Before you ponder your route to sail around the world, think about why you’re even thinking about such an undertaking.
There are countless sailing routes you can take to circumnavigate the globe, but each one is for a different sort of sailor. The two most common routes are the mid-latitudes “Milk Run” and the high-latitudes journey through the Southern Ocean or Northwest Passage.
Here’s a look at some of these very different trips and the types of sailors and vessels that accomplish each one every year.
The Basics of Sailing Routes Around the World
First, some lingo. Sailors refer to a sail around the world route as a “circumnavigation.”
Taking a boat around the world requires some gumption. So why do it at all? For some, it is the goal of having done it. For others, it’s a fun way to combine their passions of sailing and travel. Some folks compete in races to see who can do it fastest. And some folks think it would be a good lark and a neat way to see the world.
Whatever reason draws you to the idea of completing a circumnavigation, you aren’t alone. Every year there are rallies or races that you can join to meet up with like-minded people. And for as many people who compete in rallies, there are likely an equal number of people doing it on their own.
No matter how you cut it, a circumnavigation is made up of numerous legs. So if traveling and seeing the sights is your goal, then it only makes sense to take your time and visit as many places as you can along the way.
Folks with a limited time frame will inevitably miss something or rush through someplace they want to see.
For sightseers, the goal of a circumnavigation might be secondary to seeing the places they want to see. In other words, someone with their heart set on circumnavigating might set a schedule of two years to get it done, while another sailor who wants to complete loops in the Atlantic and Pacific might have a lot more time to visit more countries and ports of call.
Every sailor and every boat comes into this adventure with different goals. Therefore, it’s important to think about your motivations and the sort of circumnavigation that you’d like to have. What’s the most important part to you, and how much money and time can you dedicate to the endeavor?
Basic Planning Factors – Winds, Currents, and Storms
Most pleasure boaters contemplating a circumnavigation are interested in the safest route to sail around the world. Part of the safety and enjoyment of the crew comes from planning the trip to follow the prevailing wind patterns around the globe.
When sitting on land, you might think of the wind as unpredictable and variable depending on the day and weather conditions. And while that is true all over the world, at sea prevailing weather patterns tend to be more steady.
That means by understanding the causes and patterns in the winds, you can use them to your advantage on a circumnavigation.
For example, let’s look at the North Atlantic circuit. If a yacht wants to depart Europe for North America, its best bet is to head south first and follow the area between 10 and 30 degrees north latitude westbound. Why? Because this is the area where the winds flow from the east almost constantly. Since ships used these winds to get to the Caribbean in the old days, they are still known as the Trade Winds.
What if you want to go the other way, back to Europe? In that case, your best bet is to head north and make your easterly course between 40 and 60 degrees north latitudes. There, the prevailing winds are westerly and will push you back to Europe.
While sailboats can sail into the wind, doing so is called “beating” for a reason. It’s rough on the boat and crew; it’s tiring and unpleasant. You’ll have to do it occasionally, but a successful and comfortable passage is usually the result of planning so you don’t have to sail to weather.
Similarly, you can use the world’s ocean currents to your advantage. If the Gulf Stream can give you a knot or two of an extra push toward Europe, you should take it! It makes a big difference when your normal speed is six knots. Trying to fight against it for any length of time could double your trip planning and make for a very nasty ride.
And then there is the risk of storms at sea. With good trip and weather planning, a boat can circumnavigate without ever experiencing a bad storm at sea.
That requires conservative planning to avoid areas and times of the year when the weather is bad. To do this means you must plan to be in the right places at the right times. Pilot charts are published for every ocean sector on Earth, showing the prevailing winds for any given month and the probability of encountering a severe storm in the area.
Using pilot charts and the historical prevalence of hurricanes or cyclones, sailors can plan to transit these areas only during quiet times. In other words, no one wants to be in the middle of the North Atlantic during peak hurricane season or during winter gales, but being in the middle of the North Atlantic in May is pretty optimal.
Likewise, you don’t want to be in the middle of the South Pacific during February when it is peak cyclone season, but June or July is good.
The Classic Sail Around the World Route – The Milk Run
The classic route for circumnavigating is based on the path of least resistance, making it the safest route to sail around the world. These routes utilize the prevailing winds to make as many downwind, fair-weather passages as possible.
The goal of this route is not speed but comfort and safety. This is the route you take your family on. This is the route that around the world rallies, like the World ARC Rally, use for every trip.
