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It seems strange that we’ve never had a real desire to sail around the world. Strange because we are, in every other aspect of our lives, very goal oriented, and a circumnavigation of the globe seems to be the pinnacle of many sailors’ dreams. Perhaps it was fear initially, a lack of confidence in our ability, that kept us from adding that goal to our newbie-sailor bucket list. As time went on though, and our confidence increased hand-in-hand with our experience, circumnavigating by sail still never became something we considered a must-do. Maybe it was our growing awareness of the shortcomings of that method of travel that kept our sailing interests focused elsewhere.

Shortcomings you say? Isn’t travel by sailboat the best way to see the world? Well, it’s one way, that is true, and it does offer the benefit of shelter while on your journey, and the ability to bring a fairly large collection of your belongings with you as you move about. As a method of travel though, it is not without its limitations. As I see it, if your goal is to simply see the world, the following things might just make you consider whether or not an alternative method of travel would be a better choice for you.

windward

1. The weather is everything!

More than perhaps any other method of travel, sailors are at the complete mercy of Mother Nature. Look to any harbor in the world and you’ll find sailors who are either waiting for a weather window, or who have just arrived after being presented with one. Without a doubt, a stout boat can remain afloat in most any conditions, but the crew will often have something to say about setting out when the wind is blowing too hard, or from the wrong direction, or if the waves are not favorable. And this is simply on a micro scale, day to day and week to week.

In the larger picture, circumnavigators are almost always working to time their travels to avoid the annual storm seasons. Whether you refer to them as hurricanes, typhoons or cyclones, the threat of these destructive tropical storms is most often what dictates where boats should travel, and when they should arrive or depart. Of course, a Captain could choose to ignore all this, if you’ll excuse the pun, throwing caution to the wind, but that is not the norm. Most sailors take the weather very seriously.

2. The ocean:land ratio is out of whack!

For some people, the act of sailing is what brings them joy. Out on the water, with no land in sight, they are at peace. Perhaps that is you, but it is not an apt description of us. While, in fair conditions, we enjoy a nice day on the water as much as anybody, spending a week or more cooped up on a boat is not our idea of fun. We have often referred to ourselves as travelers instead of sailors, but in reflecting upon it, even that isn’t really true. We don’t really like to travel, whether it be by boat, car, or plane… what we like is to be places, to explore and enjoy them!

With that in mind, it seems to me that the amount of time circumnavigators spend passage making is out of sync with the time that they are able to enjoy the destinations that they visit. Why, after a one, or two, or three week passage would a sailor not spend a bunch of time enjoying the place that they just worked so hard to travel to? That’s where the weather thing comes in; sailors are unfortunately often on a weather-dictated schedule.

equator

Crossing the equator on route to the Galapagos.

3. Who’s going to look after the boat?

So, you’ve been graced with a good weather window, you’ve completed your passage, and have now arrived to a glorious spot that you’d like to explore. Now what? Can you simply stuff some things in a backpack and go adventuring for a week? Well, you could, but not many do. I wrote a post before entitled Do you own the boat or does the boat own you, describing how, after cruising for 2.5 years, we had never left our boat unattended for more than 24 hours. If you think that is uncommon, you’d be mistaken. I had one circumnavigator tell me that he had never left his boat unattended at anchor for more than 24 hours!

Unlike houses, which people would give very little thought to leaving unattended for a week at a time, many cruisers feel that their boat requires near-constant babysitting. And they feel that way for good reason, because they often do! Boats that are secured by even the best anchors have been known to drag at Mother Nature’s whim, occasionally with catastrophic results. Vessels secured to a dock may be somewhat more secure, but even then, their lines may need adjusting to account for changes in the tide and/or weather, and their complex systems may require monitoring. There are even certain places in the world where the port captain requires that a crew member be left on board to mind the vessel, not ideal for a cruising couple looking to explore together.

4. Money, money, money…

Surely traveling by boat must be cost effective, at least when compared to alternative methods of travel? There’s no plane tickets to purchase, or hotel rooms to pay for. Well, that depends. Sailors have been known to cross oceans in all manner of vessels, so of course, a large expensive yacht isn’t a requirement. My informal survey of the boats in the World ARC at the beginning of 2015 doesn’t seem to support that statement though*.

