Those of us that foster this crazy dream of sailing around the world first imagined ourselves setting off over the horizon to sail wherever we want, whenever we want. We dream of hopping willy-nilly to whatever island we feel like visiting, even pointing our bow to any continent that meets our fancy. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of cruisers, who intend on circumnavigating, select one of the tried and true routes.
Now this doesn’t mean the exact same route. There’s some flexibility in what countries you visit, how long you visit them, what ports you spend time in, even how many years you spend in a particular region of the world. If you are not concerned about the piracy or political climate in and around the Red Sea, you have a very attractive option in choosing your route.
There are several factors that cause most cruisers to follow the typical routes.
1. Prevailing Winds
2. Ocean Currents
3. Tropical Storm Seasons
There are consistent wind patterns around the globe that will pay dividends to those who sail with them and punish anyone who sails against them. These patterns of wind or lack of wind in some cases, have remained consistent since Columbus discovered the new world. These prevailing winds can be easily understood as long as you understand latitude, lines of latitude and “degrees” North and South.
Prevailing winds can be determined by latitude. Each band or “range” in latitude (degrees North & South) has its own set of characteristics, even its own name to describe the prevailing winds. Lets start at the equator!
Aka The Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ)
Aka The Equatorial Trough
The Doldrums usually extend 5-10°N to 5-10°S. Explained another way, it goes from 5-10 degrees of latitude north/above the equator, down through the equator to as low as 5-10 degrees south/below the equator.
The Doldrums or the “ITCZ” is a prevailing wind band that you try to spend as little time in as possible, even though the Doldrums try to hold you as long as possible!
When crossing the Doldrums, winds are usually light and variable, heavy rain is challenging to avoid, it’s not unlikely to encounter really bad thunderstorms and last but not least, the Doldrums are incredibly hot and sticky. Sounds like a blast right! Unfortunately, if you plan on sailing to the other side of the equator, the Doldrums are in your way. To confuse you even more, let me explain the seasonal and oceanic changes associated with the Doldrums.
First off, in the western Atlantic Ocean and western Pacific Ocean, the Doldrums are less of a challenge to cross because the width of the Doldrums narrows as we go west in both oceans.
Secondly, during the months of July and August, the Doldrums get very wide, sometimes hundreds of miles wide and reach as high as 20°N. That’s a long distance to travel in light and variable winds with pouring rain and severe thunderstorms! However, if you wait until February and March, it can be less than 10 miles wide resting just north of the equator.
North East Trades
Just North of the Doldrums lies the North East Trades. Typically encountered around 10°N to 30°N the N.E. Trades provide great winds for making westbound passages. Consistent northeast winds and warm tropical weather make the N.E. Trades great for passage making.
South East Trades
Sitting just south of the Doldrums, the South East Trades are basically the same as the North East Trades with a couple of exceptions.
1. Instead of hanging around the 10°N to 30°N range, the South East Trades can be found in the 10°S to 30°S range.
2. The winds are still consistent and good for westbound passages, but instead of being from the northeast, the winds are from the southeast.
Aka The Variables
Above the North East Trades and below the South East Trades lie the Horse Latitudes. In the northern hemisphere, they linger from 30°N to around 40-45°N, in the southern hemisphere you can find them at 30°S to around 40-45°S.
Similar to the Doldrums, the Horse Latitudes have light and variable winds, making them undesirable for routing. Unlike the Doldrums, however, the Horse Latitudes have nice weather. By nice weather I mean less humidity and thunderstorms during the cruising season (we will get into cruising seasons shortly).
In the Horse Latitudes, as with the Doldrums, it’s best to spend as little time as possible in these bands while passage making. Light and variable winds do not make for good ocean crossings!
The Westerlies are north of the northern Horse Latitudes and south of the southern Horse Latitudes. Although not as consistent as the Trade Winds, the Westerlies provide winds to make passages from the west to the east.
In the northern hemisphere, the Westerlies start around 40-45°N and end around 60°N. The predominate wind direction of the Westerlies in the northern hemisphere is from the southwest.
In the southern hemisphere, the Westerlies start around 40-45°S and end around 60°S. The predominate wind direction of the Westerlies in the southern hemisphere is from the northwest.
Unlike the Trade winds, the Westerlies are a little less tame. For example, it’s not unlikely to run across gale force winds in the Westerlies and storms are much more prevalent at these latitudes.
The Westerlies in the northern hemisphere are not as wild as the southern hemisphere because the continents of North America, Europe and Asia throw a wrench in the works. Visit the Westerlies south of the equator, however, and you’re in for a rough ride. The Southern Ocean is not to be taken lightly. The waters from 40°S to 50°S are know the world over as the “Roaring Forties”. Head south a notch and you will encounter the “Furious Fifties” located from 50°S to 60°S. The Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties have the reputation of bad storms and really big waves.
From the North Pole to 60°N you can find consistent winds from the northeast.
From the South Pole to 60°S you can find consistent winds from the southeast.
When sailing around the world, it’s a no brainer that prevailing winds play a major factor when planning out a world route. Heck, they play a major role when planning regional routes! Other than ocean crossings, sailing around the world is more or less a string of regional routes.
However, the prevailing winds are only part of the equation, a major part, but not the whole part. Ocean currents play a major role as well.
If you paid close attention to the latitudes, you may have noticed some overlap. This is not a math error on my part, it simply represents the seasonal shifts that can occur. The latitudes are an average and not set in stone. Some bands expand and contract with the seasons and the other bands will move north and south to accommodate these changes.
The bad news is that sailing against a current vs. with a current can add days to your passage. The good news is that most currents flow in roughly the same direction as the prevailing winds. I’m going to leave the individual currents for another article(s) as there are too many to detail here.
