Guide To America's Great Loop : Part 1

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Photo Courtesy of Americas Great Loop Cruisers Association

Many people dream of taking the trip of a lifetime, but keep pushing it aside for many different reasons. If you are an avid boater, chances are you have fantasized about exploring new boating destinations but if you're not up for making a long ocean passage, there is a fantastic alternative. Cruising America's Great Loop promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience where you will never be far from the conveniences on land.

What is The Great Loop?

By definition, The Great Loop is the circumnavigation of Eastern North America by water also referred to as America's Great Loop and the Great Circle Route, the trip varies from 5,000 to 7,500 miles (8,000 to 12,000 km) depending on route options and detours taken. It has been said to be the world's safest and most scenic continuous waterway. Surely, it is the boating adventure of a lifetime that will take you to shorelines extending from the Florida Keys to Canada. As you make your way on this dream journey, you will cruise along beaches, pass the Statue of Liberty by way of the Hudson River, journey through the Historic Erie Canal, across downtown Chicago, down inland rivers of the heartlands and finally to the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Most "loopers" choose to cruise the Great Loop in a counter clockwise direction, so as to literally go with the flow, with the first leg of their trip (depending on starting point) consisting of heading up the Atlantic ICW to the Hudson River. Cruising speed will normally clock in around 8 or 9 knots (10 MPH) which will average you about 50 miles per day. For most, it will take between 9 months to a year to complete The Great Loop and "pass your wake" as they say. This is definitely a leisurely cruise on which you should take your time and stop frequently to take in all the amazing sights you will encounter. As opposed to a long ocean passage, you will never lose sight of land while cruising the Great Loop, an aspect that many boaters appreciate. Always being close to shore allows you the comfort and security of moving through waterways that have easy access to hospitals, banks, pharmacies, airports, etc., should you need to utilize these conveiniences. 

All different types and sizes of watercraft have successfully completed The Great Loop and boaters have started their journey at all different points. Maybe you will prefer to tie up at a marina most nights while others will chose to anchor out as much as possible. You get to tailor this adventure to your lifestyle and preferences, there is no right or wrong way to experience it.  If this is on your bucket list, don't keep putting it off year after year. Start planning now to make you're dream a reality. No matter your boating experience or financial situation, with the right planning and preparation, navigating America's Great Loop is an achievable adventure for all.

Your Boat 

Needless to say, your boat will will be your home away from home, playing a huge role in your comfort and safety while adventuring through The Great Loop. Experts advise that no matter whether your vessel is a sailboat, cruiser, sportfish or trawler, a good boat size for the Great Loop is in the range between 28 and 38 feet. The size of your vessel is a decision that will depend on what you are most comfortable in and what allows you to maintain the lifestyle you prefer. On a long journey of this nature, a smaller boat tends to be easier to handle and more economical. Many people cruise the loop as a couple, so bear in mind that your boat should always be safe and easy to handle by one person and that one person should be the weakest or less knowledgable person of the two incase the afficianado becomes incapacitated for whatever reason.

Many "loopers" prefer to do their Great Loop traveling on board trawlers such as a Grand Banks or Back Cove. Trawlers are so popular on the loop because they offer the most comfortable interior live aboard and have safe 360 degree walk around deck space that is especially great in the over 100 locks you will enoucter. A comfortable interior on your boat is very imporant - you'll want good headroom, a nice galley and salon and good berths. Keep in mind however that 85% of your time awake will be spent at the helm so make sure your boat provides you with just as much comfort in the helm station as it does in your sleeping quarters. You'll want comfortable seating, and room for a few amenities in the helm station. When selecting the right vessle for you, if your budget doesn't allow for a new boat, don't worry, there are many exceptional pre-owned boats on the market today that will be suitable for your journey. 

Key Vessel and Equipment Requirements

Fuel Considerations - Your boat must have a minimum fuel range of 250 miles. This will be the farthest distance between available fuels stops if you take the standard Tennessee-Tombigbee route. If you want to go the optional Lower Mississippi River route from Cairo to New Orleans, your diesel powered boat will need an even larger cruising range of 376 miles. Your gasoline powered vessel must have a cruising range of at least 450 miles. This is because there is a "Diesel Fuel Only" truck delivery service on the Mississippi river.

Boat Clearance - Between Chicago and the Illinois River, your vessel will need to be able to clear a fixed bridge with an above water height of 19' 1". There is not an alternative route around this bridge. After taking down all removable objects such as antennas, masts and bimini tops, your boat's structure mustn't exceed the heigh allowance of 19' 1".

Boat Draft - Your boat should have a draft of no more th  an 5 feet. This means that the part of your boat extending below the water should not be deeper than 5 feet. Some will tell you the limit is 6 feet and you can make the journey with a 6; draft, but it will restrict your route choices. If you want to cruise the optional Canadian Heritage Canals, your full load draft must absolutely be 5 feet or less. As a rule of thumb for the Great Loop, the less draft you have, the less you'll have to worry about depths in certain areas.

Fresh Water Capacity - You will want as much fresh water as you can possibly get. You'll have to decide when and how you want to use it. According to the US Dept. of Environmental Protection, the average American family uses 500 gallons of water every day with 70% of that being indoor use related to showers, flushing the toilet and brushing teeth. Most Gret Loop live aboard size boats will have a water tank capacity in thenighborhood of 90 gallons and couples will have to stop and fill their tanks regularly. 

