Seeing America from the water

For many boaters in the area, Lake Norman is a highly sought-after recreational destination.

But after this spring, Jack and Pia Griffin will never see Lake Norman the same way again.

Formerly landlocked boaters, the Cornelius couple set out on a yearlong adventure known as America's Great Loop.

Originally created after the Great Lakes were connected to the Mississippi River, the Great Loop is the circumnavigation of Eastern North America via water.

Many enthusiasts, including the Griffins, begin their journey in the spring on the Eastern seaboard, cut across to the Great Lakes by the summer, head down the Mississippi River during the fall and travel through the Gulf of Mexico and around Florida during the winter.

"It takes a lot of grit and stick-to-it-ness but it's an adventure that's not very dangerous," said Janice Kromer, executive director of America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association, based in South Carolina.

Jack Griffin, 61, first heard about the loop from a colleague in the pharmaceutical business a few years ago. Growing up on Lake Greenwood in South Carolina, Jack quickly became comfortable around boats and owned one throughout his adult life.

But Jack knew he'd need to save money and wait until he was retired before he could even begin to make his dream adventure a reality.

Then Jack started dating Pia, whom he met when she was giving him interior design suggestions on his Cornelius condo.

On their third date, Jack told Pia, 54, about his dream to complete the Great Loop. Pia, who had grown up in Finland and Canada, was comfortable around boats but had never considered such an extensive trip.

Still, when Jack asked her if she would consider going with him, the only questions she had for him was, "Where would I put all of my shoes?" said Jack.

Their discussion could easily have turned into the kind of whimsical adventures that most people only dream about. But when the couple celebrated their second Christmas together, they said, they both knew the trip was going to become a reality.

Instead of the usual presents a couple might exchange in their first year of marriage, Jack and Pia bought each other gear for the trip, such as goggles and wetsuits.

"This really was his dream but it became just as much my dream. It became our dream," said Pia.

Jack took early retirement from Sanofi-Aventis, a company with headquarters in New Jersey, in April 2009, and the day after his last shift at work he and Pia headed to Charleston to board Jack's boat - a 35-foot Carver named Still Busy.

About 40 percent of "loopers" - the name given to boaters and sailors who attempt the Great Loop - complete the loop in legs over several years, said Kromer. But with Jack's early retirement and Pia's self-made work schedule, the Griffins completed the loop in one trip.

For 51 weeks, Jack and Pia saw a slice of America: the first annual Big Sheboygan Shebang festival in Wisconsin, the St. Louis arches in the early morning rays, dolphins swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and a peaceful sunset over Lake Champlain at the Canadian border.

"Every time we got somewhere, even in the smallest towns, we went out and explored and tried to find out what it was that was special about that little place," said Pia.

Although they flew or drove home four times for family events such as the birth of their granddaughter, they quickly returned to the open waters. The even lived in Key West, Fla., for six weeks. Pia calls the city their "second home for a little while."

Their odyssey wasn't without obstacles. Their engine shut down in the middle of Lake Champlain because they'd lost a fuel pump, and in Key West, the Griffins had to replace a water pump. Things got hairy on Lake Huron when the wind picked up and the bow of their boat went underwater several times.

"You could hear things getting rearranged down below," said Pia. "It was like a party was happening down below and we weren't invited. It was a mess."

The Griffins said that for moments like that, the couple jokingly adopted "Jesus Take The Wheel" by country artist Carrie Underwood as their theme song.

But for the most part, the Griffins said they found the trip stress-free and inspiring, like their leg past New York City.

"It was Memorial Day weekend, and it was misting so we didn't see the Statue of Liberty right away," said Pia. "And then there she was. It was a really moving experience for us to see her in our own boat in the harbor."

Jack and Pia said their complementary personalities helped them both enjoy the trip to its fullest. While Jack was more driven by the accomplishment he'd feel by completing the loop, Pia was more interested in the adventure.

In the end, they said, Jack learned how to stop and revel in the moment and Pia, who was a novice boater when the couple began the trip, learned technical boat maneuvers from Jack.

The trip also taught the Griffins how to live a simpler life.

"You realize that as much as you love your home, you don't really need all that space," said Pia. "And I found out I didn't need all of those shoes to be happy."

It's been more than six months since the Griffins crossed their own wake - a phrase to symbolize completing the Great Loop - but the adventure is still on their minds.

The couple will often reminisce about what they were doing exactly a year ago or look at some of the more than three thousand pictures they took on their trip.

And Jack said the couple recently bought a larger boat in Wisconsin that they plan to keep off the cost of North Carolina as a sort of condo. The Griffins plan to bring home the boat, named "Knot Busy," by taking half of the Great Loop back to the N.C. coast in reverse direction.

The Griffins said they hope their adventure inspires others to make the most of their retirement.

"Everybody should have a dream in life," Pia said. "You hear so many people who retire and feel lost, and that's a shame."

Even worse, Pia said, are those who have a dream they want to fulfill but continue to put it off - until one day, it's too late.

"My father talked and talked about what he'd do when he retired, and he died before he had a chance," she said. "Life's too short. Don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today."