered an alligator that was very close to the boat.

“It sounded like an airboat going off,” he said. “But it was an alligator really close. It’s a territorial thing they do. That alligator set off others back in the swamp, so the next thing I know there are a half dozen or so alligators. They were probably on the bank 20 yards away.”

Was he frightened? He grins, and says it was “really cool.”

In Marco Island he met up with his 18-year-old son Henry, who had just graduated from high school that weekend. They traveled deep into the Everglades together, sleeping at night on raised platforms above the water called chickees, where they set up tents and cook stoves.

         “I was sleeping on a chickee one early morning,” he said. “It was totally silent. I heard something in the water swimming by. There were porpoises swimming past the chickee, almost like they were going in slow motion. You could hear the bodies slipping through the water and the exhales. It was just magical stuff.”

Father and son ran down the west side of the Florida Keys, to Key West. They stayed for a week, then went 60 miles west to the Dry Tortugas National Park, to visit a historic fort called Fort Jefferson.

One night they found themselves with a series of thunderstorm cells rolling over them. As the storm cleared there came the chug-chug-chug of a boat motor. Holt turned on his spotlight and found himself watching 19 Cuban refugees climbing off the raft and onto the island that held the fort.

         “I have some Spanish and went up and met an elderly man, Jorge, who had his grandchild with him, a boy of about 10, the rest were young men looking for a better life in the United States,” he said.

“I took Jorge into the fort and we roused a couple of park rangers and then brought the rest of the Cubans into the fort and got them food and water. They’d been at sea for four days. They’d run out of water. If they had missed the Tortugas they’d have been swept out into the gulf. And the only thing out there are the shrimp boats.”

The park rangers handed the Cubans over to the Coast Guard. Holt guesses they were returned to Cuba, without setting foot on the continental United States.

“It's heartbreaking. I had traveled in Cuba earlier this year. I loved it. I loved the Cuban people. It breaks my heart when people who are looking for a better life can’t always do it,” he said.

They returned to Key West and waited for a weather window to open up long enough for them to make the run across the Gulf Stream to Bimini.

“Traveling this way is all about go or no-go. Is it safe? Shall I stay put? There are always dangers you can’t predict. You could hit an object in the water, all kinds of things can cause an emergency. That’s part of the reason I don’t keep a schedule. I don’t want to feel I have to go or be someplace at a certain time. If I have to sit for three days, I sit for three days.”

Those moments waiting for the right weather are some of his favorites, brewing some coffee, reading a book, writing in his journal. Holt’s son left to go back home. He made his way alone to Long Island, up through Gardiners Bay, gassed up in Point Judith, R.I., then on to Nantucket.

“That last run to Nantucket, coming through the shoals and Muskeget Channel, Wasp Rip, is tricky as anything I’ve done just about the whole way here,” Holt said.

As he tells his story, he keeps stealing glimpses at the sky, wondering about the winds that from the porch seem like a summer breeze through the trees, but which are the deciding factor in the rest of his journey. He plans to head up the coast of New England to Nova Scotia.

The next day an e-mail arrives. It is from Holt. The wind has turned and he is on his way again. There is a computer-generated map from an app called Nebo, which logs Isabel’s trip. It outlines the 186-mile path from Nantucket to Maine, on July 21.

The note says, “Some days the wind hands you a ticket to fly and you have to just reach out and grab it.”


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