I follow the daily posts of the AGLCA, as well as social media forums about cruising, trawlers, and the Great Loop. I find it exciting to see people new to cruising go through those series of firsts that veteran cruisers have long since forgotten. What do we need to do/buy/install before we take off? As launch day gets more real each passing week, whimsical planning morphs into serious list making and boat projects that instill confidence in boat and crew.

As we begin this new year, it is refreshing to see people announce their plans to begin their Loop in April or May, depending on where they live. If one is close enough to jump onto the Loop in home waters, the adventure begins and ends at your front door. So, at any time during the season, Loopers enter the journey around North America at different points, choosing which variations they find most appealing. That is what make organizations like the AGLCA so useful and valuable to new cruisers. And what people don’t realize is that many of these aspiring Loopers are new to traveling on a boat.

In fact, one of my broker friends says he finds a surprising number of couples shopping for a Loop-capable boat aren’t yet boaters. It is the magic allure of the Great Loop that captivates them. These people want to buy a boat, do the Loop, then move on to other items on their Bucket List. They consider themselves traveling rather than cruising if you know what I mean. RV, boat, whatever. It is a travel experience they seek.

(Seen below: The new Legacy 12 has been described as a perfect boat for The Great Loop.)

perfect boat for The Great Loop

According to my friend, many of these couples are looking for a Chevy to do the Loop, not a Cadillac. The boat needs to be affordable, have low maintenance requirements, and they have no desire for varnished brightwork. Once they complete their adventure, they plan to sell the boat for hopefully close to the initial price, the difference being the cost of the adventure. It is a common them that has been repeated over and over. Some of these boats are resold several times, and they repeat going around the Loop with different owners, supplying fun and excitement with minimal systems or complex machinery. It is a winning formula for sure.

I always suspect that, for at least some of these travelers, what may start as the one-time dream of a lifetime, evolves into a love of cruising with lasting friendships that develop into future years of wintering in the Islands and extended local cruising.

But now we are in the grip of winter, where the focus is on getting the boat ready. Collecting suggested reading material, charts and guides, and necessary spares, are at the top of the priority list. All of this is important.


Related: Keep A Logbook While Cruising


Most cruising guides offer basic information regarding traveling on our waterways. Along the Great Loop, especially, one will find every type of waterway, from open bays where one might be surrounded by vessels of every type and size, to narrow channels where single file rules of the road are critical to maintain safe passage for all boats.

For new boaters, it is vital to study the rules of the road, as it will be quite stressful when boats start calling you or blasting horns at you and you don’t know what to do. While the rules cover right of way and many other important elements, I want to stress particular attention to the rules regarding passing or being passed on the waterways.

boats passing each other 

When transiting restricted waters, such as in a channel, it is standard practice to hail a slower boat in front of you, requesting a slow pass on one side or the other. On large, stabilized motor vessels and trawlers, the other skipper will often acknowledge your call and tell you to go by at your normal speed, as the boat’s stabilization will minimize any roll they might otherwise experience due to your passing wake.

One frustrating problem occurs when you approach another boat and find the crew has pulled the dinghy onto the swim platform, often using Weaver Dinghy Snaps, which then covers the name of the vessel and hailing port. Unless you both have AIS, you can’t hail the boat by name. Which is why enlightened owners paint the trawler's name on the bottom of the dinghy. If this is your situation, get with the program and put the name on your dinghy!

The East Coast portion of the Loop involves traveling many miles on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) from Florida to Virginia, and there is another common scenario you will encounter. Approaching another boat in a narrow waterway, such as in the many ranges one finds in the Low Country, there may not be room to safely go around a slower vessel. It may be a sailboat chugging along at 5 knots in the middle of the channel. For whatever reason, a lot of sailors don’t maintain a working VHF radio in their cockpit, and it is frustrating.

This is where you’ll need a good horn to both alert the other vessel and signal your intentions. When you hit the horn button, it will get his or her attention, and you can simply point that you want to pass them on your starboard side. The boat may steer to the right a bit, and you can pass the sailboat without drama.

Having a good horn is important, and make sure it works. In short:

  • One Short Blast, one Toot, means you intend to turn right and pass them on your port side. This applies to both overtaking a boat ahead of you, or when a boat is coming at you from the opposite direction.
  • Two Short Blasts, two Toots, means you intend to turn left and pass them on your starboard side. This is my normal procedure when overtaking a slower boat in front of me. But the conditions around you will dictate which you choose.

The vessel you signal should acknowledge your blasts with the same one or two toots. If they respond with five blasts, it means there is danger ahead or they do not want you to pass for some other reason. It could be they see something up ahead that you can't yet see, such as a commercial tug and tow, or a dredging operation. Fall in line behind the other vessel until it is safe to pass.

