Cape Florida Lighthouse. Photo by Kathy Bohanan Enzerink
Cape Florida Lighthouse. Photo by Kathy Bohanan Enzerink

Great Loop Cruise Eastern North America

Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Not only are these names of states, they are rivers along the Great Loop, a continuous waterway of inland rivers, canals and lakes connecting to the Great Lakes, Gulf and the Intracoastal Waterway.

Great Loop cruisers, or loopers, circumnavigate all or part of the 8,000-mile Eastern North America route in personal watercraft, kayaks, sail and power boats. Simple. Choose the route, do some provisioning, get on the boat and go. Uh, not exactly. As the saying goes, “some restrictions may apply,” as in height, draft and beam. Then there is the weather.

 

Getting Started
There are books, guides, online blogs and websites to whet your cruising appetite. From facts and figures to the do’s and don’ts, to personal experiences and opinions, to interactive trip planning, there is no ‘one size fits all’ Great Loop adventure.

The America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association, or AGLCA, assists with safety, navigational, networking and cruising information. The organization is hosting its bi-annual Rendezvous and Reunion May 4-7 at Norfolk where members and guests can attend seminars, glean information from other cruisers and participate in the popular Looper Crawl. The fall gathering, presented by experienced cruisers, will be held in Rogersville, Ala. Visit www.GreatLoop.org for more information.

John C. Wright, author and five-time looper, offers details, advice and an interactive planning map on his website, CaptainJohn.org. He writes, “Whether you are rich & famous, or frugal as a freeloader, we dispel the myths and reveal the truths to help you make this voyage a reality.”

 

Parameters written in stone
• Maximum height to clear a fixed bridge near Chicago is 19 feet, one inch.
• A full-load draft must be less than five feet if cruising the Canadian canals.
• Minimum fuel range of 250 miles is required on the Tennessee-Tombigbee route.
• Actual cruising is 110 days, sans side trips, adverse weather conditions, etc.

 

No boat is perfect
Trawlers are popular for their live aboard comfort but sailboats are more cost efficient. Easy accessibility to the bow and stern is paramount to maneuver the multitude of locks along the routes. An important factor for consideration is your on-the-water lifestyle for eight to 12 months. How many people full-time? Children? What creature comforts are ‘must-haves,’ and which are negotiable? Will you tie up at a marina or anchor out? Need ice? Air conditioning? Internet? Washer/dryer or a supply of quarters? The pros and cons are personal choices, but you get the idea.

 

Routes and Weather
The Great Loop can be started at any point, depending on the location of your boat and the time of year. Many Loopers begin in Florida, traveling counterclockwise. Springing Up the Atlantic ICW in the Spring, Shuffling Off to Buffalo in the Summer, Falling Down the inland rivers in the Fall and Wintering Across the Gulf to Florida, arriving after the hurricane season has ended.

Watching both weather and calendar are essential as the Erie Canal is not accessible until mid-May; the North Channel, the most northerly point of The Loop, has warm weather only during the months of July and August and boats need to be off Lake Michigan by early fall.

The Great Loop has three basic route choices. The only difference is how to get from the Hudson River to Lake Michigan. Common to all is the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay on up to the New Jersey coast and the Hudson River. One choice is to stay on a northbound course to Lake Champlain, the Chambray and Richelieu Canals, St. Lawrence Seaway, Rideau Waterway, 1000 Islands, Trent-Severn Waterway, North Channel and then to the Great Lakes. The other is to take a hard left toward the Erie Canal and its 566-foot rise via 35 locks to Lake Oswego. Decision time again. Choose the intermediate route to Lake Ontario and the 1000 Islands, the Trent-Severn Waterway to the Georgian Bay and Lake Huron or continue west to Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan.

From Chicago, loopers travel down the heartland Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland Rivers, Tenn-Tom Waterway, across the Gulf to Florida and the Okeechobee Waterway or Florida Keys.

The Great Loop may be done in one stretch or in stages. Some loopers winter in the Bahamas while others store their boat at various locations along the way and continue the journey at a later date.

Start with a dream. Do the research. Make a plan. Go!

 

Checklist Recommendations
• Hard-bottom dinghy
• Fresh water: 150-300 gallons
• Holding Tank: 40-80 gallons
• Boat length: 26 – 45 feet
• Beam: Less than 14 feet
• Depth sounder
• Electrical: Twin 30 amp vs. one 50 amp

 

Checklist ‘Must Haves’
• Boat
• Time
• Navigation Charts; electronic or digital
• GPS navigational system
• Cruising Guide Books
• VHF radio

 

 

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