Category Archives: The “Best” Boat

Selecting A Boat for the Great Loop

The Great Loop is a very significant cruise, and one for which people usually plan and prepare for some months – or years – in advance.  Some people buy a boat specifically for the purpose of doing the loop cruise.  Others make their purchase decision without having the Great Loop goal in mind.  In anticipation of cruising the Great Loop, there was a recent request for advice from a self-described “newbie looking for the right boat.”  “What is the best boat,” is a seasonal frequently asked question on the AGLCA discussion forum.

Cruising the loop really consists of three very different kinds of life activity.  First is that all of the activities that comprise our daily life do not end because we went cruising.  We all must handle meal planning, provisioning, banking, bill paying, medical appointments, keeping in touch, computer crashes and sick pets aboard, except on the boat, these things all occur outside of our familiar comfort zone.  Second is the attention and focus the boat demands: navigation, piloting, maintenance, repair and weather.  Third, and equally important, “doing the loop” is a highly rewarding, fast-paced, marathon social experience.

The social aspects of “looping” often don’t get explicit consideration, but they are important to boat selection.  While on the loop, cruisers will meet many other “voyageurs” along the way.  it typical to meet, part ways, and re-meet other cruisers while progressively traveling through interesting and historical places all along the route. Even for cruisers who may have traveled many of the geographic locales before, it’s likely that travel has not been by boat.  Thus, the perspective and experience cruisers get from the water will be new and refreshing.  Loopers will want to go ashore to take advantage of sightseeing and the many social opportunities that will arise along the way.

Aboard Sanctuary, we like the quiet and privacy of anchoring.  When we planned for our Great Loop cruise, we imagined we would anchor out a lot.  But very early on, we found we met many wonderful people who became dear friends.  To enjoy time with new friends, see new things and enjoy new places, we found we used marinas more often than we had anticipated.

People who plan to buy a boat just to “do the loop” already know the cruise will not be an inexpensive adventure.  Even if the plan is to sell the boat at the conclusion of the cruise, “breaking even” on owning the boat is unlikely.  There are fixed water depth and air height restrictions along the loop that constrain the physical dimensions of the boat.  However, even within the physical limits, larger boats will face constraints that smaller boats will not have.  Navigation in some areas is more difficult for large boats.  Availability of slips for large or beamy boats can be difficult.  Shore power availability is sometimes limited.  Larger boats cost more to insure, operate, dock, maintain and repair.

A major and important consideration is whether or not guests or family members will be aboard.  Will guests be traveling with you?  Will you have grandchildren traveling with you?  How often and for how long will guests be aboard?  We have had grandchildren with us, together and separately, for several weeks at a time.  We have found that to be an amazing, rewarding and uplifting experience…   occasionally frustrating…   but never dull!  If frequent visitors are expected, what privacy considerations are important to the boat’s owners?  What privacy considerations will be important to guests?  Can male and female siblings co-exist in the same universe, let alone sharing the same head?  How about younger cousins?  Can young visitors amuse themselves, or to they require “entertaining?”  What needs will “mature” guests have?  And if you plan to have minor children aboard when you cross an international boundary, be sure you have a notarized statement from the custodial parents or legal guardians that grants you custody.  We had a most interesting session with a Canadian Boarder Official on that topic.

All of the forgoing suggests many personal preference considerations in the matter of “which is the best boat for the Great Loop.”

So, against that background, what about the question?  Just what is the “best boat” to do the loop?  Quite simply, personal preferences are so important in the question that there simply is no one right answer.  My ideal boat may be a poor choice for others, and vice versa.  If the daily destination is very important to the boat owner, perhaps a faster boat is more important.  On the other hand, if the journey is what the owner enjoys, speed may be unimportant.

Personal preferences will express themselves in at least three areas:
1.  The design, configuration and styling of the boat,
2.  The owner’s tolerance for comfort, convenience and risk, and
3.  The owner’s desire for, and ability with, self-reliance and independence.

There are several oft-debated personal preference topics that arise in relation to boat design, configuration and styling: slow vs. fast, deep keel vs. shallow draft, cruiser vs. trawler, monohull vs. multihull, pilot house vs. flybridge, one engine vs. two, anchor vs. marina, walk-around deck vs. inside living space, electric vs. LP gas cooktop?

