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The Great Loop Q&A

James Clausen, who is in his early 50s and retired from the microelectronics and power electronics industry, did the Great Loop over two summers with his wife and four children aboard their 46-foot Maxum, Summer School. Clausen has been boating for 40 years and holds a Coast Guard captain’s license.

James Clausen, who is in his early 50s and retired from the microelectronics and power electronics industry, did the Great Loop over two summers with his wife and four children aboard their 46-foot Maxum, Summer School. Clausen has been boating for 40 years and holds a Coast Guard captain’s

Read the other stories in this package: The Great Loop - the great escape   The Little Loop 


What kind of preparation should you do prior to the voyage?

I began preparing for this voyage, at least in the back of my mind, after reading Ron and Eva Stob’s book, “Honey, Let’s Get a Boat — A Cruising Adventure of America’s Great Loop.” [Ron details how he got the boating bug and coaxed Eva into the idea of buying a boat and doing the Loop.] Planning for this trip is like planning for an alternative lifestyle. Some Loopers simply sell everything and move aboard.

You need a minimum of four months, preferably a year. Our approach was to take two years during our kids’ summer vacations and do the Loop in two parts, leaving our house and lives for an extended “change of location,” as my wife, Patti, puts it. As she says when she has to do laundry for six people: “This is not a vacation; it’s just a change of location.” The Loop took us 129 days — 6,335 miles — to complete over the two seasons, and we went through 154 different locks.

We bought our 46-foot Maxum motoryacht, Summer School — my 13th boat — with the express purpose of doing the Great Loop. We needed a boat that could sleep six, had twin diesels, and was less than 19 feet, 1 inch in height for the lowest fixed bridge on the Loop (in Chicago). I also wanted to run away from weather, rather than wait it out or fight it off in a full-displacement hull, so it needed speed. And, indeed, we have run from some nasty squall lines. Lastly, the boat had to be comfortable, because “Jim doesn’t camp.”

What should you carry for spare parts and tools?

You’re often far from marine stores when doing the Loop, so it’s a good idea to carry loads of spares. We carried propellers and prop nuts, keyways and cotter pins, two of every filter, hoses and hose barbs, fittings, alternator, water pump, wire and connectors, breakers, switches, and one of every light bulb type on board. We also had repair kits for all the major and some minor systems, an AC dive compressor for underwater repairs, and enough oil (20 quarts) for a single engine in the event we develop a major leak while away from a dock, which, by the way, happened during this trip. Depending on how you count it, that’s either $8,000 or 400 pounds worth of spares.

I’m a bit wild on tools, too. Think 200 pounds of tools, and you can imagine what we carry: prop puller, huge chain/bolt cutter, screwdrivers, sabre saw, cutoff grinder, two drills, socket sets, wrenches up to 2 inches, AC and DC 1,000-amp clamp-on ammeters, a voltage ohm meter, battery tester, hydrometer … the list goes on.

How mechanically inclined should you be?

Tough question. I’ve done electrical and mechanical engineering and installations for 30 years, but I’ve seen boaters on the Loop who don’t even want to open the engine hatch. Why? Because when they do it costs them money, and they really don’t have a clue what’s in the engine room. They do, however, have a dream. Knowing your mechanical and electrical systems can save your life; not knowing them will certainly cost you money.

I carry tools and spares so I can do the work myself, or have the parts and tools available for a mechanic to do it for me if necessary. I have a good set of hands, but I realize that there are better and more talented mechanics out there, and use them when appropriate.

How much experience should you have?

You must have at least basic seamanship skills. The minimum would be attending a U.S. Power Squadrons course, then a year or two on the water. Only a few states require you to have a boater’s license, but keep in mind you must abide by the laws of the area you’re transiting. For example, age limits for operating a boat or PWC can differ from state to state. Your kids might be of age to run the PWC off the boat in your home waters, but they could be too young to do so in other states.

How important is vessel draft in planning the Great Loop?