Starting from the Caribbean, this route travels westbound and keeps close to the equator. Of course, you can start anywhere, but many yachts cross their wakes (begin and end their voyage) somewhere in the Lesser Antilles.
After crossing the Caribbean Sea, transit is arranged through the Panama Canal. Canal transits are expensive and time-consuming, and they usually involve a broker to arrange all the paperwork and scheduling.
Before the canal was constructed, the only way to make the journey was to travel south in the Atlantic and pass Cape Horn. There, you can follow Drakes Passage through Argentina’s islands and Patagonia’s wild lands. Many expedition yachts still choose this route to see this remote and beautiful part of the world.
After the Panama Canal, most yachts take familiar sailing routes across the Pacific. The first stop is the Galapagos Islands. This takes you mostly south along the coast of Central America and across the equator into the Southern Hemisphere.
From the Galapagos, the single longest passage lies ahead–roughly 3,200 nautical miles to the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. This trip takes most sailboats about 14 days. An alternate route takes you farther south. It doesn’t shorten the trip but allows you to visit Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and Pitcairn Islands.
Once in French Polynesia, you can island hop your way through the South Pacific island nations, but with a weary eye on the weather. The point is to avoid the area during cyclone season, roughly the summer months (December through April or so).
At this point, many yachts find a hurricane hole where they can relax during storm season. Usually, it is time to haul out and complete some maintenance after so many sea miles. Some make it south and out of the cyclone belt to New Zealand or Australia. Others opt to stay in the islands but find a well-sheltered marina or boatyard where they can haul out.
Once cyclone season is winding down, the next big passage awaits. After passing through the Torres Straits, stops in Northwestern Australia and Indonesia welcome you to the Indian Ocean. There are only a few isolated stops after that. Many yachts make one long passage out of it, although many enjoy a few stops, like Cocos Keeling, Maldives, Diego Garcia, or Seychelles.
This is where the route branches in two directions. Traditionally, boats would transit on a northwest course and into the Gulf of Aden. From there, you follow the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean is, of course, one of the most storied cruising grounds on the planet. You can cruise from Turkey and Greece to Italy, France, and Spain, with countless famous ports of call along the way.
Unfortunately, the route to get there, through the Gulf of Aden and around the Horn of Africa, is home to bands of pirates who have been known to prey on leisure yachts and commercial vessels alike. For this reason, this route has fallen out of favor in recent years.
Instead, boats head to South Africa. The country makes a good landfall point from which you can travel home or take land excursions to see the rest of Africa. Popular stops on the way are the islands of Reunion and Mauritius. Some folks also like to visit Madagascar.
After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, yachts are back in the Atlantic and can head northwest toward the Caribbean. You can make a few stops along the way, mostly isolated island nations like St. Helena and Ascension Islands. After that, it’s a straight shot back across the equator and to the Windward Islands of the Caribbean.
When coming from the Mediterranean, boats heat westbound through the Straights of Gibraltar. The next stop is the Canary Islands. How long does it take to sail across the Atlantic? It’s a roughly 17-day passage downwind to the Windward Islands.
Circumnavigating in the Southern Ocean
Most people take two full years or longer to complete a circumnavigation as described above, but even that only allows a little time to see the sights. So a more realistic number would be four or five years.
This route isn’t for those looking to get it done in the shortest amount of time. Instead, the Southern Ocean Route is the favored path for those looking to trade a bit of safety for speed. This route, due to the prevailing winds along the route, is completed from west to east.
Races like the Clipper Around the World, Vendee Globe, and the Golden Globe Around the World Race use this path. It utilizes the open expanses of the Southern Ocean. Once you get into these high latitudes, there are no real landmasses in your way, and you can steer a course all the way around the world in record time.
Of course, the Southern Ocean is not for the faint of heart. High-latitude sailing involves biting cold weather and dangerous gales. You’ll be rounding Cape Horn through Drakes Passage, one of the dicest stretches of water on the planet.
It’s a punishing stretch of ocean, and boats are often beaten and bruised. Dismastings and equipment failures are common. In other words, a sailor who chooses this route must be ready for anything, capable of handling whatever the sea throws at them, and sailing an extremely well-founded bluewater vessel.
An Alternate Sail Around the World Route? The Northwest Passage
In recent years it has been in vogue to attempt a transit of the Northwest Passage, thereby making it possible to circumnavigate the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Obviously, this is a summertime endeavor only, and even then, only during years when the ice pack has completely melted. This is happening more and more, so the route is gaining popularity.
