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Plotting a world circumnavigation route is a lot easier than it sounds. There are cruising boats LITERALLY all over the world. There are boats in the Northwest passage (up and over Canada), in the Antarctic, and everywhere in between. There are a few key things to take into consideration, but 95%* of circumnavigation routes follow the same general course.
There are two major restrictions put on us by our vessel insurance; stay out of highly pirated areas and stay out of named storm zones. Insurance restrictions come with the option to ignore them. You can always go to these restricted places, BUT if something happens, your insurance will not be covered. Another option is that you can pay significantly more to be covered in these places as well. We have made the choice for ourselves to follow the restrictions set by our insurance.
By definition, piracy is the act of attacking and robbing ships at sea. By that main definition, the Caribbean is one of the worst places for piracy. Petty theft of boats and their tenders is a major issue in some parts of the Caribbean, and steps should be taken to protect yourself and your assets.
However, the piracy of the biggest concern is murder and kidnapping. There are two main hotspots where our insurance will not cover us; the Philippines and the Red Sea/Suez Canal (hereby referred to as simply Suez). Again, people cruise literally everywhere in the world, and there are people who cruise the Philippines (2015 reports state 200 yachts). The other side of the coin is true too. Just because you avoid the Suez or the Philippines does not mean you will avoid being kidnapped or murdered.
In North America, it’s a hurricane. South of the equator, it’s cyclones. In Asia-Pacific, it’s typhoons. Either way, your insurance probably has a word or two to say about where you spend tropical storm season.
Our insurance requires us to avoid certain parts of the world during storm seasons. This is why there is a mass exodus of boats from the Caribbean every year. Our insurance requires us to be north of roughly the Florida-Georgia line. Now, that doesn’t mean we are safe from hurricanes, but it does mean if something happens, we will have the privilege of consoling ourselves of our losses by applying for an insurance claim.
For those moving quickly, your primary concern is systems in the southern hemisphere. Just make sure you are moving from east to west quickly enough to pass through the storm zone.
Around the equator lies the doldrums. This is typically an area with very little wind. However, each ocean has a wind pattern. In the northern hemisphere, winds circulate clockwise. In the southern hemisphere, winds circulate counterclockwise. This means that on either side of the equator lies a band of wind flowing from east to west. This is why 95%* of cruisers sail from east to west.
Knowing where you will sail will help you determine what kind of sail performance you are looking for in a boat. For someone doing a typical circumnavigation route, sailing east to west, you’ll be sailing downwind a lot. Some monohull owners have complained to us about how uncomfortable their boat is sailing dead downwind. Catamarans, however, typically perform best downwind. We have a very smooth ride when we are traveling with the wind and waves.
Outfitting your sail locker also factors in where you are sailing. For a downwind circumnavigation, spinnakers are highly useful – or so we hear. We’ve not had terrible success with our spinnaker, but find our screecher to be very useful. That could possibly be because we deviate enough from the standard downwind route.
For more about sail configurations in a cruising catamaran, read our Sail Trim blog post.
There are a few who do sail the “wrong way”. It can definitely be done and done fast. However, you need to have a boat that sails well to wind. While most catamarans sail well downwind, we do not sail well into the wind. However, if your catamaran has daggerboards, you’ll sail much better to wind than a catamaran without daggerboards.
This is why most circumnavigations follow the same basic route. There are major bottlenecks to passing around the continents, so again, we’ve got the 95%* of boats funneling into one narrow part of the world.
We paid $1300 to transit the Panama Canal because the only other option is to sail against the wind and waves around either North America or South America. Taking one of the high latitudes routes is pretty dang extreme, takes a significant amount of time, and a toll on ship and crew. Ushuaia, a port of call in Argentina, reported 64 boats in 2015, versus 1,079 boats transiting the canal – 95% transiting the canal*.
The Torres Strait occupies the space between Australia and New Guinea. It’s fairly small, just 650 nm between Thursday Island and Indonesia’s first port of clearance.
There are some cruisers (like our friends on S/V Field Trip) who are going over the top of New Guinea to get to Southeast Asia. Getting any further north than that requires dealing with the Philippines – either through or around the top of the Philippines into the South China Sea.
Traveling around South Africa requires tackling the Cape of Good Hope, which is not to be taken lightly due to the challenges in the winds and currents. The alternative is the Suez. There used to be a rally passing through the Suez. The other alternative is to hire private security, but that’s pretty complex. Reports show 358 boats sailing through Cape Town verses 19 through the Suez – again, 95% choose Cape Town*. I know the Mediterranean is a great cruising ground, but we decided if we want to cruise it, we’d rather cross the Atlantic twice than go through the Suez.
Barring racing yachts who are smashing world records, it’s not uncommon to complete a circumnavigation in a year and a half. This is a fairly straightforward and quick route.
Longer circumnavigations still use the same route, but add on detours. For example, we extended our South Pacific portion into two seasons by sailing south to spend cyclone season in New Zealand.
We’ve met sailors who have taken 15 or more years to circumnavigate.
Our plan is to spend 5-6 years circumnavigating. We feel that this gives us enough time not to rush through, but isn’t so long we run the risk of never finishing it.
*Jimmy Cornell is the foremost expert on tracking cruising boats, and the statistics for this blog post were pulled from his article Where do all the boats go?