Circumnavigators are often looking to be as self-sufficient as possible, and that’s prudent. Away from developing countries, green energy sources like solar panels, and wind and hydro generators, make boats less reliant on expensive, or hard-to-acquire diesel. Watermakers keep the tanks topped up, and autopilots keep the passage making less tiring. In many cases, these systems are considered to be so important that circumnavigators have backups for each of them. Communication is another area that those traveling the world by sailboat often spend a lot of time and money on. Having an accurate source of weather info, or several, and a way to keep in contact with family, or several, becomes a priority. As you might guess, none of this is inexpensive.

Is this level of complexity required for all sailors? No, certainly not, but it does seem to me that the further people venture from home, the more money is invested in these areas, both to get them up and running, and to keep them functioning properly. This significant investment begs the questions then: just how many plane tickets and hotel rooms (or hostel rooms, or campgrounds) could a traveller purchase before equalling this level of expense?

Do you need a Bluewater Boat?

5. But I don’t want to follow the trade winds!

As I mentioned above, we love to visit new places. That was, in fact, our primary goal when we set sail from Canada. That, and getting away from the harsh winters. Now, after traveling by boat for over 6 years, our bucket list of places to visit is no shorter. If anything, it has grown even longer since we first started. So why not circumnavigate to tick places off that list? It goes without saying that if we want to travel to a non-coastal destination, like Mongolia for example, a boat isn’t going to get us there, at least not directly. But what about all of the places that we could sail to? We definitely do have some islands or coastal areas on our list, like Patagonia, and Japan, but very few of them lie on the coconut milk run, the well-sailed trade wind route that most circumnavigators follow.

map

Is circumnavigating the world by sailboat one of your dreams? If so, it’s a goal worth getting excited about. It’s a biggie, and will no-doubt net you a collection of memories and stories that will keep your friends and grandkids entertained for hours. In spite of all that I wrote above, it’s very doable, and hundreds of people add their names to the world-circumnavigator’s list each year.

But what about those who choose to remain closer to home, or to cruise to places that are off the well-traveled routes? Or for that matter, those who opt to see the world via an entirely different method of transport, whether that be by plane, RV, motorcycle or foot? Are those achievements any less notable? Certainly not, at least in my mind. While those travels will no doubt net a different set of experiences, they are equally valuable. You all have my respect simply for getting out there!

Of course, this is an opinion piece, just like everything else that I write, and it is no way intended to diminish the accomplishment of our friends who have circumnavigated the globe by sail, or those who are in the process of doing so right now. If anything, you’ve managed to overcome the challenges that I’ve listed above, or have decided that they don’t matter to you. In my mind, you all rock!

*The World ARC is not without cost, so it could be argued that those who are circumnavigating on a budget, in the smaller, less-complex boats, are absent for that reason.

25 Comments

  1. “Ya seen one canal ya seen em all.” -me (not really though). Currently reading “Voyage of the Northern Magic” and dreaming about French Polynesia/Vanuatu and parts nearby as I stand at my desk inside on a cold, shitty January winter day in North Carolina!

  2. For us, our plans to be “sailing” around the world don’t really require a circumnavigation. We will be following some well worn paths and try to fit in some of our own where possible. As lifelong boaters it was easy to choose our desire to travel by a vessel on the water. The travel is the ultimate goal for us and like anything we understand there are always gives and takes in everything as there certainly will be in choosing the cruising lifestyle. Thanks for the thoughtful article.

  3. This is an interesting perspective. As a soon-to-be-near-circumnavigator 😉 I can say that your points are valid. That said, I would turn them all on their ear as the very reason to circumnavigate by sailboat. Trapped by weather, have a party, get to know some cool people. Ocean:Land ratio, that’s my jam, I love being at sea (but we spend much more time in port anyway). Money… okay, you’ve got me there 🙂
    It’s all about your priorities at the end of the day. Which is to say, good on you guys for making the right call for you!

  4. Great article, i just end a skippers course(two weeks ago), and now surfing in second hand boats website(Not that I’ve got the budget yet), I’m thinking as well on all the points raised, if only Charters was cheaper, unfortunate that is not the case.

  5. I’ve spent a lot of time explaining to people that we were planing to “Sail around IN the world” as opposed to “Sailing around the world.” It’s a big difference in attitude. The land bound generally assume if you are going cruising, you are planning to circumnavigate and it is a distinction that gets you puzzled looks when you try to make it.

    Like you, we’ve never been goal oriented towards a circumnavigation. We want to get out, see new things, experience new cultures. When we left in 2012, our vague goal was to “get to Australia and New Zealand before my oldest leaves for college.” Now we’re sitting in Sydney, enjoying my son’s holiday visit home from college in the UK, trying to figure out where we head next.

