Answers to the most frequently asked questions about our Great Loop Trip
I am writing this about one and a half years after completing our Great Loop Trip. We’ve had lots of time to think about our trip and have talked about it with many, many people. Some planning to do the trip, some wondering why we did it in the first place.
Following in no particular order are the most common questions Brenda and I have gotten about our trip.
- Would you do it again?
- What was your favorite section of the Loop?
- What was your least favorite section of the Loop?
- What did you like most about doing the Loop?
- What did you like least about doing the Loop?
- Do I need a washer/dryer on board?
- Do I need bow and stern thrusters?
- What about coming home during the Loop?
- Where do you get Groceries?
- What about restaurants?
- How do you get around when you are in port?
- What about rough weather?
- Are Bicycles a good idea?
- Is it Safe? What about Security?
- Can you get Cell Service, Internet & TV?
- What about Fishing?
- Do I need a dinghy?
- Can I bring my pet on the Loop?
- How much safety equipment do we really need?
- How about Prescriptions and Medical Care?
- How do you get Mail on the Loop?
- How do you do Banking and Get Cash?
- What is your recommendation on tipping?
- Who are these Harbor Hosts?
- What do you suggest for electronics?
Would you do it again?
Okay, this is probably the most asked question so I’ll put it first. The answer is a qualified “Yes”. We thoroughly enjoyed the trip and would love to do it again. There are sections that we had to fast-track through because of our “incident” in Canada that we want to visit again. There are a few areas, that we probably would not go back to, but that doesn’t mean that if we had a good excuse, we wouldn’t do it. We have already gone back to Florida and completed the side trip down the St. John’s river that we skipped due to the pandemic. We’ve also sold our house in South Carolina and have purchased a condominium in Florida on a marina so that we can spend more time on the boat. Watch for future blogs! We have some friends who plan on doing the Loop in 2022-2023, who knows, we might just tag along!
What was your favorite section of the Loop?
That is such a hard question to answer because there were so many great places that we visited. If we had to pick our favorite section, it would be the Canadian Canals. Both the Rideau and Trent-Severn were amazing and the people very friendly. It was fun to do all of the locks, and there were many small towns for us to enjoy. Also, because the locks are relatively close you tend to do short periods underway and more time exploring. We also really enjoyed the Hudson River, it was a unique experience cruising through hills and valleys. Again, there were many interesting smaller towns and cities to stop at and explore.
What was your least favorite section of the Loop?
If you have read our blogs, you might think that when we hit the rock in Canada was the least favorite part, however, aside from the actual hit, it gave us a chance to explore parts of Georgian Bay that we really enjoyed and would not have otherwise experienced.
Lake Michigan, especially the last part makes the list, but with a caveat. The caveat is that it was pretty much self-inflicted. We ended up on Lake Michigan late in the season (October) because of our rock strike, so were at the end of the “boating weather”. Aside from the washing machine waves, we enjoyed the little towns and villages all along the Michigan shore. We would go back and do both the Michigan and Wisconsin sides of Lake Michigan, just not in October!
The real answer to our least favorite part for us is the Rivers. The Illinois, Mississippi, and Ohio. All of these were very industrial, with lots of large barge traffic to negotiate, and especially in the Mississippi, tons of large debris in the rivers (sticks, logs, trash, cables, wing dams). There was not a lot to see, and the cruising was somewhat stressful. We look at it as a necessary evil to get from Chicago to the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Once we got to Paducah Kentucky on the Ohio River, things calmed back down and the trip became much more enjoyable again.
What did you like most about doing the Loop?
This is another hard question to answer as there were so many things we enjoyed on the loop. In looking back our favorite thing was meeting other Loopers. We met over 200 other boats where we were able to exchange boat cards. We attended lots of “dock-tails”, “lock-tails”, “boat-tails”, and “dock-luck dinners”. We meet some fantastic people that have become good friends.
In our entire loop, we can only think of one or two people who were “unfriendly”, and usually it was because they were having a bad day.
What did you like least about doing the Loop?
Propeller Strikes! That’s an easy one! Over the course of the loop, we had 4 propeller strikes on submerged “stuff” (railroad tie, fishnet, log, something in a river we never saw) and one big event when we hit the rock in Canada and tore up both props. The rock strike was arguably avoidable, but the others we never saw until after the event. We meet many other boaters who had had similar issues. Our advice is to keep your eyes open. If you travel with other boats (especially in the rivers) call out debris on the radio to help each other avoid them. Carry spare propellers. There is usually a place within a day’s limping cruise to get hauled out and have your propellers swapped, however, propeller repair shops can be quite a distance and can take days to complete the repair. Before we has our spare props, we were told that we might have to wait for 8-weeks to get a replacement prop!
Do I need a washer/dryer on board?
No, you don’t. We thought about installing one before we left, but decided to install a stern-thruster instead. The majority of marinas we stopped at have laundry facilities either free or at a nominal cost. In a few places, we had to walk or take an Uber to a laundromat.
