My evaluation of her seaworthiness is based entirely on experience before the loop. On the loop we had no schedule and almost no need to be anywhere at any time. We boated when it was “fun” and “comfortable” the idea of “safe” or “passable” was not in the equation. If we wandered up some lovely sheltered estuary to explore when a blow was forecast and the blow didn't happen that was fine with us. If we encountered sloppy conditions we simply turned back to a sheltered spot and waited for conditions to improve. I've negotiated rougher seas in my 16' tin skiff than anything we dealt with on the loop.
Before the loop I had Laughing Gull out on 3 occasions that were safe and passable but really not fun or comfortable. Two of these occasions were schedule driven(one of the greatest boating hazards in my opinion) and the third featured a weather forecast that reversed itself after we'd committed to an open water run.
The first schedule driven event was a charter to show a couple of photography instructors some puffins for courses they proposed to run with me providing boat transport. The lead instructor was a Russian and could only be in town for 3 days. The local instructor partner grew up running the nasty breaking inlets on the New Jersey coast and was up for anything. So considering this a “working” trip as opposed to a regular charter for fun we picked the best of the 3 days and bounced across Muscongus Bay to Eastern Egg Rock and photographed puffins. That done, Jersey guy decided we needed to go see Pemaquid Point Light, one of Maine's more spectacular light houses but a 5 mile run across a beam sea. Well obviously the boat and I made it okay, the Russian fellow was an amazing shade of green and Jersey guy was talking about pizza and beer. The boat was incredibly solid but graceful in the breaking 5 foot chop we negotiated that morning and I was never doubtful. We saw any number of 6-7 foot waves but were able to go around them.
The second schedule driven occasion was a long run from Providence Rhode Island to Gloucester, MA. A few days earlier I'd run Laughing Gull for 3 days(300 miles give or take) from Damariscotta Maine to Providence to attend the Land Trust Alliance Rally. I'd had the pleasure of my boss's company on the way down but a big workload, a busy wife and 2 small kids made a quick train ride home a better choice for him.
I left Providence about 7 a.m after a marina operator was kind enough to sell me gas before he was open. The weather forecast was just okay and scheduled to really blow the next day so I needed to make some miles. Considering the forecast it was likely that I'd be curtailing the trip and phoning Libbey to come and get me with the truck and trailer. If I could get across Massachusetts Bay to Gloucester I could save her the aggravation of Boston traffic while towing the boat trailer.
When I came out of the Sakonnet River mouth breaking 4 to 5' seas were rolling in out of the Southeast, again larger seas were present but avoidable. I slogged up the RI coast at 7-8 knots until I reached the point where the land swings north to New Bedford, MA. I realized there that if I made my way 6 or 7 miles to windward across Buzzards Bay I'd have a 30 mile sheltered run in the lee of the Elizabeth Islands and the western shore of Cape Cod.
That plan worked fine and a few hours later I was coming out of the Cape Cod Canal and it was time to decide whether to hook west into the shelter of the Boston Harbor islands or straight line 25 miles of wide open Massachusetts Bay and save time. Fog was just starting to show at a few river mouths so the straight line course looked best.
By the time I was halfway across the bay, seas (moderately steep but not breaking) were running to 4 feet on the stern quarter. I found I could run in fair comfort at 12 knots after trimming the engine up. Slower would have been more comfortable but heavy fog was starting to pour out of Salem Sound into the bay.
Visibility was less than 50 yards and dark was less than a half hour away when I idled by the breakwater into Gloucester Harbor. At 150 miles and 11 hours underway this is my longest daily run to date in Laughing Gull. I made it to Hampton NH the next morning before wind started to howl and it was time to call for a pick up.
The weather forecast for the Hawk Channel between Key West and Bahia Honda Key was for wind at 10-15 knots. seas at 2 to 3 feet and diminishing. The truck and trailer were up in the Everglades and our vacation time was coming to an end, it looked good to go.