    Circumnavigating from Australia now is a somewhat easier question, in that we’re close to halfway there. But do we want to is the question, and why? Bragging rights? I ceased caring what people thought of me about stuff like that when I decided to move onto a boat. For us, the concern now is that we have both aging parents, and children who will be soon “adulting” back in the states we want to be near. It’s closer to go back than go on.

    That being said, the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, etc. are all worth seeing. It’s been a fantastic experience, and the South Pacific really is a lot nicer than the Caribbean for a lot of reasons. I highly recommend making that trip for sure.

    But whether it’s worth pressing on across the North side of Australia, across the Indian Ocean, and so on? There’s reasons to do it, and a lot of reasons not too.

  6. We plan on hopefully sailing all over the world eventually, but a “circumnavigation” isn’t something that is particularly interesting to me or my wife. The idea of completing some sort of massive “around the block” feat and coming back to where we started is not something that specifically appeals to either of us.

    A schedule is the last thing either of us wants to be a slave to. Fighting weather and seasons trying to “get somewhere” is a challenge we don’t want to take on. While we don’t have any plans of stopping cruising before at least a decade of wandering, we know that plans on a sailboat shouldn’t really be set in stone. We’d rather just drift along and explore whatever and wherever we find ourselves.

    Perhaps a “goal” of going around the world is attractive to some folks. To us it seems like looking forward to some sort of ending point on the other side of cruising. If we end up eventually circumnavigating after zig-zagging around the world’s oceans then that is cool with us. But if we go 7/8th of the way around and then end up coming back around another way before completing an official circumnavigation that wouldn’t bother us one bit either. We aren’t into this for bragging rights. We just want to live on our boat and see some stuff.

    There is so much stuff to see no one will ever see it all. We will take our time and wander around at our own pace. If that means we spend 5 years in the Caribbean or some other area before we get our fill of it and move along to somewhere else then so be it. We aren’t in a hurry to fulfill some “goal.”

  7. Hi Mike, Tucker has the right idea. Its not where you are its who your with. Other cruisers and the local people are what its all about when in port. A conservative boat is an advantage here. A super yacht can distance you from the very people you’ve come to meet who often have few physical posessions.
    We, Barb and I, love crossings of at least two weeks since it takes a few days to get into the groove and the last few days to get out of it, that leaves at least a week to enjoy.
    Here’s some info from our trip around (2004- 2009) that might help –
    Expenses averaged $17, 000 per year most of it spent in yacht clubs (bars). Although many cruisers earn as they go we decided to blow the retirement instead. Some spent a lot less while others spent a lot more.
    In our little 31′ double ender we averaged 100 miles per day and logged 37,000 miles thats one of the five years under sail.
    Food and fuel were never a problem.
    Don’t worry about whether to go around. Do the South Pacific and you’ll know if its for you. You can always sell the boat and fly home.
    Don’t take these articles too seriously. Especially if written by those who haven’t done it and finally, there is absolutely NO comparison between sailing the world in your own boat and flying around staying in resorts.
    Jim and Barb McConn S/v Spanish Stroll 1978 Southern Cross 31 1998 to 2009

  8. MIKE & REBECCA,
    Another well-written and thoughtful piece – and some of your points are quite valid. However, in the aggregate, based on our sailing experience, we have a much different view of the cruising lifestyle. Our view is that when crews incrementally expand their horizons beyond the limits of “easy” places like the Eastern Caribbean, they usually experience an order of magnitude increase in the rewards of this special lifestyle.

    Fundamentally, there are two parts to the cruising lifestyle: the community of “Citizens of the World” out in the anchorage – our neighbors; and the places we visit ashore – both exotic and mundane. Just like a train, the cars on the train stay pretty much the same while the view of the surrounding countryside changes. Our experience is that both parts (the community of cruisers in the anchorage, and the shore side destinations) are so much better out here than what we experienced during multiple seasons in the Eastern Caribbean. Much the same could be said about the Baja cruisers who never seem to be able to escape Mexico.

