The Great Loop Adventure Underway

A 2000 mile tour of the Eastern US. Miami to Sandusky, Ohio

May 2021 Feature Elliot Maurice

I describe boating as a passion, not a hobby.  It seems a common ground between boaters that a hobby involving huge amounts of capital, an endless supply of hard-earned funds, and time spent on maintenance and logistics on a depreciating asset.  For me this does not fall into the word “hobby.”  How many times has someone said to me “the best days of boat ownership are the day you buy it and the day you sell it?”  Well, no, not necessarily.  For me, it’s “Dare to Dream.” A childhood passion that led me on a path, fuelled by a desire to one day get to do and see the things depicted often within the glossy covers of this magazine. 

I started sailing at the age of 8 on the Welsh Harp in North London.  My first boat a wooden pram dingy that my father purchased, in sorry state. My father refurbished over the winter, painted her yellow and named her Woodstock.  This led me to my first powerboat: a 28ft Maxim sports cruiser at age 24, and in the past 25 years since then, I have owned several boats from high performance powerboats to sports cruisers based in the UK, southern Spain, the west and east coast of Florida.   I have been fortunate enough to have cruised Mediterranean Greece, The Costa del Sol, the Southern Grenadines, both the Atlantic coast and Gulf coast of Florida and the Bahamas.   

I emigrated to Florida in 2017 with my current boat, a 2006 Princess V48, in 2017.   One thing that was poignant flying over 100 times into Miami airport was the approach in over coast.  I would look down and see dozens of boats transiting north and south between Fort Lauderdale and the Keys, and more significant Easterly to the Bahamas and beyond to the Caribbean.   

Over the past 3 years I have done several trips across the gulf stream to the Bahamas, which has been every bit as wonderful as I had imagined and more.   The journey is a relatively easy one, weather permitting, and once across the Atlantic shelf into Bahamian waters, the ocean becomes bright turquoise and teaming with exotic sea life.  Honeymoon harbour at the north end of Cat Key is home to sting rays that will eat out of your hand just a few feet from the beach.  Bimini, a small island on the western tip of the Bahamas, is only 60 miles from Miami and home to some of the best diving I have ever experienced.  It is a shark sanctuary and one of the few places you can dive with Great Hammerhead sharks in shallow water.   It is also a dream for sports fishing, regularly hosting tournaments.  100 miles further east, the Exumas offer true desert island cruising.   Harbour Island has native pigs that swim out and greet you in the water.  Eleuthera Island also with its pink sand are just a couple of examples of this unique paradise. 

Three years later and an extensive Florida cruising repertoire on Privilege, my Princess V48, has led me to this latest adventure.   A cruising Mecca for boaters in the Eastern US is called The Great Loop.   It involves the huge network of interconnecting rivers and canals and the inshore Intracoastal waterway that runs from Key Biscayne in South Miami all the way to New York, offering a safe haven up the Atlantic Seaboard, should the weather be unsuitable for the open ocean passage north.  This interconnecting waterway network allows you to literally loop the Eastern US via the Atlantic Seaboard and the Hudson river, through the Great Lakes via the Erie Canal or further north via the St Lawrence seaway.  The southern half exits down the Mississippi, and into the Gulf of Mexico.  You can then loop Florida around the Keys in one great big circle spanning over 4000 miles.

The Great Loop is considered the Route 66 of boating and one trip I have been itching to do having first heard of this boating Mecca a couple of years ago.  The first half of the loop I will be starting at the beginning of May 2020 from my home port in North Miami and finishing on Western end of Lake Erie at a place called Sandusky in the state of Ohio.  This will give me the chance to have a summer of lake cruising with Chicago, Detroit, Michigan and its Great Chain.  Canada and all the Great Lakes will be easily accessible.

2022 will likely see the bottom end of the loop passage down the Mississippi, past New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico, down Florida’s Pan Handle and then south to the Florida Keys.

This year’s trip will be done with 9 friends, who are all experienced boaters, split into 3 separate legs.   

