Small Boat, Big Adventure

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As originally printed in The Daily Times on June 6, 2009

Heritage Harbor Ottawa is becoming a familiar stop for those traveling the 6,000-mile Great Loop waterway.


Oftentimes, those traveling come equipped with large boats with sleeping and eating quarters, bearing names like C-Life and Phantom of the Aqua.

But when first-time Great Looper Katie McPhail and her boyfriend, Joel Coltrain, motored up to the Heritage Harbor marina Friday morning, their boating accommodations were not so extravagant.

The 16-foot, open hull Duroboat has no beds, no couches and not even a cover for inclement weather.  katieKatie McPhail and Joel Coltrain

McPhail will be making the Great Loop — a waterway trail that’s a counterclockwise circuit down the Mississippi River into the Gulf Coast, around Florida, up the Eastern Seaboard, through Canada and across the Great Lakes — with her sister, Elizabeth, whom Katie will meet Saturday as Elizabeth graduates from Knox College in Galesburg.

The sisters hail from the Seattle area, where Katie worked for her family’s business selling Duroboats — a lightweight aluminum watercraft. When the economy plummeted this past winter, the business also suffered, resulting in layoffs, in which Katie was a victim.

Katie told The Times she read John Mirassou’s “Only in America,” the story of several boys who completed a similar trip in the mid-1980s. She was inspired. It didn’t take much in persuade her sister to make the trip, as the two grew up on the shores of Lake Sammamish in Issaquah, Wash., and boating had always been a large part of their lives.

So with Katie laid off of work and Elizabeth graduating college, the sisters set their course, which they expect to span about 70 travel days.

Coltrain — who also worked for the Duroboat business and assembled the boat the McPhail sisters will call home the next three months — and Katie dropped their boat in Lake Michigan Thursday, and set off on the first leg of their adventure, encountering a minor obstacle when their navigation lights refused to work Thursday night, causing them to dock at Springbrook Marina in Seneca.

But while the boaters didn’t make it to Heritage Harbor as planned Thursday, Mark Palmer, Heritage Harbor vice president of sales and marketing, picked up the couple, bringing them to downtown Ottawa for a bite to eat and a short tour, while offering sleeping accommodations aboard a boat already docked at Heritage Harbor.

The couple awoke to a continental breakfast — rounding out their “boat and breakfast” experience in Ottawa.

Katie had came across Heritage Harbor while researching places to stay along the Great Loop, and was impressed by Heritage Harbor”s warm welcome for Loopers.

She and Coltrain said they weren’t disappointed.

They retrieved their boat early Friday morning in Seneca, but stopped briefly at the Heritage Harbor marina, where they were handed a Great Loop flag, which Coltrain proudly installed in the bow of the boat.

“And the colors match the boat,” Katie said, grinning from ear to ear.

Katie hopes publicity about the excursion will encourage younger generations to take up boating as a hobby, and also hopes the publicity will be good advertising for Duroboat.

“I want this to help open up boating as a hobby for younger people, and show them they can do it, and inexpensively,”she said.

“Boating should be easy for anyone,”Coltrain added.

Along the trip, Katie and Elizabeth will link up with various marinas previous Loopers have connected them with, and they also have a tent onboard for sleeping quarters.

Since its opening, Heritage Harbor has reached out to those traveling the Great Loop, with word of mouth quickly spreading about the marina along the Illinois River.

Read more about the McPhails’ trip through their blog at, or

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