Of course, the shallower your boat’s draft, the more locations and routes will be open to you. Although we have friends who have done the Loop in their 65-foot Hatteras drawing more than 6 feet, a draft of 4-1/2 feet is the practical limit. (Our Maxum draws 4 feet.) Parts of the Intracoastal Waterway are only 5 to 6 feet deep on a high tide, and the Trent-Severn Waterway and Rideau Canal in Canada can be fairly shallow. The Erie Canal has a controlling depth of 12 feet, and boats that draw more than 4-1/2 feet can bypass the Trent-Severn via the Welland Canal, which is deeper and connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The Chicago River and Calumet Sag Canal, as well as the Tennessee River and Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway, have 9-foot maximum draft limitations.

Oddly, draft isn’t the most important consideration; vessel height is. Boats that do the Loop must be less than 19-feet, 1 inch tall above the waterline.

Which canals have the shallowest depths?

The Trent-Severn Waterway in southern Ontario and the Rideau Canal, which connects the lakes and rivers between Ottawa and Kingston, Ontario. A boat that draws 4-1/2 feet can do both of these. (The canal system water depths are controlled at 5 feet.) These are two of the most beautiful places on earth to cruise. Remember, this draft also should allow you to run all of the ICW except for parts of New Jersey.

What advice would you give to first-timers regarding transiting locks?

Tell the lockmaster it is your first time locking. He or she will walk you through the process and will keep a close watch to make sure you don’t get into trouble. Keep your lines free and untangled, and never cleat a line on board while locking. The boat must be able to rise and fall with the water level in the lock. You have to hold the lines in your hands, and you can take a turn on a cleat, but never tightly secure them. Gloves will protect your hands, help keep them dry and allow you to touch the slimy lock sides, if necessary. Shut your engine down once you have secured your boat in the lock. The rule is that the closest boat to the opening lock gate — usually first in — is the first out of the lock, unless the lockmaster instructs otherwise.

In very general terms, what would you recommend in terms of boat types, lengths, draft?

The Great Loop can be done in virtually any type of vessel, as long as draft doesn’t exceed 9 feet and height from the waterline is less than 19 feet, 1 inch. Sailboats must have masts that can be lowered. The Loop has been done on PWC. I have two Canadian friends from Georgian Bay who did it in a 21-foot sailboat with a 9.9-hp engine. We did it in our 46-foot Maxum, and our friends from St. Petersburg, Fla., did it in their Hatteras 65, as I mentioned earlier. Among the most prevalent boats on the Loop are the many Taiwan-built trawlers with single 120-hp Lehman diesels. There were thousands of these 38- to 44-footers built in the 1970s and ’80s, and they have the proper draft and are inexpensive.

What type of charts and guides should you carry? How many charts will I need?

You will need both paper and electronic charts to do the Loop. The required paper charts will run you a little more than $1,000. You also will need a pair of GPS receivers, one with a good internal mapping system that runs the cartography you prefer. I like C-MAP. Don’t think you can do this trip with just one or the other. There will be fog, rain and weather. I have a saying: What would I pay for this now — as in, what would I pay for a C-MAP cartridge when that fog rolls in, or what would I pay for an EPIRB when my boat loses a transmission in the middle of the Gulf Stream? (Been there, done that, by the way.) We also carried AAA tour guides, cruising guides and automobile maps, which helped show where the marinas were in relation to towns.

Did you stay primarily at marinas or did you look to anchor out?

We are marina and lock-wall cruisers; we don’t anchor much. Our ground tackle and windlass are good but not great. They set well for an afternoon lunch and swimming, but I question their holding power in a blow. And then there’s the cost of dragging the anchor. Up north, bottoms are composed of glacial extrusions (stone and rock) — quite unforgiving and typically expensive when a boat finds it. The lowest point on our boat is the propellers, which cost $1,400 each to replace. Then there’s the rudders and shafts to consider, as well as getting everything pulled off, fixed and reinstalled.

How far in advance do reservations need to be made?

We made docking reservations a day in advance, usually on the cell phone to the marina about midday. At this time we also confirmed the present day’s marina reservation and reconfirmed our draft, beam and power requirements. (By the way, we always add 6 inches to our draft when making a reservation, since the water can be pretty skinny getting into some marinas.) The only change to this procedure is for the Fourth of July in the United States, Victoria Day in Canada (the Monday preceding May 25), Canada Day (July 1), and Labor Day weekend, all of which can require a minimum of two to three weeks notice for a reservation. Occasionally we’ll hit a yacht club rendezvous or town celebration, and if there’s space available, we join in.

