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A loopy adventure

2015 April 30

A pair of 23-year-old friends tackled the Great Loop on a boat a decade older than them with a dog and a cat as their crew. What they found was a profound personal journey filled with wonderful people and inspiring experiences

Closer to home, the girls sail in Northpoint, Michigan.
Jessie Zevalkink photo

The families held a rechristening ceremony for the boat, which the girls decided to name Louise after Zevalkink’s grandmother and Smith’s sister. Then they got to work. Louise had been out of the water for four years, and as Smith noted, they had to redo everything. She moved back to Michigan from California, Zevalkink returned from Colorado, and they spent an intense summer in the boatyard.

“We sanded and painted the bottom, we ripped out the insides, we redid all the woodwork,” Smith said. “We spent the entire summer getting ready, making her our house.”

That meant they sailed Louise once prior to their September departure date. It was a daysail out of Northport, and it wasn’t exactly an auspicious start. 

“Louise was sailing straight toward land,” Smith recalled. “Weather helm was the problem; her lines were too tight. But we were thinking, this boat must be haunted or cursed. What the hell?”

“Not going to lie, we left knowing very little,” the girls write in their blog at katieandjessieonaboat.com. “We had never anchored, sailed in strong winds, been through a lock, talked to barges on rivers, dealt with currents/tides, and we had docked a boat maybe five times.” 

Louise nestles up to the beach at Cat Cay, Bahamas, for a beautiful view.
Jessie Zevalkink photo


They also were lacking in amenities. When they left Northport, Louise boasted an alcohol stove “that tries to light our GPS on fire,” an icebox, a propane grill, a hand-pump sink with 18-gallon water tank, a forward V-berth “with tape down the middle,” two cabin lights and a battery-operated lantern, a fan “from the trucker aisle in Walmart,” “a questionable toilet,” a dog named Reggie and a cat named Bird. The one luxury: a speaker, so they could listen to music.

They were, however, well armed with valuable advice from their fathers.

“My dad told us to take it day by day, and to laugh when things get tough,” Smith said. “He said, ‘Don’t give up. We have confidence in you.’”

If the dads weren’t rattled, the girls soon were. After harbor-hopping from Northport to Muskegon, Louise pointed her nose toward Lake Michigan and the distant city of Chicago. This open-water shakedown cruise was, in a word, terrifying.

“Katie’s dad and uncle were with us,” Zevalkink recalled. “The mast was already down, so we were under power, and the trip ended up being a huge test for the boat, the engine and us.”

Although it was calm when Louise left port, the weather turned. Waves grew to nearly 8 feet, and when night descended, the onboard drama intensified.

“As the weather worsened and the black clouds sank, we split up into shifts for the evening. Jessie, for the first time in her life, experienced seasickness,” Smith wrote. “With pitch-black skies, rain, wind, waves hitting us from the side, and absolutely nothing but a foggy compass to focus on, she spent every 15 minutes of her shift hanging over the stern. I got tossed around hour after hour, saw my first waterspout, and managed not to get seasick! The sight of Chicago’s skyline as the sun came up was very comforting.”

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