Who knew that a huge chunk of America is an island? Sure, we have lots of smaller islands, from Manhattan in New York to Catalina in California, but this one is about 1,000 miles across and 1,100 miles north to south—and a lot of skippers have discovered that you can circumnavigate it.
These skippers are called Great Loopers, and their Great Loop route takes them up the East Coast, across rivers and canals to the Great Lakes, down rivers to the Gulf of Mexico, and around Florida to the East Coast again. Or the other way.
But before you cast off on this 6,000-mile, all-American (or mostly American, if you tiptoe into Canada) cruise, there’s a lot to know. A whole lot.
First, what craft can make the Loop? Boats as small as personal watercraft (oh, spare me!) and as large as 70-plus footers have done the Loop. You might want to pick something more, umm, realistic in the middle.
The America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association was formed to help skippers make the Loop, and currently counts nearly 17,000 followers on its Facebook page. Its members’ average boat length is 39½ feet, with more than half the members having boats in the 35- to 45-foot range.
But there are other dimensions and equipment that need to be addressed, so let’s look at everything you’ll need for a Great Loop boat.
Air draft is arguably the most important dimension, since there are fixed bridges along the route that simply can’t be bypassed. The absolute maximum air draft is 19 feet, 6 inches. If you want to take your route through downtown Chicago, that air draft comes down to 17 feet, and if you want to do the full length of the Erie Canal without detours, you’ll encounter two fixed bridges at 15 feet, 6 inches (“low bridge, everybody down…”).
These air drafts mean that everything must be under those heights. VHF radio antennas can fold down, of course, but many Loop boats also have masts or arches that fold down, complete with electronics such as radar and GPS.
Draft also matters. The water gets downright skinny in parts of the Loop, and you’ll hear all sorts of numbers bandied about as the minimum, but 4 feet will get you through without white knuckles. Five feet will make you nervous in places. There are reports of boats with 6-foot drafts making it, but they carried spare propellers and shafts. You’ve been warned.
Tankage also is key. Long stretches of the various Great Loop segments are (amazingly) free of fuel docks, so your absolute range must be at least 208 miles. You’ll find the big leg of this nature on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, where you’ll also encounter up to 3-knot currents, depending on which way you’re headed.
On the lower Mississippi River, gas-powered boats need a longer range, up to 450 miles, since some of the fuel comes from diesel-only truck deliveries. Check with the Loop association for the latest information on fuel availability before you depart.
Beam isn’t a problem unless you’re taking a catamaran, in which case you’ll need a beam of less than 23 feet to transit Canada’s Trent Severn Waterway. It’s a lovely waterway, but it can be bypassed if necessary.
At the same time, having more than a 16-foot beam in a monohull means that you won’t get into many slips at marinas, so you’ll be given space at T-dock ends. That positioning means you’re closer to passing traffic, more waves and lumpier nights (river traffic runs 24/7).
Carry as much water as you can because, frankly, some of the water that comes out of dock hoses on parts of the route is only technically fresh water. And, have a good water purifier system aboard, either for the tanks or at the galley sink. Trust me, you’ll thank me.
Like fuel, pumpout stations can be few and far between. You do not want to empty your black-water tanks into America’s lakes and rivers, not to mention that getting caught can be painful to your wallet. Have sufficient tanks.
Navigation-wise for the entire Loop, a good choice is paper charts, including the “strip charts” that follow a river or canal, rather than aligning with north as most charts do. A good chartplotter and GPS can be invaluable because some parts of this adventure look alike, and you may want to know how far you are from anywhere. Plus, with commercial traffic everywhere, the chartplotters are more up-to-date than paper charts about mudbanks or thin water. A depthsounder is absolutely essential to confirm when you just ran aground.
You’ll need a VHF radio to communicate with bridgetenders and marina staff, and a handheld VHF radio (waterproof) is invaluable for use on deck while going through locks.
There are some inland stretches where an autopilot can be used safely, and you’ll have some legs across open lakes, and along rivers and the Intracoastal Waterway, where the autopilot can give the skipper a break. Radar with AIS is also useful because it will show what is coming downriver with right of way.
Heat and air conditioning? You’ll want both. Summer can swelter, winter can be downright nippy, and who knows what spring and summer will bring these days?
Steering sounds like a no-brainer, but ideally, a flybridge is wonderful on those weather days when a flybridge is wonderful. On the days when it’s not, a lower helm or pilothouse will keep you out of the sun, rain, wind and whatever. A full enclosure of the flybridge will suffice. Your call.
Whether or not you have a flybridge, give some consideration to shade. Great Loop boats with covered side decks not only protect the crew from sun or rain, but also shade the salon. Pull-out awnings or bimini tops are great for the flybridge and cockpit. The bottom line is to protect your beak from the sun unless you want to put your dermatologist’s kids through Harvard.
Even if your plan is to marina hop, you’ll need at least two anchors: a Bruce and a Danforth. These will handle everything from mud to grass to sand to gravel, and having two anchors allows you to set them apart to keep the boat from swinging in current or wind.
You’ll fall on your knees to kiss the bow and stern thrusters after a difficult lock passage with swirling currents. Good skippers can get by with twin-engine throttles, but a thruster joystick can be a blessing.
Side decks make line handling easy for your crew, especially if you’re running shorthanded. Having to dash through the salon to get from the bow to the stern gets old quickly.
Carry lots of tools and spares. Even if you don’t have the ability to repair engines or systems, simply having spares aboard means that the “shade-tree mechanic” in a tiny hamlet won’t hold you up for days while he gets a part (often wrong) delivered by truck. Take some classes on diesel and system maintenance (TrawlerFest is a good place to start) so you’ll be ready.
For electrical needs, veteran Loopers say it’s better to have two 30-amp shore-power cords than a single 50-amp, that you should have the air and heat on a separate circuit, and that carrying a 15-amp reducer is advised. No generator? Have a good inverter for overnighting away from marinas.
Another item you’ll want on board is a washer/dryer, unless you enjoy strolling up the dock with your dirty laundry while carrying rolls of quarters to feed the machines at marinas or motels.
The list above should get you ready for your 6,000-plus-mile circumnavigation of America’s biggest island, but your starting point should be joining the Loop association. The $85 annual fee will be your best investment, since the association offers discussion forums for newbies, discounts along the route, and “harbor hosts” who will meet you at various destinations.
GREAT LOOP PODCAST
For more on the Great Loop, don't miss our podcast "Talkin' Great Loop with Kim Russo," where special guest Kim Russo (AGLCA) shares her own “local knowledge” about the Great Loop and how to make this bucket-list item a reality. Listen now!