Usually, we would just load the washer or dryer, set a timer on our phone, and go do something while we washed and dried. We never had an issue with leaving our laundry. In a few cases, we found that someone had taken our laundry out of the machine when it was done so that they could use it, but it was always carefully placed. It was rare that we would have to wait for a machine. We did try to pick our laundry times to avoid the “rush”. Saturday morning is NOT the time to do your laundry especially in marinas with lots of liveaboards. We kept a container of quarters (get CANADIAN quarters for Canada) and a small container of soap pods and dryer sheets. Typically a load would cost between $1.25 and $2.00. I think the most we paid was at a laundromat in Canada at $2.50 (Canadian) per load. Washers and dryers on boats use a lot of water and put a lot of soap into the marine environment. We are glad we got the stern-thruster instead!
Do I need bow and stern thrusters?
The short answer is NO. We met many boats with neither who did the loop just fine. There was one occasion where a boat had to be towed out of the slip because the wind was up, and they could not get off the dock.
That said, we are glad that we had both bow and stern thrusters. It made getting in and out of tight slips much easier and safer. It allowed us to get into slips and into spaces on lock walls that we would otherwise not have been able to dock at. By having both bow and stern, we were able to go “Sideways” into tight spots. I can think of at least a dozen times where we used them to get into spaces that without, we would have had to pass up.
They were also very handy for docking in windy conditions (and there were a lot of those) and they minimized the risks involved. They were also fantastic in the Locks! When the water starts coming in, it can get hard to hold your boat against the lock wall, wind also caused us to pull away from the wall in some locks. Having thrusters lets you give yourself a quick “tap” back over to the wall reducing the strain on your arms and improving safety. We saw several boats end up sideways in the locks due to current or wind!
Our boat came with a bow thruster built-in at the factory, and we added a SideShift stern thruster. A great accessory, all of the installation is above the waterline so it can be installed without hauling your boat in many cases. It comes with a remote and will integrate with most bow thrusters to give you a single control. Ours has been very reliable and their customer service has been excellent! They make aftermarket bow thrusters as well!
What about coming home during the Loop?
We came home 3 times during our trip, from Half-Moon-Bay in New York on the Hudson River, from Kingston in Ontario Canada, and from Mobile Alabama. In general, if you live East of the Mississippi, there is really no place on the Loop that is more than a 2-day drive away. There are lots of marinas that give excellent weekly rates and if you slip the dockmaster a $20, are happy to watch your boat (and water your plants). We rented cars in New York and Mobile to drive home to South Carolina. Enterprise car rental agencies have discounts for Loopers and are located close to many marinas on the route. When we came home from Ontario, we decided to make it a bit of an adventure. We took a VIA-Rail Train from Kingston to Toronto, then flew from Toronto directly to Myrtle Beach. We took the same route back. The trains in Canada are excellent!
We know a couple who are still working and did most of the loop in two-week sections. Two weeks on the boat, then leave it and come home for two weeks. They never had a problem finding a place to leave the boat. We also met several boaters who move a car along with them. Typically they are staying in marinas along the route for several weeks before moving along. When they get to a new marina that they are staying at, they will go back to the prior marina (either by rental car, uber, or public transport) and move the car to the new marina. One hint that we were given, is that in a pinch U-Haul is a great alternative for one-way when rental cars are not available.
Where do you get Groceries?
While not every place you stop has a grocery store nearby, you will always find one within easy access to a marina every few days. Many times they are within walking distance, sometimes a bit farther and you will need bikes, a marina courtesy car, public transportation, or an Uber ride. There were several grocery stores along the route that would pick you up with a bit of notice with a free courtesy shuttle.
Also, many grocery stores will deliver. Look for the stores near the marina, and use their App to place your order for delivery right to the marina. Also check out the generic sites like Insta-Cart, Drizly (for alcohol), Amazon Grocery, and Whole Foods.
What about restaurants?
There are tons! We like to eat out when we travel and tend to look for the “non-chain” restaurants when we are in port. We typically ask liveaboards on the dock or the marina staff for recommendations. They can give you the low-down on the hidden gems and tourist traps in the area. There were only a very few places that we stayed (very rural) where there was nothing available and we’ve only had a few bad experiences.
Delivery services are also an option if you don’t want to cook, but don’t want to go out either. Pizza of course is the go-to option. There are also the apps like UberEats, DoorDash, and GrubHub to name but a few. We always look for local places that deliver first, then go to the services. A hint we use is if you find a restaurant that’s listed on one of the delivery apps like UberEats, go to their website and check out the full menu and see if they will take an order over the phone first. Many restaurants limit the items they show on delivery apps and there is an up-charge. By calling the restaurant directly you may get a better deal or be able to fine-tune your choices. (Extra jalapenos for Tom, no cilantro for Brenda)
Several times on the trip, we would get together with other boaters, and order several extra-large pizzas or a big bucket of KFC chicken and fixings. By ordering more we had more choices and got a better deal by getting larger sizes and sharing the cost.
How do you get around when you are in port?
Getting around while in port depends on where you are. First, you will do LOTS of walking so bring good shoes! In order to get to some attractions, we’ve walked up to 3 miles. You will probably be walking to grocery stores to re-provision in many cases. We recommend a folding cart of some type. Many marinas do not have dock carts available and if they do, they usually don’t allow you to take them off the property.
