How to Prepare Your Boat For The Great Loop

How to Prepare Your Boat For The Great Loop

Thousands of boats have completed America’s Great Loop circumnavigation of the Eastern U.S. If you want to join them, here’s some info to get you started.

Feeling Loopy?

Thousands of boats have completed America’s Great Loop circumnavigation of the Eastern U.S. If you want to join them, here’s some info to get you started.

It seems like every other person I speak with these days has either just completed America’s Great Loop, is ready to start Looping, or is at least thinking about it. Some of these folks don’t even own boats yet, but plan to buy one just to Loop. If you don’t have any desire to head offshore, and have the time for an adventure that can take anywhere from a few months to several years, you might be a Looper, too. Once you “cross your wake” (Looper-speak for finishing the circumnavigation), you’ll be a member of what may be the fastest-growing fraternity in the boating world.

Just what is the Great Loop? It’s a network comprising the Great Lakes; various canals, rivers and sounds; the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. It encircles the eastern United States, from the Outer Banks to the Mississippi River, from the Canadian border to the Florida Keys. Typically, Loopers cruise north on the Hudson River, then head west on the New York State canals to the Great Lakes during the summer, which is ideal cruising season for these parts. When autumn arrives, they head south from Chicago via the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers to the Tenn-Tom Waterway, which shoots them out at Mobile, Alabama.

Mobile and its relatively protected waters are a good place to wait out hurricane season before continuing the trip to Florida. Most Loopers cruise the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) to Carrabelle, Florida, then jump offshore to Tarpon Springs when the weather looks friendly. They mooch around Florida for the winter, then head north on the Atlantic ICW, Chesapeake and Delaware Bays in the spring, arriving back in New York at the start of summer. Since this is an actual loop, you can start your circumnavigation anywhere you’d like along the route, but it’s best to do the various segments when the weather is friendly. Most Loopers put about 6,000 miles under the keel doing so.

Bueller? Bueller? If your boat can fit under a 17-foot bridge, you can cruise right through downtown Chicago. 19” will get you the whole Loop.

Photo: Sarah Bowlin

The Lowdown on Looping

There’s an ocean of information on the Great Loop online, including lots of YouTube videos, but I recommend first joining the America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association (AGLCA). Annual dues are $89, and there’s a discount for multi-year enrollment. Any Looper worthy of the name is a member. The association offers advice and instruction, both online (lots of webinars) and in person, in standalone classes and at seasonal rendezvous where veteran Loopers hold seminars on almost every aspect of Looping.

Kim Russo, AGLCA director, said that while most Loopers have done boating in limited areas, they might not know about dealing with extreme tidal ranges and strong currents, how to operate around commercial traffic, how to communicate with tows over the VHF, how to handle the 75 to 100 locks and so forth—all things they will encounter on the Loop. “We have events throughout the year to help educate people,” Russo said. “And don’t fear the locks.” Yes, there’s an AGLCA shop, with a selection of books to read to learn about the Loop, too.

Curtis Stokes denies he’s the yacht broker to the Great Loop, but admits the Loop is a huge part of his business. One of Stokes’s brokers, Michael Martin, has completed the Loop twice in his Silverton 410, and was more than halfway through his third trip when I spoke with him. (Twice around makes you a Platinum Looper in the eyes of the AGLCA; you’re Gold after one lap.) Martin works exclusively with Great Loop clients, and thinks he might be the only broker in America who does.

The Caribbean-blue waters of Canada’s Bruce Peninsula National Park await the dedicated long-distance Looper.

Photo: Cobi Sharpie

Best Boat

All kinds of craft have completed the Loop, from kayaks and PWCs to narrowboats designed for English canals. The Loop is really just a series of day trips, stopping every night in a marina or to anchor, with a couple of relatively short offshore passages that can be easy if you pick your weather. Boats comfortable for overnight cruising should be fine for Looping too, maybe with the addition of a few pieces of gear, provided they meet draft, bridge clearance and cruising range parameters.

Draft-wise, keep it under five feet—most powerboats that Loopers choose draw less, but if you’ve got a sailboat it’s a concern. I’ve never done the Great Loop myself, but I’ve made the north-south transit of the Atlantic ICW many times, and I can tell you from experience that less draft is better, unless you enjoy kedging off. Bridge clearance must be a maximum of 19 feet; less is better. There’s a fixed bridge outside of Chicago with a vertical clearance of 19’6”; there’s no way to bypass this bridge, so if your boat won’t fit under it, you’re not doing the Loop. Sailboats remove their masts and either carry them on deck (awkward) or ship them to Mobile (expensive). Dave Wray adapted the radar mast on his Mainship 35 so he could lay it down to get under low bridges; a competent boatyard can often modify radar arches to fold down, too.

Finally, there’s cruising range. There’s a long stretch of Loop approaching Paducah, KY, without facilities—no fuel, no marinas—requiring a cruising range of at least 250 miles, according to most Loopers. Stokes says 300 miles, and I agree with him. Nothing ruins a nice day on the water faster than watching the fuel gauge head for E, while wondering how accurate it really is. When calculating your fuel burn, don’t forget the generator’s consumption. When you turn into the Ohio River from the Mississippi en route to Paducah, the strong current is now against you, so take that into account. And, finally, consider that distances on inland waters are usually given in statute miles, so if you’ve calculated your cruising range in nautical miles, you’ll have to convert. (One nautical mile = 1.15 statute miles = 1.85 kilometers.)

