Every year around a hundred boats prove this point by completing a circumnavigation of the entire eastern U.S. The path, called the Great Loop, is a continuous waterway connecting lakes, rivers, sounds, canals, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
“The very idea of seeing portions of the great country from a water perspective is so exciting,” said Robin McVey, who is setting off this fall to “do the Loop.” She and her husband will travel on their 42-foot Jefferson Sundeck. “We are on a countdown to cast off!”
According to America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association, at any time, about 300 “Loopers” are tilting at the full circle of about 5,000 miles — or more depending on specific route choices and side trips. There are no real rules about where to start or a prescribed timeline.
Most Loopers take a counterclockwise circuit heading north in the spring, often from Norfolk, Va., where they meet for a rendezvous and seminar (this year’s runs from May 2-5). Looping can be a social affair, and the rendezvous serves as a gathering point to meet other travelers.
“The Loop is about the people,” said Kurt Kettelhut, who completed the Loop with his wife, Mary Ellen, last year on their 25-foot Ranger Tug, Loophole. “You meet the most interesting cast of characters, boaters, marina people.”
From Norfolk, the cast of characters heads north through the Chesapeake, briefly outside into the Atlantic and into the Hudson River. The next leg goes through the Erie Canal and on to the Great Lakes where many Loopers spend the summer months. In the fall, the boats flock downstream with the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers and cross to Florida in November after hurricane season has passed.
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway completes the circle, a beautiful but often challenging route that runs from the Florida Keys back to Norfolk. While it’s possible to make the run from Florida to Virginia entirely in inside waters, many boaters make longer hops offshore in the Atlantic, bypassing a tight cluster of drawbridges in South Florida or the infamous tidal swings and resulting shallows in Georgia. However, there are trade-offs to consider.
“My favorite part of this first part of the Loop is the ICW between Georgetown and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina,” said Philip Barbalace, who, with his wife Karen, have one-quarter of the Loop under the keel of their 2009 Mainship 40 Expedition Trawler. “It looks primeval, cypress trees stick out of the water, stunningly beautiful, 10 to 20 miles long. You expect to see a pterodactyl fly by.”
The array of challenges along the Great Loop includes busy ports, heavy commercial traffic — especially in the Mississippi — capricious weather, changing seasons, scheduled bridge/canal openings and, inevitably, equipment failure. However, the satisfaction of conquering 5,000 miles of waterway will be surpassed only by the incomparable experience of navigating at school zone speed through golden marshlands, lush riverside forests, vast lakes and bays, storied rivers and dazzling city centers.
Ask Loopers about their favorite stretch, and you’re likely get a different answer from each. Some love the small-town life on display along the Mississippi, while others relish the Florida sunshine or the majestic beauty of the Hudson River Valley.
But there’s more to it than the scenery.
“What I learned on the boat is that Mother Nature is in control,” said Mary Ellen Kettelhut, who went straight from a corporate job to living aboard a 25-foot trawler. “When I was working in corporate America, I was highly trained to control everything. I needed to really relax and let things come to us and be comfortable about that.”
Simply setting off to traverse the Great Loop separates the dreamers from the doers. It’s easy to get snagged somewhere along the mammoth to-do list that must be ticked off before an extended Loop adventure. One of the toughest obstacles is choosing the right boat for you and your crew.
The Great Loop has been attempted in everything from a kayak to 70-plus-foot boats, but there are a few critical restrictions on vessels that can complete the circumnavigation. Some parts of the route get a tad shallow, so a draft of six feet or less is necessary to stay afloat. And speaking of low points, one stretch between Chicago and the Illinois River has a fixed bridge with only 19 feet of clearance. For that reason, sailboats are not optimal Loop boats, although many sailors drop their masts and carry them onboard or ship them to be picked up down the way.
“Don’t agonize so long about the boat choice. If you want to do the Loop, you just have to do it, ” said Mary Ellen Kettelhut. “We talk to so many people, and they say ‘I’d love to do it’ and then agonize over details. Just buy a boat and go. All the rest will work itself out!”
Great Loop at a glance
How long: About 5,000 miles, average 10 to 14 months plus optional time off between segments
Where: Many Loopers launch north from Norfolk, Va., in spring
How much: As with any undertaking, there is a low range (think backpackers) and a first-class option (think five-star hotel). Boats can range from $20,000 to over $100,000. Fuel efficiency and fuel type are major budget factors. Marinas charge by the foot, so every foot of length is a trade-off in dockage expense. Refitting can be costly, so cruise readiness should be considered.
Fuel: $4,000 to $40,000
Dockage: $8,000 to $28,000, average range: $1 to $2 per night/per foot. Factors: Size of boat and your willingness to find and use free anchorages.
Provisions: Same as your home budget; dining out is an optional but significant budget item for many
Total cost: The average trip is in the $50,000 to $60,000 range. The lower end is around $35,000, while a big boat with a splurging budget can run $150,000+.