    Although we are now six years into our second circumnavigation, we would describe ourselves more as voyagers – and we much prefer life with interesting and dynamic people on the move. Of course it is true that all voyagers have to obey the forces of nature, but we don’t all have to take the same path to the same ports. When most of the boats on the 2013 Milk Run (over 100 of them) headed downwind 3000 miles from the Galapagos for the Marquesas, TIGER LILLY put her shoulder to the wind and beam reached 4000 miles across the face of the Trades southwest from Panama to Iles Gambier – to a much different cruising and cultural experience. Instead of tens and tens of boats in the Marquesas anchorages, competing for limited space and services from local people inundated by visiting crews, there were a TOTAL of ten cruising boats with TIGER LILLY in the Gambier that year, and only two of the crews were not French… Exploring the Indonesian Archipelago as we sailed west along the Ring of Fire, and calling at ports literally right out of a Joseph Conrad novel, or taking your boat up the Kumai River in Southern Borneo to see the orangutan, are experiences that simply cannot be duplicated while choosing the softer and easier way in the Eastern Caribbean. As we say in the US Navy, FREEDOM ISN’T FREE… It is not unlike those very challenging climbs you and Rebecca make across rough terrain and up to the top of mountains, where very few venture forth – the positive experience at the top far exceeds the effort to get there… But just like life, we grow while trudging through the valley and clawing up the mountainside, not basking in the view from the summit.

    When we read on Facebook about our friends in the Caribbean who have returned to the same bay on the same Caribbean Island to visit the same beach bar with the same friends for the umteenth cruising season in a row, we wonder, “What’s the point?” Why buy an ocean-going blue water sailboat to just island hop like a common power boater? We recommend a crawl (ICW and Bahamas), walk (Caribbean), run (Pacific and IO) phase-in for new cruisers coming down the East Coast of North America; but way too many get stuck in the Eastern Caribbean scene, and never get any farther. During multiple sailing seasons since the late 80’s we have found a steadily diminishing satisfaction in cruising the Eastern Caribbean Islands. These beautiful islands, set in a sparkling clean sea, would still be a great place to cruise except for two negative aspects: The ex-slave mentality of too many of the local Caribbean people; And the plethora of cruising boats in the over-crowded Caribbean anchorages. We hope that more people will sail the Eastern Caribbean during their first year cruising (the walk phase), and then move on to a much more rewarding cruising experience – and that can certainly take many shapes other than circumnavigating.

    We agree that simply putting in long passages, and checking off ports along the Coconut Run, does not necessarily make for a better cruising experience – but somehow the common challenges of voyaging seems to have a very positive effect on the crews who actually have the courage to give it a try. When average people take on challenging experiences, they tend to become extraordinary people – but you know this from your martial arts background. Voyaging tends to forge a completely different type of cruiser; a much more interesting, and more skilled sailor whom we very much enjoy being around.

    During one of TIGER LILLY’s several hurricane seasons in Trinidad, we got tired of sitting in Chaguaramas growing barnacles, going on the same hikes to the same waterfalls, and hurrying back to the Trinidad and Tobago Sailing Association before the sun sets so that we would not be mugged in Port of Spain; and we just decided to do something different. During the 2012-2013 West Indies Hurricane Season we left the Caribbean and cruised the hurricane-free Northeast coast of South America. We explored majestic tropical rivers piercing the emerald jungles of Amazonia. After beating down the coast we took our blue water cruising sailboat up the fast flowing muddy waters of the Rio Macareo, the Rio Orinoco, the Essiquibo River, the Suriname River, the Marconi River, the Para River, and then through the Amazon Delta. There were well over a thousand boats in Chaguaramas that year, but we could not find one single crew in that intrepid bunch willing to go with us and experience something new and different in the cruising lifestyle. Those uninformed souls in the Chaguaramas boat yards who told Lilly she would be raped, robbed, and killed in South America were just too busy playing Mexican Train Dominoes to go see the world – and of course they were wrong, we had zero security incidents in South America. Sailing southeast on the sling mud of the Guiana Coast, dodging fishing nets and working against the wind and current, cannot be found in any of the popular Doyle Caribbean guides (which seem to rule the activities of most of the Caribbean cruisers), and it certainly wasn’t part of a “normal” circumnavigation, but it was the voyage of a lifetime for us. We documented that cruise with a series of free Amazonia Pilots we published on our TIGER LILLY Sailblogs site so that perhaps others in the Eastern Caribbean cruising community could see that there is in fact world-class cruising just around the corner from the West Indies – with an easy sail back. (Also, it is a great way to return to the Caribbean from South Africa.) At the end of that cruise down the South American coast, we picked up our anchor in a little cano at the mouth of the Rio Amazon and sailed northwest down-wind and down-current direct to Bonaire in the sunny blue Caribbean. Our payday is when we receive emails from crews who have used our free Amazonia Pilots to discover a unique cruising experience.