There’s no ideal Great Loop boat, said Stokes, but boats between 38 and 42 feet are in the sweet spot. Smaller boats burn less fuel and cost less for dockage; most people think fuel’s the biggest Looping expense, but it’s often dockage. If you’re buying a boat for Looping, make sure you can get insurance: Boats older than 20 years are hard to insure, as are boats more than 10 or 12 feet bigger than the one you already have. Martin adds, “Buy a boat that’s already done the Loop. Loopers live and die by their boats, so you can be confident that a Loop boat has been well-maintained, and everything works.”

Do You Have a Machete?

Tom Corrigan was taken aback when he turned his 30-foot Sea Ray from the Mississippi onto the Ohio River during his 19-month Great Loop cruise. (He took a lot of side trips, including to the Bahamas.) Corrigan’s twin-Mercruiser Sea Ray carries only 100 gallons of fuel in the tanks, so he added a 50-gallon fuel bladder on deck to give him more range. But when he hit the Ohio’s strong head current, he found his fuel level dropping faster than expected. Corrigan had to quickly transfer gas from the bladder to the tanks while keeping the boat under control in the current, and do it all single-handedly. “My crew, Hank, couldn’t help; he doesn’t have any thumbs,” said Corrigan—Hank being a Labrador retriever.

Corrigan set out on the Great Loop when Covid shut down his office; he’s a CPA, and could work from home, so he decided to move aboard and go Looping, with only Hank as crew. “People ask me why I chose this boat for the Loop,” he said. “It’s easy: It’s the boat I had.” It turned out to be the perfect Loop boat, he said, even though it’s on the smaller end. Managing the fuel was the most critical aspect, but the boat’s 22-knot cruising speed in good conditions, and with no fuel-supply issues, gave Corrigan the flexibility to make his 30- to 50-mile daily run early, getting started at the crack of dawn, then put in a full day “at the office” while at a marina or anchored.

The Sea Ray wasn’t completely Loop-ready when Corrigan cast off, and modifying it was a continuous evolution. At the first Erie Canal lock, a woman on another Loop boat asked him if he had a machete. “I thought, ‘Do I need it for self-defense?’” But later, at Lock 34 on the western part of the canal, he found out: A piece of rebar sticking out of the lock wall caught one of his fenders, and started pulling the boat down, stretching both the fender and its lanyard. Corrigan managed to kick the fender free without serious damage, but it was stretched beyond recognition. A machete could have hacked the lanyard—or fender—the moment things went sideways. “I got online to Amazon and ordered a machete, to be overnighted to me at the next marina,” he said.

“A knife is absolutely necessary,” added Michael Martin. “Lines can hang up; you need to cut them quickly.” He keeps a razor-sharp dive knife strapped to a rail, where it’s easy to reach, and all crew know where it is. “When the line’s tight, it doesn’t take much to cut it,” he said.

What Else Do You Need?

In addition to the typical electronics package, every Looper I contacted has AIS, essential for keeping track of all the commercial traffic you’re sharing the waterway with, often tugs pushing countless barges: Getting out of their way is easier if you know they’re coming, rather than running head-on into a tow on a narrow, tight bend in a channel. Martin also recommends radar.

Like most Loopers, Martin uses a tablet and smart phone for navigation, along with his built-in plotter. For his loop, Corrigan relied on ActiveCaptain on his iPad to lay out the next day’s route, then uploaded it wirelessly to his Garmin chart plotter. Along with Navionics, Aqua Maps is an excellent charting program. But while electronic charts are kept up-to-date, I think you should also carry paper charts. They cost a lot more than they used to, but many old fogeys like me prefer them to electronics for piloting, or for simply getting a good perspective on what lies ahead. And carry current Waterway Guides, too.

You’ll want two VHFs to monitor channels 16 and 13 simultaneously. You’ll need channel 13 for communicating with commercial vessels; call them directly on channel 13—don’t bother with 16. Corrigan carried a handheld VHF for monitoring channel 16, and said it was all he needed.

Kim Russo also recommends you keep a pair of tough gloves handy. Lock walls are filthy, and lines get filthy, too. And add an ice scraper, said Corrigan, for chilly mornings before you get far enough south in the fall. He had to tackle frost with his AAA card.

Most Loopers carry a dinghy, easily deployed and retrieved. Corrigan did most of his trip without one, and taking Hank ashore for his morning and evening constitutionals was often problematic when at anchor. When he reached Florida he bought a BOTE Rover inflatable paddleboard that could take a 3.5-hp outboard. (Weighing 65 lbs with a motor, BOTE calls them “micro skiffs.”) The board fit on the foredeck, lashed to the bow rails, while the motor fit in a lazarette. It made life a lot better, he said, “but your feet get wet, so it’s not good for cold weather.” (So add some wetsuit booties to your shopping list too.)

Finally, there’s ground tackle. Whether you Loop or not, good ground tackle is good insurance, so maybe it’s time to upgrade yours. Loopers carry at least two, and sometimes three anchors, with lots of rode. Dave Wray carries a 44-pound Bruce-style claw on 110 feet of chain and more than 100 feet of rope as the primary anchor on his Mainship. He said it held well in most conditions, but dragged a few times amidst soft bottoms and strong, shifting winds, “like the channel in Georgetown, S.C., with its silt bottom,” he said. Martin uses a Rocna with an orientation-assisting roll bar as his primary anchor, on 50 feet of chain and 200 feet of rope, and a lightweight Fortress fluke as a stern, or a second bow, anchor. He said you sometimes have to set two anchors to keep from swinging in tight anchorages. Carry different anchor types for different bottoms—on many rivers, for example, the bottom is covered with several feet of pluff mud, which the anchor has to drop through before it can hold.

So are you ready to set out on America’s Great Loop? Why not? You only live once. Michael Martin says “Don’t wait. Don’t go blindly, but don’t over-plan, either. You’ll learn a lot while doing the Loop—something new every single day. It’s such a great adventure.”

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This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


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