For those who may have missed the post announcing our next adventure – our plan is to soon start dividing our time between life cruising the back-roads of America in our bus Zephyr, and cruising America’s Great Loop in a boat.
But first – we need to find the boat!
This post is the first chronicling our boat hunt.
Boats, like RVs, are all about compromise and trade-offs – and the Great Loop in particular adds some hard constraints to the mix.
We’ve spent the past few weeks touring (both physically and virtually) as many boats as we can – trying to get a better handle on what we want in our floating second home.
And with every boat we tour, how we balance the trade-offs seems to shift a bit – sometimes simultaneously broadening and narrowing the focus of our hunt.
Here are some of the big goals and constraints we are weighing – and our current thinking on what we are looking for in our Great Loop dream boat.
First, here’s the quick video update version:
Boat Age, Condition, Cost, and Financing
Just like RVing, you can do the Great Loop on just about any budget.
Particularly if you are willing to sacrifice creature comforts, or if you have the time to invest in taking on an old fixer-upper boat from the 70’s or 80’s – almost anyone can afford this adventure.
Plenty of people have done the Loop in boats costing well under $10,000, and the Captain John ‘Frugal Voyager’ website is full of great tips on how to affordably tackle Looping.
But unlike a lot of Loopers – we aren’t taking a year off to do the Loop in one big grand gap-year adventure, nor are we retired and looking to stretch our retirement funds while focused on nothing but boating.
We still have full-time days jobs to focus on, and rather than cranking out the Loop in a year we are intending to move at a slower pace – dividing our time between bus and boat over the next several years, or even longer.
We’ve decided we’d rather spend more up front for something that will be a comfortable home for the duration, and for something that is relatively turn-key and ready to go.
Besides – we’ve already had plenty of adventures with restoring an old classic, or living minimally in super small spaces. We are ready for new and different challenges.
Right now it seems that the sweet spot for us will be finding a boat that is 10-25 years old.
We are open to older boats that have been lovingly restored, maintained, and updated – but we are very wary of taking on something that may have lurking major issues that might need to be immediately dealt with – such as replacing rusted fuel tanks.
The one other catch with older boats we have discovered is that it seems all but impossible to finance boats over 20 years old, ruling out a lot of the best older boats old boats because they are out of our comfortable cash price range.
Although we are completely debt free, and have been for years – we are suprisingly growing more and more comfortable with the idea of a larger / newer boat that we would finance – taking advantage of our excellent credit, current low interest rates, and ongoing mortgage interest deductions. We’d make a sizable downpayment, and then put 3-4 years worth of payments immediately away in a separate account. Financial planning wise, it tickles our brains similarly to our cash budget, but keeps more of our assets liquid while affording us a hopefully better boat.
This opens us up to looking at pricier boats that are potentially 5-15 years old.
But just because we are looking for a turnkey boat, it does not have to be absolutely perfect.
No boat will be.
If there are a just a few key manageable refit projects that can be tackled in just a month or two over the winter before we move in, that might work for us. While a boat by the very definition is going to be an ongoing maintenance project, those that have serious risks of immediately becoming huge projects (such as replacing the fuel tanks, or rebuilding an engine) that delays our adventure right off the bat aren’t in the running.
We love the idea of a recent loop veteran boat that has already been lived aboard, had the bugs shaken out, and which has a known history.
A low-hours boat that has barely been used in its life before us raises red flags.
Boat Type: Sailboat vs Trawler vs Motor Yacht
When Cherie and I first dreamed together years ago of future adventures on water – we both imagined that a mast and sails would be essential features on any future boat that we would own.
And while it is possible to do the Great Loop with a sailboat, there are many bridges and inland waterways that make doing any actual sailing along much of the route impossible.
Many Loopers with sailboats actually leave the mast and sails behind, or they ship them from somewhere along the Hudson in New York to meet them in Mobile, Alabama.
Some avid sailors step the mast and lash it to the deck, raising it again to sail the Great Lakes only to drop it again to transit through Chicago and the rivers.
There is one advantage of sailboats on the loop – they tend to be incredibly fuel efficient, even if under motor power 100% of the time. One couple we found did the entire loop in a Gemini Catamaran using only 672 gallons of fuel to cover 5,812 miles!
