words and photos by Noor Hindi
Wendy Wilson’s first memory involves falling asleep to the sound of her parent’s boat. She would lie with her head on her mother’s lap and let the cool, night air drift her to sleep. As the boat wandered through Portage Lakes State Park, its motor hummed in the background.
Since then, Wendy has had a passion for the water. She loves the water so much that she and her husband Bobby Wils on, along with their four daughters, just returned from a 10-month long boating trip. The Great American Loop, a 6,000-mile route that travels through 20 states, guided them.
“It was a trip of a lifetime,” says Wendy. “The girls every morning would wake up on the boat and ask ‘what are we doing today, where are going?’”
For their daughters Nina (20), AnnaMay (9), Ella (7) and Mia (6), the trip felt like a giant adventure. They visited new places each day, where they made new memories while doing things like diving and learning about sea creatures.
Ella and AnnaMay agreed their favorite part of the trip was swimming with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center in Florida.
“It was really cool,” says AnnaMay. “The texture of their skin was rubbery and silky. It was really weird. There’s like no way to describe it.”
Bobby has always wanted to complete the Great American Loop. He and Wendy planned to complete it and become “loopers” when they retired, but when their daughter Mia was born with a severe congenital heart defect, they quickly learned that life is too short.
Bobby describes the first week of Mia’s life as “mayhem.” They weren’t sure if Mia would make it. Wendy says Mia was “born dead” and was an “ashy, grey color.” She is still haunted by this.
“[The doctors] kept saying ‘we don’t know how long she’s going to live; she’s probably not going to make it through the day; she’s probably not going to make it through the night,’” says Wendy. “Then they came in and wanted to take pictures and do footprints and castings to make memories.”
Meanwhile, Bobby grew tired of hearing the phrase “the next 24 hours are crucial” from doctors.
A week after Mia was born, she was sent to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During the year that Mia was treated at C.S. Mott, the Wilson family stayed in a small room at the Ronald McDonald House.
“We realized that if the five of us can live for one year in a small room, we can live on a boat,” says Wendy.
Once Mia’s health felt stable enough for the trip, Wendy and Bobby bought a boat named La Cigale from a family friend. They converted the bathroom shower inside the boat into a storage space for Mia’s medical supplies. They also used the hooks inside the boat to hang Mia’s feeding bags.
They were determined to take the trip with Mia, as a family.
“They can’t fix her heart,” says Wendy. “We were buying time with the surgeries. We knew if we didn’t do it and something happened, we would regret that we didn’t do [the trip] together, as a family.”
Mia enjoyed every second of the trip. At the Faro Blanco Resort and Yacht Club, she celebrated her 6th birthday with over 50 boaters and loopers.
“They had pirates come and do a show and a turtle from the turtle rescue hospital,” says Bobby.
Meanwhile, AnnaMay and Ella are both homeschooled and treated the ten months on the boat as a field trip. Each location they visited and each sea animal they saw became valuable learning material. Inside the boat, postcards from every harbor they visited hang in their bedroom.
Wendy says AnnaMay is a “character” and “has the personality for the red hair.”
“Did you know that parrotfish poop is actually sand?” says AnnaMay. “Sand is parrotfish poop because they eat corral.”
When the Wilson family crossed their wake and earned their gold burgee from the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA), it wasn’t just finishing the route that they celebrated.
“In five years, she never went two weeks without a visit [to the hospital], a poke, even a follow up,” says Wendy. “To go 10 months is really crazy. When we crossed our wake, it wasn’t ‘oh my gosh, we’re crossing our wake.’ We all looked at each other and we said ‘we never visited one hospital.’”
Today, Mia is still in a stable condition. After returning from the trip, Mia’s follow-up appointments with her doctors went well. Her favorite place is still the Faro Blanco Resort and Yacht Club. She loves the color purple and enjoys playing card games like Go Fish, Uno, War and BlackJack with her father.
Wendy still gets choked up thinking about the precious time they’ve had with Mia. She appreciates all of her family and friends who helped ship Mia’s medical supplies to them while they were on a boat.
“If we have a year with her, if we have one day with her, God is still good,” says Wendy.
The Wilson family plans to complete The Great American Loop again next year. AnnaMay is already upset about being back from the trip. She says she wants to live on a boat and explore the ocean when she grows up.
In the meantime, the Wilson family will be boating at Portage Lakes State Park, which Bobby describes as “peaceful” and a “great little community.”
For those interested in completing the Great American Loop, Bobby has a few pieces of advice.
“Don’t wait. Do it now,” says Bobby. “Life’s too short. People save up for retirement and sometimes don’t make it. Just do it. You can come up with excuses on why not to do it, but let’s come up with excuses on how we can get it done.”
Noor Hindi is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at The University of Akron. She is usually very nervous. Check her out at nervouspoodlepoetry.com.