Second, bikes. We brought two manual-peddle folding bikes with us. We used them a few times and enjoyed it but neither of us are big bike riders so if there were hills, we tended to shy away from them. We have since purchased folding electric bikes and use them a lot! (See our “Are Bicycles a good idea?” question for more information) Some marinas and many cities have loaner or rental bikes available.
Third, many marinas have Courtesy Cars that are either free or available for a small cost. Usually, these are intended for short-term (1-2 hour trips) for provisioning or to go out to dinner. Be sure to put gas into them from time to time or if you go a long distance. We even put new wiper blades on one. A note about Courtesy Cars, don’t expect much. Most are near-end-of-life and are pretty rickety. Our best Courtesy Car was a brand new car that was provided by the local dealer who kept his boat at the marina.
Fourth pick-up services. In some areas (usually rural) you will find that Grocery Stores, Restaurants, and Attractions will provide pick-up and drop-off services. Ask at the marina office as they usually know. We have gotten rides to the local Piggly-Wiggly in the “Pig Mobile”, to small family restaurants, to an Air-boat ride. Even if they don’t advertise the service you can ask. Also a reminder to tip the drivers as many are using their own personal vehicles and taking time away from their jobs.
Fifth, Uber & Lyft. In the U.S. and in larger towns and cities, Uber & Lyft are available pretty much all the time. We did find we had to switch between them in some areas to find an available vehicle. Be prepared to wait on rainy days and in more rural areas. In Canada, they were pretty rare even in some of the Metro areas. In non-urban areas, it is pretty much hit or miss. Also, we found that there were fewer vehicles available in the morning, so if you have an appointment to go to, be sure to use the pre-booking feature a day ahead if possible. Another hint with Uber & Lyft is that if you get a good driver who is from the area, you can sometimes arrange for them to give you a guided tour. We did this several times and it was always excellent. In a few cases we did it as part of our trip, they just switched to “time-distance billing” or we made it up to them in a cash tip. In others, we arranged for them to pick us up later on their own time and negotiated a rate with them. We got an excellent tour of St. Louis from an ex-school teacher this way!
Sixth. Public Transportation. There are a lot of options if you ask at the marina office and look around. Public bus service in metro areas is very good. Many resort areas like the west coast of Florida, and the Keys have Free or Tip driven shuttle services. Trolleys, small busses, or golf carts that run back and forth on short routes. You can get from Clearwater Beach all the way to Tarpon Springs on a free shuttle trolley! There are also commuter and passenger train services (especially in Canada and along the Hudson River).
What about rough weather?
In general, we had great weather for most of our Loop trip. The #1 Rule in boating is “Do Not Have A Schedule”! When you have a schedule, you feel obligated to go out when you are better off staying in port. Over our entire loop, we had 3 days where we wish we had stayed in port but didn’t, and 2 where we went out but had the good sense to turn back and seek shelter.
Note: Don’t ever be afraid to turn back or change your plans and duck into a nearby port or anchorage if things get close to your comfort limits. Don’t wait until the last minute to run for cover. Thunderstorms and bad weather can sneak up on you and it can get really bad, really quickly. When things begin to look bad, start by donning your life jackets (no one will see how dorky you look) then run for cover. That way there WILL be a tomorrow. It CAN happen to you! It DID happen to us and many of our fellow boaters. Everyone has a story!
Our worst day was at the south end of Lake Michigan, where we had 4-6 foot waves for a couple of hours. Here we were on a “schedule”, and should not have been out in that weather. Our boat handled it just fine, the crew not so much!
You will experience some rough weather. Our advice is to check several weather sources and talk with the locals for local knowledge. In some areas a 20-knot wind, is not an issue, in others, you’ll wish you didn’t own a boat. Set your minimums and stick to them.
Another consideration is that just because you are in a marina, doesn’t mean that you will be comfortable. We had several days/nights where we were in a marina, but because of the winds the boat was rolling and banging against the docks to the point that it was not comfortable to be on the boat. In these cases, we quickly learned to “abandon ship!”. We would pack a bag, and find a local hotel or B&B to stay at. It was safer, we got a good night’s sleep, and got to have an “off boat” night. (Very important to have from time to time). In one case in South Haven Michigan, the local fire department ordered us off the boat for the night because of the waves coming into the marina. Remember, you are a “Pleasure Boater”. If it’s not Pleasant, you are doing something wrong!
Are Bicycles a good idea?
When we did our Loop trip, we picked up some used single-speed, non-electric, folding bikes. We did use them from time to time and really enjoyed it. Tom used his bike to run errands several times. In general, we are not big “bicycle riders” to begin with, and as we got away from the coast and into hill country, we tended to use them less and less. We met folks who are big bike riders that used them all the time, and boaters with electric bikes seemed to use them more than peddle bikes.
When we did our “Loop 2” trip in December of 2021, we bought folding electric bikes from Enzo and have used them quite a bit since. For us, if we had had our electric bikes on the Loop, we would have used them much more.
Here are a couple of thoughts on bikes:
- Unless you have a large enclosed cockpit to store them, they are going to get wet and a lot of that water is going to be salt based. I looked for bikes that had a lot of aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium.
- Get yourself a good cover for them. Look for a cover that’s rated for use on car bike racks so that it can stand up to the wind.
