Some people dream about it. Others seize the wheel and do it. America’s Great Loop is a unique venue that encompasses the eastern third of the United States, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. Experiencing all or part of the Loop is a bucket-list goal for numerous power cruising enthusiasts. Passagemaker found several families for whom the Loop has played a central role in their boating lives. They’ve done, or are in the process of doing, the Loop in different iterations on different types of boats. Here, they share the joys, challenges and tribulations they encountered along the track. We hope their experiences and insights inspire you to cast off on a Great Loop adventure of your own.
Crew: Bill and Amy Denison
Ages: Bill 69, Amy 67
Home Port: Albemarle Plantation, Hertford, North Carolina
Boat: 2016 Back Cove 41 MAR-KAT
Prior to our current boat, a Sabre, we had a 2016 Back Cove 41, which we traveled aboard on the Great Loop. In 2006, we had a 1991 Grand Banks 42, which we had for 10 years and put 3,500 hours on. All our boats have been named MAR-KAT after our daughters, Margaret and Kathleen.
Boating experience prior to the Loop
During the time we had the Grand Banks 42, we traveled several times to Florida from North Carolina. We also went to Georgian Bay in Ontario in 2014 and completed the triangle loop, which took us round-trip on the Trent-Severn Waterway. Then we did the Rideau Canal to Ottawa and cruised down the St. Lawrence to Montreal, and then on to the Richelieu River’s Chambly Canal to Lake Champlain. We returned to the Hudson River by the Champlain Canal. We transited over 100 locks. On the maiden voyage of the Back Cove 41, we decided to go to Nova Scotia. We left in mid-June and headed north up the East Coast to spend a month in Maine prior to the 90-mile crossing the Gulf of Maine to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. We spent about six weeks traveling the southern coast of Nova Scotia, visiting Shelburne, Lunenburg and Halifax before reaching our final destination of the Bras d’Or Lake at Cape Breton Island.
Length of trip in months and miles
We estimate that our Great Loop trip was around 7,000 miles and transited 18 states and provinces. It took us 11 months for the entire trip. Twice, we stopped and left the boat while we traveled home to take care of personal business.
We left in early June 2018 from North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound northbound on the Intracoastal Waterway to Norfolk, Virginia. The weather being perfect, we decided to run up the coast to New York City with an overnight stop in Cape May, New Jersey. Then we made our way up the Hudson River to Albany, New York, where we traveled west on the Erie Canal to Oswego, New York. We headed east to cruise around the Thousand Islands. We cleared customs in Gananoque, Ontario, and then headed over to the Trent-Severn Waterway. From there, we exited the waterway in Severn and proceeded to go up the east side of the Bruce Peninsula in Georgian Bay, Ontario. We went through the bay’s North Channel westward, heading to Drummond Island in Michigan to clear U.S. customs. Then it was down the western shore of Michigan to Chicago, then down the Illinois River, the Mississippi River, up the Ohio River to Kentucky Lake, and down the rivers to Mobile, Alabama. We traveled the panhandle of Florida and the west coast to Key West, Florida, and up the east coast of Florida and the Intracoastal Waterway back to North Carolina. When the weather was right, we took the opportunity to do as many ocean passages as we could up the East Coast, since we have traveled these waters many times on the ICW.
How did you decide to do the Loop?
Sitting around the dining room table one December night, we were trying to decide where to cruise during the next summer. Since we had cruised from Fort Myers, Florida, to the Georgian Bay on our Grand Banks during prior years, we figured we had completed at least half of the Loop, so we just concluded to do the rest of it. After years of cruising, we never really contemplated such a journey, so we figured, Why not do it? One of our cruising friends had completed the Loop in his trawler a few years prior, and he had a blast.
How long did the idea gestate?
