“Everything you put on your boat should have at least three uses,” we were advised when we bought our 31-foot Camano trawler Sweet Day to embark on the Great Loop. We carried unopened pasta flour for 8,000 miles, so we can’t say we fully agree with the advice.
But we were committed to exploring as much as we could on our year-long cruise. We invested in a dinghy so we could travel waters that Sweet Day couldn’t, and having bikes on board was a must. They are an excellent mode of transportation, method of exercise and tool to see places that broaden your perspective, clearly passing the three-use test.
One gold burgee from the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association later, we couldn’t imagine cruising without them.
Why We Love Having Bikes On Board
Anyone familiar with the cruising lifestyle knows that some days can be quite sedentary, with long stretches at the helm and minimal space to move about. Bikes create a great opportunity to get off the boat, move your legs, run some errands and explore—all in one activity.
Thanks to our bikes, we never had to wait for an Uber or courtesy car (if there even were one) or pay extra to have groceries delivered. Carrying food back to a 31-foot boat via bikes also required us to be thoughtful about how much we bought. This discipline led to the unexpected benefit of decreased food waste and increased savings.
Bikes are also a great way to explore. Most of our favorite memories happened off the boat and away from the proximity of a marina. We biked the entirety of Chesapeake Bay’s enchanting Smith Island, to see the community and wildlife beyond the town center, and we dinghied to the island’s village of Tylerton to taste what are arguably the best crab cakes in the region. After we cruised to Delaware City, Del., we raced boats along the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal by bike. We cycled from The Wharf Marina in Orange Beach, Ala., through Gulf State Park so we could put our toes in salt water after months of cruising inland waters. Pedaling put us at the ideal speed for taking everything in, and we covered significantly more ground—all while expending less energy—than we would have on foot.
We’re foodies, often seeking out bakeries, restaurants and lunch counters in and near the ports we visit. One of the best parts about traveling is eating something delicious made by people who do it best. After settling Sweet Day at her temporary quay, we often hopped on our bikes, sought out the highest-rated places on Google, and embarked on our own self-guided food tours.
While we love a good waterside tiki bar, our best meals were often found after a bike ride. In Fort Myers, Fla., we trekked 2 miles to the Farmers Market Restaurant, which has been serving Southern home cooking since 1952. In Buffalo, N.Y., we spent a drizzly day eating our way around the city, learning that its pizza rivals its wings. In Cleveland, we biked through Cuyahoga Valley National Park for fresh corn on the cob at Szalay’s Farm and Market.
We’re still dreaming about the turkey sandwiches from Bartlett House, found on a 10-mile ride outside Hudson, N.Y. And on a sunny morning in Michigan, we packed our pannier bags with locally made bread and produce from Detroit’s Eastern Market—one of the best and largest farmers markets we found on our loop.
Our bikes have also been vital tools in fighting the boredom that sometimes accompanies long boat trips. We’ve all been stuck in port longer than anticipated, either because of weather or waiting for a part. With bikes, the number of things to do exponentially increases.
In Leland, Mich., we couldn’t stand feeling trapped on a beautiful but too-windy day for Lake Michigan. So, we hopped on our bikes and cruised winding country roads to hike at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and treated ourselves to cold beer and pizza on the ride back. When we broke down for a week in Port Huron, Mich., we passed the time riding along the cerulean St. Clair River to the beach so we could swim in Lake Huron’s clear, fresh water. Whenever we weren’t using our bikes, we lent them to our fellow boaters so they could also explore.
The Right Bikes, The Right Stowage
We cruise with two Jamis Renegade steel gravel bikes. Gravel bikes are a hybrid of a road bike and a mountain bike. The larger tires with extra tread offer grip and confidence on paved and unpaved roads, with stout casings for protection from punctures. The riding position is designed for comfort on longer rides. We love these bikes because you can put some miles on them, but they are durable enough to handle a variety of terrain.
With any outdoor activity, it’s important to have the right gear. We kept the following items on board: pannier bags (for provisioning), a bike pump, gear oil, a flat-tire repair kit, locks, helmets, water bottles, a hex key set, extra chains, clear nail polish (to cover chips and prevent rust on the frame) and bike lights. Most of these items can fit in a backpack, making them easy to stow.
Our bikes sit in the back of the boat and are secured to the railings with twist ties. We purchased inexpensive car mats to throw on the deck, so there’s minimal opportunity for scuff marks. We take the bikes off the boat or put them in our cabin when we need to access the dinghy.
Saltwater plus bikes can be tough. About once a month, we cleaned the bikes and lubricated the chains. Halfway through our trip, we ended up completely replacing the chains (which is why it’s great to have backups). There is a bit more work to do than when keeping bikes in your garage, but as long as you have a tolerance for some wear and tear, and the willingness to stay on top of regular maintenance, bikes are well worth the extra work. Plus, bike shops are a staple in many towns, making help generally easy to find along the way.
Full-size, heavier steel bikes work great for our needs, but require a bit more investment in space. Foldaway bikes are popular for their space-saving features, but their smaller wheels can result in an uncomfortable ride depending on your terrain and may not be great for riding long distances.
Making sure the bikes are easy to access is key. Like most things, the easier it is to access something, the more likely it is that you will use it. What’s worse than not having bikes on board is having bikes that you never use and that take up valuable stowage.
Once you are ready to start putting in road miles, Strava and Google Maps are great tools to find bike-friendly routes. Google Maps has a feature that highlights bike paths, with turn-by-turn directions and bike-friendly streets. Strava is a fitness-community app that lets members see popular biking routes. We were always amazed at the number of bike-friendly roads and protected bike paths along our cruising journey.
If you’re not ready to commit just yet, many cities have bike-share services that make it easy to rent a bike. Some marinas have bikes available to borrow. One of our cruising friends purchased bikes for a monthlong stay in the Florida Keys and then sold them to avoid the hassle of having to stow them.
When researching whether to take bikes on board, it is common to hear, “If you don’t bike at home, you won’t bike while cruising.” Yes, we biked before we cruised, but we don’t think the decision is that simple. Because just like cruising, there is no “right way” to ride. It’s all about making sure you have the right tools so you can create the experience you want to have.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue.