Ever dreamed about cruising the 6,000 miles of America's Great Loop in your own boat. Sure you have. It's one of the greatest boating adventures in the world, circumnavigating eastern North America by water. Short of hitching a covered wagon to a team of horses and hitting the trail, there's no better way to see the country the way early explorers of this continent saw it. But that doesn't make it easy or altogether without risk. Speaking from personal experience, here are seven things that every Great Looper should know before setting out ...
Set a firm date for the start of your trip. Then, tell all of your friends and family this date. It's too easy to find some excuse to defer your departure if you don't do this. Once you tell everybody, you're committed. No backing down. Depending on where you live, there's a relatively narrow window on your departure date, so be sure to do your homework. If you live in Canada or the northern states, for example, you can't leave too late in the season or you could face the onset of winter weather.
Get towing insurance.You're bound to run aground somewhere.Towing insurance is very economical, and because you'll be in unfamiliar water most of the time, the probability of running aground will be much higher than in your home waters. The other reason for towing insurance is your engine. You could run out of gas, or your engines could quit for mysteri- ous reason. Towing services are available anywhere on the Loop and even in Canada. In the remote areas, like certain stretches of the Mississippi River, their captains will drive a rescue boat to a launch ramp and then come out to get you. Be sure you have an anchor and lots of rope, so you can anchor while waiting.
Have a set of up-to-date paper charts.You can't just rely on electronic charts or your smartphone. And don't use electronic charts that download over the Internet while you're under way. Electronic charts should be stored locally in the device. You just can't chance your safety on cell phone or WiFi service when you're potentially miles and miles away from the nearest city or marina.
Take a shakedown cruise. Don't leave on the boat you just prepped and/or purchased without getting to know it inside out. This was our first mistake on the Loop. We took possession of our boat, a 1981 Grand Banks trawler at Erie, Pa. A few hours out of Erie headed for Detroit, the wind kicked up 4 to 6-foot waves, and the single engine quit due to plugged fuel filters. It was too rough to change the filters, and we had to call the Coast Guard because no tow operators were open that early in the year. Not a great way to start the trip.
Learn how to blog before you leave. This is the best way to keep in touch with friends and family the postcard is long gone and it also provides a way to download your thoughts and de-stress during your journey. Blog sites like WordPress are user- friendly, free and let you add photos and maps. Best of all, people can register to be notified when- ever you make a new post and can respond right on the same Web page.
Leave the firearms at home.There are no pirates in Canada or the U.S., so don't carry guns unless you're prepared to stay out of Canada and miss the beautiful canals and the North Channel. Above all, don't lie to the Canadian border officials about a gun on board. We used the government phone at Rockport on the St. Lawrence River to check in and were given a number we displayed on our window. Subsequently, we were searched twice at Kingston and Little Current. If a gun is found, your boat will be seized on the spot and your trip ended. Flare guns are legal in Canada and can do as much to repel an intruder.
Take your time on the Loop. This could be a once-in- a-lifetime adventure. We did it in four legs over two years six months per leg. In hindsight, that was too fast. I'd like to do it again, but my First Mate would rather go in our 23-foot motorhome. We compromise by visiting the places we enjoyed on the Loop and staying in the driveways of the friends we made while we were completing our circuit.
This article first appeared in the September/October issue of HeartLand Boating. Find out more about this regional boating publication at heartlandboating.com
Tonga is, for my husband and me, the first and the last of our great big cruising adventure. Tonga in 2011 was our testing ground to see if what we’d enjoyed separately about boating would be something we enjoyed together. More than a decade later, Tonga in 2022 is proof of that mutual passion, and all that lay between those years, created a rich tapestry of countless expeditions and unquantifiable experiences.
Our new boat became our permanent home and into that existence we brought our son and daughter, and over 11 years we visited 36 countries and transited three great oceans. Our Tongan trial had turned out to be a great success.
