18 May 2023 — Seeing the East Coast from the Water: the Great Loop


In 1898 18-year-old Kenneth Ransom, who aspired to become a naval architect and had gone so far as to build his own 30-foot-long sailboat, the Gazelle, pitched a grand adventure to his buddies, Frank Chauvet and cousins Clyde and Arthur Morrow. “What do you think about cruising to the Atlantic and back in that boat? Circumnavigating the Eastern half of the United States, in other words.”

The cruising I propose to do makes Lake sailing tame. Think of the places we shall see, the fishing we shall do! Think of sailing on the warm Gulf of Mexico in January, cruising around the thousands of tropical islands, then up the Atlantic coast when it is most apt to be calm, stopping whenever there is anything worth stopping for. Just think of the cities we can visit—St. Louis, Vicksburg, Memphis, New Orleans, Mobile, Jacksonville, Hampton Roads, Philadelphia, New York, and...Why, it’s the chance of a lifetime. I’ve set my heart on it, and I’m going. Who’ll go with me?

The boys were soon won over, and eventually their parents also acquiesced, and so on 27 October they began their great journey from their hometown of St. Joseph, Michigan. They hunted and fished along the way, supplementing the provisions they bought with the occasional funds sent from home. They were stranded in ice on the Mississippi as a result of a record winter storm, and they had their share of close scrapes on the water. In addition to nautical challenges, the boys also fell victim to a pickpocket—but managed to recover the cash—and Arthur became gravely ill and was slow to recover. A death in the family required Clyde to abandon the adventure to return home midway through their year’s journey. In November of 1899 Kenneth, Arthur, and Frank made it to the Clinton River, near Detroit, where they put up the Gazelle for the winter; Ken would sail her back to St. Joseph in the spring. Their adventures were chronicled in The American Boy magazine, as well as Russell Doubleday’s book A Year in a Yawl.

photo of yacht Onward

The yacht Onward. Photo: PD.

A few years later, in November of 1904, boatbuilder Scott Matthews took his wife, three children, his brother-in-law, a nanny, and a small crew aboard his 70-foot motor yacht Onward and headed south on the Illinois River. Like Ken Ransom, Matthews intended to circumnavigate the eastern portion of the United States. His first-person account of the journey was recorded as “The Log of Onward: A 9,000-Mile Cruise in a Motor Yacht,” which appeared in The Motor Boat magazine, published as Part I and Part II. Matthews’s account is detailed as to the conditions and costs of the canals and locks, noting, for example, where the canal authorities are strict about enforcing the speed limit and where they are not. He also grew somewhat wary of taking the advice of strangers:

A local sage advised us to run the nose of the boat up on the rip-rap, his idea being that the little jetties which run out from it at different points form an eddy and break the current. We foolishly followed this suggestion, and soon after a big Mississippi towboat came down stream and threw a wash at least five feet high, which caused Onward to pound on the rocks which form the rip-rap, until it seemed that she would inevitably become a wreck. However, we finally got the boat off and tied up alongside of a lumber barge and thereafter declined all advice offered us by people along the river. 

A map of Scott Matthews's journey with his family aboard the yacht Onward. Photo: PD.

The voyages of the Gazelle and Onward are often credited with being the earliest successful attempts at what is called today the Great Loop—a circumnavigation of the Eastern US (and often part of Canada. The Great Loop isn’t a fixed route; boaters can choose different options to cover the different legs of the journey. For example, many “Loopers” choose the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway to avoid the commercial traffic on the lower Mississippi. It’s also not uncommon to add side trips onto a Loop journey. While the Loop has been completed in as little as six weeks, a common choice is to make it a year’s voyage, timing the southern portion for the winter months and the northern portion for the summer, because facilities for boaters in the north are closed in the winter. While it’s not unheard-of to take a clockwise route, the counter-clockwise route is favored, to avoid going against the current on inland rivers. 

map of Eastern US with water route highlighted

While there are a variety of options, this map outlines two common routes for the Great Loop. Photo: Tom Fish via Wikimedia Commons.

Anyone contemplating tackling the Great Loop should run, not walk, to join the America's Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA), an organization that serves Loopers and future-Loopers with all kinds of information including informative podcasts, YouTube videos, publications, events, and a forum for its 6,000-plus members. AGLCA’s Julie Shea shared some interesting insights into the Looper community. For example, while couples—particularly retirees—were historically the most common Looper demographic, that has shifted somewhat in recent years. Julie reports that the organization has been seeing “more and more solo cruisers and families on the Loop in recent years. Families can homeschool and so many people are finding work-from-home options that easily translate to “work from the boat.” Still others are keeping their traditional office jobs and saving up their vacation time to begin (or pick up where they left off last year) and cruise for several weeks at a time, find a place to leave the boat, and plan to do it all again the next year.” Julie added: “We have one couple who have a winter home in Florida and a summer home in Michigan, and they do the Loop once a year as they travel from one home to the other. They’ve completed the Loop some 30 times!”

Title card Burial at Sea September 4 1974

The AGLCA provides all kinds of helpful resources, including videos like this one, addressing many of the questions beginners want to answer.

The Loop lifestyle might sound a little familiar to longtime readers of Sea History Today; it’s not uncommon to see the Loop compared to the canal-boat system of Great Britain. Like the narrowboat voyagers, Loopers can choose to keep to themselves, or frequent the marinas and socialize with others on the journey. However, unlike the narrowboat system, where the constraints of the locks limit the size and type of boat typically used, the Loop has been pursued in all manner of boats, from a sailboat like Ken Ransom’s (which would need to have its mast unstepped to clear certain bridges) to a motor yacht; even a hardy kayaker or two have made the circuit. 

The Loop journey of today is certainly a different experience from the waterways that the Gazelle and Onward traversed, but the appeal of seeing so much of the Eastern US by water, of visiting so many great cities, small communities, and out-of-the-way places is clear. Is the Great Loop on your bucket list?

Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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