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The Great Loop - the great escape

This 6,000-mile circumnavigation of Eastern North America is an achievable dream even for novice cruisers

This 6,000-mile circumnavigation of Eastern North America is an achievable dream even for novice cruisers

Seeing America from the water is like no other travel experience. The boater is shielded from polluted city scenes, the sounds of sirens and car horns, neon lights and billboards. Cruising the Great Loop, the circumnavigation of Eastern North America, often is insular and utopian. You see mostly the pleasant side of this “sweet land of liberty,” but nobody complains.

 The Great Loop is an achievable dream for novice and veteran alike, regardless of boat size, because most of it is a protected inside passage.


Long-range cruising often means bluewater sailing, but cruising the Great Loop means being tied to a dock or in a secure anchorage every night. The Loop is not a wilderness expedition, although it can traverse miles of waving sawgrass in Georgia, leagues of drumlin islands in Georgian Bay and endless vistas of wooded hillsides in Tennessee. For the most part, this is a sheltered voyage within sight of land and never far from civilization.

Read the other stories in this package: The Great Loop Q&A   The Little Loop 

Where else but on the Great Loop can you spend nearly a year in a variety of ecosystems, cultures and civilizations, and cruise it all during daylight hours? The Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina is the Deep South, the coastal lowlands that have their own dialect and cuisine, like Frogmore Stew. Chesapeake Bay is the land of crabs — crab cakes, she-crab soup, crab soufflés, crabs everything. The towns and cities of the Chesapeake were the crown colonies of English royalty. The Great Loop is a tour of our Colonial past when ports and ships, sailors and sea captains were the leading characters.

There is probably no greater delight for Great Loop cruisers than to approach Lady Liberty in New York Harbor aboard their own boats, then visit the Big Apple from their marina and experience the sights and sounds of an international city.

The heritage canals of the United States and Canada are on everyone’s list of highlights. The New York Canal System, the Chambly, Rideau, and the Trent-Severn are historic waterways with numerous locks and enchanting villages. Watching cruisers negotiate the locks is fascinating, and negotiating them is both entertaining and challenging.

Canada is a foreign country … well, kind of. At the top of Lake Champlain (if you go straight north on the New York Canal System) is the French town of St. Jean sur Richelieu — French language, food, wine and customs. Waiting for the Chambly Canal to open, we were tied to the city wall for two days, and a local who was interested in our trip gave us a bottle of wine … French, but of course.

Montreal and Quebec are European-style cities with old-world charm, signature buildings and great cuisine. The Quebecois are out in droves until the wee hours of the morning, strolling with their children, licking ice cream cones and watching street musicians and acrobats perform along the walls of the old port, where boaters have front-row seats.

A side trip takes you to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, the Westminster of the Wilderness where you climb into or out of the city by way of a flight of eight locks on the Rideau Canal. It’s a spectator sport, and you’re in the cast of players. The parliament buildings and the Hotel Laurier border the canal, where you again have the best seat in town for the changing of the guard, restaurants and theaters.

The water of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay and North Channel is gin-clear, and the anchorages among the pink granite islands are a summer playground for Great Lakes boaters. In the Benjamin Islands gaggles of boaters tie to the rocks and trees and to each other in large rafts, and swim and eat and become brown as nuts.

The inland rivers southward from Chicago are benign waterways, and the towns along the shore offer dinner out, a place to walk the dog, and time to understand another culture different from your own. This South is a land of trees and lakes and rivers and anglers. Expect ordinary people who talk “Suthrin” and consider fried catfish a delicacy. Expect gentle people with an embracing attitude that readily accepts you. But be aware: Speed and wakes that rock them out of their boats are not tolerated.

Fred Myers, the recognized authority on the rivers of the South, exhorts us to relish the unusual, to be surprised and amused by the differences between people. Celebrate the funky fish camps and accept others for their particular gifts.

There are great anchorages on the Cumberland and the Tennessee rivers and fascinating cities to visit — Nashville on the Cumberland, Chattanooga and Knoxville on the Tennessee. All the good stuff is on the river, and you’re within a stone’s throw of museums, aquariums, stadiums and memorable restaurants.

There are a thousand buoys and day marks, more than a hundred locks, bridges that have to be raised, narrow channels, big tows and sounds as big as lakes on the Great Loop. It’s challenging and fun, and when the trip is over you know you’ve accomplished something extraordinary. You’ve dropped the lines and traveled more than 6,000 miles on a trip that took six to nine months. You swagger with pride. You don’t have to tell your friends about the good times and majestic scenery along the edge of America. Let them think you’re a hero.

Cruising the Great Loop is nearly always marriage-enriching, but couples can have marriage-unraveling days. In our case, I had the keys to the boat, and Eva, the navigator, owned the charts; we were stuck with each other. In the end you will probably say what nearly everyone says: “That was fun. Let’s do it again.”

Ron and Eva Stob are the authors of “Honey, Let’s Get a Boat — A Cruising Adventure of America’s Great Loop” and the founders/directors of America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association ( ). Their next book, “Great Loop Side Trips,” is due to be published later this year.