The route starts in Miami and takes us 2 days by sea and 350 miles north to Jacksonville on the Florida/Georgia border.  Our first stop being Port Canaveral, the home of NASA’s Florida Space Centre and launch site of Elon Musk’s Space X rockets amongst others.  This stop is a regular for boaters wishing to enjoy the spectacle of the regular timed rocket launches at a spectacularly close distance.   Unfortunately we are missing a Falcon 5 launch by a mere 4 days.   One of the crew is having a new Everglades 335 built, so a tour of the factory and the chance to see his boat mid build is being included.  We should also get to sea trial one of their fabulous high performance Centre consoles.  A day trip to Kennedy Space Centre is also in the itinerary.  Day 2 on the Atlantic Leg takes us north to Jacksonville on the Northern point of Florida’s Atlantic Coast which although beautiful is known for its shark infested waters.  With this in mind a chum bag and readymade shark chum is stowed aboard, so we can chum for sharks as we trawl a couple of miles offshore for a few miles.  Day 3 takes us 130 miles following the shoreline into Georgia to Beaufort via the safe inlet Calabo Sound.  

From Beaufort pronounced BO-FORT in local tongue, it is 90 miles to historic Charleston, South Carolina with a weather change from searing Florida heat to a more temperate climate not dissimilar to England.  Having never visited Charleston, a couple of days enjoying the Southern hospitality of this historic British founded port will be a must.  Known for its fabulous dining and historic architecture, this will be the first highlight of the trip.  Onwards we head 130 miles North to Cape Fear where we stop in at Bald Head Island for the night, and then another 120 miles to NewportNorth Carolina where we stay at the fishing port of Moorhead.   The famous Floyd’s 1921 restaurant a 4-minute walk or The Ruddy Duck Inn offer a fine meal.  The next stage takes us to our second big stop in Norfolk, Virginia, which is home to the US Navy and Chesapeake Bay.  This stop is a sightseeing opportunity and the chance to take a tour of the enormous USS Wisconsin WW2 Battleship and of course cruise Chesapeake Bay with its rich history and stunning scenery.  

Of course, Chesapeake is renowned for its seafood, so some foodie sampling will be must.  The next leg requires an offshore crossing of Cape Hatteras if attempted by sea.  This particular Cape is where the Gulf Stream meets the Labrador Current.  The nearest point of land to Bermuda is also the most hostile piece of Sea on the Atlantic Seaboard and known famously as The Graveyard of the Atlantic.  With this in mind, we have selected an intracoastal inshore route.  This takes us to Coinjock for a stop which apparently involves the best roast beef in the US and frequented by those that know on this route.  

We will stop for the night to enjoy a few beers and banter on board before the mornings 50 mile run into Norfolk Virginia for 2 nights sightseeing in the East Coasts biggest Naval port, submarine base and headquarters of the US Navy.  The next leg will see us with some fresh crew and a cooler set of weather.  Our first day will take us down Chesapeake Bay, past the entrance to the Potomac river which leads into Washington DC and onward to Annapolis.  Home of the Naval Academy and 2 nights stay to take in this historic waterfront city.  Upon leaving Annapolis we take a dog leg through the Intracoastal with some 195 waypoints back into the Atlantic via Cape May to Atlantic City for a night at The Golden Nugget Casino. 

Our last ocean passage and for me the The Big Kahouna is the 110 miles north up the New Jersey shoreline.  This stretch ends taking us in past the Statue of Liberty, and into Manhattan for a couple of nights in The Big Apple for sightseeing and some decadent dining, a decent steak definitely on the agenda. The epic highlight of the trip will be of course passing Ellis Island and a salute to Lady Liberty.

From here, the Hudson beckons with its wooded and winding trail that takes us past The West Point Academy and some of the most majestic scenery of the entire trip.  The two-day journey up the Hudson takes us as far as Albany where we enter The Erie canal system.   Having managed to secure a slip at the Hudson Maritime Museum some history can be gleaned. We should reach the Canal entrance 2 days before it opens on May 21st, so we expect a potential day’s delay to clear the bottleneck and a chance for any residual maintenance.

