After completing the European Great Loop on our 1987 40ft Catalac catamaran, Angel Louise, my wife, Sue, and I sailed home to the States and spent two years sailing up and down East coast between Maine and Florida, like migratory waterfowl. Eventually, though, we decided to revisit our European adventure and attempt the American Great Loop—a near-5,000 mile passage up the East coast, through two of the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee-Tombigbee rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.
In any year there are approximately 120 boats on the American Great Loop, which makes it more exclusive than a lot of the world’s exotic adventures. For example, it’s reported that 500 people annually succeed in reaching the summit of Mt. Everest. While the American Great Loop is not easy, it is worthy of any cruiser’s bucket list, touching or circling all or parts of 19 states in the eastern U.S., as well as passing through the Canadian providence of Ontario. In our case, we cruised a total of 5,150 miles in 328 days, finishing on January 23, 2018.
Our loop took us from Florida up the East Coast to the Hudson River, through the Erie (160 miles—23 locks) and Oswego canals (24 miles—seven locks), across Lake Ontario and through Ontario on the 240-mile, 44-lock Trent-Severn Canal to Lake Huron and the North Channel, then back into the United States at Mackinac Island before entering Lake Michigan, cruising through the Chicago and Illinois Rivers and traveling to the Gulf of Mexico on what the Coast Guard terms the “Western Rivers” of the United States, then across the gulf and back through Florida to the East Coast of America.
We began in March of 2017 by waiting for a Gulf Stream crossing weather window from Stuart, Florida. We then made the crossing on a 36hour passage, arriving exhausted but in good spirits at Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos. From there we went on to Hope Town, passing through Whale Cay Passage—a Bahamian stretch of water famous for its dangerous rages.
After that we sailed north and west from the Bahamas back to U.S. waters at Fort Pierce, Florida, going up the coast inside the Florida ICW to Vero Beach Municipal Marina. Farther north at New Smyrna Beach, we jumped offshore at the Ponce De Leon inlet on our way to St. Augustine, where we were forced to enter through its dangerous inlet at midnight.
Continuing up the Atlantic coast north to Georgetown, South Carolina, we went back inside the ICW the rest of the way up to Oriental, North Carolina, where the folks at Sailcraft Marina helped us crane off Angel Louise’s 800lb deck-stepped mast and store it there along with our Facnor furler.
Although we’d done six earlier round trips between the South and New England ports, this time was different with the weight of the mast and boom removed from the boat. We also now sported a very short 16ft air draft, a necessity as there is only a 17ft clearance under more than two-dozen bridges going through Chicago and similar low bridges on the Erie Canal.
Now mast-free, we traveled the length of the East Coast—up to the Erie Canal starting in Waterford, New York—without once staying in a marina, since we love to anchor and find it easy and secure with our 65lb Spade and 3/8in chain. Our longest cruising stretch was from an early morning anchorage in Chesapeake City on the C&D Canal to an anchorage across from the brightly lit Atlantic City casinos—over 100 miles!
At Atlantic City, we saw a brightly painted Krogen Manatee trawler named Manatee sporting more Coast Guard Orange paint than we’d ever seen before. We also had a chance to meet her crew, Sarah and Ted and their wonder-dog Patches, where we learned that they have made the 5,000-mile loop 27 times.
On leaving the anchorage at Atlantic City we got into bad weather. Fog set in early, and we made the entire trip up to the entrance to New York City in rain and fog, with our fog horn blasting all the time. As we did so we observed that Angel Louise’s handling had improved in the rocky seas—with the rig removed there was no hobby-horsing despite the uncomfortable weather on the nose—a definite plus.
Going under the Verrazano Bridge into New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty and up the Hudson is a joy few cruisers get to experience. We used AIS to monitor the busy traffic as we went up the Hudson to anchor off Riverside Drive. (We used twin anchors fore and aft on the tidal Hudson.) Wanting to make the most of the locale, we caught four Broadway shows in the five days on anchor in the Hudson in NYC.
From there we traveled up the Hudson with the tide to Albany, proceeding on to Waterford’s Visitor Center for the Erie Canal. The canal begins with a “flight” of five locks in quick succession to rise from Waterford’s altitude of 161ft, climbing west across the historic New York countryside. It eventually reaches a maximum altitude of 363ft above sea level before dropping down into Oswego, New York, at the first of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario. In all, it took six days from Waterford to reach the southern shore of Lake Ontario, where on July 4 at 0300am we left Oswego in pitch-black conditions going out of the dark river onto Lake Ontario, where we had a glorious sunrise and cruise across. We then got off the lake and navigated to Port Trent Marina just before 1600 that afternoon, clearing Canadian Customs by telephone. Our route passed through the “Canadian Shield,” a rocky layer with many streams, lakes and canals that make up the Trent-Severn Canal. Its numerous rock ledges are unforgiving. Every year boats sink when they don’t heed channel markers and collide with rocky outcroppings.
Despite these perils this canal is absolutely beautiful, stretching 240 miles and through 44 locks until it exits at Port Severn on the edge of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. In all that distance, there are only about 20 miles of manmade canals. Instead, waterway connects rivers and lakes throughout the province with more than three dozen swing bridges and over 150 dams and control structures regulating water depths and making navigation possible. The canal’s highest point is 841ft above sea lever, making it the highest point a vessel can navigate to between the St Lawrence Seaway and the end of the Great Lakes.
