Each year, an average of 150 people complete the Great Loop, which is a network of waterways that recreational boaters take to effectively circumnavigate the eastern half of the United States. “Loopers,” as they are called, travel parts of the Atlantic Coast, the Intracoastal Waterway, the Great Lakes, the Canadian Heritage Canals and the river system of the American Midwest. The trip ranges 5,000-7,000 miles depending on the route and detours taken and usually takes about a year to complete.
The fastest journey was a promotional event that was done in three months but some Loopers will split up the trip into multiple seasons, preferring to cruise slowly and getting to know the points of interest and the people along the way.
What is the Great Loop?
People do this trek on a variety of boats and although there is no “best” boat, there are some that are more suited to the task than others due to some of the route’s restrictions.
For example, the lowest bridge in Illinois is just over 19 feet so your boat’s air draft is a consideration. To determine air draft, powerboats with flybridges should be measured from the waterline to the top of their hard structures as well as their radio and navigation antennas. Also, although depths vary, vessels drawing more than five feet may find themselves roadblocked by skinny waters.
Most boats that complete the Loop measure 35-45 feet length, but the journey has even been done on a personal watercraft (PWC). Although the vast majority of Loop craft are powerboats, about 10 percent of people have completed the journey on sailboats. Sailboats find the Loop challenging due to their deeper draft (usually over five feet) and the height of their mast, which must be un-stepped and carried horizontally on deck.
Different people cruise the Loop differently. Some like to anchor out while others go strictly dock-to-dock. Some like to be near amenities every evening while others won’t set foot in a restaurant, preferring to save money by cooking aboard. Some people prefer to have luxurious accommodations and conveniences like an onboard washer/dryer so they travel with a portable “home,” while others opt for hotel or motel room stays and laundromats.
The number and type of engines on a Great Loop boat can include one to multiple motors, inboards, stern drives and outboards, and motors that run on diesel or gasoline. Displacement vessels will usually be propelled by a single economic diesel while planing hulls may have multiple higher revving, gas engines that deliver more speed but also cost more to run per mile. In some parts, the distances between fuel docks can be significant so a boat that has a range of at least a couple of hundred miles on one tank would be ideal.
Best Great Loop Boat Types
Recreational trawlers have their roots in workboat designs (usually commercial fishing vessels) but there are numerous brands that are now built specifically for yachting and they can be quite plush. They have comfortable accommodations for living aboard for extended periods, ample deck space to carry tenders and good ground tackle for anchoring, and good fuel economy and respectable range. Trawlers area usually (but not always) built on displacement hulls, are powered by a single engine, and have cruising speeds of 7-9 knots with a maximum speed of 10-15 knots. Their comfort, stability and economy make them ideal for slow distance cruising.
Cabin cruisers are boats that by definition, have a cabin aboard but they come in many flavors. Some types of boats that fall into this category are pocket cruisers (usually signifying smaller boats) and motor yachts (typically larger vessels with multiple cabins and two engines capable of delivering higher speeds). Other such boats are convertible fishing boats and power catamarans. Cabin cruiser scan have semi-displacement or planing hulls. They’re usually equipped with liveaboard amenities including full baths/showers, galleys, and plenty of stowage for clothes, tools and spare parts.
Power Cruisers, or "Express Boats"
Again, lots of different designs fall into the “express cruiser” category but the common features typically include a cabin below and an open cockpit design where most of the social spaces including the galley and salon are on deck in an open-air environment. Express boats are usually run by twin engines (or more in the case of outboards) and can travel quite quickly but aren’t necessarily fuel efficient.
Boats that can be trailered offer maximum flexibility, especially for people who will do the Loop in small segments that may be spaced apart in time so they can return home in between to work or spend time with family. With a trailerable boat, you can tow it to a launch ramp, do a leg, and then arrange for the trailer to meet you elsewhere. Boats that can travel on a trailer are usually smaller but can include pocket trawlers, cuddy cabins, and even larger bowriders with a small cabin and head below.
Finding the Best Great Loop Boat for You
The best type of Loop boat is based on your timeframe for the trip, your budget and most importantly your personal preferences. The ideal boat will be:
- Small enough to be economical but large enough to live on for extended periods;
- Slow enough to enjoy the sites and fuel efficiency, but fast enough to meet your timelines;
- And be able to get out of the way of dangerous vessel traffic or inclement weather.
Although the best boat is any that can make the trip, most people do not Loop on sport or tow boats or dedicated fishing boats like small center consoles. Whether you want to travel point-to-point quickly to check out the sites or luxuriate in a lowkey lifestyle at five knots, there’s always a type of boat that you can use for the Great Loop.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where I can learn more about the Great Loop?
Check out America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association. A minimal annual fee is required to join but there’s useful practical information as well as group events and advice from Loop veterans.
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