- Get a good bike lock. Lots of bikes for boaters get stolen, it’s just a sad fact. A lock is only a deterrant, if they want your bikes, they will get them. (Checkout the Lock Picking Lawyer on YouTube!) We have small cable locks that we use when we are out riding around. For overnight storage, we have a larger stronger 15 ft cable lock that we can thread through both wheels, and the frame, and something fixed (lamp post, bike rack, boat stairs), and a good weather-proof combo lock for it. If possible bring your bikes on-board your boat at night. The closer to your boat, the less likely they are to get stolen. Avoid leaving them on the bike racks away from the docks. Some marinas will let you lock them up on the docks, but most don’t as it restricts dock access. Lock your bikes even when they are on your boat! I prefer combo locks so I don’t lose the keys or forget to take them with me.
- Don’t buy the “Best” most “Expensive” bikes. Becasue the bikes are going to get exposed to the elements especially salt water, fall in the water walking down docks, and do get stolen. We suggest that you find a good reliable bike, but stay away from the top of the line bikes. You can find good electric bikes on Amazon for under $1,000 that will work just fine and will last for a few years. We got our Enzo’s on sale for about $1,200 shipping included.
- Get some good accessories. You will want to get bikes with fenders (so that you don’t get a big wet stripe up your back when you ride through the eneveatable puddles). You will want a bike rack (either front or rear) to carry groceries. And as mentioned a good bike lock. We also purchased an phone holder so that we can have navigation in front of us, and rear view mirrors. Another key accesory is a small thumb bell to let walkers in front of you know you are coming up behind them. For some reason people walking on the side of a path, will move to the middle, when they hear a bike coming! I also got a set of panniers that I can mount to the rack to make carrying supplies easier. Another recommended accessory is a front AND REAR light. We use the rear flashing light even in the day time. The front we keep in our pouch in case we come back late.
Is it Safe? What about Security?
Again a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is YES. In general, all of the places on the loop are safe and have reasonable security. As with anything you have to use good judgment. If you are in an inner-city location like Baltimore, Norfolk, New York City, etc. You will need to be more aware of your surroundings than in places like Fenelon Falls Ontario. We found that most marinas provide pretty good security. Also, with “Looper Midnight” being 9:00 PM, the tendency to be out walking around late at night is rare.
On our Great Loop trip, there were only two places where we felt “uncomfortable”. Amsterdam New York, where the public park where the town docks are located was a night-time hangout for the local teens. And Joliette Illinois, where the “wall” that you tie up to is on the “wrong” side of the river and there are reports of nocturnal drug traffic. On our Loop trip, we didn’t personally experience any issues with theft or security in general while walking around. When we did our “Loop 2” makeup trip, we got boarded by kids twice in the middle of the night at the Tampa Convention Center Marina.
Here are some hints:
- Lock your boat when you leave for extended periods.
- Lock or tie down anything you store on the decks of your boat.
- Get to know your boat neighbors, they will keep an eye on your boat when you are gone.
- Leave a light on inside of your boat when away.
- Keep valuables like phones, tablets, binoculars, radios etc. out of sight.
- At marinas without controlled access gates, be more consious about security.
- Lock your dinghy and motor to your boat, especially if you anchor out!
- When moored in publicly accessable areas like parks, lock walls, and city docks, run your lines from your boat to the cleat, tie them off, then run them back to your boat, and re-tie them on your boat. Kids will untie your lines as a joke, but will rarely board your boat to untie them.
- For the Loop, leave firearms, bear spray,and mace at home. The laws state to state vary greatly and guns in Canada are a no-no! We carry wasp and hornet spray. It will reach 30′ and is a good deterrant for “multiple” types of “pests”!
- Stay in groups. You’ll have more fun, meet more people, and be safer!
While we looped we only heard of one or two incidents and none of them severe. There was one case of a boat untied, some petty theft, obnoxious drunks (some of them fellow boaters), and the occasional boarding either kids as a prank or someone trying to steal something. There were two dinghies stolen, one at a marina, and one overnight while at anchor. We did hear of a boat anchored in Canada that was boarded by a bear that swam out while they were away and raided the refrigerator!
We heard of more people who were injured or died due to falling into the water than we did from external risks. Wear your life jacket when docking and locking!
Can you get Cell Service, Internet & TV?
That’s really three separate questions, but I’ll address them all at once.
Cell Service, Text, & Data
Cell Service by and large is available on 99% of the Great Loop Route. There are a couple of exceptions in Canada where due to roaming contracts you may have an issue. Also if you go off-shore or out of sight of land on the Great Lakes and crossing the Gulf of Mexico you will probably lose service. Aside from that, you should be fine for making phone calls and sending/receiving text messages.
Internet falls into two categories. Internet through your mobile provider, and marina Wi-Fi. In the US, mobile internet is okay but can be spotty in rural areas. We’ve had 1x or no coverage in many areas along the rivers, and in more rural areas of the Tenn-Tom Waterway, and Georgia. We had an extra mobile-hot-spot on the boat, but rarely found an area where we needed it. Verizon and AT&T seem to have the best overall signals, followed by AT&T. Remember that lots of the Loop Route is rural and can be away from high-ways which is where the most cell towers are so signal strength and 5G will be limited.
