Cruising Stories

An American Adventure on the Great Loop

Great Lakes
Entering Canadian waters

When Sun Dancer’s lines were made fast, and she settled contentedly into her slip, I gave in to the urge to pat her hull and whisper “good girl” as if I were a jockey bending down to pat the neck of my trusty steed after a winning performance.

Sun Dancer had just carried our good friends Mike and Sue safely on a nine-and-a-half-month journey, traversing the waterways of 17 U.S. states and one Canadian province. She had gone full circle around America’s Great Loop proving herself a capable and faithful vessel.

My husband Bruce and I met Mike and Sue McGeary of San Clemente, CA, in Florida when we were both in the thick of figuring out just how to care for, maintain and pilot our new-to-us trawlers. As often happens in the boating community, we became fast friends.

I sat down with them aboard their 48-foot Offshore Pilothouse to talk about their journey and experiences.

How did you learn about the Great Loop given you lived on the West Coast, and it covers the Eastern and Midwest parts of the country?

We read an article in a boating magazine 16 years ago that highlighted the Great Loop route and was immediately intrigued. With further research, we came across a book called Honey, Let’s Get a Boat. We joined the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA) ... and the rest is history.

What captured your interest?

Making an open ocean voyage wasn’t on our bucket list, but a journey keeping in sight of land and mostly boating the inland waterways matched our aspirations. Plus, we were excited about visiting places where American history has its roots. What was your previous boating experience before you set out on the Loop? We owned a 24-foot water ski boat, but traveling across country in our RV gave us a glimpse into the cruising lifestyle’s challenges and responsibilities. Living in a small space, understanding basic maintenance of mechanical systems and power consumption, and being mobile were skills and lifestyle components that overlapped with the realities of boat life. Learning to navigate the waterways proved much harder than learning to navigate the roadways in an RV, and frankly sometimes boat life can be overwhelming.

Before setting out, what set of skills are essential?

It’s wise to know how to use and operate the various apps that help with navigation, overall weather synopsis, wind and tides. Also, be able to dock and undock in varying conditions. Practice in the worst conditions before beginning a journey. Although this goes against one’s mindset when you are learning and bolstering confidence, it will pay off later. Training captains is indispensable to build knowledge and gain confidence of how your boat maneuvers and reacts in varying wind/tide conditions and docking scenarios such as parallel parking, sliding in beside another boat, or backing in between pilings.


What piece of equipment was essential, besides the obvious mechanical components like the engine?

For Sue, it was Starlink and Nebo, which is necessary to communicate and follow fellow loopers. Mike believes it’s the simple pleasures in life, such as having an onboard shower. It’s so convenient after a long day on the water.

What tools were useful?

The Looper’s Companion Guide by Capt. John Wright offered a good overview of the route and mileage. Becoming members of the AGLCA gave us a wealth of information and resources at our fingertips and a whole new set of friends who freely shared their knowledge and experiences. Nebo helped us see where other loopers were while underway or tucked in a marina.

What was an unexpected delight of your journey?

Mike recalls traveling along the canals — Erie, Oswego and Trent-Severn were beautiful. Sue remembers pulling over to tie up at a town wall along the canals for the night and exploring the local shops and eateries. Interacting with towns people, meeting other loopers and tasting the local cuisine were magical experiences.

What aspects of your trip were more stressful than others?

Locks were the least fun — and 105 of them awaited on the route we chose. Each type is unique, and each requires slightly different line handling and piloting skills. They never became ho-hum and always kept us on our toes.

What unexpected challenges did you encounter?

We were not accustomed to navigating in skinny, shallow water or fighting high waves that shoved our boat around. Our first and only high wave experience on the entire Loop was early on in St. Andrew’s Sound, GA. It’s large and shallow, and we had waves between 5 to 7 feet in confused seas. Everyone had stories to tell at the end of that day. Gaining experience and honing our abilities each day by dealing with extreme conditions such as currents, wind, waves and shallow water become part of life on the water. Confidence grows as time and miles pass by.

What skills have you consistently refined along the way?

