The Great Loop remains as popular as ever, one of the premier travel experiences in North America. Even those who do not consider themselves boaters are avid enthusiasts of this circumnavigation of a large portion of the U.S. and Canada. Couples and families come from Europe, Australia, and beyond to see North America in one of the best ways to travel ever devised. The history, culture, cuisine, people, and natural beauty of this country are best seen on its waterways, and countless people confirm this is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Given its popularity, it is common for people to ponder what is involved in making this trip. And, of course, what does it cost to have this experience: the expenses to cover boat, fuel, marinas, maintenance, and other monies associated with extended travel.
I have to admit there is one thing I hate when reading marine publications and consumer magazines. I detest, more than anything else, when people want these kinds of answers—whether a boat test, equipment review, or travel story—and never get a conclusive answer. No matter what the subject or matter at hand, the writer never provides an answer at the end of the story. Which one is best among its competitors, what should one expect, what does it cost, and finally…which one should I buy? The writer always ends the piece with the same comment, and that makes me crazy. “Well, it depends…” It is downright lazy and sheds all remnants of accountability. The writer sidesteps the question, and the reader is left on his own.
So, when I thought about writing about the cost of doing a Great Loop trip, I was a bit uncomfortable taking on the subject, given the numerous factors where each has a huge impact of the cost of Trip A versus Trip B, C, or D. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, though, and I think I have come up with a path that any serious planner can use to determine the projected cost of doing a Loop adventure.
(Below: The AGLCA has some great informative events to learn about the specifics of The Great Loop.)
One step that is most important to anyone even slightly considering this trip is to join an organization that has so many benefits it should be considered mandatory for all Great Loop cruisers and would-be dreamers. And that is to join the American Great Loop Cruisers Association (AGLCA). For the cost of yearly membership, one has access to a lot of updated information that exists nowhere else. Anecdotal comments from Uncle Charlie from his cruise 10 years ago and now buried on the Internet can be ignored, and one can sift through information that is fresh, spot on, and changes almost daily as Loopers send in comments about waterway status and other factors that affect anyone behind them on the Loop. No matter who you are, what kind of boat you have (or want), or what part of the Loop you are most interested in, joining the AGLCA is the best investment one can make. Sign up today. Enough said.
So, how much does it cost to do the Great Loop?
Well, it depends…
No seriously, I won’t leave you hanging out there, I promise. There are quite a few factors that impact the costs of this trip. But they are mostly known ahead of time, and most depend entirely on you and your own situation. There are some basic questions to address. The answers you come up with will go a long way to telling you how much money your Great Loop will involve, while still providing a terrific adventure.
I assume you already know that the most common kind of Loop boat is a trawler yacht of some kind. While the word has been grossly misused in recent years, a traditional trawler is typically a single engine powerboat with a comfortable, liveaboard interior that allows self-sufficient cruising with good fuel economy. It is a suitable home for a couple to travel at a snail’s pace (six to eight knots is pretty common) and keep going and going.
The larger the boat, the more expensive it will be to put in a slip in a marina along the way. This is true whether it is a trawler, a motoryacht, a center console, sailboat, or canal barge. When there are travel expenses along the Loop, calculated by the foot, they will always be more expensive for a larger boat than a small one. A pint-sized Ranger tug will be less money for its owners to travel the Loop than a Fleming 55 or Endurance 640 motoryacht, but there will be compromises one may not wish to make on a small boat. All make outstanding cruisers, and only you can decide if one makes more sense for your needs than the other. Big is good, big is comfortable, but big is also more expensive to park for the night—or for several weeks when it comes time to get off for annual doctor visits and family commitments back home.
(Below: The Endurance 590 will be launched soon and would be a truly luxurious Great Loop boat.)
For some this is a moot point, as they will do the Loop on what they already own. It may be a 48-foot sailboat that has been lovingly enjoyed for many years and which is pressed into Loop service, without mast and standing rigging, of course. They were removed and stored at the home marina for the duration of the trip. A sailboat-turned-powerboat actually makes a great cruiser for the Loop in that it is comfortable and very economical with its smaller single diesel engine. This assumes, of course, its draft is not deep. Tricked out racers like a Swan or Farr will not be good choices while most mainstream cruising sailboats work well. And sailors know they make great powerboats because we motor in them often more than we’d like to admit.