But for us – a sailboat probably doesn’t make sense.
We know if we had a sailboat we’d want a catamaran large and comfortable enough for living aboard, and spending so much on such a capable sailing vessel only to immediately dismast it seems wrong.
So… That means we are hunting for a motorboat. But what kind?
There are few popular types to consider:
- Tugs – There are some adorable miniature tug-style boats that are well suited to the Loop. But they tend to be very expensive, and the ones we have toured have awkward and seemingly uncomfortable interior layouts for full-time living aboard.
- Trawlers – Trawler-style boats (especially those with aft-cabins) tend to have great interior space for living aboard, and are very popular for doing the Loop. Displacement-hull “true” trawlers are designed to travel slowly over great distances, and can be relatively fuel efficient. But many displacement trawlers are typically better outfitted for ocean crossings than inland cruising. More common on the Loop are semi-displacement trawlers that have less efficient hulls, but which can move faster through the water with enough power (and fuel) thrown at pushing the boat.
- Motor Yachts – Our goal in doing the loop is to travel slowly, so we at first dismissed these “go fast” boats with planing hulls designed to get up above the water to move fast – burning gallons of fuel per hour in the process. But as we’ve researched further, more and more Motor Yacht designs have appealed to us. Having speed when you need it can be nice – and when running slowly many people seem to claim that their motor yachts are nearly as fuel efficient as comparably sized semi-displacement trawlers, as long as you can resist the temptation to go faster. Lately we’ve been drawn to “Express Style” Motor Yachts that ditch the flybridge, and are thus better able to fit under bridges.
There are other types of suitable boats too. Hybrids with solar panels and electric thrusters fill us with geek lust, and there are some sweet power catamarans out there too.
And the idea of designing and building a fully custom beauty to meet our exact specifications is the stuff of every mariner’s fantasy.
But when it comes to practical and affordable – for us a relatively mass-produced trawler or motor yacht seems to best fit the bill. There are certainly plenty of viable options on the market that seem like they will fit comfortably into our budget.
The key though for the Loop is finding something that will physically fit.
A Boat Sized for Looping
There are certain requirements that every Great Loop boat must meet.
The trickiest one is bridge clearance.
To get from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, every boat doing the Great Loop must get under a 19′ 6″ clearance fixed bridge on the Calumet Sag Sanitation Canal.
There is no getting around this – and this height limit rules out a lot of boats with elaborate flybridges or a tall superstructure.
But you have to be able to get under even lower fixed bridges if you want to be able to take some of the most enticing Great Loop alternative routes.
For example, to take the scenic cruise along the Chicago River past all the downtown skyscrapers requires getting under a 17′ bridge.
The route north through Lake Champlain to Montreal also requires getting under several 17′ bridges – and we consider this route a “must do” in our personal Loop planning, ruling out a huge number of other boat options.
And to do the scenic western Erie Canal between Syracuse and Buffalo requires squeezing under many bridges as low as 15′ 5″, with 15′ as a suggested max height.
To see just how gorgeous the western Erie canal is, and just how low some of the bridges are – check out the awesome recent videos from Shaun & Julia Sailing Around the World – a young couple who have set out to take their tiny sailboat down from Canada to Florida by way of the Erie Canal.
We’d love to keep our options open for exploring this route.
We’ve discovered that while it is easy to find out about bridge heights, it is hard to find accurate information of the bridge clearance attributes for various boats. Some that we had initially ruled out we’ve now discovered can actually fit under certain bridges by lowering antenna masts, folding down hinged radar arches, or dismantling a Bimini shade.
And with many others – these routes and bridges are straight out impossible.
The other major Great Loop constraint is draft.
There is a lot of shallow water to contend with along certain sections of the Great Loop, and boats that can handle thin water have a major advantage.
Some of the highlights of the Great Loop are the Canadian historic canals – and these impose a hard limit on boat draft. The Chambly Canal is charted at 6.5′ deep, the Trent-Severn Waterway (one of the highlights of the Loop) is 6′ deep, and the Rideau Waterway from Ottawa to Kingston is just 5′ deep. Boats drawing over 4′ are actually asked to sign a waiver before proceeding!
