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Last Updated on September 13, 2023 by Amy
Plotting world circumnavigation routes 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.
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Insurance Restrictions on Circumnavigation Routes
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.
It’s up to you to decide the level of risk you are willing to take when planning out a circumnavigation route.
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.
World circumnavigation routes, like ours, usually have you dipping out of these storm zones for the season. It’s a great time to haul your boat out for annual maintenance, like we did in New Zealand, Australia, and Thailand.
Tradewinds for Circumnavigating
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 plan their circumnavigation routes to sail from east to west.
Factoring the Wind into Outfitting Your Boat
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.
Those Who Sail West to East Circumnavigation Routes
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.
Circumnavigation Routes & Bottlenecks
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.
Cape of Good Hope
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.
How Long Should a Circumnavigation Take?
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 circumnavigation routes still use the same general track, 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. That’s a lot of detours!
Our Circumnavigation Route
Our sailing circumnavigation route took us four years and three months to travel all the way around the world. You can read the summary of our world circumnavigation for more details.
Book: World Cruising Routes
This is LITERALLY the bible of sailing around the world. If you have ever asked yourself (or, god help you, asked on a forum) “I wonder when the best time to sail from X to Y is?” the answer is in this book.
Even though we know our route, I’m still pulling out this book every so often to look up possibilities. It’s a great guide to planning your circumnavigation route overall and planning each individual passage.
Book: Cornell’s Ocean Atlas
This handy reference book is full of windgrams – “a summary of wind direction and strength derived from the individual windroses along a specific ocean route “. Basically this means you can open a chart for a particular region and month and you will be able to tell where the wind “usually” blows from.
Book Review: How to Sail Around the World Part-Time
- Who: Linus Wilson and his wife, Janna
- Available: Kindle, Kindle Unlimited or Paperback
- Published: January 2016
- Editing (scale of 1-10, 10 is best): 10
Linus Wilson has been cruising part-time on his 31-foot Island Packet. This is his second book, and in it, he details how one could sail a circumnavigation part-time. I agree – it is possible and might be the solution more potential cruisers should consider.
Wilson pulls a lot of statistics about sailing. Did you know fewer people complete a sailing circumnavigation every year than climb Mount Everest? An hour spent above base camp on Mount Everest is 264 times more dangerous than an hour sailing?
One question unanswered is how long it would actually take to sail the world part-time. Of course, it depends on how much time you dedicate every year, but hypothetically:
- Year 1: the Caribbean to Panama, store in Panama
- Year 2: Panama to French Polynesia, store in FP
- Year 3: French Polynesia to Fiji, store in Fiji
- Year 4: Fiji to Australia, store in Australia
- Year 5: Australia to South Africa, store in SA
- Year 6: SA to the Caribbean
Of course, you’d see a lot less than you would on a 6-year circumnavigation like ours, but you get it done in a fraction of the cost and less risk.
Bottom line: it was a short, interesting, and informative read. If you don’t want to full-time sail, or can’t convince your partner to full-time sail, consider how fulfilling a part-time adventure could be.
*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?