Everyone should take a tour of America at least once in their lives. The wide-open spaces, incredibly different ecosystems, and the relative homogeneity across it all is truly a thing to behold. The most obvious way to see the land of the free and the home of the brave is the purely American activity of the road trip. However, there is a way to skip the smelly truck stops, cramped backseats, and waking up with a nicotine buzz from your motel sheets (if you dare sleep in them).
Thousands of Miles and Countless Options
Ever since Lewis and Clark failed to find a route to the Pacific Ocean, pesky Rocky Mountains, droves of would-be admirals, retirees, and doctors on vacation have spent their days piloting boats rather than Winnebagos. The Great Loop, or Great Circle Route, is a complete circumnavigation of the Eastern United States. Covering the Eastern Seaboard, Great lakes, Mississippi River, and Gulf of Mexico, the Great Loop provides a unique view of the Eastern US and a great dinner party conversation piece. Round trips range from 5,000 to 7,500 miles depending on how many of the countless rivers, bays, and canals you opt to explore.
Starting on the East coast of Florida, the route heads North along the Intracoastal Waterway past Georgia and the Carolinas. At this point, some "Loopers" take the first of many sightseeing opportunities and opt to visit Washington D.C. via 95 miles of the Potomac before continuing North up the East Coast. The Intracoastal ends at Manasquan, New Jersey, and Loopers must cross 30 miles of the open Atlantic to New York harbor. At this point, most Loopers head up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal into the Great Lakes. However, there are literally hundreds of variations through New York and the Great Lakes, with excursions into Canada and Lake Superior. All Loopers eventually head down the Illinois River past Chicago, to the muddy Mississippi, then enter the Gulf of Mexico through New Orleans or Mobile, Alabama.
All Boats are Not Created Equal
If you just searched for "Used Aircraft Carriers" on eBay, sorry to burst your bubble, but the low point of the route, a 19-foot high bridge in Chicago, precludes the true titans of the sea from completing the Great Loop. Also, you're probably on a government watch list now, so expect a knock on your door sometime soon. People have completed the Great Loop on everything from jet skis to 60 foot mega-yachts. Most Loopers use 35-45 foot cabin cruisers.
As you can imagine, passing Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, and the Florida Keys makes for great sightseeing, dining, nightlife, and anything else you could ask for in a trip. Plus, you can do it all at your own pace: you are literally the captain of your own ship. Most Loopers opt to sleep and cook on their boats, thus saving money on hotels and pricy restaurant food. Looping is also a great way to meet new people. Loopers are a fairly close-knit but inviting group and meet in the Spring near South Carolina, and again in the fall in the Gulf of Mexico. These meetings offer a chance to socialize, share safety tips, new routes, and foster a sense of community among nautical nomads.
Weather Forecast: Smooth Sailing
It takes careful planning and more than a little bit of luck to avoid hurricanes in the Gulf, rough seas in the Atlantic, and ice and snow in the Great Lakes. Most Loopers head North in the spring, spend the summer in the Great Lakes, and return to the Gulf in the fall after hurricane season. This schedule is not hard and fast by any means. Some Loopers break the trip into blocks, storing their boat and returning to home and work during the colder months.
As you have probably guessed, boating the great loop isn't exactly a young man's (or woman's) game. The vast majority of Loopers are retirees. Thanks to Jimmy Buffett, it is growing increasingly popular among baby boomers to sell all your land-lubbing possessions and live on a boat full-time. However, some adventurous families choose to live on the water full-time, home schooling their kids while showing them parts of the world their peers will likely never see. If you ask me, a boat sure beats a retirement home. If you can convince your extended family to move to cities along the Great Loop route, you can turn your golden years in a floating adventure while still getting the chance to spoil your grandkids.
An article published on behalf of Mr. Damien S. Wilhelmi. If you enjoyed this piece you can follow me on Twitter @JakabokBotch. If you are wanting to experience Colorado in its finest, be sure to Raft Denver through Wilderness Aware Rafting.