To keep our options open – we are seeking out a boat that draws 5′ max, though less than 4′ is ideal.
The Canadian canals also have width limits that rule out some large catamarans on these routes – such as a 24′ beam width limit on the Big Chute Marine Railway, or a 21′ width limit on the Chambly canal.
As for length…
If you happen to have a megayacht more than 90′ long, you might have trouble with some of the locks, but odds are likely the other limits will have ruled the Loop out for you already.
Our size goals:
Being able to get under the 17′ bridge for the Lake Champlain route is mandatory for us, and getting as low as 15′ to open up exploration of the full Erie Canal is very appealing – but we are willing to compromise on this if we have to.
As for boat length – 40’ seems to be our sweet spot, +/- 5 feet.
We like that a smaller boat with a smarter layout will be easier to maneuver and much more affordable to operate over time, but we are growing increasingly tempted by larger boats that are overall more livable – indoors and out.
Anything over 50’ though is likely going to feel WAY too big for just the two of us, and not worth the ongoing extra costs.
Interior: Comfortable Salon and 2+ Cabins
We are looking for a boat that will be at least as comfortable as our bus for living (and working) aboard, and that has been surprisingly hard to find.
A lot of even big boats are set up for holidays – with tiny closets, limited storage, very minimal pantry and fridge space, and ridiculously small galley sinks that could barely handle washing a plate – much less pots and pans.
We want something that is suited for live aboard life, and we are growing less and less inclined to compromise on this.
We want a comfortable interior – with lots of windows and ample views. Dark wood and cramped interior spaces are not appealing to us, and 1980’s color palettes (pinks and pastels, ugh!) turn us off too.
As for cabins – we want an island queen in the master, and we are so far most drawn to aft-cabin layouts that would give us a large full-width bedroom.
We also want a “VIP” guest cabin – with space for our parents or another couple to comfortably join us for a week or so at a time. A lot of boats have guest cabins that are more like like caves, and we want to be able to offer our guests better than that.
For privacy reasons, ideally we want the guest cabin to not have an adjoining wall with the master cabin too.
For all these reasons, split front cabin / aft cabin layouts have been most appealing to us.
We are also growing more and more intrigued by having a small third cabin, which we could use for storage, the litter box, tech cabinet, office space, and/or occasional overflow guests.
Our Interior Goals
This is what we are looking for:
- 2 or 3 Staterooms
- Great Windows / Views
- Air Conditioning
- “Practical” Galley
- Large Fridge (bonus points for a residential fridge and/or ice-maker)
- Good place for a litter box
- Ample Storage
- A good work space (with views) for the day time.
- Comfy couch and a place to put a big screen for movie nights!
Outdoors: Sundeck Mandatory!
We’ve talked to many Loopers who have told us that the favorite space on their boat is their outdoor shaded sundeck. These covered back porches essentially become an outdoor living room, and we’ve fallen in love with this space on every boat we’ve toured that has one.
A lot of boats however lack a shaded sundeck – focused instead on providing an open cockpit for fishing or soaking up the sun.
We’ll take the shade please! In fact, we consider a proper ‘shadedeck’ mandatory.
Yes – a sundeck instead of a cockpit may make line handling going through locks more difficult, but we’ve had enough people reassure us it really isn’t that big of a deal.
We are also looking for low maintenance when it comes to taking care of the exterior of the boat.
Though all boats require regular ongoing maintenance, a lot of older boats have wooden decks and railings that can look beautiful – but which are a headache to keep that way. We’ve been warned repeatedly that exposed wood can require continuous maintenance – which is not something we are interested in.
And besides – we actually like the look of fiberglass and stainless steel.
Our Outdoor Goals
This is what we are looking for:
- Large shaded sundeck!
- Fiberglass deck – no high-maintenance teak!
- A practical dingy that is relatively easy to deploy and board.
- A place to store bikes and inflatable SUPs.
