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Circumnavigating the World in the 21st Century

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Circumnavigating the World in the 21st Century

Round the world sailing is nothing new to the world’s adventurers. In fact, it was way back in the 15th century when Magellan and his crew completed the journey via the Capes. Sailing ships have since ventured to all parts of the globe, commanded by sea captains flying the flag of their respective countries. They sailed in search of wealth, find new lands for settlement and, at the same time, spread the word of Christianity. It wasn’t until many centuries later that the first solo circumnavigator took to the helm. The American Joshua Slocum, in his 12 metre engineless yacht “Spray”, achieved this feat in the 1880’s. A book followed documenting his adventures including how he warded off pirates in the Straits of Magellan by placing copper tacks upside down on his deck. Chartless and engineless he tacked through the Straits for days before being swept around Cape Horn backwards by a great storm and forced to transit the strait again in Magellan’s footsteps.


Today, it almost seems that everyone either has or wants to sail around the world. Girls in their teens such as Australian Jessica Watson in her 34 foot yacht “Pink Lady” go out to try and break a record. She had spent much of her life living aboard her parents’ yacht before succeeding in circling the tempestuous Southern Ocean. In reality, the ports, harbours and anchorages are brimming with yachts of all shapes and sizes as they and their crews slowly make their way around the world.


This fraternity has changed dramatically over the last twenty five years. Small yachts, barely larger than 10 metres, plied the trade wind routes in the 1970’s and 1980’s, unknown to the world, but happy on a small budget to achieve a dream. There were no fancy electronics on board and navigation with a sextant and the sun and stars was the norm. There were few lavish marinas to leave a yacht for inland sojourns and many of the yachts people who were in their late twenties or early thirties had no pressing family commitments to detract them from their challenge. A postcard or a quick telephone call from a port was enough to console parents and friends that all was well.


Circumnavigating in the 21st Century is completely different. Novels, magazine articles and TV presentations about world sailing adventures have attracted a huge following. Every year couples in their 50’s and 60’s swallow their savings into buying yachts with all home comforts and with the intention of turning it into a long term lifestyle and not simply a challenge. A great impetus for this has been the proliferation of rallies that have been staged to cover part of the route. The annual ARC rally is composed of up to 200 yachts that depart the Canaries in November each year to cross the sometimes boisterous North Atlantic. Every conceivable comfort is piled onto the yachts. Electronic navigation aids such as GPS chart plotters, radar, AIS transponders, state of the art EPIRBS, electronic autopilots, desalinators and satellite telephones make navigation and communication somewhat less challenging than in Slocum’s era. All this enables minute by minute weather information; second by second telephone contact with family and a watchful eye by the organizers as the yachts make the 18 day trip. For some this is the start of their circumnavigation and for others simply a trip to the Caribbean and back.


The Blue Water Rally is another organized event that keeps a group of yachts together for two years as they do the run. This sort of rally is more for those taking a short career break whereas most circumnavigators have a five to ten year lifestyle plan and join rallies for shorter legs like the well renowned Sail Indonesia rally which, with a hundred yachts in tow, over three months, visits ports and villages in the Indonesian Archipelago engaging in social events along the way, culminating in Singapore.


Marinas in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, The Caribbean and The Mediterranean as well as South American countries provide refuge for yachts and their crews in storm and cyclone seasons. This is the time when the intrepid grandparents go back to their home countries to visit their families, deal with financial and health matters while leaving their lifestyle homes under watchful eyes in these refuges. For those that remain with their boats social events are set up often mimicking events back home such as quiz nights, Pilates, darts tournaments and, for the more physical, hiking trips into inland areas. Fitness centres and swimming pools are often on hand as well.


Sailing around the world has become a lifestyle choice rather than an adventure. You can choose your own yacht, your own itinerary, even your own beach! As a retirement option, it will never match Magellan or Slocum’s experiences and it’s hard to find new lands to settle in, but as one old timer, on his third trip from New Zealand up to Tonga once said “It sure beats the rocking chair.”

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