In September 2012, best friends Katie Smith and Jessie Zevalkink left their hometown of Northport, Michigan, on their newly spruced-up boat, Louise. Accompanied only by Katie’s dog, Reggie, the duo traveled to the Bahamas via the Great Loop — 5,000 to 7,500 miles of inland rivers and waterways looping around the eastern half of the U.S. With minimal sailing experience, and no prior ocean cruising knowledge, the trip proved to be a test of their patience, friendship, and resourcefulness.
Although Jessie and Katie started their journey as novice boaters, one thing they didn’t skimp on was safety. We were able to catch up with Jessie, who gave us the rundown on how safety and preparedness played a part in their voyage.
What safety precautions did you take before setting sail to the Bahamas?
There were several safety precautions we took before setting sail to the Bahamas. We did our research. We remained patient while waiting for the right weather to cross the Gulf Stream, which took over a week. While we waited, we made sure to find a boat buddy to cross with. Although we traveled at a different speed than our buddy boat, having someone know we were out there was important. We also purchased a SPOT, which is a GPS locator with several buttons. One of them sends an email to our immediate family with our latitude/longitude and a message stating we are OK. Another button contacts the Coast Guard along with a few other rescue service groups. If anything were to happen and we were out of cell service or radio contact, the SPOT was our emergency locator.
How did you maintain your boat and engine during your journey?
Maintaining our boat and engine consisted of a lot of small projects. Something different had to be done every day, whether it was scraping algae/barnacles off the bottom, caulking windows to prevent leaks, keeping the deck washed down with fresh water, or keeping the bilge clean. We kept up on all oil changes and transmission fluid changes, kept the strainer clean, regularly checked the impeller, and changed the alternator belt. We replaced parts as needed. Engine maintenance was really important, and we learned a ton along the way.
What was the worst boating emergency (hypothermia, harsh weather, falling overboard, etc.) you encountered while sailing, and how did you handle the situation?
Katie got knocked over by a wave in the dark after taking her dog, Reggie, to shore one night. She fell onto a sea urchin, and had black spines straight through all of her fingers and on her side. We were alone in the Bahamas, out of contact, and had not a clue how to treat the wound. The following day we came across a charter boat with 12 Boy Scouts and their dads. The captain of the boat was knowledgeable on sea urchin wounds, but unfortunately didn’t have the right tools to operate. He used a mouth-numbing gel called “Orajel” and a dental pick to open up each wound and pick out the spines. Katie was in so much pain, and we were still very far from home. The next day, we encountered the biggest waves of our lives. Stacked closely together, 15-footers swallowed us. It was difficult for Katie to be on deck with only one operating hand, so I steered us through the monstrous waves for hours because we were both too scared a wave would knock down Louise if we turned around. We eventually made it to the next port safely. Months later, Katie still had spines exiting her fingers from the opposite side they entered on.
What was it like having a pet on board? How did you keep him safe during your trip?
Katie’s dog, Reggie, was a godsend along our journey. Having a fluffy friend who was happy to just be along for the ride was a constant reminder of how happiness is measured in company — not things. Katie kept him well-fed, well-exercised, well-groomed, and well-loved. We didn’t need to keep him safe; he kept us safe.
What’s your opinion on boating? Has this journey changed your feelings about it?
My opinion on boating … sailing represents ultimate freedom. The only thing restricting that freedom is your frame of mind and Mother Nature. If you remain positive, and patient, and have respect for the weather, you will be rewarded in more ways than you could ever imagine. There is no better community than the boating community.
Thank you, Jessie. What an amazing story!
Whether you’re looking to set sail on a daring, but safe, voyage like Katie and Jessie, or you just want to have leisurely fun on the water, remember that safety always comes first! Stay safe on the water, and get your boater education through Boat Ed.