I have read many stories and blogs, and watched videos over the years from people who did the Great Loop, the connected waterways in America and Canada that circle the eastern portion of North America. As the Loop suggests, the point where you begin the trip is where you finish, crossing your wake as they say, some 6,000 miles later. For many boaters and people looking for an attainable adventure, this is a highlight on many bucket lists.
It is amazing how diverse this trip can be. I followed the adventure of Dave Pike, who did his Loop solo in a 15-foot Walker Bay inflatable, starting and ending his Loop in Grand Haven, Michigan. And I’ve met dozens of cruisers as they pass through Annapolis, on their way up the Bay to the C&D Canal.
Spend a few hours on the computer to read what people think is a good Loop boat and you’ll get lots of free advice and opinions. Most couples plan to do the Great Loop in a year. If you break the trip up into sections, it can be extended over a couple of years, if that better fits your preferences.
I get a kick reading some of the online advice about what are the “best” boats for the Loop, and frankly, I disagree with them all. Call me an old fuddy-dud, but I consider the Great Loop to be the quintessential trawler lifestyle experience. And it is the difference between exploring our national parks in a luxury motor coach and doing it in a Class B Sprinter van. The similarity between cruising boats and these RVs is striking. The motor coach offers spread-out living spaces, multiple slides with king-size bed, formal dining area, recliner chairs, and a luxurious bath with separate shower and washer/dryer. The converted Sprinter van is a cramped shoebox that may include a portable toilet. Which appeals to you to live in for a year?
Some suggested boats are not much more than pocket cruisers. Think about that. You will be living together for months on the boat, your home for 8 months or more. Where do you think you will put everything, the clothes, provisions, spares, tools, books and whatever for a year-long trip? A weekender is not going to make for a happy wife. On a small boat, every element of the boat must serve several purposes. A wet head, and daily need to fold and unfold furniture grows old quickly.
On the other hand, a trawler large enough for two people and their stuff is ideal for this adventure. The trawler lifestyle is about being comfortable and relaxed, and fully self-sufficient with the comforts of home. That is just not possible in a boat under a certain size. Will you be happy seeking out a laundromat on a regular basis for the better part of a year? I certainly would not, and I won’t even ask my wife...
Life is better on a larger trawler that has multiple spaces to relax, eat, read, write a blog, chill, and Zoom with family members to catch up with the latest news.
Let me share some information from a couple who did the Great Loop on their Grand Banks 42 Classic. That is a typical, good size for full time liveaboard cruising. Drawing a couple of inches more than 4 feet, however, they ran aground 17 times in their 5,605 miles Loop, which included the Trent Severn Waterway. (See map of their route.)
(Map used with permission Raven Cove Publishing, www.greatloop.com.)
They took a year, spending 253 days en route, with 136 days under way. The couple put 656 hours on their Lehman diesels, burning 2,825 gallons of diesel at an 8.5 mph average speed. All told, they spent about $24,000 to do the trip (I adjusted for current fuel prices), which included $10,000 for repairs along the way. (This figure does not, however, include an additional $15,000 for a new generator and inverter midway on their trip. Such is the reality of cruising on an older boat.)
For those who like details, the couple visited 19 states and provinces, traveled on 51 waterways, visited 90 marinas for 171 nights, went through 101 locks, and anchored, moored, or tied to a lock wall 52 times. They took more than 4,000 pictures.
Anyone interested in more detail of this trip-of-a-lifetime should check out the American Great Loop Cruisers Association (greatloop.org). The organization offers the most up-to-date information for anyone planning a Great Loop experience. They host rendezvous events at key locations along the Loop, are at many boat shows, and offer easy ways to connect with other like-minded people. The AGLCA maintains online resources that clarify the latest physical restrictions and recommendations for size, height, draft, beam, and other important data points for all variations of the Great Loop.
My suggestion is to write down the parameters of the route you want to do, then put together a list of requirements for the boat. In addition to being comfortable for a couple as a home during the trip, with the modern conveniences we now expect, it also needs certain equipment, layout, and hardware to safely serve your needs.
The best Loop boat will have a range of at least 500 miles. Having to refuel every day or every other day forces stops at marinas and takes away much of the freedom that a trawler provides. It can become a kind of delivery, with time schedules and route planning. The beauty of the trawler concept is self-sufficiency, which includes a longer range to fill up when the price is right. That couple with the Grand Banks 42 were able to travel from Brewerton, New York, all the way to DeTour Village, Michigan, without needing to buy expensive diesel fuel for the month they traveled on Canadian waters. The GB carries 650 gallons of fuel and 300 gallons of water, which makes for a competent, self-sufficient trawler.