It took us about six months to get everything ready. There is a great deal of planning that goes into such a journey. One nice thing was we had our 2-year-old Back Cove 41 MAR-KAT to do the trip on, so we had confidence in the boat. After all, MAR-KAT’s maiden voyage was from our home port to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. We bought all the waterway guides and charts (we are old school) and studied them during the winter months. We also had to research the Canadian and U.S. customs requirements. We also completed all the routine maintenance so we would not need any service for 250 hours.
What made you choose the boat you did the trip on?
We had the Back Cove 41 and put about 600 hours on her prior to the start, so the boat was well experienced. The Back Cove 41 proved to be the perfect boat for the trip. It has speed and plenty of room for storage while living aboard. It has the additional benefit of a 15-foot air draft, so we were able to clear most all of the bridges without needing an opening. The Back Cove can also operate at displacement speeds for better fuel economy.
What modifications did you make to your boat for the Loop?
During the commissioning, we had a full complement of Raymarine electronics installed including two multifunction displays, digital color radar, autopilot, AIS and SiriusXM weather. We also added storage below the helm station, and more shelves in the galley. A Hurley H2O davit system was installed for easy launching of our AB Inflatables dinghy. A dinghy is a must for exploring out-of-the-way places while on the Loop.
How did you plan your route?
We had a rough idea of the route beforehand, and we knew we wanted to spend six to eight weeks in the Great Lakes. We studied the charts carefully and used Waterway Guide and Skipper Bob Cruising Guides as resources. The Great Lakes Cruising Club was a great online reference for harbors and anchorages. The America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association was also a most helpful resource.
Did you follow your plan, or did you wing it?
We had a general plan, but we felt flexibility on destinations would be important. So, we did do some on-the-fly decisions. We had many destinations we wanted to visit, such as Mackinac Island and New York City. As we met fellow Loopers, they made some suggestions, and sometimes we would travel together.
What would you recommend to anyone considering the trip?
Be prepared and plan for any eventuality. Know your boat and its systems. Things will fail, and it is important to be able to work around problems such as electronics failures. We had a navigation chip failure, so we had to navigate for several weeks on the inland rivers using an iPad with Navionics software. It is important to have sufficient spares on board to take care of routine servicing such as oil changes. Always have a plan B, as you may have to divert to an alternate harbor.
What were the most valuable lessons you learned?
It is important to be flexible for any eventuality. Play the “what if” game. What if the weather changes? What if the generator will not start? Crew coordination is always essential. You are a team. Your second-in-command should be familiar with the boat’s systems. We have hand signals developed for anchoring and docking so there is no yelling.
What advice would you give someone who’s considering doing it?
Be prepared and do your homework ahead of time. You have to be able to take care of all the things that you do at your land home, so you have to think about your personal business such as bill paying, telecommunications and provisioning. Join the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association. Read as much as you can about the trip ahead of time.
What were the pinnacle experiences you had on the trip?
The Georgian Bay and the North Cannel in Canada are not to be missed. It is stunningly beautiful. There are so many small towns and anchorages to explore. There are many great restaurants and breweries that should not be missed. Bobby Dahlberg’s Fish Camp on the Tombigbee River was an interesting local hangout known for fried catfish. Staying in Chicago and cruising through downtown was very memorable. The Hudson Valley in New York was very scenic, and it was well worth stopping there in Safe Harbor Haverstraw marina and at the Albany Yacht Club. Spending a month in Key West, Florida, was a reward toward the end of our trip. We will not forget dragging anchor at 0200 behind an island where the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers join, and going over the dam on the Ohio River.
What would you tell people to avoid?
Don’t be in a hurry. It is your Loop, so do it your way. Also, don’t have a schedule because that will force you to make unwise decisions. Have fun and enjoy the experience. Learn about the places you are visiting by going to museums and historical sites and engaging the locals.
Trawler Talk Podcast: The Great Loop
In this episode, special guest Kim Russo (AGLCA) shares her “local knowledge” about the Great Loop and how to make this bucket-list item a reality. LISTEN NOW!