Engines - On America's Great Loop your speed will be limited for the duration of your voyage. It will not matter how fast your boat is capable of going. If you are looking to make this voyage on a frugal budget, select a boat or an engine based on it's minimum hourly fuel burn rate, and it will be crucial for you know what that figure is. 

Holding Tank Capacity - Both fresh water capacity and holding tank capacity will depend much on your lifestyle, type of boat, and individuals aboard. The more fresh water you have on board, the better. However, boat manufacturers never include enough water storage. If you don't learn to conserve your water, you will be filling your water tank(s) daily.

Electrical Power - This will depends on the amenities you decide to  bring aboard. It is recommended that you have two - 30 amp versus one 50 amp shore power connections. Additionally, you will need a 30 amp female to 15 amp male reducer.

Top-side and Deck - It is highly suggested that your Great Loop vessel provide you with unobstructed walk-a-round decks with flat, clear, easy access from Bow to Stern. For working docks & Locks, the flatter and wider the walkways, the safer and better. On your journey, you will pass through over 100 Locks. If it is difficult and/or slippery to walk or maneuver around the sides, bow to stern on your vessel - you'll have to be extra careful in the Locks - and it won't be fun as you have over a 100 to pass through.

Anchors - You need two heavy anchors, and a very good anchoring system on board. A Danforth and a Bruce Plow anchor will be ideal  for the varying bottom types you will encounter. Consider having your anchors surpass the size recommend for your boat's size- this will reduce your chances of running into any issues. You'll need strong, heavy anchors, a heavy chain, and all the USCG recommended rode. You will want (and possibly need) the second anchor as a spare. It's not uncommon to loose an anchor so having a spare is wise. 

Fresh Water filter - You won't want to drink from your fresh water tank, that is unless you have a good water filtration system onboard. If you decide to go with out a filter, note that you'll definitely need to bring bottled water as part of your on board provisions. 

TV - If TV is important to you, like it is to millions of other American's, you will need a digital unidirectional air TV antenna. You'll find that free air digital TV is available all around the Great Loop.

Bimini Top or Flybridge Top - Whether it is a large bimini top or a the hard top of a flybridge, your boat will need to be equipped with something that can provide you with a good level of shade when outdoors. 

Here is a list of items you should definitely have on board your vessel.

  • Navigational charts (Paper charts are discouraged as they quickly become outdated)
  • GPS Navigational System
  • Secondary depth finder 
  • VHF radio
  • Dinghy (as long as your vessel is live-aboard size)
  • Waterway guides (Skipper Bob's comes highly recommended) 

Great Loop Timing Suggestions

Once your boat has been properly prepped for your voyage, it is time to chart your course. As stated above, it will take most people 9 months to a year to complete the loop. It doesn't matter at what starting point you begin your trip, because after all, it is a circumnavigation. The most important guideline to adhere when planning your traveling is the seasons. Veteran "looper" Captain John provides a smart way to remember in which season you should arrive to a particular geographic location. 

1. Spring Up - In spring, head up the Atlantic ICW.
2. Shuffle Off - In summer, "shuffle off" to Buffalo (and on to Chicago)
3. Fall Down - In fall, go down the rivers of the heartland.
4. Winter Across - In winter, pass into the warmer Gulf.

America's Great Loop Cruisers Association provides the following "ideal calendar" as guideline for seasonally traveling the Great Loop. 

Late March/Early April - Begin moving Northward from Florida. The Bahamas is also ideal in April/May, so later departure there is okay, too.

Early May - Earliest arrival in Chesapeake Bay. Any earlier you'll be subject to spring gales and cold fronts. Wait for Spring! Mid-May is the ideal time to arrive in Chesapeake Bay.

Early June - Earliest arrival at Waterford, NY (above Albany, start of Erie or Champlain Canals). Earlier arrivals are subject to lots of damaging floating "drift" (deadheads); and, in many years, such high water from spring runoff and snow-melt, that earlier arrivals often trap people in the canals due to high water/lock flooding - sometimes for a week or more. Intermittent canal closures/horror stories generally end by mid-June, as it is then late spring in this area.

Late June/Early July - A summer arrival in far upstate New York brings the ideal time to explore the Thousand Islands, Rideau Canal Loop to Ottawa, etc.

Mid-July to Mid-August - Great time for the North Channel segment. Plenty of time to go as slow as you like here, it is the pinnacle of most Looper experiences. 

Mid-August - About the latest for those who took the Rideau or the Champlain routes to enter the Trent Severn System.

Late August to Early September - About time to transit back into USA . Consider great detour to the Soo Locks. (Avoid Mackinaw Island around Labor Day crowds)

Labor Day - Time to begin moving down Lake Michigan, leaving several weather days in your plans for this big open lake segment. No need to push yet, plenty of harbors to hop.

Late September - Fine time to visit Chicago, leave the Lakes and enter the Illinois River system. Much earlier and you can have oppressive late summer heat waves. Much later and it may get chilly.

October - Start working your way slowly South, cruising the Cumberland or Tennessee Rivers 

Early-Mid November - Lower Tenn-Tom.

Late November to Mid-March - Winter anywhere South, as desired, or, Bahamas in February/March. South of Tampa Bay to Ft. Lauderdale will be noticeably milder than along the Gulf Coast.

Our Guide To America's Great Loop : Part 2 provides details on each of the 13 routes to take on the Great Loop as well as information on marinas, fuel stops and sites to see as you make your way around the country. Click here for Part 2. 

 


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