The Engine or Engines
Since I’ve already said the best boat for the Loop is a powerboat, we can assume there is at least one engine that powers the boat, or two, or possibly more. These days it is common to find both gas and diesel engines in boats along the Loop, and there are advantages to either. Without going into a discussion of one engine versus two, what your boat has is what you’ll deal with for the trip. And, as we’ll see, that makes a difference—a measurable difference—in the fuel costs of the trip, everything else being equal.
Loop boats span the range of cruising platforms from slow-poke trawler at single-digit speed to triple-outboard speed machines than have potential for speeds well in excess of 50 mph. (Miles per hour is the recognized speed measure for this inland trip, not knots.)
While there are places for slow speed as well as wide open, I’m not sure they should be a deciding factor. After all, the Great Loop is a trip of discovery and experience. It is hard to create meaningful memories if one blasts through the Loop at high speed and sees little of the journey besides a blurred shoreline.
(Below: While we don't recommend it, someone even did a 7,000 mile Great Loop on a jet ski.)
Your Style of Boating
This is perhaps the biggest determining factor for identifying costs of the trip. And it is entirely personal, without any associated judgement whatsoever. Some people by nature like to do it all. They arrive somewhere new, and want to take it all in. Much like the couple I followed who did the Loop on their Nimbus Boats cruiser, Last Item, they got off the boat for days on end, renting a car and exploring parts of a city or area that involved company tours, museums, nature side trips, and whatever else the area had to offer. If they were told to hold tight for a few days due to flooding conditions at the locks, they weren’t fazed one bit. They just parked the boat and took off sightseeing.
(Below: Fred & Sidonia completed their Great Loop on a Nimbus 405.)
Do you and your spouse like to go out to eat meals at the local pubs and restaurants, or do you prefer to eat in? Are you likely to anchor out whenever possible or will your crew opt for a comfortable slip in a marina that makes it easy to get involved in the local community and attend music festivals, concerts, farmers markets, holiday celebrations, and interesting local events? Only you know the answers here, and it only reflects your preferences that figure into calculating the projected expenses of the trip.
Another reason for paying for a slip might be the convenience of services, like marina bath facilities (and showers), restaurants, historical walkabouts (good use of electric bikes), and other “immersive” activities that are a primary reason why most of us want to do the Loop in the first place. It may also make it easier for friends and family to meet up with you, even if they stay in town at a hotel. Meeting friends and family along the Loop really ties it all together for many people and is essential for the memories they create.
Your Preference for Travel
This is different from the style of boating, as it reflects more on your daily routines. Some people like to get up early and head off as soon as possible, in some cases at daybreak. If they are on a faster boat, they make tracks right away and get the daily miles behind them while the day is young. These cruisers may enjoy getting their daily run done by lunchtime or early afternoon, and then spend the rest of the day, often in a marina, washing off the boat, taking a nap, and exploring the town.
This is decidedly different from others, especially those on slower boats, who find the journey is more important than the destination. Spending eight hours under way is much more to their liking than blasting to the next stop. They take more time to travel the same distance, of course, but for them it is a more relaxed way to travel, and life aboard goes on. Laundry is done under way, as is lengthy meal prep, daily chores, even some boat maintenance. These folks are the quintessential trawler cruisers, and they much prefer leisurely travel at eight knots over being strapped into the helm seat of a PT boat making an attack run against an enemy battleship at wide open throttle.
Another element to that question is how you envision your travel days over long term. I’ve often heard successful cruisers (which I define as not quickly burning out) tell me they prefer to travel for three consecutive days, then taking two days off wherever they happen to be. They use the down time as days off the boat, recharging one’s batteries, and generally breaking up the mindset of a go-go-go boat delivery. This is a very healthy attitude and one I heartily promote. Anything that keeps the trip from being one monotonous day after another is to be pursued, or else memories of the trip will be nothing but foggy moments.
(Below: The AGLCA YouTube Channel has some excellent informational videos about the Great Loop.)