What surprised you the most doing the Loop?

Every day there was something new to see and learn. Perhaps my biggest surprise was the Illinois Waterway, which connects Chicago to the Mississippi River. This is arguably one of the most commercially transited waterways in the United States. The amount of tows and the communication was unbelievable. We had to keep both the fixed and portable VHF radios scanning to keep up with who was calling whom.

You have four children. How did you keep them interested and occupied?

The name of our boat is Summer School, and that’s what we like to do on board: teach the kids something new every day, whether it’s how to whip the end of a line or how to properly flake and lay it. My wife, Patti, sometimes reads aloud from the AAA tour guide for the area we are passing through and, depending if I think the kids are dozing on her, I might quiz them on what they just heard.

One day, I wondered how much they were getting out of the trip, so after dinner we asked them to write what they had learned thus far. They certainly were quiet that evening, and the next morning when I asked to see what they wrote, they reluctantly showed me page upon page, since not one of our four said they were done writing. (We give each of the kids a notebook at the beginning of the summer. We don’t tell them what to do with them, but they usually show up when we go to a restaurant, where they scribble, draw, write and play games with each other.)

Our typical Great Loop plan was to do 40 to 100 miles a day. Since we like to stay at marinas, the kids can get off and wander. Our typical cruising day started at 10 a.m. and finished at 3 or 4 p.m. We look for marinas with pools so the kids can work off energy, but we are happy with a facility that has a laundromat or restaurant. We also found interesting museums, as well as the kids’ favorite place: Cedar Point Amusement Park on Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio, which has a beautiful marina and restaurant. And as the kids get older, they want Internet time, which gets easier each year with Wi-Fi coming into marinas.

What was the most challenging aspect of the Loop?

The leg south of Alton, Ill., on the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River, just under 300 miles. The Mississippi is uncontrolled and is subject to rises and falls of 10 feet in depth in a 24-hour period. There was only one real place get fuel — Hoppies barge on the Mississippi — and precious few places to anchor or tie up. And nowhere to haul 30,000 pounds of boat in the event of a major problem.

What was your favorite section?

I love cruising — moving from one place to another, seeing something new every day. I guess the answer to this question is where we keep the boat. We live in Orlando, Fla., but keep Summer School at Winter Harbor Marina in Brewerton, N.Y., an indoor, heated storage facility on the Erie Canal. From the dock, we can be in the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence Seaway or in Kingston, Ontario, at the mouth of the Rideau Canal in a day.

I love cruising the Great Lakes and Canadian canals. This year we plan to do the Rideau to Ottawa, the Ottawa River to Montreal, the St. Lawrence Seaway to Quebec City — tides are 18 feet here — then out to Saguenay Fjord and back up the St. Lawrence to Lake Ontario for the remainder of the summer.

What is the most beautiful?

Ontario’s Rideau Canal, which is more than 175 years old, and the Trent-Severn and its canals, which are more 100 years old. The weather is typically gorgeous in summer, the people are friendly, water is clear, channels are well-marked, and there are loads of places to tie up. The pristine waters and summer air, along with rolling farmlands, keep us coming back. Look for our adventures on the Rideau Canal this year in a future issue of Soundings.

What was the most desolate?

Georgian Bay and its 30,000 islands, by far.

Where were the currents strongest?

Hells Gate in New York City, 7 to 7.5 mph. This isn’t on the typical Great Loop, but we detoured to visit our old home town of Newport, R.I. Currents on the St. Lawrence Seaway can reach 4 mph and better in the narrows. The Mississippi and Ohio rivers were 2 to 3 mph.

What were the roughest conditions you encountered?

The biggest waves we encountered were between Cape May and Atlantic City, N.J. — 7- to 8-footers with cross seas and a medium period. The New Jersey Intracoastal Waterway through that stretch isn’t an option for boats that draw more than 4 feet; even at high tide it has very little water.