Personal preference in comfort, convenience and risk-acceptance will be reflected in equipment choices: the anchoring system, windlass, bow/stern thrusters, dinghy and outboard motor, battery bank(s), Radar, AIS, autopilot, computer, tablet, TV, DVD, inverter, XM Weather, EPIRB/PLB, washer/dryer, shaft line cutter, wi-fi amplifier, watermaker, towing insurance.  Mechanical and electrical skill set, together with temperament, personal preference, self-reliance and independence will be reflected in tools and spare parts inventories: propeller(s) spares, engine fresh and raw water pumps, fuel lift pump, heat pump raw water circulator pump, head (toilet, not engine) re-build kit, extent of hand and power tools and test equipment?

The request for advice raised by the recent poster stated an initial preference for “staterooms and heads both fore and aft.”  Two early responses to the poster suggested the American Tug 34 and the Krogen Manatee, neither of which offer staterooms with heads both fore and aft.  They are both wonderful boats with relatively large salons for lounging, entertaining and dining, but more limited if cruising with visitors aboard.  The Manatee is a slow boat, the AT is a fast semi-displacement boat that can move along more briskly.  They both offer good living space, but trade off deck space, sleeping space and privacy to do it.  Pilot House boats generally reflect the owners personal preference to pilot the boat from inside.

We personally prefer to pilot from our “classic” trawler’s Flybridge, which we do virtually exclusively aboard Sanctuary.  Most Pilot House boats (AT34, Nordic Tug, others) tend to have limited visibility aft, which can be problematic if “crabbing” against sideways set and drift in narrow, confined, shallow channels.  There are many places along the loop route where visibility aft is important to staying in a channel.  This is a common issue in Florida (both coasts and Lake Okeechobee), and in the coastal shallows of US East Coast states. The “classic” trawlers with forward and aft staterooms (Monk, Albin, Grand Banks, Marine Trader and others) are generally flybridge, dual helm station boats, which offer very good 360º visibility. These “classic” trawlers favor sleeping space over lounging, entertaining and dining space.

Both Pilot House and Flybridge trawlers can be single-handed rather easily in locking situations, usually from the inside helm station.  That said, many owners have strong personal preferences in this area, and self-confidence and comfort with maneuvering and locking is important on the Great Loop Cruise.  The Krogan Manatee offers both a large salon and a flybridge, but can only be piloted from the flybridge.  It trades off a walk-around deck for interior space, so single-handing in locks requires practice and forethought.  This can all be worked out, of course, depending on the preferences of the owner.  These are just a small sampling of the pros and cons to individual boats that only your personal taste and personal preferences can settle for you.  If you’re not (never) going to be single-handing, this issue is moot; if you are going to be single-handing, even occasionally, it can be extremely important or no big deal, depending on your preferences and comfort level.

Nothing is more closely associated to personal comfort and preference than personal physical health and condition and that of others aboard (spouse, visitors) and any pets you may have aboard.  Imagine and carefully consider your physical access to the boat when faced with various boarding and docking situations.  Along the Great Loop, you will encounter widely variable tidal ranges and periods of vigorous winds and currents.  You will encounter these environmental conditions at floating docks, fixed docks, high concrete walls, along-side ties, slips with short or very short finger piers, slips with no finger pier (Mediterranean, or “Med,” moor), shrimp boats, barges and occasionally, a mooring ball.  One particularly exciting activity is tying to a mooring ball in a crowded mooring field in 20kt gusting winds and drizzle.  These activities require physical agility and some stamina.  They also require boat handling skill (seamanship) and patience with one’s deck hands.  If your deck crew has any physical disability or limitations, this will – or should – affect your choice of boat.

Likewise, with the question of engines, there are pros and cons that often boil down to personal comfort and preference.  Some people feel that dual engines provide a margin of safety, reasoning that it’s improbable both would fail at the same time.  Some people feel that a fast trawler or cruiser allows one to run fast over open expanses of water or away from approaching bad weather.  Yes, sudden and complete engine failures can occur.  I don’t know the statistics from Tow BoatUS or SeaTow, but most of the anecdotal lost engine stories I’ve heard over our several years of living aboard and cruising involve fuel issues that affected both engines.  The good news on fuel is that, on the loop cruise, you’ll turn your fuel stores over 6 ~ 8 times, so the fuel aboard will generally be pretty fresh and clean once the cruise is begun.  With two engines, maintenance tasks and maintenance costs are doubled; and, physical access to the engine for maintenance tasks is often limited and problematic.  And of course, even with two engines, if one does fail and require emergency service, it will certainly bring a temporary stop to your travel itinerary while the issue is being resolved.

Single engine trawlers are generally fit with full keels and well-protected under-water running gear (prop shaft, struts, propeller, rudder, skeg). That is often not the case with dual engine boats.  There are lots of areas on the loop where the water is shallow and the bottom unforgiving.  Every looper knows of cases of encounters between props and rocks.  So, for lots of reasons, I personally prefer a single engine configuration, but others will have different equally valid opinions and preferences. Personal preferences and values will settle the choice for each buyer.

There are many choices of dinghy, and many alternatives for storing a dinghy aboard.  Towing a dinghy that is tethered to the “mother ship” is practical in limited cases, but is not wise in open bodies of water or in lock systems or narrow canals.  The tether is always a hazard to fouling the mother ship’s propeller(s) and rudder(s).  In some lock systems, towing a dinghy is not permitted.  In others, it may be permitted, but additional fees will be collected.  In all cases, it is selfish and discourteous to others locking through with you.  So, spend some time considering how you will store your dinghy aboard, and how you will deploy and stow it.  And particularly, think about how quickly it could be deployed or stowed in an emergency.

Dinghies suspended from aft davit systems are relatively easy to deploy and stow, but can fill with rainwater and become very heavy.  Aft davits also add to the overall length of the vessel, and thus to locking and docking costs.  Dinghies stowed on upper decks can be very cumbersome – even dangerous – to deploy and stow.  Filled with rainwater, dinghies on upper decks can affect the roll-stability of the mother ship.  Dinghies are heavy, and can present dangerous weight and leverage issues to the unsuspecting or unprepared owner.  Carefully think through how you will be able to manage these factors when considering your purchase decision.

If thunderstorms or other severe weather is likely and probable, expecting to outrun it is very risky.  These cells develop in air masses that are geographically very large.  An air mass can go from “stable” to “unstable” in a matter of minutes.  The passage of the outflow boundary of a thunderstorm cell can produce hurricane force gusts and very high sea states.  There are only two things that really, really scare me about boating: fire aboard and lightening!  No small plastic yacht is made to take a lightening hit without serious consequence and damage, and there is plenty of open water on the loop.  To me, it’s much better to have good forecasting tools, anticipate thunderstorm weather, and stay in port while it passes.  My personal preference is, it’s better to hide, and live to run another – better, more comfortable – day.

There are, of course, a few boats that overcome many of the above generalities.  Great Harbor and Florida Bay Coaster designs are shallow draft, multi-engine, protected keel boats with great living space.  They do so with very unique and non-traditional styling that some feel compromises stability, comfort and sea-keeping ability in moderate to high sea states.  Powered Catamarans also offer great living space in a boat that can achieve high speed at great economy.  However, steering ability with only one operational engine is often degraded, and the beam of these boats limits availability for dockage in many areas.  So once again, we are faced with many pros and cons having to do with personal preferences.

I would ass/u/me no one would consider buying a gasoline-fueled boat.  Gasoline flashes explosively at standard atmospheric temperature and pressure (STP), so the boat is a large, floating bomb.  On a gasoline fueled boat, ALL electrical and plumbing equipment must be of UL-Marine certified spark-suppressive design.  Diesel fuel is far safer.  That said, though, every boat owner must give some thought to fire suppression; both fire suppression equipment and emergency response to an actual fire scenario.

The question of tankage for fuel, potable water and black water waste stores will vary from boat-to-boat and power configuration-to-power configuration.  Most displacement and deep-vee, semi-displacement hulled plastic (FRP) trawlers in the 40′ range will carry around 300 gallons of fuel.  If you get 2.5 – 3 StM/Gal, then you’ll have a range of 600 – 700 miles.  With that range, you can plan fuel purchases for optimal commodity pricing.  Heavy genset use can affect that range slightly.  Most knowledgeable boaters say an 8kW genset will use 0.5 – 0.75 gallons/hr.  So, 300 gallons of diesel is plenty of onboard capacity to do the loop or visit the Bahamas.  The longest distance between fuel stops on the great loop route is on the Mississippi/Ohio River, from just below St. Louis to Kentucky Lake.  That’s around 240 StM.

Sanctuary carries 140 gallons of potable water, which I think is on the high side for trawlers in our size class.  That lasts 2 adults about 6 to 10 days for drinking and cooking; the largest driver of water use is dish washing, personal hygiene and showers.  Learn to take GI showers.  As a personal preference decision, we do not have a washer/dryer aboard.   Some folks consider them essential.  If you do – of if your spouse does – you will consume aHr of electric capacity and gallons of water to feed it.  We do US Coastal, near-Coastal and Inland River cruising, so we do not see a need for the expense or maintenance overhead of a watermaker.  Even for the Bahamas, positive ROI for a watermaker is measured in years, not months.

We have a 40 gallon black water waste holding tank.  For us, we find that capacity lasts two adults for 6 – 8 days.  So going back to the earlier discussion, the social aspects of doing the great loop brought us into marinas – on the average – around 4 nights out of 7, average.  Fuel, water and pumpout are all easily available within those parameters.  Even if one chooses not to use marinas, “drive-up” facilities are widely available all along the main route.  Not so much on the Lower Mississippi River, below the Ohio River, but that is not the main route for the Great Loop cruise.  And, not at all in the Bahamas.

Sanctuary is fit with a single battery bank that powers all house loads and also starts our 4-cyl Cummins diesel engine.  A single battery bank vs. separate house and start banks is a personal preference choice.  We are very comfortable with our configuration, while others could be very uncomfortable.  Our genset has it’s own, separate start battery. We feel the most efficient way to charge Sanctuary’s battery bank is by utilizing the main engine when the boat is otherwise under way for the day’s travel.

In the summer months, we consume about 100 aHr of DC power during the overnight period for refrigeration, space and nav lighting, computer and TV/DVR use.  We consume between 150 to 200 aHr of DC power overnight in months with longer hours-of-darkness.  We are not especially conservative about our DC electric power consumption, and can use less if conditions warrant.  We have 6 x 230 aHr, 6V flooded wet cells that make up a 690 aHr, 12V house bank. We methodically adhere to the “50% discharge rule” for lead acid (flooded, Gel, AGM, Odyssey AGM) batteries.  We power our AC electric loads with a Magnum MS2012 2KW inverter/charger. We also use a Magnum battery monitor to keep track of our battery bank’s state-of-charge (SOC).  I consider the battery monitor to be an absolutely essential piece of safety equipment.  (Does that sound like a personal preference?)

We think crock pots are great for cooking, especially in cooler weather!  With the inverter, we can run a crock pot all day at a net zero consumption of DC aHr capacity, and upon arrival, we’ll have a hot stew for dinner.  Likewise, low wattage electric blankets, electric mattress pads, and electric throws are great for fall and spring cool mornings and nights.  Because of Peukert’s Law and the impact of inverter efficiency (inefficiency), high battery discharge loads like microwaves, electric cook-top elements, hair dryers and ceramic space heaters drop the 20-hour capacity of a battery bank by as much as 20~25%. High discharge rates also accelerate natural battery deterioration, contributing to sulfation and plate surface etching/erosion.   It’s a good practice to avoid even transient high discharge loads; or at least, allow them for the shortest possible duration.  Run the genset if you need significant AC power for cooking and/or space heating.  It’s much easier on the batteries.

I do not recommend the use of portable generators on, near, or for the purpose of, powering AC electrical equipment on boats.  Gensets used on boats should be UL-Marine certified, and “built in” to the electrical system.  Gensets must be designed and installed to fully comply with all ABYC electrical safety recommendations.  Portable, gasoline powered generators are generally not designed to be compatible with residential or vessel electrical systems, and often do not meet even the basic electrical safety and compatibility codes.   When portable generators are placed ashore and long extension cords are run to the boat, life-threatening electrical hazards are potentially created.  Differences in the internal design of portable generators make a big difference in safe use in any application, but can be very difficult for lay buyers and users to assess and accommodate.  Carrying and handling gasoline to fuel portable gensets is hazardous.  The exhaust of engines powered with gasoline has much higher concentrations of Carbon Monoxide (CO) than diesel exhaust.  I recommend against the use of portable generators on boats.

Sanctuary is fit with a 20# LP gas cylinder (propane) for our stove and oven.  We have a Xintex (FireBoy) propane gas detector installed.  We get a full year from a single 20# cylinder.  When convenient, it’s better to re-fill a propane tank than buy an exchange tank, because the exchange tanks are only filled to 17#, not the full 20#.

As mentioned above, one final personal preference thought that will affect your planning and travel is whether or not you have pets aboard.  Cats are easier, but if you travel with a dog, particularly a larger dog, you’ll probably use marinas more frequently than we did, simply as a matter of convenience for toileting the dog.  There are a couple of places along the loop route where its inevitable that the dog will need to be transported ashore in your dinghy, but mostly, that can be avoided.  Vets are available in all communities along the loop.  Some animals do get sea sick, just as some people do.  Plan for pet meds just as you would for people meds.  Check with Canadian and Bahamian authorities for pet health clearance requirements.