Love to Travel? You May Want to Become a ‘Looper’!

May 11, 2022

Cruising the 9,700-Kilometre Waterway You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

What’s more fun than adventure travel, you may ask? Well for us, not much else. Maybe playing some great tennis and enjoying wonderful culinary and wine experiences. But honestly? Travelling has all those things beat. We think travel, dream travel and do travel. And during the pandemic, not being able to go anywhere was agony for us, so we imagined travel instead!

Admit it. A great deal of the travel you do is undertaken in your head. You don’t really visit most of the far-off places you dream about. You have fun exploring many of them vicariously, from an imaginative distance.

Well, did you know that there’s something out there called The Great Loop? It’s a continuous waterway that recreational mariners can travel that includes part of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, Canadian Heritage Canals, and the inland rivers of America’s heartland. We own a large illustration of The Great Circle Waterway Map and it hangs in our Florida condo. It’s always been an inspiration for us. Someday we’ll do it.

Anyone who completes the journey is then named an official ‘Looper.’ It’s an absolutely sensational expedition, capable of being experienced – whole or in part – from our own backyard. Quite apart from being a miracle of engineering, it’s a spectacular trip – whether undertaken in person or simply imagined.

Embarking on the Loop

How does a boater embark on the Great Loop? Let’s look at a map.

If you start in Chicago, continue south in a counter-clockwise direction to take advantage of the river currents that run into the Mississippi River. While a few people stay on the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, most ‘Loopers’ choose to exit at the Tennessee River to avoid heavy barge traffic on the larger waterway. This path leads to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which also flows to the Gulf.

Regardless of the Southern route selected, boaters can float downstream to the warm waters of the Gulf. From there, they cruise east on the Gulf’s Intracoastal Waterway – soaking up some Florida sun.

Then they travel north up the Intracoastal Waterway to New York City. From the Big Apple, it’s a straight shot up the Hudson to the Erie Canal. Then they head west across to the Great Lakes before returning to Chicago.

Looper news is a great link to explore as is Landfall.

How Long Does It Take to Complete the Great Loop?

The amount of time it takes to complete the Great Loop can vary a lot, but it’s still common to do this in about a year.

The route is seasonal because you want to be on the Great Lakes when it’s warm there and down in Florida in the winter months – so many Loopers spend the spring heading up the east coast, the summer in the Great Lakes, the fall on the inland rivers, and the winter in Florida.

More and more, Loopers take multiple years to complete the route so they can do lots of side trips and take their time visiting the big cities and small towns around the Loop.

What Are the Best Types of Boats to Do the Great Loop?

The best boats must be able to handle some rough water since you’ll be going through the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, and various sounds and inlets that can churn up some big waves.

Then, you must be able to clear a 19.7’ bridge at mile marker 300 on the Illinois Waterway. There are other low bridges, but that’s the lowest one where there is no alternate route to get around it, so you have to be able to sail under it.

After that, a lot is left up to personal preference, comfort, and cruising style. You’ll have an easier time getting in and out of some of the marinas and travelling during low tide if your vessel doesn’t draw more than five feet.

And some of the historic canals like the Trent-Severn Waterway in Canada cannot accommodate a boat whose draft is more than 6-feet or whose beam is more than 23-feet, so you’ll need to do some research on your intended route based on your vessel.

Three Pieces of Advice for Newcomers Interested in Cruising the Great Loop

  1. Be sure to start planning well in advance. There are lots of great resources available before you drop the dock lines and it’s good to ask questions and gather information, so you know what to expect.
  2. Be sure you are capable and comfortable handling your boat in a variety of sea conditions. You don’t have to be a lifelong boater to safely do the Great Loop, but you do have to understand the basic rules of the road and be able to confidently run your boat to keep yourself, your crew, and the boats and boaters around you safe.
  3. When you start the Loop, don’t have a schedule! It can cause you to miss things along the way if you’re in a hurry. Most of the bad decisions boaters make, like leaving a safe harbour on a questionable weather day, are often the result of someone insisting on being at a certain place at a certain time.

And there you go. A perfect trip idea for retirees or avid sailors who love boating and adventure. The world is your oyster!

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