Canada is another story. If you are on a US-based mobile plan, your internet use in Canada will probably be very limited. We got 1.5 Gig a day of fast internet from Verizon but then were throttled back to very slow speed. This is okay for checking email, but not for streaming video (or uploading photos for a blog). We tried to get a mobile sim from a Canadian carrier, but they require a Canadian address and Credit Card even for pre-paid plans.
Marina Wi-Fi was available at most of the marinas we stayed in. The Canals (Erie, Rideau, Trent-Severn) are an exception because you stay on the lock walls and there is no internet provided. The quality of marina wi-fi varies tremendously. Many marinas just have one connection that is shared among all of the boaters and the marina office. I’m an early riser and from 5 am to 6 am I got good speeds, when the rest of the world started waking up and going online, the speed would drop right down. Also, some marinas block streaming of video to keep the usage down. Another factor is distance. The majority of Loopers are “Transient”, staying for just one or two nights, so they tend to put us on the outside docks to make it easy to get in and out. This means that in many cases where the wi-fi antenna is onshore, you are a great distance from the access point. We installed a wi-fi booster on our mast and that made a huge difference! In some areas, we would give out passwords to our guest network to other boaters because we could connect when they could not!
We use the Rogue Pro DB antenna booster. It is stainless steel so can take the marine environment, it is Dual Band covering both 2.4 and 5 GHz Frequencies. (Being able to do 5GHz when available moves you to a faster less congested antenna), it’s easy to use and has been very reliable. There are a bunch out there, but make sure that you get one that is made for the marine environment.
There are four options for Television on board.
- Digital Antenna – An external antenna mounted on your boat (most look like thick frisbees). In metro areas they work okay but channels are limited. Also, remember that being on the water, you are at the lowest point in an area, so signals get blocked. The price however is right, antennas can be under $100 and the signal is free. We found NO digital TV signals in Canada except near the US border where we would occassionally pick-up a US station. Also, you must re-scan for channels every time you move.
- Satellite TV – We have a KVH-M5 Satellite TV receiver on our boat with DirecTV service on it. We were able to get a good signal at pretty much every place we stayed including Canada. Some of the considerations are: a) It is expensive. Our subscription is $80 per month. We pause it when we are not traveling to save money. Our boat came with the Satellite Antenna but if you have to add it, it systems start at $3,000 and go up rapidly. Also, our “local channels” are from New York City, not where we are. Also, we had to lower our mast when traveling through the canals, so if we wanted Satellite TV, we would have to raise our mast when we tied up for the night, and lower it again in the morning.
- Streaming Television – Streaming TV is very hit or miss as it relies on a good internet connection. As mentioned Wi-Fi is spotty and very slow at most marinas so streaming is typically not very reliable. If you are going to stream, we found that using a tablet (iPad or Android tablet) connected to the TV with an HDMI cable worked in areas where wi-fi didn’t as we were able to use our mobile carriers internet connection which was faster than the marina wi-fi. In Canada you will be able to watch about 15 minutes of TV before your bandwith runs out and you get throttled back to slow speed.
- Cable TV – In a few marinas we stayed at, Cable TV was available on the power pedestal. You need to provide your own cable to connect to your boat/tv. With the satellite, we didn’t try it except at one marina where our satellite signal was blocked by a large building next to the marina. The quality was horrible.
We are hoping that the new Starlink Satellite Internet service that Elon Musk is deploying will be a solution to both the Internet and Streaming TV issues. Currently, there is not a mobile antenna compatible with the system, however, they have announced that one is in the works. Also as 5G cell service continues to roll out, that may also be a viable option. If mobile connectivity is important to you, check out the Mobile Internet Resource Center, they are boaters and RV’ers who specialize in mobile internet!
What about Fishing?
First, a disclaimer, while I’ll throw a line in the water when I’m bored, I’m not a big fisherman. I do have a Florida Fishing license, but don’t go fishing much. On the Loop, you will be on the water, well, pretty much all of the time! So if you do like to fish, there are many opportunities to do it. The problem comes in that you will be in a new state every few days and since there is no “National Fishing License”, you are going to have to get non-resident day licenses on a regular basis, so it’s fairly expensive. (We saw many Fish & Wildlife officers stopping boats with poles and asking for licenses all along our trip). Also in Canada, you will need an Ontario license either an 8 day ($54) or a 1 year ($82), at least that’s just one! Another complication is fresh vs. saltwater in some states.
All that aside, we did see lots of Looper’s fishing and saw some great catches. It seems that it’s popular to drop a line on slow boats when crossing the Gulf of Mexico overnight. When I did fish, it was usually when we were in marinas. I’m strictly a “catch-and-release” fisherman, especially when in marinas. There are lots of catfish, bottom feeders, and even in the CLEANEST marinas, I wouldn’t trust what they might eat on the bottom (oil, fuel, “accidental” overboard pump outs). For us, when we consider the cost of a license, bait, tackle, then cleaning, cooking (the smell in the boat). We’re happy to go to a local restaurant for the “catch-of-the-day” and support the local fisherman and restaurant staff! If we anchored out more, it might be a different story.
Do I need a dinghy?
