Life Of A Captain

One captain’s tips on taking the Loop

Published in the October 2018 Issue May 2020 Feature Emily FitzPatrick

“Until you step into the unknown, you don’t know what you’re made of,” said Roy T. Bennett, author of The Light in the Heart.

Al Bartkus found that he was made of sturdy stuff when he stepped onto Miss Marianne and pushed away from the dock last October. This launched his first journey around the Great Loop. Bartkus completed the task in about eight months, when most people take an entire year. He did it in a vintage 1960 Chris-Craft, no less, a task that many wouldn’t bother to attempt.

“I’m not nervous at all,” Bartkus said before the trip. “I have every bit of confidence in this boat. Today we just had a whole survey done on it. Everything checked out just fine. No rotten wood or anything like that, so she’s as sound as she’s ever been. I’ve been captaining this boat for three years. I know all of her quirks.”

The Countless Days Of Preparation

When wondering where to begin preparing for his journey around the Great Loop, there was no question of where he should start: Crowley’s. Crowley’s has been storing boats since 1978 and is one of the only places an owner would even consider storing the vintage Chris-Craft through Chicago winters.

“We did a lot of maintenance,” Bartkus stated, including preparations unique to Loopers like prepping the engine to handle salt water and the rigors of true long-distance travel.

“Then, once spring started, we segued into other avenues of planning by studying the trip and routes and learning from other Loopers what they did and experienced — basically, the dos and don’ts.”

Bartkus, a seasoned handyman, knew he could fix just about any mechanical failures that came his way, but having the right parts or knowing where to stop to find them is where thorough planning became vital.

The Journey Of A Lifetime

“I grew up boating, just small fishing boats and things like that. My father inspired me. When I was in my 20s, I started buying my own boats, and they were still smaller. Miss Marianne is actually my second foray into vintage boats. I once had one myself. It was a project boat, and it was a 26-foot Owens. I forget the year, but it was all wood also. I’ve been a carpenter by trade most of my life, and it was not a difficult segue into this for me. I’ve learned a lot recently, and I think I’ve got the skills and abilities to figure things out. And there’s a huge network of people who can help me with what I don’t know.”

The Great Loop is traveled by few and traveled multiple times by even fewer, leaving plenty of room for unexpected and unique experiences. Loopers recounting their stories remind us how varied the United States truly is in her geography. In one trip, Loopers can be gliding under Chicago’s many bridges, tasting the South’s best barbecue, riding alongside dolphins and taking pictures of their vessel with palm trees in the background.

The one thing that surprised Bartkus the most was the people. During his adventures he was able to connect with other Loopers and hear their stories, as well as show off Miss Marianne.

“Any harbor we pulled into, unless it was really late at night, people would spot us from the yacht club window, and they were already walking down the dock wanting to check out what this was coming in,” Bartkus remembered. “You always hear the story, ‘Oh, my grandfather had one.’ Or you get the old-timers saying, ‘I used to have one of these back in the day,’ or whatever, but yeah, it’s a conversation piece. It strikes up conversations everywhere we go.”

Typically, marinas along the Mississippi River offer courtesy cards, where once you’re settled in a transient slip, you can go eat out at their recommended spots on them or at a discount.

“Even though they might be in cahoots with some of these places, a lot of them were really good recommendations,” Bartkus said, pleasantly surprised. “I just love ribs and stuff, and there was lots of other good food along the way.”

These brief escapes for food also provided him with opportunities to escape from the boat for a short while and explore the many cities he would otherwise sail right by.

Advice Of An Experienced Looper

1) Always Have Fuel

Before completing his journey around the Great Loop, one of the number one things that people reminded Bartkus of was to always have enough fuel. During his travels, the Miss Marianne guzzled about 10,000 gallons of fuel, so you can imagine for yourself why this might be an important piece of advice!

2) Watch Out For Debris

“If you cruise around in these rivers here, especially after it rains, there’s all kinds of debris in the water. Once you get out in the open water, it’s usually fine,” Bartkus repeated the warnings he had received. “So you can’t travel at night in an unfamiliar area; that’s another thing you won’t be doing.”

This piece of advice turned out to be especially helpful since things were often not where they expected them to be as they traveled along rivers, even with the time he had spent studying charts.  

“Another thing I learned was to use my radar to check the location of all of the cans going down the river, because we noticed like five of them out of place,” Bartkus advised. “The chart was showing them in one place while the radar was showing them off their mark, so it’s really important to stay in the channel, otherwise you can run aground just like that.”

3) Pack The Essentials

After completing his journey, one of the top things Bartkus recommends to Great Loopers is to have a really good set of electronics and charts.  

“We used Navionics on a tablet, and I had all of my Garmin charts, but I bought like $1,500 worth of charts before I went and had detailed charts of everything we were going to run into along the trip,” Bartkus said.  “And it turns out that not just one of them work really well, so you need a variety of stuff to double-check and triple-check things.”

Bartkus also started using the ActiveCaptain app about halfway through his trip and found it to be an extremely helpful source because of all of the advice that other Great Loopers had written, providing him with a huge advantage as he traveled through areas he couldn’t possibly be familiar with.

Life Of A Captain

Stepping back on land in Chicago, Bartkus feels invigorated by discovering just what he’s made of. While growing up boating, then crewing as an adult, Bartkus never imagined being the captain of his own journey.

“I started out as a captain in a crew doing tow and salvage for eight years. After that ended, I was just kind of freelance captaining for a couple of years until I met this client and we hit it off really well and I still see a bright future with him, so this is where I’m at now.”

For anyone planning to embark on the Great Loop this fall, expect a life-changing journey instead of just a trip down-river. Finding who you really are is no easy task, which requires planning and preparation and a mind open to whatever the tide brings in.  

For More Information:






Crowley’s Yacht Yard Lakeside




Life of a Captain



  • Like what you read?

    Want to know when we have important news, updates or interviews?

  • Join our newsletter today!

    Sign Up
You Might Also Be Interested In...

Send to your friends!