Life’s Other Commitments
On a trip that can last a year or more, it is quite likely that only being on one’s boat nonstop is hardly realistic. For most people, especially those with close family, there are simply too many other activities that attract our attention if we are away beyond several weeks. Grandchildren are important, and the thought of missing key events in their young lives is not an option. There are weddings and graduations, and anniversaries and family holidays, not to mention yearly medical checkups and doctor and dentist visits that are important.
For all of these reasons, and there are probably many more, it is perfectly normal to need at least one break from the Loop adventure, perhaps two or three, over the course of one’s sabbatical from regular life. And there is no reason to miss any important family events, so factor them into the travel equation.
Scheduling a break and putting the boat safely in a secure location, a reputable marina well known for just this kind of contingency, is all part of the experience. Most Loopers I know have prepared for this ahead of time, not as a reaction to some event for which they were not expecting or prepared—although that happens all too frequently as well.
Have a Game Plan
All of the above is vital to understand well in advance of the actual trip. Each of these categories will determine how you experience the Great Loop and help you with expectations in terms of expenses, costs, and fees.
I already mentioned how valuable it is to join the AGLCA. In addition to the useful and continually updated resource information available to all of its members, the issue of Loop costs has been creatively incorporated into a calculator of trip expenses. That alone may be worth the cost of membership.
This calculator relies on self-reported data of those who complete the Loop, in whatever variation they ultimately completed. The cruisers fill in a form that identifies what their expectations were, particulars of their boat, and then the actual data from their completed Loop. The smart people who developed this program made it accessible at the level of each field on the form, which makes it incredibly useful for this exercise.
I spent time looking at reports from boats, from fairly small, approximately 24 feet LOA, to larger boats up to 60 feet in length. And by carefully interpreting the various data points, I think one can reasonably turn “Well, it depends…” into pretty accurate answers based on the experiences of people who completed the Loop. By not focusing on information that can routinely change, such as the cost of diesel fuel or gas, or the average cost of marina slip fees from five years ago when they did their Loop, one can easily compute what those costs will be based in current times.
(Below: Some Loopers have published their expenses online, like Scho and Jo.)
I have seen a lot of boats finishing the Great Loop, and they range all over the place. One fellow did it in a Walker Bay 15-foot RIB, which offsets a couple who did their Loop in their brand-new Hampton motoryacht. And the Nimbus cruiser I followed last year was a perfect size and layout for a single couple who want to be comfortable and not much more.
I recall inspecting a MacGregor 26 sailboat that the owner converted into a cruising powerboat, with mast and all standing and running rigging removed, tall lifeline stanchions installed on the side decks, and an enclosure of sorts made out of blue acrylic canvas. It would never be the star of any boat show, but I’m sure this crew completed the Loop and spent (I imagine) well under $10,000. It was a budget boat for a budget Loop. And that is fine with me. Whatever loops your Loop.
The input form used in the calculator interestingly asks for some pre-trip expectations of how the trip will be done. How many miles do you expect to do on this trip? While the Great Loop can be loosely interpreted as anywhere between 4,500 and 7,000 miles, most people said they expect to travel 5,000 or 6,000 miles (it asks for a number, not a range). This is very consistent from the dozens of reports I reviewed, regardless of size of vessel, date, or any other criteria.
Based on that estimate of total miles traveled, and then looking at the post-trip data, one could see the number of engine hours for each boat during their trip, and its average speed in statute miles. Both are easily measured or calculated by most all modern navigation and engine electronics. Regardless of how many engines one has, once we know total engine hours and average speed, as well as the boat’s total fuel burned per hour (also captured by many electronics, or on older boats taken from the boat’s fuel burn curve), the cost of fuel can be accurately determined using average current fuel pricing.
And for those who like to play mind games with numbers, it is easy to see that slower boats take longer to make the same distance as faster boats. There are dozens and dozens of examples to use for this analysis. Boats that average 8 mph generally take 775 to 850 hours to do their Loop (the difference being how many miles their Loop was. Not everyone wants to go everywhere). Boats that average 12 mph often completed the Loop in under 600 hours, while those few boats that averaged much higher speeds (17 to 19 mph) only ran their engines around 300 hours. But the majority of boats cruised at 7-8 mph.
