Boaters finally can wave goodbye to Ill. River

By Jim Suhr

ST. LOUIS – Wayne Pritchard’s itinerary for his intercontinental boating adventure might stoke envy – 13 days near Ottawa, a long weekend docked in Havana. The only rub is that both locales are in Illinois, and he’s finally got the go-ahead to get out.

For a couple of weeks, Pritchard and dozens of other boaters taking part in a yearlong trek snaking around eastern North America have been held hostage, of sorts, in the Land of Lincoln, unable to get off the rain-swollen Illinois River because the Coast Guard had closed off lower portions of it for safety reasons.

The Coast Guard finally opened up the final 20-mile stretch Monday, urging the bottlenecked boaters to take it slow, keeping the wakes in check.

Rejoicing boaters, who’d been slowed by the aftermath of Hurricane Ike’s remnants that pounded the Midwest this month, didn’t need to hear that twice.

“It’s a happy moment when they clear the waterway and all the boats can get under way,” Pritchard told a reporter by cell phone aboard the Seguey, which he expected to keep docked for a third day in Havana, Ill., before continuing his circumnavigation Tuesday to his home in Knoxville, Tenn.

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The shutdowns – at times last week covering 200 miles of the Illinois – have put Pritchard and his wife more than two weeks behind on their first crack at the “The Great Loop,” a journey goes generally along the Atlantic Ocean, up into Canada and down the Illinois, Mississippi and other inland rivers.

The trek – sponsored by the 9-year-old America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association – often ends with the boats wintering in the Gulf Coast, sometimes the Bahamas.

While eager to get back to Tennessee, the retired Pritchards aren’t letting a little extra time in Illinois dampen an adventure that already has covered 5,700 statute miles since its launch last December. Knoxville, he surmises, is less than 1,000 miles away.

“The experience has been so broad and so varied,” Pritchard, a 61-year-old grandfather, said merrily from his 43-foot powerboat. “All the different kinds of water, from freshwater to saltwater. Big oceans to the Gulf of Mexico to the waters in Canada and all that. It’d be hard for anything to put a damper on that variety of experience.”

Pritchard expects to make up the time with some long days of cruising, planning to cover 120 miles some days when the norm would be about 50.

Tom Dimmock can’t afford to be that leisurely. After more than a week trapped on the Illinois River, the 59-year-old retired lawyer from Raleigh, N.C., and his wife have a flight to catch Tuesday out of St. Louis. The couple will leave their 46-foot powerboat, the Next 30 Years, docked in Missouri for the next couple of weeks, then eventually fly back to resume their adventure.

By Monday afternoon, the battery on Dimmock’s cell phone had just about shot craps. But he had enough time through the crackling reception to tell a reporter what he thought about getting the green light to shove off.

“I started pulling the anchor up right away. Absolutely,” he beamed, figuring flexibility carried him through. “You just have to roll with the flow.”