In order to simplify the over all pattern of currents, imagine a clockwise current in each ocean north of the equator and a counterclockwise current south of the equator in each ocean.
Tropical Storm Seasons
Nothing clears out beautiful cruising grounds like an approaching hurricane season, cyclone season, typhoon season, willy-willy season or monsoon season depending on what part of the world you’re in. Tropical storm seasons are not to be taken lightly and unless you have a death wish, it’s best to be long gone or secured in a “Hurricane Hole” before the season arrives.
Like the currents, there are a lot of different regions all with different seasons. I will create an article in the near future and link to it here! For now, just realize that this will cause some constraining time frames and even delays to you’re long distance cruising.
If you’re leaving from the Europe/Mediterranean area, the most logical destination to begin or continue a circumnavigation is the Caribbean. Most boats heading to the Caribbean from Europe sail to the Canary Islands off the coast of North West Africa before sailing to the Caribbean. This happens in the fall in order to avoid the winter weather of the north. Once in the Canary’s, sailors wait until the end of November before sailing to the Eastern Caribbean. This delay is because of the Northern Atlantic hurricane season not ending until the beginning of November. Some sailors wait until February just in case!
From North America & South America (east coast)
Like the boats in Europe to the east, boats leaving from the east coast of Canada and the U.S. head to the Caribbean. Boats coming from the east coast of South America typically head to the Caribbean as well in order to avoid sailing around the southern tip of South America. Just like the boats waiting in the Canary Islands, boats from North and South America wait as long as possible into the fall before entering the Caribbean due to hurricane season extending until November.
From The Caribbean
Next stop from the Caribbean is the Pacific Ocean via the Panama Canal. This will typically happen in April or May to avoid the hurricane season arriving at the beginning of November. Once through the Panama Canal, your options are as wide as the Pacific Ocean.
From The Panama Canal & Central America (west coast)
From the west coast of Central America the goal is French Polynesia, more specifically the island of Tahiti. The most common routes to French Polynesia from Central America are either strait to the Marquesas Islands or stopping at the Galapagos Islands on your way to the Marquesas. The Galapagos are on the way and breaks the voyage into two smaller segments. Others prefer to skip the Galapagos, sail a longer nonstop trip directly to the Marquesas in order to have more time in the French Polynesian Islands. (Tahiti & The Marquesas are part of French Polynesia. Many of the resources that I have come across don’t make this clear and I wanted to clear this up, because it had me confused at first.) French Polynesia is a vast cruising ground and would take many seasons to fully explore. Eventually you will make it to Tahiti and unless you plan on hanging around the South Pacific for multiple seasons, you will want to be leaving Tahiti at the beginning of July at the latest. Leaving after this time will leave you unable to visit other areas of the South Pacific before the storm season begins in December.
From North America (west coast)
From North America, the predominant winds are favorable for a trip to Central America, Hawaii and even direct to the Marquesas. Flip the coin to the other side and try to sail back to the east coast from the Panama Canal, however, and you are in for a punishing experience. You’re better off sailing to the Marquesas, then to Hawaii and from Hawaii to the west coast of North America. This begs the question, if your starting from the west coast and it’s easier to sail home from the Panama Canal via Marquesas & Hawaii anyway, why not wait until your returning home to visit these places!?
Many boats from the North American West Coast choose to cruise down the west coast as far as South America. Then from South America, work their way to Tahiti via more remote islands such as Easter Island, Pitcairn and Gambier, then visiting the Marquesas and Hawaii on the way home from the Panama Canal.
From South America (west coast)
Boats leaving from the west side South America have a decision to make. They can sail to Tahiti via the Galapagos and Marquises, or sail the more challenging route via Easter Island, Pitcairn and Gambier.
Once in Tahiti, the goal is to start making your way to Fiji. From Tahiti to Fiji, there are more places to stop than are possible. Making one of the most difficult aspects about the trip is choosing where and where not to go. Stops include Bora Bora, Maupiti, Northern Cook Islands, Southern Cook Islands, Northern Tonga, The Samoas, Suwarro, Vava’u, Pago Pago, Wallis and Futuna.
From Fiji comes New Zealand & Australia. When in Fiji, the destination depends on your future plans. The question you need to answer is, “are you going to spend another season in the South Pacific?”. The South Pacific is a place that cruisers never leave. Many never make it to the Indian Ocean, not because the South Pacific is extra dangerous, but that it has so much to offer a cruiser. Those who have plans to stay another season head to New Zealand for the summer storm season. It’s easier to return to the South Pacific from New Zealand than from Australia and you can stop at Australia once you decide to continue to the Indian Ocean.
If trying to circumnavigate in less than 3 years, New Zealand will typically be skipped and Australia will be visited as you pass through the Torres Strait. If you’re winding down after your second, third, forth season etc.… you can arrive early to Australia and take a slower pace while there.
From Australia, there are two major choices in crossing the Indian Ocean. The north route will lead you through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The south route will bring you around Cape Horn on the southern tip of Africa. The southern route is more challenging sailing and more chance of bigger seas. The northern route is much more easy going and pleasant as long as you don’t get killed by pirates. I personally would not go anywhere near the Red Sea right now or for that matter the foreseeable future!
For the southern route, the goal is to get to Cape Town. This can be accomplished via Bali, Chagos, Mauritius or any combination of the three. The safe season for this voyage is June through October with the tropical storm season starting in November.
From Cape Town, South Africa
From Cape Horn, the goal is Brazil, The Caribbean, and Europe etc. depending on whether you’re continuing a circumnavigation or returning home. Sailing to the Caribbean can be accomplished via Southern Brazil and South America or more direct via St. Helena. From the Caribbean boats can continue the circumnavigation, visit/return home to North America and Europe.