We are planning to cover the 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo at around 30 miles per day through the 57 of the canal system’s locks all navigated at idle speed except for lake Oneida, which can be run mostly 25mph.  The Erie Canal will likely prove the most challenging with 294 or so bridges, dozens of which have only a few inches of spare clearance over the boat’s anchor light at only 15 feet air clearance.  Overnights will be likely be spent moored on the canal’s walls or at small marinas, experiencing local towns and taverns at each stop.  I expect a step back in time with the local towns mainly servicing the canals transient boats, tugs and cargo barges.  The Erie Canal passes through a historic landscape known as the Indian river through Oneida Lake with its many shallows which skirts Lake Ontario for the latter part of the journey.  The sheer experience transiting this scenic 200-year-old canal system with its Victorian lock system should be one to cherish as a once in a lifetime experience.       

We will then make sure we head west at the fork – heading East directs you to Niagara Falls and a likely sticky end.  We exit the Erie canal system at Buffalo being the frontier edge of New York state, which takes us into the vast Lake Erie and our final part of the half loop.   The trip from Buffalo is a 200-mile run end to end and South West across the lake.   This is likely to prove the riskiest part of the trip.   The lake mostly freezes in winter, as do the rivers that feed this vast body of fresh water.  The lake at this this time of year can still be strewn with heavy debris from the thaw, such as submerged trees that can cause significant damage if hit and are apparently extremely hard to see.  To add to this challenge certain parts of the lake have huge fishing nets which are un-charted and strewn all over, the only tell being the buoys marking each end with safe passage through the center where the braided steel lines are sunk 10 feet or more below the surface.  This mixed in with very sudden squalls and potential 6ft waves at close intervals must be well timed.   All the crew on this leg have been Lake Erie boaters with over a century of combined experience on the lake.  This will be blessing for this section. The crossing ends at SanduskyOhio at the famous Barrell House Saloon sited on its own Jetty over the lake.   

A fun mecca for summer boaters, Sandusky with its historic Kelley’s Island and the party Island of Put in Bay, will be home for Privilege during the Summer of 2021.  At end of October, Privilege will be winter stored until spring 2022.

Known for the Battle of Lake Erie, where on the 10th of September 1813 the United States Navy defeated the British Navy and sunk or captured 6 Navy warships, changing the landscape of marine supremacy for Britain, it seems fitting that a proudly British built boat from historic Plymouth will be spending its summer in these waters.   

The next month will be spent getting the boat prepared for the trip and servicing of all the boat’s engineering, including a 1000-hour service to the engines and generator, replacing the tired 14 year old air conditioning system with 3 new self-contained units a larger raw water pump and control panels, as well as a thorough review of all onboard safety equipment.  As different states often have different minimum safety equipment requirements, it is important to have every option covered well past the minimum baseline, aspects such as waste policies and correct decals can invite a $1000 fine in the US.  It is a common occurrence in my experience to be boarded by the Coast Guard for inspections in the US, so a Coast Guard inspection has been arranged prior to trip to give us a “Go past Go” decal.  My expectation is the use of around 2000 (US) gallons of fuel.  Booking marinas along the route has been easily dealt with by using the excellent DOCWA app.

The planning continues with the logistics of crew changeovers, accommodations, and an appropriate inventory of suitable provisions. We will need to cover all scenarios involving a significant change in probable weather and temperature, and of course, food and beverages for each leg to cover 4 to 5 crew packed on a 50-foot sports cruiser for a good proportion of the trip.   Fortunately, high speed Wi-Fi is easily available to allow all the crew to work remotely when underway.  Fuel and provisions are easily catered for en-route for the trip except for the Erie Canal system, with its 8mph speed limit and average 50 mile distances between towns plus the 57 timed locks, this 5 to 6 day section is only available to us after May 21st so we plan to arrive 2 days prior and be on-stand ready to go.

We also have a retired professional captain whom as a veteran of over 30 great loop passages, who will hold float plans, crew lists detailed Navionics routes and can track us via the boats onboard AIS beacon to correlate any incoming weather comfortably from her home.

If all goes to plan our arrival will coincide with the opening of Ohio bike week and the festivities of Memorial Day weekend.

The adventure awaits….. 

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