(Seen below: The Rideau Canal in Ottawa is just one of several canals you'll cruise through along the Great Loop.)
Being able to run for four or five hours (the couple averaged 4.8 hours per day), then find a nice place to anchor or stop for the day. There are many guides. As one veteran told me, it is best to go for two days, then take a day off. Sound advice I’ve often followed.
In terms of performance, newer electronic engines (both diesel and gas) can handle the slower speeds of the Loop, which on canals, is limited to 5 mph. The rest of the time, depending on the boat, of course, up to 12 knots is a good target speed that balances fuel economy with making progress to see North America. This is where I make a case for displacement or semi-displacement trawlers. Big engines and fast cruisers are not the best choice for this adventure. Blasting around the Loop at high speed has been done, but what is the point? Did you even see anything? Again, as that Grand Banks couple were typical cruisers, they only went about 40 miles a day.
The new generation of cruising boats that are outboard powered will probably not have that kind of range, but offer other benefits, such as more internal storage. It is one of the tradeoffs of selecting a boat that works for you. An outboard-powered boat may be worth it if your plans after completing the Loop involve local cruising where you won’t need a full-time home afloat.
One consideration is the dinghy. Unless you have a small boat, chances are you will want to carry a dinghy. As you look at the cruising boat choices out there, think about how you can store a dinghy (and its outboard), then launch it, and retrieve it. Now imagine doing that a lot if you like to anchor out or explore from the mothership. The occasional frustration and inconvenience of dealing with a dinghy on some boats for a weekend will become a dreaded nightmare if it happens frequently. Wrestling an outboard over the side to mount it on the dinghy is not what most people look forward to. Unfortunately, towing a dinghy is impractical and not always safe.
Unfortunately, dinghy storage and launching systems are an afterthought on many cruising boats. (One pet peeve of mine is when people install those dinghy snaps on the swim platform to flip the dinghy vertically against the transom, which covers up the boat’s name and hailing port. Put the boat name on the bottom of the dinghy!)
Another important consideration is the ease of managing locks on the canals with just two people. A boat without side decks makes for a scramble while line handling. It is great if you have a midship cleat just outside the helm, so a spring line can be easily set by the person at the controls.
As I’ve said before, there will be the inevitable unexpected repair costs associated with owning an older boat and taking it on a year-long cruise. This is something to think about when planning the Loop. Do not just buy a boat, load your stuff, and leave. Get to know it and get comfortable with all aspects of boat operation. While you may not be far away from civilization and its services, it is best to go over all systems ahead of time, perhaps including an engine survey to eliminate problems during the trip. Twenty-year-old hoses may need to be replaced, electrical wiring checked for corrosion, possibly new batteries, and systems serviced as necessary.
Enrolling in the BoatUS towing service is well worth it. Same for Sea Tow in regions it serves.
There is one unique and humorous aspect of the Great Loop that many don’t realize, especially cruisers used to the self-sufficiency mantra. Pete Kopchak presented his trip to our audience early on when the trip was still called the Great Circle. (The AGLCA did not yet exist and Pete and his wife were early pioneers.) The couple spent four years preparing their Hatteras LRC 42 for the trip.
Fully stocked and provisioned, with spares for everything, they did the Great Loop...and returned home with all those provisions and parts they had so carefully stored and documented. We all laughed when Pete reflected that they planned as if they were heading deep into the Amazon, when, in reality, they were stopping for the night in places like Albany, Michigan City, Charleston, and Mobile.
(Seen below: Bohicket Marina on Seabrook ISland is a popular stopping point in Charleston along The Great Loop.)
I have done sections of the Loop and my best advice is to slow down and enjoy it. Remember, it is not a delivery and you are not likely to come this way again. I try (usually in vain) to get Loopers I meet to not do the Chesapeake Bay in three days (Norfolk to Solomons to Annapolis to C&D Canal). That is what they do, however, and while they may later say they saw the Chesapeake, no, they did not see the Chesapeake. The same can be said for most other areas along the Loop. The Thousand Islands comes to mind, as does Charleston and New York City. The Rideau Canal is a magical side trip, the Great Lakes are impressive (and freshwater!), and the Gulf Coast, South Florida, and the ICW all have charm of their own.
It is no wonder many people from around this country and Canada hope one day to do the Great Loop. From what my broker friends tell me, it has grown in popularity with couples and families from across Europe and Down Under.
It is a special way to see and experience North America, and lifelong friendships, experiences, and memories are guaranteed.
What are you waiting for?
(Also read: Taking On The Great Loop!)