We feel fortunate that our very first destination country is also our last. Tonga was a busy tourist destination in 2011, both by land and by sea. It is a popular stop for cruisers on the route across the Pacific and part of the Western Pacific loop. In typical years, it also has an established tourist and charter industry, so sailing around the islands is often a bustle of movement and crowded anchorages. This is how we remember our first visit years ago.
In 2022, however, Tonga is a much different place. Due to the pandemic in 2020 and a tsunami in 2021, Tonga sealed its borders to the outside world for the past three years. October brought big changes: Land and sea borders opened, and international tourism resumed. For most cruising yachts, the timing was too late in the season to take advantage of the change in policy. For stragglers like us travelling toward the South Pacific later in the season, however, the timing was ideal.
We sailed into Tonga on October 4. Rather than being one obscure yacht of many, this year we were one of few. Opposite to blending into the crowd, our AIS had been picked up and our arrival known before we even laid sight of land on the horizon. From that moment the effusive welcome began. “Ātea, Ātea. This is Vava’u Radio. Welcome to Tonga!”
As we pulled into the customs dock, locals came out to greet us, and as we cleared and set anchor, calls from the expatriate community welcomed us. The few fellow cruisers who proceeded us popped over to say hello. Tonga was a homecoming amongst total strangers.
Tonga is a relatively small country, broken up into three regions: lush limestone islands of Vava’u in the north, picturesque low-lying coral islands of central Ha’apai, and the densely populated southern capital island of Tongatapu. Yachts typically go to Tongatapu for no more than clearance, and the Ha’apai islands are generally underrated and ignored. This leaves Vava’u as the popular destination for tourists and cruisers alike, because it offers dozens of small islands to explore in a large sailing area protected from the ocean swell by a surrounding offshore reef. The deep water between lush limestone islands brings a stark contrast of color in deep blues and greens, and moorings are available in designated anchorages for a small fee. What isn’t available here is a more tropical setting of rich coral gardens and clear aqua waters. That’s what the Ha’apais offer, and a trip to this neglected central group is well worth the effort.
In a normal season, the anchorages around Vava’u are crowded with tour boats, local charters and cruising yachts, all vying for available mooring. The yachting season runs from May through October, which fortunately coincides with the whale season when pregnant females come to deliver their calves and suitors follow to continue the cycle of birth for the next year.
We made Tonga our destination this year for the whales, more so than the sentimental appeal of “closing the loop.” I knew that all our other cruising friends were in Fiji, and the reunions and parties would be continuous, but Tonga held the chance of sighting whales. Choosing between nature or social, I picked the experience that would, for me, be irreplaceable. Tonga is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with these gentle giants, and the opportunity to be alongside them in the water is a rare one.
We were late in the season so the chance of seeing whales was low, but I wanted to make the effort if the possibility was there. I was well rewarded. A few mother and calf pairs and escorts remained in the protection of the sheltered waters. We could hear their calls as we snorkeled and watched them breech, roll and fin slap from our anchorage.
To swim next to them was a beautiful experience: Tender, graceful, curious and relaxed. Mother guided calf to her side with the nudge of a fin, calf rolling over and around her mother’s bulk, a small body tucked under the massive head of its mother, and the intimate sight of a calf nursing as the two swam slowly in union. To be next to them, observer and observed, offered more than I could ever imagine.
When we weren’t with the whales, we were with the small community of cruisers who had quickly become good friends. Given the few boats visiting Tonga this year, every new arrival was celebrated by cruisers, expatriates and locals. We attended church on Sundays to listen to the wonderful booming song that marks a central part of the service, and we were invited to community meals that followed.
We developed a warm rapport with the local expatriates whose businesses had been closed for years and were taken under wing by a few who took us on a complimentary tour of the island and its landmarks. We joined forces as a cruising community, getting together for morning exercise, an early coffee, a lazy lunch and social dinners. We gate crashed private parties, where the hushed word of “pālangi ... pālangi ... pālangi” was whispered, labelling us in the Tonga language as white foreigners, before the doors opened to let us in. Apparently, as outsiders we weren’t on the invite list, but warm hospitality had us quickly included.