If you plan to anchor out a fair amount or have a dog on board, then the answer is YES. You will need a dinghy to go ashore for supplies when anchored out, or to bring your pet for “shore duty”.
We didn’t anchor out much and we didn’t bring a pet on board. We only used our dinghy a few times the entire trip. Getting our dingy off our boat is a bit of a chore, which probably impacted our usage. We used it once while anchored out to get to shore. And the rest to just explore the area we were in. We took a ride up a creek off the Hudson River, we explored the mangrove island to see the manatees in Florida.
If you don’t plan on anchoring out, then you may not need it. One consideration, either way, is how you carry it and how easy it is to get on and off your boat. Swim platform or transom-mounted dinghies can increase your overall length which may be a cost/availability issue at some marinas. Dinghies that take a lot of effort to deploy like ours, may reduce your willingness to use them.
Can I bring my pet on the Loop?
Yes! We met people with three golden retrievers on their boat, one with two dogs and a cat on a small sailboat, and man people with one or two pets. If you plan to take your pet on board, please think about the logistics of taking care of them in advance. First, there is “Shore Patrol Doody” how (and where) are they going to do their business. For cats, it’s pretty straightforward. Just find a place for the litter box that won’t stink up a small enclosed boat.
For dogs, it’s a bit more complex. Some can be trained to use an artificial turf mat on the back of the boat. For most people that we met, that didn’t work for them. So, that means that at least twice a day, you need to get them to dry ground. This means a dinghy ride if you are at anchor, or staying in marinas so you have easy access to land.
We also would just take off for a few days to sight-see in an area. If you have pets aboard, this limits your mobility somewhat as you need to find pet-friendly accommodations. Also, leaving a pet locked up in a hot boat is the same as being locked up in a hot car.
It’s very common to see pets on boats. I would say that 25% of the people we met on the loop had pets aboard. Dogs were most common, cats (popular on sailboats for some reason), and we have even met a parrot or two (mostly on pirate ships).
How much safety equipment do we really need?
The short answer is “all you can afford”. The best investment is the safety equipment that you have but never use, the worst investment is the safety equipment you do not have, but need!
First, there is the Coast Guard required equipment. Fire Extinguishers, Life Jackets, and Flares are the minimum. Don’t skimp here, especially on Life Jackets and Fire Extinguishers. On our Loop trip, we heard about 2 people who went overboard and died. We were personally involved with two people who ended up falling into the water in marinas and needed to be rescued. Have more life jackets than you need, and keeping them close at hand is a good idea. When things go south, (like when we hit the rock), everything happens fast and going to look for life jackets, fire extinguishers, or hull patch kits takes precious seconds that you probably do not have.
Next, there are smoke and CO2 detectors. Again this is not an area to skimp on. There are countless incidents where people died onboard boats due to CO2 inhalation or fire. Fire, especially on a fiberglass boat, moves fast, produces toxic fumes, and can quickly cut off your only escape route.
CO2 is the silent deadly killer. We have permanently installed CO2 detectors in our salon and both berths. We’ve had them go off, and thought that they were false alarms, then realized that a boat blowing lots of exhaust had passed us with our window open, or we were in a lock and the boat upwind of us still had their engines running. Put detectors in your engine compartments, all bedrooms, and enclosed areas like your lazaret. Consider linked detectors that all go off if one detects something so that you hear it all over the boat. As expensive as boats are, a couple of hundred dollars for 6-8 detectors is not worth your life!
Another bit of advice is to make sure that you are up-to-date on all of your safety equipment. Make sure that you have checked your nav lights, that you have your placards, and that your through-hulls for your overboard discharges are in the correct (off for blackwater) position and preferably labeled, and that your fire extinguishers have been inspected and labeled in the last 12 months. We were boarded and inspected by the Coast Guard. Our boat was all current, and it was a very friendly encounter. We got many “attaboys” for having things labeled and everything up to date. Many boaters who are inspected get fines. Some can exceed $500 per violation! We’ve talked to a few boaters who have been escorted into port and held until they corrected some defective equipment. Keep your safety equipment up to date!
Make a “Ditch Bag”, we have an official “Ditch Bag” from ACR the EPIRB people. When we get underway, we put our wallets in it. We also keep a flashlight, our PLB, copies of our vessel documentation and insurance, our flare kit, and a couple of water bottles in it. It floats, and if we had to jump ship, would have what we needed for a short-term survival/rescue situation. You don’t need an official Ditch Bag, a cheap dry bag, that when inflated will float is more than enough. Again, it is all about saving precious seconds if disaster ever strikes.
All that said, you don’t need to go overboard (pardon the pun). We carry a PLB rather than a full EPIRB because we don’t go off-shore that often. We don’t have a life raft, but we do carry some off-shore life jackets for the times we are out of sight of land. Use good judgment!
How about Prescriptions and Medical Care?
Prescriptions are pretty easy in the US. Most major pharmacies (CVS, Walgreens, Walmart) will fill your prescription at any of their locations and they are all over. If you are in Canada, you have the option of having your prescriptions sent to someone in the US and then having them trans-shipped to you in Canada. You can either send them to a marina (see “How do you get mail on the Loop?“) or to any Canada Post office for pickup. We’ve had mixed results with Canada Post, so we suggest a marina or Harbor Host. We have found that most US pharmacies and mail-order pharmacies will not send prescriptions internationally. The other option is to get a 3 month supply just before you cross the border.