Learning how to read the weather from the waves, wind and skies was key along with honing our docking skills with the “marriage saver” headsets. We always used them and consider them a must- have piece of equipment. We also perfected the words and phrases to use when docking, so the helmsperson and the line handler understood the situation and became a better coordinated team.

What has been your biggest personal challenge?

Experiencing so many new things and feeling out of my element in the beginning, notes Sue. Men and women often do things differently or think through a situation in another way, and it can lead to questions from your mate about why you hadn’t tied that knot right or took so much time getting to the bow. But, the camaraderie and kinship between the other looper men and women was a lifesaver. It’s the feeling that we weren’t alone, and lots of people experience the same feelings as you.

You mention the amazing small towns you visited along the way? What ones were your favorites?

With so many interesting and quaint small towns, I could list my top 30! We’d pull into a town and after exploring I’d say, “This is my new favorite town!” I did that all the way around the loop. A few favorites: Fernandina, FL, Beaufort, NC, St. Michaels and Annapolis, MD, on the Chesapeake Bay, Little Falls and Sackets Harbor, NY, and Saugatuck, Petoskey, and Charlevoix on the western coast of Michigan.

What unforgettable land excursions did you take?

Tangier Island, VA, and Mackinac Island, MI.

What other places were unforgettable?

The Hudson River Valley area wowed us with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Home, Library and Museum, Culinary Institute of America, and West Point Military Academy; the Chesapeake Bay with Annapolis and U.S. Naval Academy; and of course, passing by the Statue of Liberty in New York. The historical education we received cruising through this part of our country elevated our appreciation of America.

Charlevoix Michigan Harbor | Credit Royalbroil on Wikimedia Commons

What do you wish had known before leaving?

Mike thought he’d be driving from the flybridge exclusively but ended up using the pilot house a lot, especially with early morning starts when the weather was very cold. Sue missed having bikes and would bring electric ones next time to explore farther afield from where they docked.

What is your favorite part of the Great Loop lifestyle?

The best was meeting fellow Loopers and eating out at the coolest restaurants. Some special times: a bonfire and s’mores in the Georgian Bay, rafting up and sharing cocktails while discussing the day’s events on the water with fellow loopers, and enjoying lots of laughs with new friends.

What moments will you remember forever?

Most notable were the people and other Loopers we encountered along the way who made our journey so memorable. We’ll fondly remember little acts of kindness that people showed us, including boaters coming together to solve an engine or electrical problem that someone in the fleet might have, or in our case, folks putting their heads together to trouble shoot and remedy a leaky steering fluid cable. In appreciation, there were offers of a car ride to the grocery store and invitations to dinner. We’ll also never forget anchoring under the light of a full moon in the Georgian Bay, visiting the Big Chute Marine Railway, or witnessing graduation day at the Naval Academy when the Blue Angles streaked across the sky.

Any words of wisdom for wannabe Loopers?

This is an adventure, not a vacation, so don’t rush and instead make memories that last a lifetime. If we were younger, we would have taken more time, even stored the boat and taken more years to finish it, for there’s so much to see and experience along the route. Also be open to constant learning in an ever-changing environment and be ready for the satisfying feeling of completing the loop. I reflect on our accomplishment and think, “Wow, we did that!”

Author’s Note: As Mike and Sue settle on their next adventure, Bruce and I are preparing Rogue One, our trusty 34-foot Albin Family Trawler to join the class of 2024 to experience America’s Great Loop for ourselves.

Facts about the Great Loop

The Great Loop is a year-long, nearly 6,000-mile journey through the eastern and central United States and Canada’s interconnected water passages. It takes boaters counterclockwise from the Gulf and Atlantic Intracoastal Waterways to the Erie Canal, Great Lakes, Canadi- an Heritage Canals, and the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers.

Loop excursions can be done in as little as six weeks and as much as 12 years. Traditionally, Loopers spend about a year on the route. It is a seasonal trip.

Favorite apps for Loop explorers include Snag-A-Slip, Windy, Nebo, Windfinder, SailFlow, Navionics, Aqua Maps, and Tides Near Me.

More people have climbed Mount Everest than have completed the Loop.

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