Let me say at the outset that today most American cruisers do not actively plan a circumnavigation of the world. Despite the many publicized adventures of couples, small families, and solo voyagers who planted the seeds of distant shores and exotic cultures, most of us really do not expect to follow in their footsteps. For several reasons.

However, many admit it does cross their minds from time to time, and the dream, however much a fantasy, is always there to some degree. I have spoken to hundreds of cruisers who have it in the back of their minds, especially when shopping for the “ideal” boat.

Modern-day Tahiti (or any dream island for that matter) is no longer the place imagined from reading Robin Lee Graham or any of the cruising classics of our formative sailing years. No, forget these exotic shores. Most are now hubs of busy commercial shipping, cruise ships, and tourism on a grand scale.

However, I bring up the subject of world cruising for a couple of reasons. First, my recent article on Millennials highlights the trend of many of these young couples to get a boat to experience the world. And that often includes an eventual trip around the world. There are numerous YouTube channels that follow their journeys as they learn their boats and the key elements of bluewater sailing. These young people learn as they go and are not hindered by a lack of knowledge and experience. For them, it is a big adventure.

The other reason to look at the current state of ocean cruising is that if you love boating, you are likely interested in the big picture of our water world, no matter if we currently focus on coastal cruising. The world is a big, fascinating place and its oceans still hold plenty of fascination. I have already done my share of world cruising, but the rest of the world still beckons to some degree. It is also nice to know what is going on and to keep plugged into the groups that stay on top of the global cruising scene.

A year ago, as the pandemic began defining a new way of life, Jimmy Cornell gave a webinar about the reality of world cruising in 2020. Cornell, well known as world cruiser, author, and founder of the World Cruising Club, has kept his hand on the pulse of world cruising for decades. His company hosts world rallies for cruisers, beginning with the first Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) in 1986. Today, the World Cruising Club maintains a database of cruiser information that tracks the boats, people, and trends of world cruising from year to year.

Seen below: Jimmy Cornell, photo from yachtingworld.com.

Jimmy Cornell

According to Cornell, as he went through his informative slideshow of world cruising from 30,000 feet, the popularity of long-distance voyaging peaked in 2010, and continues to decline today. There are many factors that contribute to this decrease in popularity, and all relate in some fashion to safety.


Climate Change is Real

There is no doubt that the changing global climate continues to impact the world’s weather. Polar icecaps go on melting at an unprecedented rate, causing obvious changes that impact our climate. The Northwest Passage remains free of ice during the summer and early autumn, also unknown in the modern era.

The world’s numerous storm seasons have become less predictable and definable in recent years. It is common in some areas of the world to no longer have a “safe season” that allows transit in conditions almost guaranteed to be trouble-free. Typhoons and hurricanes now develop in greater number and with increased severity, again unlike previous recorded data.

To put this in context, major storms now develop outside of traditional storm season windows, which make safe cruise planning a much more difficult endeavor with no assurances. Tropical storm system trends were once easily avoided, but now safe-transit windows can no longer be trusted or counted on with absolute certainty.

Seen below: The Northwest Passage showing little ice. Photo was taken in 2019 by Tomer Ketter.

ice in northwest passage


Personal Safety is At Risk

No surprise here, but the increased threats to personal safety are also difficult to manage. Areas of increased violence and crime can be avoided, of course, as can areas prone to acts of piracy. But there are now more areas to avoid, not less. Venezuela, Brazil, Honduras, West and East Africa, even parts of the Caribbean, are all considered high risk areas. Stay away!

Now let’s add in the ever-present travel warnings and restrictions from the coronavirus. On top of everything else, this global pandemic makes voyage planning extremely problematic and out of one’s control. More on that in a minute.

An outstanding organization that keeps tabs on the world situation is the Ocean Cruising Club. Unlike other groups which assist their members by offering solutions to problem cruising areas, the OCC represents a membership that is by nature independent and self-reliant. Its members do not rely on the OCC or other outside resources to stay safe but routinely do their own research and planning for safe cruising. As a member, I find this approach valuable as it does not preach an agenda. It collects information and shares it with its members, who add it as another set of data points.

So, I include the OCC comments regarding this current world cruising situation.