For routine medical and dental care, we would schedule appointments when we planned to make a trip home.
As far as medical care insurance is concerned check with your insurance company. Most US insurers including Medicare will cover you anywhere in the US for emergency procedures. It is best to check with your insurance company to find out about the procedure and notifications you need to make BEFORE you leave on your trip.
Medicare will not cover you internationally in most instances and commercial insurance has significant limitations as well. (Tom had to pay $35,000 out of pocket before they would release him from a hospital in England when he got sick). We ended up getting reimbursed by Blue Cross, but it took several months.
A relatively inexpensive solution is to get a “Travel Medical Insurance Policy” from a company like GeoBlue (Blue Cross, Blue Shield), World Trips, Travelex, AIG, or AXA. These cover you when you are outside of the US (for example in Canada, and the Bahamas) and provide you with medical evacuation coverage to get you back to the US if needed. These plans are relatively inexpensive (typically a few hundred dollars for a couple traveling for a couple of months) and are more than worth the cost. In Canada, there are lots of clinics and hospitals so getting medical care is pretty straightforward. In the Bahamas, you have to pick and choose your medical provider and hospital.
How do you get Mail on the Loop?
When we go on a short trip, we just have our mail held by the Post Office and have packages from UPS and FedEx held until we return. For longer trips like the Loop there are a few options.
First, you can have your mail forwarded to a friend or relative and re-direct packages to them as well, then they can periodically send you your mail and packages when you will be at a marina for a few days.
If you don’t have a friend or relative that can do this for you, there are services that will handle it for you. These services will receive your mail and packages, take a photo of the address label, and post it to a web portal for you to review. You can then ask them to open and scan the mail, recycle it, shred it, or hold it to forward to you later. When you know that you will be somewhere for a few days, you just ask them to forward your mail to that address. It’s an excellent way to manage your mail while away and is not hugely expensive.
The most popular service for boaters (and RV’ers) is “Saint Brendan’s Isle” in Green Cove Springs, Florida. They are unique in that in addition to mail and package forwarding, if you want to, you can declare them your “Home Address” and register to vote, register your car, etc. Many of our live-aboard friends use this service as they do not have a dirt home to use as a permanent address.
We use a service called “Anytime Mailbox“. This is a national company that partners with local mailbox and package centers. They provide the web portal, and the local companies provide the service. The benefit here is that they have affiliates in many towns and cities in the US so you can usually find one near your home. This lets you keep your forwarding local (this is important for UPS and FedEx packages), and you can just go there to pick your mail up when you are home. We have used them in two locations (South Carolina and Florida) and have had excellent service. Because you are typically dealing with owner-run businesses, they are more than willing to accommodate special services.
Note: There is a company called iPostal1 that uses Staples Connect to process mail. (Staples as in the office supply company). We tried this service and it was horrible. We had mail and packages go missing, there was no customer service, and as Staples copy centers are understaffed, it’s not uncommon to wait 30 minutes to pick up your mail.
The UPS Store is also an option, however, they do not open and scan mail, and if you forward, they only use UPS which can be much more expensive than the USPS.
How do you do Banking and Get Cash?
If you still get checks in the mail, switch everything you can to direct deposit. With online banking, all of your day-to-day banking is easy from pretty much anywhere you can get a cell signal. Cash is also pretty easy as there are ATMs everywhere and you can access your cash from “most” Canadian and Bahamian ATM machines (we did find a few that were not on our network). We used our Credit Card (make sure you have a card that doesn’t charge international exchange fees when you are in Canada) for pretty much everything except small purchases. We utilized ATM’s to get cash for small purchases, tips, and pocket money.
We only ran into one issue. When we ran aground in Canada, we had a $45,000 (Canadian) repair bill from the marina. Our repairs were covered by our insurance company, but understandably, the marina didn’t want to wait for a check from our insurer before they let us go. We were fortunate that we had the funds available to pay them. However, getting them sent to Canada, was a hassle! The marina was going to charge 10% more for using a credit card, and would not take a personal check from a US bank (which we also understood). We tried to do an International Wire transfer, but our bank required that you go to a branch in person for International Wires. We bank with TD Bank, which is based in Canada so we went to a local branch in Canada, but they could not help us. We thought we were going to have to drive to the US to get the transaction done, but in the end, used a third-party company “TransferWise” to get the money from the US to Canada. We hope that you don’t have to get large sums of money sent to Canada, but if you experience a major repair bill, start the process of getting funds sent early in case there are delays.
What is your recommendation on tipping?
Tipping is a personal thing. Most dock hands and marina staff are not highly compensated. They rely on tips for a large portion of their compensation. We did go to a few marinas where tipping is not allowed, and in Canada, Parks Canada staff at the locks and marinas are not allowed to accept tips. (They do love getting cookies, candy, and other treats, however. We made up little zip-lock bags with treats in them that were easy to toss from the boat to the lock staff and it was very appreciated!)
