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Navigating the Great Loop

By The Ahoy! Crew
Published June 26, 2022
Map of the Great Loop, courtesy of Raven Cove Publishing

Have you ever dreamed of sailing to far-off places, or cruising thousands of miles from home? 

Many of us imagine ourselves on long-distance boating adventures. We love to think about the excitement of experiencing places we’ve never seen and traveling to distant places on our own schedule.

But braving the open sea is beyond the comfort zone of most boaters. If only we could sail thousands of miles to unknown places through protected inland waterways… 

On the Great Loop, you can do just that. 

The boating adventure of a lifetime is waiting for you right here in the interconnected waterways of the Eastern United States.

The Great Loop

The Great Loop is 6,000 miles of linked inland waterways that connect the Florida Keys with Chesapeake Bay, New York, the Great Lakes, Chicago, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. The main loop goes through 15 US states. 

You can create your own personalized adventure by taking any number of side routes. You can visit 2 Canadian provinces, numerous river destinations in the Midwest and Southeast, and the island nation of the Bahamas. 

Along the way, you can experience local culture in modern cities and rural towns. Many boaters like to swap stories with other cruisers docked in marinas. Others prefer the solitude of remote anchorages. You’ll find the experience you’re looking for on the Great Loop.

A year of adventure

It’s common for boaters to complete the Great Loop in a year. It’s been done in a couple of months, but that doesn’t leave much time for relaxation. Some cruisers take several years to complete the route by cruising one section at a time when their schedule allows. 

It’s all up to you. You can create your own schedule for the trip that fits your lifestyle and commitments. 

Cruising with the seasons

Most Great Loopers sail the Loop counter-clockwise. This lets you take advantage of the south-flowing water in the Mississippi River system.

Many begin the journey in Florida in the spring and follow the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway north along the coast with the warming weather. This lets you spend May in the Chesapeake Bay. Then you'll be ready when the locks and canals open in New York around the first of June. 

You can then spend the summer in New York, Canada, and the Great Lakes. There are a variety of routes on both sides of the international border in the Great Lakes region. 

Heading south on Lake Michigan, you can follow the eastern lakeshore in Michigan or the western shore in Wisconsin. Either way, it’s best to arrive in Chicago by Labor Day to avoid the winds and cold weather soon to descend on the lakes from the north. 

Then it’s time to enjoy the fall weather as you head south into the Mississippi River system to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The most popular route leaves the Mississippi River at the southern tip of Illinois and follows the Ohio River east before turning south into what is known as the “Tenn-Tom,” the Tennessee/Tombigbee Waterway. This route runs through Eastern Mississippi and Western Alabama to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay.

Most recreational boaters prefer this route to take the lower Mississippi River south to New Orleans. This part of the Mississippi River has no locks, so tugboats tow longer strings of barges that make navigation difficult for cruisers. There are also fewer recreational marinas and the fuel docks are farther apart.

Many Loopers wait in Alabama for the end of hurricane season in November before heading east along the Gulf Coast. They then travel down the west coast of Florida, returning to the Keys to complete the loop. 

Winter is a great time to explore the Florida coast and venture out to the Bahamas. And where better to celebrate the completion of your Great Loop adventure?

What’s the best boat for the Great Loop?

The answer to the best boat question almost always has the same answer: it depends. 

Many boaters will tell you the best boat for the trip is the boat that you have. If you need some more specifics, here are a few guidelines that may help you choose the best boat for your trip.

The main restrictions along the Great Loop are water depth and bridge clearance. Seasoned Loopers recommend boats under 5-foot draft with vertical clearance under 19 feet. Shallow draft sailboats can complete the Loop, but they have to drop their masts in several places.

Most cruisers prefer a diesel engine to gas for the trip because diesel fuel docks are the most plentiful. Fuel range of at least 200 miles is needed for the western river sections of the Loop. For gas boats, a 250-mile range is better. Either way, it’s a good idea to carry extra fuel on board.

If you're looking for an unforgettable boating experience that lets you explore thousands of miles of waterways with no ocean crossings, cruising the Great Loop may be the once-in-a-lifetime nautical adventure you’re looking for.   



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