    A few years back, we met an energetic and enthusiastic young crew aboard the little catamaran ZERO TO CRUISING on the North Carolina ICW – they were heading south for an adventure of a lifetime. We had such great hopes that they would take their bubbling spirit to the world. Mike & Rebecca, you have gained some sailing experience in the Caribbean, you have a real boat now – and S/V FROST is capable of taking her crew anywhere in the world. Remember what Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might not get there!” Think about it. We hope that one day soon you will break-out of the Eastern Caribbean bog and give voyaging a try – we are confident that it will change your lives in wonderful ways you have never even imagined…
    Warm regards,
    Tom & Lilly
    S/V Tiger Lilly
    Langkawi Island, Malaysia

    • A very well written comment, Tom. Thank you. As you noted, this is based on your significant experience, which I respect, so I can’t really argue with much of it. I would simply caution against judging people though. I know it’s tough to do becuase I am guilty as well. “I can’t believe that they’re still there.” Who are we to judge though? As I alluded to in the post, everyone has their own goals, objectives, dreams, comfort level, etc, in essence, their own reasons for doing what they do, and we’re not typically privy to what those reasons are.

      As for us, you needn’t worry. While circumnavigating the globe may not be on the table right now, we have some big adventures planned. We have no intention of remaining in the Eastern Caribbean for another season.

  9. I can see your point about not wanting to circumnavigate for the sake of doing it. It is something that I would recommend to be taken very slowly (2-3 seasons for the Pacific crossing for instance). That way a a few side routes and out of the “milk run” routes can be explored. To leave the boat to explore inland, the only safe way is in a marina, which are often expensive, and not normally in the budget cruisers budget. Naturally the more money the better, to enjoy leaving the boat to go inland, and also to fly home when desired. Each cruising area has its seasons, but all the more reason to spend a couple of seasons in an area of interest, and cruise through it twice or more. From Australia, we have cruised the east coast of Aus, to Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and now to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. This area covers all kinds of experiences, cultures and weather patterns, and gives us ideas for future flying travel.

  10. Excellent thoughtful post Mike thank you.

  11. Great thought provoking article again Mike! You balance your pieces well with what your thoughts are without being prescriptive in what others should do.

  12. Good blog Mike. We also have never really listed a circumnavigation as a must do. If it were to happen so be it but we share the wavelength of BJ Porter’s comment above about “Sailing around IN the world rather than sailing around the world.”

    Over the last 6 years we have sailed to many fantastic places IN the world. Our first cruising was as crew from Australia to Thailand via Indonesia and Malaysia and whole heartedly agree with Tiger Lilly’s comments about going up river to Kumai and meeting the Orang-utans in the jungle. Next we spent two years sailing the Mediterranean and across from Gibraltar to the UK experiencing wonderful places steeped in thousands of years of history. For the last couple of years we have been cruising Australia’s Great Barrier Reef with all its natural splendour on our new ‘to us’ Whitby 42 Ketch ‘Our Dreamtime’. We’re now making our plans for future forays into the western Pacific and South East Asia. Who knows. One day all our tracks may link up to draw a circle around the globe but if not who cares. We’re sure we’ll have enough memories to sustain us in our old age. If we become forgetful we’ll even be able to re-read our blog to remind ourselves how much fun we had. http://dreamtimesail.blogspot.com.au/

    • Thanks, guys!

      By the way, that’s a great use for a blog. I can’t tell you how many times I use the search feature on our site to remind me of where we’ve been, and what we have done.

  13. I remember reading this the first time you posted it. I agreed as crossing some imaginary line on a globe means nothing to me. It’s meeting people and Lear omg about cultures, it’s swapping stories of adventure and it’s the freedom to be in one place till you get
    Boarded and then move on to more adventures.

    When we get our finances in order and our businesses running without our direct involvement I don’t intend to bring S/V Valhalla home. I will fly home from time to time but I think the boat will stay “out there” as we move from place to place. I know a lot of people who just do the same cruise every year and return to Fl or Ga just to rinse and repeat.

    I too and fascinated with places like Japan that aren’t on the milkrun. And I’m
    Not too interested in a lot of the primitive stuff that most cruisers seem to be in too .

    I think doing some oddball things will be part of the adventure of it all 🙂

    You guys aren’t selling Frost so I’m sure that their are some sailing adventures still waiting for you. But long distance touring by bike requires you to be in good health and good shape- something that isn’t always an option as we age.

    I say– Do what makes YOU happy.

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