The leg that makes this possible starts from the United Kingdom going west across the Atlantic to Greenland through the Labrador Sea. The Northwest Passage itself then bisects Canada’s northern territories. Finally, you end up on the northern coast of Alaska. Then, keeping the mainland of North America to port, you continue south into the Pacific Ocean.
From the Aleutian Islands, the most favorable course is to transit to the west coast of North America. After that, you can make your way south along the famous Inside Passage, a network of fjords in British Columbia that can link you to Puget Sound and the Seattle metro area.
Once in the US, your next steps are southbound transits to Baja, Mexico, or jumps like sailing to Hawaii from California. You can then join the normal routes across the South Pacific islands to Australia or Southeast Asia.
Both the Southern Ocean and the Northwest Passage routes are high-latitude routes that carry more risk than the Milk Run. High-latitude sailing involves dealing with more frequent severe weather systems, stronger winds, and greater variability in the weather in general. They’re also farther from services and more remote, so self-sufficiency is even more vital.
While you can do the Milk Run in nearly any of best bluewater cruising sailboats, these high-latitudes routes are more comfortable in a robust expedition-level vessel. These are the perfect places for that aluminum sailboat you’ve been dreaming about.
Which Sailing Routes Would You Pick for Your Circumnavigation?
There is much to learn and think about if you want to circumnavigate. If you’re dreaming of sailing the world, consider starting your research by picking up a book or two written by someone who has done it. Here are three stories of circumnavigations, but there are countless others and blogs galore to be found on the internet.
Jimmy Cornell is the master of how to sail around the world. His “World Cruising” series of guides includes everything you’d ever need to know, from weather systems and route planning to legal formalities. This book, 200,000 Miles, combines some of those technicalities with a biographical story of his journey.
Sailing Around the World Alone is Joshua Slocum’s story of his journey. It’s not a modern tale–Slocum set out in the late 1890s from Nova Scotia. But his adventure is the OG tale of sailing around the world and is worth a read.
Lin and Larry Pardey circumnavigated several times (both eastbound and westbound), but if you totaled up the miles they sailed, it would be more like seven times. The difference, of course, is enjoying every port and stop along the way.
While they never wrote a book specifically about sailing around the world, their cruising tales live on in the various tales and how-to guides they produced over the years.
Capable Cruiser discusses techniques that will get you there, interwoven by the Pardey’s inimitable charm and wit. For more travel inspiration, check out their original series of books: Cruising in Seraffyn, Seraffyn’s European Adventure, Seraffyn’s Mediterranean Adventure, and Seraffyn’s Oriental Adventure.
Sailing Routes Around the World FAQs
What route do you take to sail around the world?
There are several ways to circumnavigate, but the most common is the “Milk Run.” This route goes from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal. From there, it heads south to the Galapagos Islands and into the South Pacific. After Tahiti, yachts head to Australia, across the Indian Ocean, and through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea. Finally, leaving the Med, boats cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean to close the circle, or “cross their wake,” as they say.
How long does it take to sail around the world?
The WorldARC around the world sailing rally usually lasts 18 months, but you can do it quicker by selecting fewer stops or taking faster routes. For most sailors, however, the length of the trip around the world really depends on how much they stop along the way and for how long. If the purpose of the trip is to travel and see the world, it makes little sense to rush and do it in the shortest possible time. Many circumnavigations take five or more years.
How much does it cost per month to sail around the world?
Sailing has been described as the most expensive way to get somewhere for free. The cost to sail around the world is extremely variable–it is impossible to pin down any price. On the one hand, the type of boat makes a difference. The larger the boat, the larger the costs. The lifestyle you choose while sailing matters, too–lavish resort marinas cost more than anchoring away from town. Hiring professionals to do boat maintenance costs more than doing it all yourself. There are ways to do it lavishly and ways to be cheap about it. Comfortable cruising is somewhere in the middle, but where exactly that depends entirely on you.
How big of a sailboat do you need to sail around the world?
Many solo sailors and couples have circumnavigated in boats less than 30 feet long. Lin and Larry Pardy wrote many novels as they circled the globe on 22-foot-long Seraffyn, a Lyle Hess-designed cutter. The size of the boat has everything to do with your cruising style and budget. So long as the vessel is well-founded and designed to take the rigors of bluewater passages, size matters less than many people think.