You Are Not Welcome

The big takeaway, in addition to information already presented by Cornell’s World Cruising Club, is about the self-protecting nature of tropical islands, who restrict their borders to protect their own populations, rather than simply to keep foreigners out. These strict restrictions continue to evolve as the situation changes but will likely remain in place on differing levels as the pandemic runs its course.

As reiterated by the OCC spokespeople, the islands’ desire for self-preservation forces voyaging cruisers to bypass most, if not all, islands in paradise. This is a sharp contrast as safe havens to repair, resupply, and regroup. It is not business as usual.

The OCC is adamant in its latest report on this situation. Anyone attempting to cross oceans at this time must be fully prepared to make exceptionally long passages, with no stops along the way. Forget potential intermediate stops for emergency repairs and resupply. Those days are gone, at least for the near-term.

This is certainly not the scenario of the normal cruising life, and for many would-be cruisers, pretty much removes much of the motivation for venturing out in the first place. Many couples have found themselves isolated where they are, with no hopes of continuing their world cruising for the foreseeable future. That is not bad if one is stuck in New Zealand, but it is a different matter in Tonga or many other Pacific islands, not known for world class services.

A UK-based organization, many of the people contributing to the OCC report said they think their chances of leaving UK waters this season are “at best unlikely.” And their advice for sailors thinking of a Pacific cruise: It is best to not continue sailing after the Galápagos Islands, as the rest of the Pacific is shut down to cruisers.


And What About Those Overboard Shipping Containers?

You may have heard of the string of recent weather events that resulted in containerships losing cargo overboard. According to one merchant news source, the string of incidents, involving six containerships since November of last year, means about 3,000 containers have been lost overboard in the Pacific Ocean, considerably more than the worldwide annual average of roughly 1,300 containers. Even that number had been decreasing in recent years to less than 800 containers a year during 2017-2019. This is mainly because modern containerships are four times larger than the previous generation of transport ships, making loss overboard less likely.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), around 80% of the world’s trade moves by merchant shipping, and the thousands of ships at sea at any given time cause some to wonder about how safe it is to cross oceans. In one measurement taken over 24 hours, there were over 17,600 cargo ships at sea, of which almost 3,900 were container ships over 1,000 gross tons. And while the containers lost overboard represent less than one thousandth of one percent of the 226,000,000 containers shipped each year, that does not matter much if your boat has an unlikely encounter with one mid-ocean.

One wonders if the collision(s) that resulted in the loss of racing monohulls in the recent Vendee Globe challenge involved containers hit at speed by fragile racing machines. And let’s not forget that totally forgettable film with Robert Redford as a solo sailer who hit a shipping container in All Is Lost. (I met with a BoatUS editor in Virginia during that time and the editorial staff made me promise to never see that movie as it was so technically flawed. They thought I might go mad.)

To inject an interesting note on the overboard container issue, you may recall a container lost overboard in 1992 in the Pacific. It contained, and unleashed, many thousands of yellow floating plastic ducks. It was a dream come true for oceanographers around the world, as these easily recognized toys eventually came ashore on beaches around the globe, including Hawaii, Alaska, South America, Australia, and as far away as Scotland and Newfoundland in the Atlantic. Some were also found frozen in Arctic ice.

Seen below: Shipping containers can pose a hazard while cruising.

shipping containers


Go for It?

In case you are still interested in heading off to explore the world by boat, I hope you see there are some significant challenges on front of you. Some are avoidable, some can be planned around, but some are inescapable. The travel and entry restrictions imposed by cautious island nations wanting desperately to self protect their own must be respected.

At this point, it is only the foolhardy and self-indulgent who head out regardless of the consequences, thinking they will get by or figure it out as they go. That is inappropriate on many levels, and shows a lack of respect for others, their countries, and their cultures.

Most experienced cruisers, and certainly the well-respected organizations that follow the data, would have you wait another year, sit it out in Mexico (or wherever) until the timing works for everyone. Stay in place until the hospitality of the islands is restored so that it can be the lure that draws us out in the first place.

Which should not really be a problem, There is much to see and experience right here in North America. 

Enjoy these other boating and cruising articles by Bill Parlatore: