Circles, Loops, Triangles – Popular Inland Cruising Routes in North America Ep. 72

‘Loops’ Involving One or More of the Great Lakes

I love that you can’t help but learn something new whenever you travel or try different things. I long ago learned about the [boat cruising] route called ‘The Down East Circle Route’ which is the one we are taking two summers to complete (we’re adding in extra exploration of the Great Lakes). I recently learned that there also is the ‘Great Loop’ and the ‘Triangle Loop’ that are popular with boaters and also involve one or more of the Great Lakes. Who knew?

The ‘Down East Circle Route’ and Our Modification

If you are just joining us, the Down East Circle Route begins (for us) in our home port of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (see image below) We travel south to Cape Cod and transit the Cape Cod Canal, we cross Buzzards Bay and Long Island Sound along the southern shore of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, then enter the waterways around New York City. We cross Manhattan to the Hudson River then travel nearly due North on the Hudson to Troy, New York. We turn a sharp left to access the Erie Canal at its eastern-most terminus. We take this all the way across New York State to Buffalo, where we join up with the Niagara River and take this south to enter the eastern end of Lake Erie.

This is where we are modifying the ‘typical’ circle route to allow us time in the Great Lakes. See the image below which maps the official ‘Down East Circle Routes’.

Instead of heading North into Lake Ontario via the Welland Canal, we will transit Lake Erie from East to West then utilize the St. Clair River to go North (through Lake St. Clair) and into the southern portion of Lake Huron. The official ‘Down East Circle Route’ has the boater briefly touching Lake Erie and doesn’t at all involve Lake Huron, Michigan or Superior. We are eager to spend some time exploring the renowned Georgian Bay and the North Channel, both part of Lake Huron. By September we will be back-tracking down the St. Clair River, across Lake Erie and then we’ll take the Welland Canal into Lake Ontario and we’ll head east, crossing the entirety of huge Lake Ontario. We plan to store our boat for the winter at Navy Point Marine ( on the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

Finishing the Down East Circle Route

In the spring of 2018, we will explore Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River then head further out the St. Lawrence – passing the wonderful cities of Montreal, Sorel, Trois-Riveres and Quebec City before the river continues to widen into what is the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This is a huge expanse of area where we hope to explore the many beautiful landscapes and, of course, the Saguenay Fjord! As you can see from the image below, there are several options that include Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, the Magdalen Islands, Cape Breton and Nova Scotia. Upon leaving the Canadian waters, we will make our way back to Portsmouth, New Hampshire (south of Portland, Maine) and complete our circle.

Other ‘Loops’ or ‘Circle Routes’ that Include the Great Lakes

The Great Loop

I thought we were going on a great loop but apparently, we’re not going on THE great loop! This image shows several options the boater can utilize to complete the Great Loop.

The ‘Great Loop’ starts out like the Down East Circle Route by going up the Hudson River and out the Erie Canal. Instead of looping north into Canada, the Great Loop takes the boater through several of the Great Lakes (actual number depends on the option chosen) and then out of the southern end of Lake Michigan on an almost straight southerly line into the Gulf of Mexico. The most common route is to pick up the Illinois Waterway after exiting Lake Michigan then connecting into the Mississippi River and finally into the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway before entering the gulf. There are a variety of paths to get onto the eastern shore of northern Florida at which point most boaters take advantage of the Inter-Coastal Waterway (the ICW) to make their way back up toward New York. (more on the ICW below)

Doing the Great Loop straight-through, in a single trip, typically takes a full year and boaters use the seasons to enjoy areas while the weather and temperatures are most pleasant! We have met several ‘Great Loopers’ already and they all have cabin-cruiser type power boats. It doesn’t make sense for a boat like ours (a sailboat with a deep keel) to be used for the Great Loop. Our mast would be down more often than up and our hull speed (maximum speed a boat with our hull design can travel through the water) would certainly hold us back! For more information on the Great Loop, see this site or this one.

The Triangle Loop

Many boaters in the Vermont, upstate New York and eastern Canada waters take on the ‘Triangle Loop’ which can be done in as little as a couple weeks. The triangle has as its base the Erie Canal. The left ‘side’ of the triangle is the Oswego Canal that takes the boater into Lake Oswego and then further north into either the St. Lawrence River or Rideau Canal. The final ‘side’ heads south along the Champlain Waterways. Here’s an image to help you see the triangle!

Other Popular Cruising Routes Not Involving the Great Lakes

Of course, there are many routes which have been popularized by cruisers that completely avoid the fresh water seas in the center of the United States.

Intracoastal Waterway (the ICW),
Also Called Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway

The ICW was built to defend shipping commerce for our young nation by allowing boats to ship goods without going ‘outside’, in the ocean, where our ships were frequently harassed by the British and French merchants ships and militaries (predominantly). The ICW is still heavily used for barge-based inter-state commerce and by the pleasure boating population. There are protected waterways that cover almost the entire stretch from Brownsville, Texas up to Boston, Massachusetts. These include the Gulf Intracoastal waterway, the Okeechobee waterway that crosses the Florida peninsula, the Atlantic Intracoastal waterway, the Chesapeake bay, the Chesapeake-Delaware canal, the Delaware Bay, Long Island Sound, Buzzard’s Bay (with the protection of the Elizabeth Islands off of southern Massachusetts) the Cape Cod Canal and the protection from the arm of Cape Cod up into Boston Harbor.

The Northwest Passage

Here is an interesting article on this amazing, yet frightening shipping route:  Northwest Passage Clear of Ice Again in 2016

While it would be absolutely thrilling to explore the Northwest Passage which transits the icy waters of Northern Canada and the Arctic, the fact that we have been able to do it more frequently in recent years than over past centuries is an alarming fact for our planet. Below are a couple maps that show the area where the Northwest Passage can be found and the most frequent route used to traverse this area. However, the Northwest Passage is often not passable – if the ice which bridges the Arctic ice flows to the Northern Territories of Canada doesn’t melt in the warm seasons the passage is closed.

More and more people have been able to experience this cruising ground in recent years but it is still a very dangerous and risky area to take a pleasure boat.

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