- And of course, any boat we buys needs to be photogenic…
The Guts: Mechanicals & Systems
There seems to be religious wars akin to Ford vs Chevy all over the boat forums – with people advocating with fervor for their favorite engines: Cummins, CAT, Volvo, Yanmar, and others.
Even Detroit Diesels (just like in our bus!) are still commonly found powering various boats on our target list.
Though we do already know a thing or two about working on Detroit 8V71s, – we really do not (yet) have any favorite “must get” engine.
We just want something fuel efficient, quiet, easy to work on, and that will be overall reliable.
Our Tech Goals
This is what we are looking for:
- Twin diesel engines, or single plus a bow thruster. Maneuverability, ease of docking, fuel efficiency, and reliability are MUCH more interesting than speed to us.
- Fuel tanks enabling 300+ mile range, and 500 miles is even better.
- Quiet generator.
- Workable engine room.
- Geeky modern marine electronics – if they aren’t there, we’ll eventually add them ourselves.
- Space for eventual lithium and solar upgrades, of course…
One worry – it seems that engines that are built to go fast may not like to go slow. So even if they can travel slowly with minimal fuel burn, our desired pace might not be good for these turbo-charged engines in the long run.
If we end up with a “go fast” boat – learning how to best take care of the engine when doing extended periods in no-wake canal zones may be a challenge.
Boats On Our Hit List
Here’s a look at two of the boat types we’ve toured so far – showing the wide range of options that are still under consideration:
- “Taiwanese Trawlers” – Our first online boat crush was the Jefferson 42 – a classic live aboard trawler design that was replicated by many Taiwanese boat builders in the 80’s. But many of these boats built in the 1980’s have issues if they have not been well cared for, and finding one that has been suitably updated will be a challenge. Bridge clearance is also a potential issue for some of the routes we want to explore. Aside from the Jefferson 42, we have toured a few other similar aft-cabin trawler-style motor yachts from the 1980’s, including a Marine Trader 40 and a Chris Craft Catalina 427. There were things we liked about each of them – but the age and condition of some of the boats of this era did raise red flags for us.
- Carver 396 Motor Yacht – We fell in love with this boat online, but initially ruled it out because the official 18′ clearance would not be able to do Lake Champlain. But when we stumbled across the Evening Star blog, we learned that the Carver 396 actually could do this route with only a few minor modifications! We really loved the way the interior of this boat felt – the windows and natural light were fabulous, and the large salon and modern styling were great. But once we got on board, we didn’t like that the kitchen felt more designed for a weekend than living aboard – with a tiny sink and very little pantry space. And the bedrooms (particularly the front) were lacking storage space too. The sundeck area was also smaller than other boats we’ve loved. This boat remains on our list, and it has turned us on to more modern styles. We also toured a slightly older Carver 406 that wasn’t as sleek and stylish as the Carver 396, but it had a more practical setup for living aboard – with more storage, a better kitchen, and a much larger sundeck.
Our current online boat crush is the Cruisers Express Motor Yacht – either the three-cabin 455 or 4450, or the smaller 405 or 415.
This unique style of boat seems to offer the liveaboard interior space of a motor yacht, but by trimming away the flybridge and placing the helm on a lower level it means that this style can fit under bridges with ease too.
It’ll be the next style of boat we line up to see (soon, hopefully!).
Dream To Reality
A lot of people spend a long time hunting their perfect boat – they’re planning their boat adventures years off into the future.
We are ready to get on the water – even if that means making a few compromises along the way. We are actively working with a buyer’s broker to more efficiently guide us through this process.
We want to have the boat “ready to go” by Spring 2017 – allowing ample time for getting comfortable with it, getting training and shaking out any issues. We are theoretically open to starting anywhere along the Great Loop, but a boat currently located anywhere in Florida or as far north as the Chesapeake would be most ideal.
Constructive feedback and suggestions on our wish list, and tips on boat brands and models to check out is appreciated – especially if you can point us to options that are actually currently for sale.
Do you have a boat for sale that you think meets our criteria? For sure – be in touch!
But remember that there is no one right way to do the Loop, and no one perfect boat for everyone. Our personal dream boat may not be yours
If you are interested in following along in our hunt – we are happy to share the adventure!