We consider ourselves generous tippers. A minimum tip for tie-up assistance by a dock hand in calm water is $5.00. If it’s at all rough or they take the time to roll up our dock-lines and hook up power and water, it’s $10. For extra help on rough or windy days, or if we mess up our docking and they bail us out (happened once or twice), then it’s $20.
If we get fuel it’s $10, even if we pump it. Same with a pump-out it’s $10. These for us, are additive, so if we came into a marina on a windy day or with a strong current and they worked to get the boat tied up, fueled us up, and did a pump-out, it’s a $40 tip.
In general, you are rewarding good service, and if you tip well, you will get extra benefits during your stay like advice on where to go, and watching your boat while you are away. There are boaters who are not able or just do not tip, so we try to make a point of tipping well to help make up for them. If we don’t get good service or there is no one to meet us on the dock when we come in, then I speak with my tip as well and don’t tip, but I’m polite about it and let them know I missed getting help.
If you leave your boat for an extended period (like for a trip home), get to know one of the dock-hands or the dockmaster, and give them a tip before you leave when you ask them to keep an eye on your boat. Then, tip them again when you get back if your boat is still floating.
The other folks that you might encounter are service people. Especially if you need to get your boat hauled out for work. I have friends who are mechanics, and a tip goes a long way! When I get hauled out I always talk to the operator and hand him a tip (typically $50) before the boat gets hauled out. The same with mechanics. I ALWAYS ask to meet the people that will be working on my boat. (I’ve changed the level of repairs based on my initial impression of a mechanic) I tip them in advance, usually $100 for a prop change or regular service. It’s amazing how much better a job they do and how much they clean up after themselves. Then when the work is done, I will typically tip about 15% of the final bill on top of that to the mechanics, and another $50 to the lift operator when they re-splash the boat.
I know that many people will not be able to tip at this level, but do think about these folks. They are taking care of YOUR BOAT. A little consideration to them goes a long way.
Who are these Harbor Hosts?
We are Harbor Hosts! Harbor Hosts are AGLCA members who volunteer to assist other boaters at their home marinas. The MTOA also has a similar program called “Port Captains”. We provide a range of services including, advice on local services and restaurants, transportation, package delivery addresses, just about anything you might need! We do it because we are giving back (or paying forward) to other Harbor Hosts who have helped us and to the boating community at large. We primarily do it because we want to meet you! When we are home, it’s our connection to the boating community.
We have helped boaters with “Docktails!”, assistance in finding a local Emergency Medical Clinic, transportation to restaurants and local attractions, transportation to local airports, transportation to find repair parts, help in installing parts, referrals to local mechanics, boat watching when they were away from their boat, assisting in negotiations with the local marina, and even help with buying and installing a new mattress! Even just a quick “Hello we are at your marina!” is appreciated!
We highly suggest that you contact your local Harbor Hosts or Port Captains. You can look us up on the GreatLoop.org or MTOA.net websites. If you don’t reach out to us when you visit our marina, you just might hear a tapity-tap on the side of your hull when we come and find you! How embarrassing would that be?!?!?!
What do you suggest for electronics?
“My name is Tom, and I’m a gadget geek!” I have 6 high-definition cameras. An electronic engine monitoring system. A wi-fi booster, route, with cellular backup system from two carriers. A remote boat monitoring system for shore power, a bilge sensor, a shore power monitor, a battery monitor, motion detection, and GPS boat location. We have a built-in NEBO tracker. An In-Reach satellite tracking system. A SiriusXM satellite radio with weather service. And, a DirecTV Satellite Television receiver. I should enroll in the gadget 12-Step program!
While I don’t necessarily recommend that everyone install all of these gadgets, there are a few items of electronics that I highly suggest for cruisers, especially if you are going to do the Loop.
The first is a hand-held VHF radio. Even if you have multiple radios installed on your boat, having a hand-held radio is important. First, if you ever lost power onboard, a hand-held will still work. When you take out your dingy, a hand-held will get you help if you need it. We have used it on the dock away from the boat to keep in contact with friends who are arriving. And if you ever have to abandon ship, it’s probably your only way to reach rescuers.
The second is having a Send and Receive AIS system. On the rivers, it was great to have a Tug call us and say “hey, we see you just around the corner, if you go to the green side, we won’t squash you like a bug!” Radar is fine but confusing and won’t see around corners. AIS lets you see approaching traffic, and them to see you. It is a bit pricy but well worth the investment. You can also see who is at a marina as you arrive. One note, when you get into a marina, TURN OFF YOUR AIS TRANSMITTER. I’ve been in situations where I am passing a marina and can’t see the map on my Chartplotter because of all of the AIS signals from boats that have not moved in months!
Third, is really good waterproof binoculars. We have two pairs one for Tom and one for Brenda so that we don’t have to keep adjusting them to our unique focus distance.
Aside from the normal electronics package (Chartplotter, VHF radio, GPS) the only other gadget that really made a difference for us on the Loop was an Auto-Pilot. In the evening, Tom plots our route on his laptop for the following day, then uploads it into the chart plotter/auto-pilot. When we were in open”ish” water, we will let the boat do the driving. It leaves us free to watch the surroundings and other traffic. Really reduces the workload at times.
Is there a question we didn’t answer or something you would like more information on? Just “Contact Us” and we are more than happy to help!
Tom & Brenda