The main town of Neiafu is a small strip that runs one vertical street and one horizontal street along the waterfront. By the end of the first day, you see everything the town has to offer and know half the shopkeepers by name.
Outside the village, everything is a spread of simple houses, rural properties and noteworthy sights. Kilikilitefua is the “wall of rocks” that was the product of a census that recorded the birth of the firstborn son of every family by adding a volcanic rock to the pile. Remnants of an old fort once protected the community from attack by the warring tribes in the Ha’apai islands and Tongatapu. There are freshwater caves that supplied previous generations with drinkable water, ocean- facing caves where livestock was kept and sheltered, pinned in by the high tide, and saltwater caves that provide exhilarating deep underwater entrances. A trip around the island is both an education on current culture and a lesson on its rich history. While the cruising grounds make Tonga a fantastic destination, the rich cultural heritage and shoreside services also offer much to explore.
We sailed into Tonga for the first time as a new couple on a new boat, and this year we sail out with a decade behind us and two kids in tow. The country symbolizes the first and the last destination of our great adventure. But I should clarify: Tonga is the first and the last of this adventure. A big change lays ahead of us as we pull into New Zealand and move ashore, and Ātea gets a long break from the continuous miles she has carried us over. While Tonga represents the end of our time as long-term cruisers on Ātea, the adventure is definitely not at its conclusion. If Tonga teaches us anything, it is that the world is both behind us and ahead of us, and we are only turning a page in this great big adventure called life.
I never forgot my first trip to the Thousand Islands, an archipelago of over 1,800 islands sprawled across the Canadian and U.S. borders. Located in the St. Lawrence River as it emerges from the northeast corner of Lake Ontario, the islands are a northern paradise. My roommate and I drove from State University of New York (SUNY) Oswego, rented a rickety motorboat and cruised through deserted islands and ones with castles and mansions built when the area was the playground of the rich. On our last night, the heavens opened into ribbons of green, white and pink streaked across the sky — the only time I ever saw the Northern Lights.
The Iroquois and Algonquin Indians spent their summers fishing and hunting on the islands. Lore has it that the Indian spirit Manitou promised his people he would give them paradise if they stopped fighting. When they kept on warring, Manitou put paradise into a bag and threw it into the horizon. A thousand pieces fell from the sky into the St. Lawrence River, creating the Thousand Islands. Science maintains that the tops of several mountains fell off and began the chain.
To say that the Thousand Islands is a boating mecca is an understatement. The islands support a spectacular array of wildlife including many types of birds, snakes, salamanders and more, all living happily undisturbed in their northern paradise. The fishing is considered topnotch with an array of freshwater catch such as bass, northern pike, walleye and yellow perch. After a long day of exploration, boaters can be lulled to sleep by the eerie trill of the eastern sea owl.
This May, we plan to finally return to Thousand Islands, when most of the attractions reopen in mid-May before the summer crowds fill the waterways. Here is our itinerary.
Starting Point: Clayton, NY
The most breathtaking islands on the New York side can be found in and around Alexandria Bay. We will visit wine trails, craft breweries, lighthouses, castles and museums and just hike the islands themselves. A must-see is the Thousand Islands Winery started by a retired army major. Launched in 2003 amid much skepticism, the thriving business now produces more than 50,000 gallons of wine each year, mostly Riesling and more recently a port.
The Clayton Harbor Municipal Marina has 49 floating slips and T-ends accommodating vessels up to 88 feet. We can dock and dine as ramps connect to the public riverwalk leading into a downtown of about 1,000 people.
Our first night will be spent on dry land at the four-star 1,000 Islands Harbor Hotel, which offers outdoor dining and balconies with sweeping views of the St. Lawrence River. At the back of the hotel is an outdoor gathering area with gas firepits where we can relax and meet other travelers. We’ll spend plenty of time on the boat as well.