The waterway also goes through Canada’s “cottage country,” and many cabins grace the rocky islands, rivers and lakes, while two nontraditional “locks” that also became part of our sight-seeing experience. The first was the Peterborough hydraulic lift lock, built in 1904. It lifts a pan of water 141ft long and 33ft wide over a 65ft height and was for years the largest lock of its kind in the world. The second “lock” is not a lock at all. Instead, Big Chute is a marine railway on an inclined plane that lifts boats up to 100ft long over a rocky outcropping with a 60ft drop between waters.
From there, cruising Lake Huron’s North Channel puts you in a crystal-clear body of water north of the U.S. border and filled with wonderful bays, rocky islands and scenic outcroppings. It is the most northerly part of the Great Lakes and the Great Loop. From there we sailed Mackinac Island, the finish of the Chicago and Port Huron Mackinac race, and a place devoid of all cars. We also visited the Grand Hotel, a landmark definitely worth seeing.
As we headed south again, good weather and the waning days of August persuaded us to take advantage of Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. Each marina is required to reserve space for transients, and we traveled through numerous idyllic bays from Charlevoix south to South Haven. Before September, we’d crossed Lake Michigan to the shores of Chicago, where we went through downtown Chicago and under 25 bridges, the lowest being advertised at 17 feet off the water.
To reach the Mississippi River we continued down the Illinois River, through 273 miles of the state bearing its name. We had to deal with heavy commercial traffic from Chicago all the way south to Mobile, Alabama. The highlight of the Illinois River is the original courtroom where attorney Abe Lincoln tried one of his most famous cases during his pre-presidential years, proving a witness could not see clearly by the moonlight and using an almanac to win his case.
On entering the Mississippi River, just above St. Louis, we found there is little to attract recreational mariners all the way down to the Ohio River. The Mississippi River is commercial, dirty and unfriendly, with no real services through St. Louis. At the Ohio River you pass by the point where Louis and Clark camped as you sharply turn upstream. Because of the way our country’s pioneers traveled the Ohio River to settle the west, the Ohio is numbered by its mile markers in reverse of the way all other rivers are labeled.
We labored to get up the Ohio against heavy current to Paducah, Kentucky, where we were stopped at nightfall behind a dam just west of town in rainy, windy weather, with 20 tows lining the banks, while the Corps of Engineers lowered the dam mechanically. The following day we were allowed first through the lowered dam and had to increase throttle to full power to slowly labor past the lowered dam’s turbulence, following which we easily cruised into Paducah for the night and down the Tennessee River the following day.
The Tennessee was a pleasant surprise, a fine argument for cruising the Great Loop in and of itself. The dams of the TVA provide a wealth of cruising fun with parks and marinas all its length. The broad Tennessee sweeps south across from the Southern shore of the Ohio and continues South to Alabama before turning East and then sweeping north across northeaster Alabama into its neighboring states
Near the border of Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi we turned west then south to navigate the Tennessee-Tombigbee River and Waterway System, affectionately known as the “Tenn Tombigbee.” Completed in the 1980s, the waterway system cost $2 billion and it converted the area’s natural waterways into a busy major commercial throughway going south to Mobile and the Gulf Coast. Despite the heavy commercial tug and tow traffic that plies these waters, we never once met a captain who wasn’t totally courteous. We even had some tows call us and volunteer to slow to enable us to catch them and pass in a safe section of the waterway. Despite their offers, we still ran hard aground at one point and remained stuck for over three hours trying to free Angel Louise. There were no commercial services for 100 miles around, so it was up to Sue and me to handle it ourselves.
The Tombigbee waterway straddles part of the Mississippi-Alabama state line, and the countryside there is desolate with only one dock—Bobby’s Fish Camp—to get off the river in those last 200 miles. While there, a freak cold front gave us snow and freezing rain. Unprepared for winter weather, we innovated and used a dustpan to scoop 3in of wintry mix off the boat before it froze solid. For three nights the temperature dropped below freezing and we even had to chisel our frozen dock lines from cleats before leaving. Fortunately, Angel Louise has a Sigmar diesel heater to take off the chill.
As the Tombigbee Waterway nears the Gulf, it traverses wide flat marshy areas and makes wide turns, back and forth in a huge valley it has carved over history. You travel 65 miles on the river but only move just 30 miles South. Finally, straightened channels lead you through the major port of Mobile, Alabama with its extensive marine industries along the banks.
Despite the challenge, we eventually arrived in one piece and, after a brief stop, moved on across shallow Mobile Bay and across the Gulf Coast and Panhandle to the white sands of Florida. At Panama City, without waiting for nicer weather, we chanced the crossing over the gulf in winds that made for an uncomfortable 38-hour crossing, finally making landfall in Dunedin, Florida.
From Dunedin, the trip South to Fort Myers was all smooth sailing, following the Western Florida Gulf ICW with stops at St. Pete Beach for Christmas week, and then at Sarasota and Venice prior to reaching Fort Myers for New Year’s fireworks with friends. We were happy to finally cross Florida from Fort Myers and complete our American Great Loop over the Okeechobee Waterway, finally having reached Stuart where we had begun, 5,150 miles and nearly a year earlier.
Ed and Sue Kelly have been living aboard full time for the past 12 years. Before retiring to the sea, Ed was a federal and state prosecutor and U.S. Senate, staffer.
MHS Winter 2018