The nastiest squall lines were in the Gulf of Mexico off Carrabelle on the Florida panhandle, where we ran just abreast of the foul weather, within an 1/8 mile, at 29 mph for 40 minutes. And heading up the ICW in South Carolina we had to scan VHF channels 9, 13 and 16 after the Coast Guard warned of a line of strong thunderstorms, with winds of more than 60 mph. They were moving at 20-plus mph to the southeast and headed for our position, in a thin part of the ditch. I turned on the radar to check, and they certainly were big and coming at us. It was still a beautiful day, with a blue sky and not a hint of weather coming. There was plenty of waterway traffic, too, so we started looking for a place to ride out the storm.

We found an old dock at a closed fish factory near a house on stilts. There were folks outside the stilt house, and I sent Patti to the bow to ask if we could tie up to the fish factory dock to ride out the storm. They said sure, turned their heads toward the sky — now growing darker — and brought their hanging laundry in.

The storm hit hard, and within 10 minutes it was gone. Small boats were pushed onto the shallows of the ICW, and a sailboat had to tie up to a fixed day marker. Thankfully no one was hurt, but dare I say many a spouse has refused to go boating since that day.

What did you carry for electronics? How big a help was radar, autopilot, plotter?

We have most of the toys: fixed and a portable VHF radios, 24-mile radar, two depth sounders, fixed GPS/chart plotter (C-MAP cartography), two hand-held GPS receivers, autopilot slaved into the GPS/plotter, and a 406 EPIRB. We also have satellite TV and its dish, as well as a standard marine TV antenna, mounted on the arch.

There’s nothing better than a good radar and chart plotter with the right area coverage when fog or weather rolls in. This takes the pucker factor way down and can turn a dangerous situation into a cautious one.

What do you need to know about navigating in Canadian waters?

First and foremost — and I mean no offense to the Canadians — but they don’t seem to use their VHF radios north of the border. Canadian and U.S. charts are equally accurate, but be sure to note if measurements are in feet, meters or fathoms.

What advice would you give regarding cruising with tugs and tows?

Use the same advice my dad gave me about driving a car: If it’s bigger than you, give a wide berth and the right of way. In our last 12,000 miles of cruising, we have come across many tugs and tows. The operators all have been courteous, but you need to communicate with them. While they don’t read minds, they do know that recreational boaters typically will cross their bows. Throw a wake at them at the wrong time and you’ll put both vessels in peril.

When communicating with a tow or tug, use the vessel name, if possible, or at least the mile marker or buoy number it is near. Do it well in advance of when you normally would with another boater, since tows are hard to control and this should give both of you time to act accordingly. I have had a 12,000-hp towboat pushing a string of eight barges on the Illinois Waterway hold at dead stop so I could pass slowly without throwing a wake. The skipper simply requested that I hold my position until he took a strain on the tow, then gave me the instruction to pass on a slow bell.

Barges on most inland waterways are held together by 1-inch steel cables. If you throw a wake at them, there is a chance one barge will go up and the next down, and the rusty, nicked, hard-used cable will part. You can be held responsible for the time lost and any damage the tow causes.

How big a problem was floating debris?

The worst we saw was in North Carolina. There is minimal tidal action in much of this area, and the spring floods bring down all sorts of floating “things” that sort of linger, waiting for boaters. We’ve traveled across all five of the Great Lakes and rarely saw any floating debris. You will always see something floating on the inland rivers.

What is the “Crossing” and how should you handle it safely?

The “Crossing” is from Carrabelle, Fla., across the Gulf of Mexico to either Tarpon Springs, Clearwater or St. Petersburg. This passage takes you about 50 miles offshore for around 200 miles and typically requires a 24-hour weather window and planning. Some cruisers cross together, as it often involves running at night. The weather window is important because conditions need to hold for at least 24 hours, and there’s really no place to duck into if the weather turns bad.

The folks at Carrabelle are great in helping crossers pick the right window. Be forewarned, however, that it can take weeks for the right conditions. Not to worry; Julia Mae’s is famous for its pies and fried grouper throats. They will take care of your culinary needs if you must wait it out.

How can I learn more about doing the Great Loop?

America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association is an organization of boaters who have cruised or dream of cruising any or all of America’s Great Loop. The association offers information and advice to those interested in doing the Loop, and its rendezvous are popular among members looking for information from Loop veterans. Membership is $33 annually, with additional fees for attending rendezvous. For more information call (865) 856-7888 or visit .

I also will be happy to answer any of your questions. Drop me an e-mail at .