Clayton is also home to the Antique Boat Museum, which harbors more than 320 boats, thousands of artifacts and archives chronicling boating history throughout the region. North America’s largest collection of antique and classic wooden boats are housed in the museum.
The museum is comprised of several buildings, and each holds different types of vessels ranging from canoes and skiffs to vintage boats that you are allowed to board. Exhibits are not just confined to boating, and one popular section explains life on the water during the winter exploring ice skate sailing, ice farming and ice fishing. One building offers a boat building workshop. Afterward, we will stop at the Old Boat Brewery across the street, the perfect respite post museum.
Stop 1: Alexandria Bay, NY
Estimated mileage: 9 NM
Our next attraction will be Boldt Castle, commissioned by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt in 1900 and constructed over four years on Heart Island, so named because it is shaped like a heart. After his wife Louise died suddenly in 1904, Boldt never returned to the island and construction of the castle was abandoned for 73 years. Today, the 120-room, six story castle is owned by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority. Inside are two completely restored floors as well as antiques and other exhibits about the islands in the less perfected rooms. Boldt Castle opens for the season on May 15, and we expect to dock there. The Heart Island dock can take boats of more than 40 feet and drawing upward of 10 feet. Heart Island is also the U.S. Customs & Immigration check-in point that provides what you need to cross to the Canadian side of the Thousand Islands.
Stop 2: Brockville, Ontario, Canada
Estimated mileage: 18 NM
The St. Lawrence River is an excellent spot for freshwater diving, and the Canadian side of the Islands is home to many shipwrecks. The underwater, extremely rocky geography of Ontario was treacherous to ships, and many did not make it through. You can explore dozens of wrecks, with some going as far back as the early 1800s.
While the water will still be quite cold in May, the dives are worth a wet suit. Zebra mussels (an invasive species) have created waterways with amazing visibility, in some spots up to 50 feet. Dive shops offer gear and underwater dive tours as well as lessons. If you want to stay snug and warm on a boat, consider glass bottom boat tours.
Our plan is to head to Brockville, Canada, where more than 10 wrecks between that area and Rockport are located. Inexperienced divers often go to the site of the Robert Gaskin, because the water is quite shallow and only reaches a maximum of 70 feet. The current is relatively light and not an impediment. More experienced divers can visit a 220-foot freighter on the Henry C. Daryaw site 90 feet below the surface.
Stop 3: Thousand Islands National Park — Mallorytown, Ontario, Canada
Estimated mileage: 11 NM
We plan to spend a couple of nights in this small national park, because many of its 21 islands can only be visited by boat. Granite islands and rugged shorelines compete with snow-capped mountains and historic fishing villages as some of the most beautiful places to visit in Canada. The area’s first known inhabitants date back 10,000 years. Many artifacts were found in the area including a 2,500-year- old pot unearthed by a diver in 1979. Pictographs, one of the earliest forms of writing, can still be spotted on shoreline cliffs.
Stop 4: Gananoque, Ontario, Canada
Estimated mileage: 16 NM
To end our trip, we plan to visit the village of Gananoque and its 5,000 residents. The name means “Water Rising over Rocks” or “Garden of the Great Spirit.” The area is bursting with musicians, visual arts, crafts, dance, theater, boat building, storytelling and photography. Much of the Thousand Islands’ past is exhibited at the Thousand Islands History Museum. For those who want to enjoy 21st century fun, test your luck at the Shorelines Casino.
The scenic Canal du Midi in southern France is a must for boaters! Cruising this 300-year-old waterway, you will savor the slow easy French pace, passing medieval villages, country farms and vineyards in the heart of the Languedoc wine region. Le Boat, the largest charter boat operation in Europe, offers surprisingly affordable, entry- level charters to this canal (and hundreds of other waterways). This historic passage is easy to navigate, scenic, fun and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Boating at a mellow 5 kilometers an hour aboard your vessel of 30-45 feet, the big excitement is passing through the lock system every few kilometers and arriving in ancient villages as your daily destination on your personal private cruise ship.