By the time we neared Bahia Honda winds were 15-20 and seas were abeam at 3-4'. I'm not sure if the pass into Bahia Honda is technically a breaking inlet but the steep surf was about 5' and breaking. Laughing Gull easily found a sweet spot on the back of a big wave and we chugged in a few hundred yards to shelter, being careful to not out run the wave.
The bottom line is that I'm convinced this boat will handle far rougher water than I have the nerve to put to sea in.
Our customizing(please see earlier posts) of the boat greatly improved our comfort and efficiency. The half cock sliding roof position added just the right amount of shelter. It was set at the beginning of the trip and never changed. While it somewhat impedes casting a fishing rod, the kayak on the wheelhouse roof extends along the roof line so the roof slider adds little impediment to that. Both weather and bug curtains worked superbly, offering quick and thorough protection when conditions changed. The on deck galley worked very well although we were able to design some improvements to food storage that we'll work on over the next year.
Most folks seem to favor larger boats (mostly in the 35-50' range) for looping and that's fine for them but we never wished for a bigger boat. We did see a few 22' C Dories(a venerable and much loved west coast pocket cruiser) with loop flags and admired them greatly but agreed we preferred our open cockpit and downeast panache . While the bigger boats have more space, once we've got comfortable places to drive the boat, sit, sleep and cook we don't feel the need for any more space. Most marinas charge by the foot so short boats are less expensive although there are a few evil marinas that charge minimums, often based on a 30' length. Only one of those got our business and only because there were no other options in S. Haven MI that night.
Also on the topic of economy I had a friendly chat at a fuel dock with the skipper of a 52' swift(semi planing) trawler. He told me his boat carried 1200 gallons of fuel in 2 tanks. When I told him my single tank topped off at 65 gallons he responded that he needed more than that to get out of the harbor. I replied that my fuel budget for the whole loop was for 1500 gallons. A few days down the river we got together at a marina with him and his wife on their handsome boat for drinks and had more fun comparing and contrasting our loop experiences. While the popular trawler yachts and recreational tugs get very good fuel economy, most are displacement hulls and limited to speeds of 10 knots or less.
There is no need for speed while looping. As mentioned above lots of folks do the trip at less than 10 knots and have a fun and safe trip. Indeed we estimate that we did about ¾ of the trip at 6-8 knots for both the pleasure and economy of travel at that speed. However the ability to comfortably cruise at 15-20 knots gave us a lot of flexibility and convenience.
The suggested looping “calendar” calls for loopers to exit Lake Michigan by September 15 to beat the fall gales. To meet that goal we ran on plane from Troy NY to Chicago-1370 miles. We also made all of our crossings over 10 miles on plane and were happy we did for safety and avoiding boredom. Our 40 mile crossing of Lake Michigan ended with a surprise rain squall giving us a bit of a spanking just as we reached Chicago. We were very happy not to have been caught mid lake. We also planed on occasion for far more mundane reasons like getting to town in time for lunch at a diner or to reach a prettier anchorage before dark.
A shallow draft is an enormous help in looping the way we wanted to loop. We draw 2 feet with our engine down and this gave us access, often barely, to many of our favorite anchorages and fishing holes. The larger vessels with their 4-5' drafts simply can't get into those spots. This is particularly true in Florida where waters are often shallow and many loopers spend a big part of their trip due to great cruising opportunities and avoiding the winter weather to the north. Of course if your preference is marina to marina cruising this is far less of an issue for you.
Laughing Gull is powered by a 115 hp Yamaha 4 stroke engine with a 9.9 hp auxiliary. The 115 has performed flawlessly since we bought the boat-entirely reliable so far, very economical and plenty of power for our taste even with 6 passengers aboard (speed drops to 24 mph max). If I were to do the loop again, I'd certainly choose the same boat and engine. Libbey and I will do subsequent posts about what gear worked and didn't work.