Complete Guide to Sailing the Great Loop

The dream of sailing the Great Loop has quickly gained in popularity in recent years. Also known as the Great American Loop or the Great Circle, the voyage entails circumnavigating the entire eastern U.S. and parts of Canada, putting anywhere from 5,000 to 7,500 miles under your hull depending on your chosen route.

Many factors play into the Great Loop’s appeal for boaters. Despite the great distance to be covered, much of the route is in sheltered, inland waters for safe and comfortable cruising. It also allows for exploration of some of the continent’s most beautiful rivers and coastlines, which can include the Atlantic Intracoastal, New York State Canals, the Great Lakes, various heartland rivers, the Gulf of Mexico, and even Lake Okeechobee.

Another draw for some is simply the challenge, excitement and bragging rights of crossing off a bucket-list item that few others have – fewer than 150 cruisers according to the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association.


How long does it take to sail the Great Loop?

A voyage around the entire loop can take several months – or even more than a year – depending on your speed, number of stops and cruising style. Some choose to make it a lifestyle and liveaboard their boat full time for years, stopping for extended stays at various ports. While others have a strict

schedule, with a primary goal of completing the entire loop within a given timeframe. 

Regardless of your cruising speed, plan for a minimum of 120 actual cruising days to complete the loop. There are a multitude of no wake zones, speed limits, bridges, locks and weather conditions that will affect your timing. To more fully experience all that the loop can offer, taking a full year is highly recommended.


Top five stop-offs when sailing the Great American Loop

The sights and adventures to be found while sailing the Great Loop are of course too numerous to mention. We’ve compiled a just a few can’t-miss stops for consideration.  

  1. Put-In-Bay, Lake Erie If your route takes you the entire length of the Erie Canal, you’ll want to visit the Lake Erie Islands. Here, on South Bass Island, you’ll find Put-In-Bay – and the closest thing to a Caribbean vibe that you’ll find this far north. Moor at the municipal marina, go ashore and rent a golf cart to explore this charming island.
  2. Half Moon Bay – Croton-on-Hudson, New York After a visit to the Statue of Liberty by water, head up the Hudson River for a breathtaking cruise past Manhattan. Half Moon Bay Marina is about twenty-five miles upriver and provides safe harbor while visiting Croton-on-Hudson, an idyllic retreat for history, fun, good eats, and the 297-foot Croton Dam.
  3. Green Turtle Bay Resort – Grand Rivers, Kentucky Located along the stretch between the Great Lakes and Florida, this resort stop is loved by cruiser in need of a little pampering and R&R. This is the place to splurge on dock fees, and take advantage of the resort’s pool, spa treatments, dining at the Commonwealth Yacht Club, and a well-deserved cocktail at the casual “Thirsty Turtle” bar.
  4. Beaufort, North Carolina Voted “#1 Small Town in the South”, you can hardly plan a Loop journey without building in some time to explore and enjoy this lovely waterside delight. Dock at Beaufort Yacht Basin and gather up some unmatched provisioning opportunities at the local Farmer’s Market, just two blocks north of main street. Clawson’s Beaufort Grocery will not disappoint, and Blackbeard’s is a great find for fresh-caught seafood.
  5.  St. Johns River, Florida This Great Loop “secret” side trip is well worth the extra time and effort. Navigate as much or as little of the 310-mile St. Johns River as you’d like, starting from Jacksonville, Florida. The river flows through stunning national forests, state parks and wildlife preserves, with unique small towns along the way for provisioning and dining. 


Tips for sailing the Great Loop

When you’ve decided to take the plunge and sail the Great American Loop, you’ll want to begin with some research and careful planning. Here are just a few top tips to keep in mind:

  • Choose your vessel wisely A few of the most basic considerations when choosing a vessel for this extraordinary adventure are fuel range, boat clearance, and boat draft. A single one of these items could foil your entire trip! Your boat must have a minimum fuel range of 250 miles, but some routes will require a range closer to 450 miles.Your vessel will need to be able to clear a fixed bridge with an above water height of 19’-1” – and there is no alternative route. Finally, your boat should have a draft of no more than 5 feet. A draft of more than 5 feet will limit your route choices. The choice of either the sail or power Bali 4.3 is ideal with its shallow draft and ability to clear the fixed bridges.
  • Study in advance, but expect the unexpected Do your homework, plan your route, and use caution when choosing your reference material. Printed materials and paper charts can become dated quite quickly. Fuel stops, safe anchorages and even water depths can change over time. A GPS is best for accuracy, and updates should be downloaded regularly. And even with the most careful planning, a bit of creativity is sometimes needed to overcome unexpected situations!
  • Stock up on supplies and equipment Again, careful planning is in order to ensure a safe and comfortable trip. Food, beverages and toiletries are available on most route segments, but ensure you’re well supplied for the loop’s more remote northern areas. Other items that Loopers frequently mention include a GPS, VHF radio, heavy anchors and chain, an onboard fresh water filtration system, and a large bimini top for sun protection during long hours outdoors or at the helm. 
  • Plan your funds Aside from day-to-day personal expenses such as food, toiletries, laundry and sightseeing, a Great Loop voyager will encounter boat related expenses that can be difficult, if not impossible to plan for. Some of those include fuel, maintenance, lock toll fees and marina fees. If you have a dinghy, you can save considerably by anchoring out, rather than docking.Ideally, make a budget – but once again, expect the unexpected and have funds available for unplanned situations like boat repair.
  • Connect with other “Loopers” As the Loop gains popularity, it’s becoming easier to connect with others that aspire to, or are already living the dream. Informational websites, organizations and social media are a great way to get in touch with others that are more than happy to share their knowledge and experiences.Many have dreamed of a Great Loop adventure filled with stunning scenery, seaside cafes, rolling hillsides, and charming coastal towns. And the first step to a perfect Looper voyage is making sure you have the right vessel for your journey of a lifetime. 

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