Don’t expect a luxury yacht holiday, however, because you are the crew and captain, you will be driving the boat or donning gloves to handle the dock lines in each “écluse” (lock). But it’s entertaining and affords a sense of freedom by chartering your own boat and navigating these centuries-old canals. Le Boat provides itineraries of how far you should voyage each day, but it’s truly up to you.
Our weeklong voyage started in Castelnaudary, a small, pretty village. Le Boat’s base in Castelnaudary is in the Grand Basin with a lovely view of the cathedral and village across the waterway, just a short walk over an old stone bridge to town. We could also see the majestic Pyrenees Mountains to our southwest along the French-Spanish border.
Our first night, after our swift check in and orientation aboard our 40’ Horizon, we strolled to town, enjoyed local Languedoc wine and dinner at the Maison du Cassoulet sampling the specialty dish of slow-cooked white beans, tender pork and duck. Traditional “cassoulet” was a staple historically, especially in meager winters. Wow is it yummy and filling!
While returning over the old stone bridge back to our boat within the fleet, twinkling lights of the village reflected in the canal. We were excited to embark the next morning after a quiet comfy night’s sleep in the berth of our Horizon — Le Boat’s most modern vessel, equipped with a head, shower and full galley kitchen.
Before bed, I read about the fascinating history of the Canal du Midi. It was initially commissioned in 1516 by King Francis who hired Leonardo DaVinci to survey and create the route. Canal construction didn’t commence until 1667 and was completed in 1694, connecting 240 kilometers from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean with aqueducts, bridges and 91 locks to overcome the 620 feet height change in water level.
Designed as a trade route to shorten the otherwise long passage around the Iberian Peninsula, it’s also called the “Canal des Deux Mers” or canal of two seas. This vital trade route for two centuries is now a meandering waterway for pleasure boaters as well as bicyclists riding the tow paths paralleling the canal.
On the first morning, our first lock was the most dramatic, departing Castelnaudary via a series of four locks that descend 9.5 meters in consecutive rushes of water. Captain Greg (my husband) and I established our duties: he’d drive into the narrow stone chamber (thankful for bow thrusters) while I secured lines to the lock shore, ready to adjust as the water floods out.
We traveled in tandem with two other boats, a Swiss family and a German couple. All were experienced boaters, so we developed an efficient rhythm of entering the locks sequentially, tying up, descending and exiting in order.
We cruised 15 locks by noon, then tied to a canal bank for the daily lunchtime lock closure of 12-1:00 p.m. We’d provisioned in Castelnaudary for the perfect picnic of flaky croissants, local ham and cheese, and a glass of Languedoc rosé on our boat’s top sun deck.
When the “Eclusier” (lock operator) returned to open the lock for us, we cruised the canal again with the occasional excitement of encountering oncoming boats in the narrow canal. Some boat captains were better at steering than others.
Our first day, we clocked 19 locks, 26 kilometers from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. We chose to stay overnight in Villesèque, a lovely anchorage with a few other boats tied to the shores. There was no marina, but we could walk to the tiny village over a charming stone bridge to see the church and the Sully elm tree planted in the square, among the last elms still alive in France.
We toasted to our first boat day with wine and cheese on our top deck, and invited over our boat neighbors, a delightful South African couple who proved Le Boat’s international appeal. He’d never boated before, but Le Boat states that you need no prior boating experience.
On Day 2 we cruised under sunny early October skies, loving the canopy of iconic Plane trees that drape some of the river. Unfortunately, much of the 40,000 Plane trees along the 240- kilometer stretch are diseased. Over 25% have the blight and are systematically being cut and burned, a huge undertaking. In parts of the river, trees are being removed, and replanting different species is underway, but it will take time to reestablish the majestic trees.
We arrived midday at the marina of Carcassonne and docked our boat well-positioned for exploring the city, with views of the waterfront park and tour boats coming and going across the Aude River.