The above is not scientific analysis, but it is simple enough to see that for a given total distance traveled, knowing the average speed and engine hours confirms the total miles and provides enough information to understand how much fuel was burned. And how many oil changes were necessary and other maintenance.
Most important for those looking to determine projected costs, each boat owner is asked how many miles they expected to run each day, as well as how many days per week they plan to be on the move. This is very helpful to determine the necessary logistics. Most Loopers shoot for 50 miles a day, some a bit higher or lower, but mostly 50 miles per day and on the move between 3 to 5 days a week.
(Below: Fred and Sidonia stop along their Great Loop trip to fill up with fuel.)
Also very telling is the question of how many nights they plan to spend in a marina versus anchoring out. It ranged from anchoring out most of the time, only spending 1 to 3 nights in a marina, to cruisers who fully expected to spend most nights in a marina, 5 to 7 days a week. Depending on where you see your own situation on this question will also answer how many times you will eat aboard versus cruise the local scene for interesting cuisine.
All of the above answers go directly into the calculations of how much one should reasonably expect to spend during one’s Great Loop. Eating two meals a day at a marina or in town is going to be quite different in terms of cost when compared to living and eating wraps, soup, and sandwiches on the boat most days at anchor. But once you know this, you are more than halfway to the answer.
I want to point out that I was looking for general ranges of numbers for estimate purposes. If you know you’re interested in a Loop that you determine is close to 6,000 miles, you will want to pull up records for trips that fit near those miles traveled, as well as other information that you already know. Your results will no doubt be a lot closer together than my numbers. With reasonable analysis this holds true for other criteria, such as average cruising speed and fuel burn, or number of days per week in a marina.
I would not be surprised if you found the engine hours data among similar reports are all within 50 hours of each other, so that you can quite accurately know how much fuel you will be buying on the trip. Same for many of the other factors.
So How Much Does It All Cost?
Throughout all of this, one must honestly and repeatedly ask the question: What is the Great Loop experience we are looking for?
While I was going through the files I’ve collected from people who did this trip, as well as the numerous results found in the AGLCA calculator, I wondered if there was a sweet spot. Comparing each boat’s total cost of the trip, which ranged from $10,000 to $200,000 in the AGLCA database, there is no obvious ideal number one should aim for. It is so different in so many ways.
I know when working with Sidonia and Fred on their Nimbus adventure, getting off the boat and renting a car to travel to nearby places made so much sense to me, even if it added to their trip expenses. Like most others, I also know I will not likely pass this way again, so seeing something special or memorable that requires a three-hour drive away from the marina is kind of a now-or-never opportunity.
Knowing I’m going to spend 650 to 850 hours chugging along one of the most unique waterway routes in North America, I again remind myself it is likely only going to happen once. That gives me pause, to consider all that is out there to experience, and balance that potential with the realities of what it will cost. This is a trip of a lifetime, and the memories will last the rest of my life.
So, I can’t help but think that seeing the special history of a town I never knew existed, and how it shaped our country in some special way, is ultimately more important to me than how many times I made dinner on the boat, anchored in a quiet and peaceful spot just off the waterway. For me, the Great Loop is about discovery and learning the history and contributions of those who came before me.
I will keep that very much in mind when I figure out how much my Loop should cost.
I suggest you do the same. You only live once.
Enjoy these other boating and cruising articles by Bill Parlatore:
- Cruising Boats Come Of Age
- Boat Buying Done Right
- Taking On The Great Loop
- Let's Go On The Great Loop!
- Tips For Preparing For The Great Loop
- Changing Rituals
- Did Wisdom Come To The Ancient Mariner?
- Going World Cruising? Not So Fast
- What Engines Are In Your Boat?
- Letting Go But Still In Control
- Learning To Handle A New Boat
- Improving The User Experience
- A Paradigm Shift In Cruising
- Consider Buddy Boating
- A Matter Of Staying Safe While Boating
- Should I Carry A Gun While Cruising?
- A Boater's 3-to-5 Year Plan
- Boat Tools: A 4-Part Series
- Provisioning Your Yacht For Extended Cruising - Bahamas
- Provisioning Your Yacht For Extended Cruising - Alaska
- The Evolution Of The Trawler Yacht