Learn the horn’s proper use before beginning the Great Loop but remember you will be sharing the waterways with commercial traffic, who often prefer the VHF to communicate.

barge on the great loop 

One must also be aware of one’s wake when passing, and it is common courtesy to slow down when you pass another vessel, especially if you are driving a boat that throws a big bow wave, such as a classic Grand Banks running above displacement speeds.

Another important piece of information that you may not find in many cruising guides is the specific definition of bridge clearance. What exactly does a stated bridge clearance mean? When a bridge clearance height is listed in a cruising guide or on a sign at the bridge, is that stated measurement for the lowest point of the span (such as the outer ends of the span for opening bridges), or the middle of the span, which is typically higher? And in waters where there is significant tidal flow, how does water level change the clearance?

Even experienced boaters are not always clear about bridge clearance. This is understandable if one does their boating in Chesapeake Bay, the Puget Sound, or other open waterways where there aren’t a lot of highway or railroad bridges.

For any of this to be useful, especially for the Great Loop, one must know for certain what is the boat’s own air draft, down to the inch. Estimating one’s height above water is not sufficient, you need to know absolutely, and how much additional clearance you gain if you lower an arch, antennas, or radar mast. You will be much less stressed if you know these precise clearances. Make labels of these numbers and put them by the helm.

(Seen below: Bridges in the Illinois River Valley.)

bridges on illinois river great loop 

The Coast Guard regulations require that the minimum clearance be shown, which is the clearance at the sides of the navigable area. Many bridge owners add a sign “Additional clearance x feet at center.”

This is not required but helps reduce the number of unnecessary openings.

Unfortunately, waterways that are less frequented may be incorrectly marked, perhaps with a sign “Clearance at center” or sometimes no sign at all. When there is a discrepancy between what is listed on the bridge and what is found in the cruising guide, contact the bridge operator to verify.

bridge clearance for boat

(Speaking of cruising guides, on one trip up the ICW, we purposely tracked our progress using three separate cruising guides, all the latest editions. Surprisingly, they were rarely in agreement when it came to some information. Keeping cruising guides current must be a real challenge.)

Another thing to do when preparing for the Loop (or any adventure where you will be away from home for months) is to get yourself checked out, which can get overlooked in the chaos of getting ready.

Get yourself, crew, and pets in to see your doctor, dentist, vet, and any specialist you work with. The following story always reminds me of how we often take things for granted and then life throws us a curveball while we’re constantly on the move.

A couple I know spent years adventuring on their ocean-crossing trawler, cruising the east coast of Central America, and extensively in South America. An avid film maker, the husband worked on documentaries of indigenous cultures, and the boat was their cruising boat, home, and film lab.

After several years in South America, they headed back north, and spent a month exploring Maine before cruising down through New England, on their way to Florida for the winter. They had not been back to Coeur d’Alene in quite a while, so had missed their regular dental and medical checkups.

As Dave later told of their travels in Maine and New England, he said he developed a mild sore throat, and had some difficulty swallowing. Over-the-counter lozenges and cough medicines didn’t help. As they worked their way down the coast, they visited several walk-in clinics when they stopped for a few days. The local doctors would look him over, then prescribe throat medicines for a strep throat. But his throat never seemed to improve. Heading westward along the coast of Connecticut, they again sought local treatment, but given the one-time nature of a walk-in clinic, and with no medical records or history, the inevitable treatment was more of the same.

By the time they passed New Jersey, they became concerned it was more than a simple strep infection. So, they went straight to Baltimore, where they made an appointment to see a doctor at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, a world-class medical facility second to none.

It was determined that Dave was in the early stage of Esophageal cancer and needed immediate treatment. Thankfully, they caught it soon enough to be treated, and they stayed in Baltimore and made Dave’s recovery their top priority. By the time I visited the couple months later in Florida, Dave had almost fully recovered. They had dodged a bullet for sure.

They told me they had let their cruising agenda take over their priorities and keeping the boat in shape and fully operational had been more important than taking care of themselves. The wild and primitive conditions they experienced in South America had no doubt made them let their guard down, and they simply got used to discomfort, aches and pains, and less-than-ideal living conditions. They just assumed that whatever happened, it would be fine. Thankfully, they were in a country with medical facilities, not many miles up the remote Amazon.

While neither of them directly said it, I sensed it was somewhat of a walkup call about life, balance, and perspective.

For those of you embarking on your Great Loop adventure this spring, I wish you the best. Have a fabulous time, stay safe, and I hope to meet some of you along the way.


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