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The circumnavigation of Eastern North America by water is known as The Great Loop. Also referred to as the Great Circle Route, the trip varies from 5,000 miles to 7,500 miles depending on the options used. The boats used range from personal watercraft (jet-skis) to 60-foot yachts. Both sailboats and powerboats are used but the most common boats are 34–45 ft recreational trawlers. The main factors that govern the size of the boat are the limited draft (5 feet) in some locations on the loop and the height of one bridge (19 feet) in Chicago. People traveling The Great Loop are known as "loopers." The number of people attempting this voyage is growing with the baby boomers reaching retirement age. In 2007, more than 150 boat owners notified America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association that they were planning to attempt the loop in the coming season.
Most Great Loop cruisers travel the Loop counterclockwise, taking advantage of the downstream currents on the Illinois River, Mississippi River, Tombigbee River and Black Warrior River to Mobile, Alabama. To avoid summer hurricanes and winter ice, most Loopers head north in the spring, spend the summer in the Great Lakes region, and head south on the rivers in the fall, arriving in Florida after the beginning of November.
Starting on the east coast of Florida at Stuart the route heads north on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Chesapeake Bay offers many different locations to visit and some loopers go 95 miles up the Potomac to Washington. At the north end of Chesapeake Bay the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal connects to Delaware Bay. The Intracoastal Waterway resumes at Cape May and ends at Manasquan, New Jersey.
There is a 30-mile stretch of open Atlantic Ocean to New York harbor. From this point a few loopers continue up the coast, around the Gaspé Peninsula and up the St Lawrence River to Lake Ontario. This adds about 1,500 miles to the loop. Most loopers go up the Hudson River to Waterford and then take the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario or Lake Erie or the Champlain Canal to the St. Lawrence. Canada's Rideau Canal, built in 1832 from Ottawa to Kingston, is frequently chosen. Most loopers will take the Trent Canal from Trenton, Ontario to Port Severn on Georgian Bay. The North Channel is one of the highlights of the loop. This is the most northerly point on the loop and has the shortest season, just 8 weeks of good warm weather from July 1 to Aug 30th.
Lake Michigan is next with most loopers taking the east side of the lake to Chicago. From here it is down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, up the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, then down the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile. The route then joins the Intracoastal Waterway going east to Carrabelle, Florida. The ICW now extends to Fort Myers where loopers can cruise the Okeechobee Waterway to Stuart on the east coast of Florida or turn south to the Keys rounding the southern tip of Florida, returning north to Stuart.
Many loopers retire, sell everything, and live on their boats. Some complete the loop every year with the record being nine complete Great Loops. Many spend the winters in the Bahamas on their boats. Other loopers complete the loop in stages, storing the boat at various locations while they return to work. A few take their children and home-school them on the route. Loopers who are members of the America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association (AGLCA) meet two times a year in different locations along the Great Loop. The first reunion is near Charleston, South Carolina in the spring, the second reunion is traditionally in October at Joe Wheeler State Park in Alabama. This is a very popular one. The reunions and rendezvous are organized by AGLCA. The reunions are designed to allow mixing and mingling with old friends and new members, sharing stories and tips, also include general lessons on safety, vessel safety checks and other valuable cruising information. One highlight of the events is the Looper Crawl.
The America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association assists Great Loop cruisers with various needs such as safety, sharing navigational and cruising information, and networking among loopers. The networking through the daily e-mail blast provides updates and local advice. The boaters can broadcast information requests for anything such as docking, anchoring, water depth, hazards, repairs, fuel prices or dinner reservations.
Another source of useful information is Capt. John's site with many pictures, route options, and an interactive planning map, five time Looper Capt John, gives you boat restrictions, fuel requirements and frugal options for cruising America's Great Loop.
- A Guide to Planning and Cruising the Great Circle Route Around the Eastern USA, 2nd Ed., Remmey and Cannell, 2006
- The Great Circle Route, 13th Ed, Skipper Bob, 2001
- Mayntz, Melissa. "Cruising the Great Loop". Cruises.lovetoknow.com. Retrieved 2013-10-24.