Carcassonne exceeded my expectations, and I know now why it’s the second most visited tourist attraction in France (#1 is the Eiffel Tower). La Cité is a massive, fortified castle with 52 spiraling turrets and imposing double walls of rampart circling 3 kilometers perched above a medieval village.
We immediately rode our bikes, provided by our Le Boat charter, up to the fairytale citadel. You can also ride le Petite Train for 7 Euro. Crossing the castle drawbridge, we stepped in to La Cité and the 13th century. Be sure to pay to enter and appreciate the scale of the ramparts and the view of Carcassonne’s lower city and the Pyrenees to the west. Then stroll the maze of medieval cobblestone streets filled with shops and cafés. Lunch at Comte Roger was a chic culinary treat. A real luxury would be to stay at the five-star Hôtel de la Cité for an elegant evening in the illuminated castle.
Back in Carcassonne’s village, we found the grand pedestrian plazas marked by statues and fountains, boutiques, bakeries and casual bistros. It’s a fun city to explore on foot, with provisions aplenty for boaters.
A SIP OR TWO AT LOCAL VINEYARDS
The next morning, after fresh pain au chocolat, we hopped on our bikes to cycle to wineries. Greg guided us with his iPhone’s Komoot app, which maps out recommended hiking and biking routes. Château Auzais (est. 1872) was a wonderful tour and tasting. Our guide described the Occitanie wine’s bouquet as the convergence of Atlantic winds melding with the Mediterranean, as we sipped our favorite wine aptly named “La Cité des Ventes.”
Château de Pennautier was another fantastic estate. The gorgeous 1620 castle was home to the financier of the Canal du Midi construction — the same architect who designed Versailles. The château’s authentic furniture is gorgeous. Reserve an interior castle tour or just stroll the beautiful gardens. From here, we visited the sister winery and restaurant for a lovely lunch and wine tasting of Pennautier’s whites, rosés and reds.
We planned to boat the next day to Trèbes from Carcassonne but biked instead. The tow paths along the canal are ideal, in fact you can cycle faster than you can boat. We waved to fellow charter boats as we breezed by vineyards, farms, locks and bridges. Our return into Carcassonne provided stunning views of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites at once — La Cité Castle and Canal du Midi.
Our return trip from Carcassonne to Castelnaudary only took a day through 24 locks and 30 kilometers with our now well-orchestrated rhythm of navigating locks. Our timing was good for the opening of most locks, and we traveled solo, as mid-October is end of the season the lock keeper told me. Summer is very busy on the canal, with boats in a queue for their turn in locks, and busier marinas.
As for the voyage, I recommend you plan one-way (for an upcharge) for the adventure of all new places along your voyage. The round trip had us retracing our passage, viewing previous scenery. We prefer the excitement of not knowing what’s around the next river bend and discovering new villages.
Also ascending the locks, going upriver, is more difficult. Captain Greg would let me off on a dock before the lock, I’d walk ahead and retrieve his tossed lines to secure the boat, we’d adjust during the rush of cascading water, then I’d board our boat when it came to the top of the full lock.
We felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment, having completed our week with success (i.e. no one fell in, no damage to boat). Our final day was leisurely aboard the boat, walking Castelnaudary’s village to a delightful bakery, to the cathedral and up the hill to the windmill, a wonderful 17th century Moulin with splendid views of Black Mountain and the French countryside. We biked along the canal, then relaxed on our boat’s sun deck viewing the Spanish peaks where we planned to ski in winter.
Our check out was quick but thorough. Le Boat’s fleet varies in age, so I was happy we’d opted for the newer spacious Horizon model. Funny, other couples posed for selfies by our boat preferring our more sophisticated-looking vessel for their posts. Some of the older boats are a bit banged up from lock passages, a testament to the “no license or experience required” policy of Le Boat.
We’re already browsing Le Boat’s itineraries: Italy, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, England, the Netherlands or Canada for our next charter adventure.