I had planned on doing the loop for several years, but like most loopers, I had to wait until retirement to do it. I didn’t want to wait TOO long, figuring that at age 68 I was able to do it, but if I waited very long, I might NOT be able to.
I planned on doing the loop in one lengthy voyage. I knew I would be single-handing, so I determined that a boat around 35 feet was the maximum length to comfortably handle. My 80 lb dog would be with me, so I needed enough space for the two of us; thus I figured that something around 35 feet would be the minimum length. I decided on a Mainship 34-1….single diesel, upper and lower helms, and a cockpit for boarding ease. The one I bought also had a transom door (mandatory for getting the dog onto the swim platform to board the dinghy), generator and air conditioning, and a bow thruster for those tight spots getting alongside a lock or dock.
I ended up spending 4 years of off-and-on cruising, mainly due to mechanical problems with an older boat (mostly transmission issues, including it being an old design that had inherent weaknesses). El Nido turned out to be a good compromise of size and cruising economy (other than mechanics, that is).
I had some trepidation initially. I had experience with boats that size, but only in rivers/bays. Open water was new to me, as were locks. The first lock I encountered was Federal Lock One, on the Hudson River. I called and told the lockmaster that I was single engine, single-handing, and had never seen a lock before. He assured me it was no big deal, and he was correct. From then on, locks didn’t phase me at all.
The first year I went from Hampton, VA to Brewerton, NY. I elected to do the entire Erie Canal, since I had 4 inches of overhead clearance. The second year I did the “Triangle Loop”, and spent the winter in Brewerton again. The third year I made it to Indiantown, FL, where I put the boat on the hard for hurricane season. And finally, in 2016, I went “gold” in Hampton, just in time for the rendezvous.
Other than the mechanical problems, the loop was a breeze. The only 2 times I experienced difficulty handling the boat were wind related. Once I had a strong wind blowing off the town wall, and by the time I could get from the helm to the side of the cockpit where the lines were, I got blown too far away. After 3 tries, a helpful passerby grabbed the midship line and made me fast. The second time was in a down lock with a good tailwind. The bow thruster was inoperative, and as I turned to align with the lock wall the wind spun me around 180 degrees. A lockmaster grabbed the bow line and between us got secured.
I spent the vast majority of nights tied up. It was much easier getting the dog to shore that way, plus, in some anchorages, there was no readily available landing spot for him. Frankly, I was more comfortable not having to worry about dragging an anchor, too. Another factor is that the loop is a great social experience, and if you anchor out a lot, you miss the camaraderie, as well as exploring the many small towns along the way. The trip is not so much about sailing as it is exploring.
Doing the loop solo is not a problem. You might miss some underway companionship (I knew Duncan was not much of a conversationalist), but you also don’t have to check out EVERY gift shop in every town.
Just do it.