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City firefighter returns home from boating expedition traveling America’s Great Loop

By CJ HADDAD - | Aug 4, 2022

Steve Hernden, a Cape Coral firefighter, completed the Great Loop, a 6,000-mile journey that circumnavigates the eastern part of the U.S. and Canada, on his boat “Tortuga.” The Great Loop Cruisers Association presented Hernden with a flag signifying his completion of the loop in just 28 days. PHOTO PROVIDED

Steve Hernden didn’t want to wait to take a voyage of a lifetime.

The Cape Coral resident and city firefighter recently returned home from a boating expedition traveling America’s Great Loop. The excursion, usually taken as a “retirement” trip, sends boaters on a 6,000-mile journey that circumnavigates the eastern part of the U.S. and Canada, cruising up the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, through the New York State Canals, into the Great Lakes, down the inland river system, across the Gulf of Mexico, and around the southern tip of Florida.

It took Hernden just 28 days to complete the loop and he received his “BaccaLOOPerate” degree from America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association.

“It was quite the trip,” Hernden said. “I did mine a little different than a lot of Great Loopers do. I decided I didn’t want to wait for retirement. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. I thought I could do it on my boat, and my focus was to see all of the natural and manmade waterways and the infrastructure that early-America built.”

Hernden, 38, left Cape Coral on May 15 aboard his 27-foot Glacier Bay 2685 Coaster Runner power boat named “Tortuga.” All in all, he traveled 5,401 miles while navigating some of the country’s most historic waters. He said he’d travel roughly 10 to 12 hours each day depending on weather and lock schedules, often waking up with the sun and finding a place to dock when dusk arrived. Hernden would find slips or docks wherever he was and enjoy the local flare in the evening before continuing his journey.

“Almost every night of the trip we were in town somewhere,” Hernden said. “We were still able to take time to see towns along the way as well.”

He originally was set to take on the voyage by himself, but as friends and family caught wind of his adventure, they wanted to be involved. Of the 28 days, Hernden only spent eight by himself. At varying points along the way, Hernden was joined by his father, brother-in-law, two cousins, and his children.

“That was probably one of my favorite aspects of the journey,” Hernden said. “It was incredible. Getting to share it with family, especially my dad — those are memories and conversations that I’ll never forget.”

Being a Michigan native and growing up on Lake Huron, the love of the water and boating was always a part of Hernden’s life. After graduating from Mariner High School (his parents moved the family to Cape Coral during his high school years), Hernden went back to Michigan, attending the Great Lakes Maritime Academy with plans to pilot ships. When he discovered that wasn’t the exact route in life he wanted to take, as well as not wanting to deal with harsh winters, he came back to the Cape and pursued a career with the fire department. He also has a charter boat company, taking voyagers to Cayo Costa and other natural beaches in the area.

“I’ve been boating since I was a teenager, and probably before that,” Hernden said. “Growing up staring out at the Great Lakes, that really fostered a love for the water — watching the big port boats go up and down Lake Huron.”

While Hernden spanned the Great Loop at a quicker pace than most, he certainly was able to take in sights, sounds, smells, and unmatched scenery along the way.

“I saw so much in such a short time frame,” he said.

Hernden recalls heading into New York City and seeing the Statue of Liberty far out in the distance.

“That green just kind of shines through everything. It stood out,” he recalled.

He navigated his way through downtown Chicago via the Chicago River, while massive skyscrapers almost looked down onto the water from towering heights.

“It was impressive,” Hernden said.

A feat he was able to complete included hitting all five of the Great Lakes while making the Great Loop — a slight navigation calculation, as the traditional route does not see boaters travel along Lake Superior. Hernden, while making good time, took a side voyage to the largest of the Great Lakes one day.

“It’s a pretty cool accomplishment,” Hernden said.

Also memorable was traveling down the second longest river in the United States.

“The Mississippi was incredible,” Hernden said. “Feeling the power of it was incredible.”

Of course, a place near and dear to his heart, his hometown, was a checkpoint on his route. First on his list was perch (fish) dinner — a staple of his childhood.

“To have my own boat that I had just taken from Florida all the way up to the Great Lakes — it was a pretty cool experience,” Hernden said. “Once I got up there, I was looking for some kind of Great Lakes fish to eat.”

He recalled staying in Mobile, Alabama for a night, as well as New Orleans.

“I had never been there,” Hernden said. “I really spent the day eating through New Orleans.”

He even documented his journey on his YouTube channel “Tortuga Steve,” where up to 2,000 viewers would watch various parts of the voyage.

The Great Loop trip, as mentioned, is usually saved for a retirement of sorts, taking up to a year to complete while leisurely passing through towns, ports, and cities as you go.

Being a first responder and knowing that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, it was important for Hernden to take the time to do something of this magnitude while he had the opportunity.

“I’ve lost buddies along the way, or guys have medical issues that change their retirement plans,” Hernden said. “I told myself ‘I’m not going to wait.'”

By videos on individuals who camp across the country or live on RVs, Hernden gained tips on how to cook hot meals without a galley on board. He had a crock-pot and electric stove, as well as a small generator. Below deck was a bed and shower.

“On this trip I was able to really realize how capable of a boat I have,” Hernden said. “It did great in every single waterway. We hit some heavier seas along the way and it just handled it great. You can get into some nasty weather (up in the Great Lakes).”

Hernden returned home to Horton Park in Cape Coral on June 11, having made the Great Loop through varying conditions, temperatures, waterways, and surroundings.

According to the Great Loop Cruisers Association, approximately 150 boats complete the Great Loop each year, making it a feat more unique than swimming the English Channel or climbing Mount Everest. The association presented Hernden with a gold flag he can proudly fly on Tortuga signifying his completion of the loop.

Hernden said he certainly plans to take on the Great Loop again, and hopes to take on more waterways in the near future.

“I want to loop the Gulf of Mexico,” Hernden said.

An aspect of his adventure he really enjoyed is the connections he’s made through Great Loop social media, and the feedback he’s received.

“It seems like they had no idea — not that you have to have permission — you could do (the Great Loop) young or do it fast,” Hernden said of people he interacted with on Great Loop social media pages. “Because so many do it as a retirement loop. I had a lot of conversations with people (on doing things different). I’ve never been an, ‘I’ll wait’ kind of guy. I can always come back and do it again.”

“I really enjoyed my trip, and the people I got to share it with enjoyed it. I don’t think I did a disservice to the loop. I got to experience it more like the original mariners here — moving cargo and people around the country. It’s an experience and memories I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj