The plan: Around the world - A voyage in a boat, or the pleasure of going ahead of the others

Published on 21 june 2017 at 0h00

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The World’s best places to sail 

Cruising guru Jimmy Cornell on what is driving the migration of yachts around the globe and where you can still get away from it all.

People complain ever more frequently that their favorite anchorages are now overcrowded and that in many places, if you don’t book ahead you won’t get a place in the harbor. Yet, astonishingly, the number of foreign-flagged vessels visiting the world’s key cruising hubs is down by at least 20 per cent overall since the start of the Millennium. So what is going on? Where have all the boats gone? 

 For many Europeans, the port of Las Palmas in the Canaries marks the beginning of a big adventure…

Since my last global yacht cruising survey in 2010, politics and climate change have affected offshore cruising both in the short and long term, but in order to understand the changes, we need to know exactly where the 8,000 or so ocean cruising yachts actually went (and where they didn’t), what size the boats typically are and how many people were on board. The survey is a good opportunity to find out the actual proportion of catamarans there are among cruising yachts and should prove that you can still find unspoiled, uncrowded harbors and destinations.

The political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa have greatly affected cruising in the Mediterranean as well as passages through the North Indian Ocean and Red Sea, but while those effects can be regarded as regional, the consequences of climate change are now affecting the entire world. Global weather conditions in 2015 were also affected by a prolonged El Niño episode that exacerbated the ongoing effects of climate change, most notably in the north-west Pacific where at least one typhoon occurred in every month of the year, with a safe sailing season now sadly a thing of the past.

 A catamaran transiting the Panama Canal. Multihulls are much more numerous when you get into the Pacific... real cruising boats!

The port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands boasts a larger concentration of boats preparing for an ocean passage than any other place in the world – 75 per cent of which are heading west to the Caribbean. But the number of visiting yachts in 2015 is 40 per cent lower than it was in 2010. The lower number may be explained by some boats leaving from other Canary Islands, but according to Juan Fancisco Martin, commercial director of the port of Las Palmas, ‘A gradual downward trend has become noticeable in recent years.”

Extrapolating from the figures obtained from Gibraltar, the Cape Verdes, Canaries and Madeira, it can be assumed that every year approximately 1,200 boats cross the Atlantic along the NE tradewind route. This is 20 per cent lower than the 2010 estimate.

Most of the European boats that sail to the Caribbean complete an Atlantic circuit by sailing from the Canaries to the Caribbean after the middle of November, returning home the following year in May or June by sailing to the Azores, either direct or via Bermuda.

A round-the-world rally fleet transiting Panama.  Again, we see an impressive number of multihulls. 

Although Lajes on the island of Flores is the western-most port in the Azores, Horta on Faial continues to be the preferred landfall at the end of an eastbound transatlantic passage. While the total of boats (1,232) that cleared into Horta during 2015 was in fact 12 per cent higher than in 2010 (1,098), on closer inspection it became clear that the majority of boats on passage from the Caribbean to Europe sailed directly to the Azores, with far fewer making the detour to Bermuda than in the past.

The total of boats that called at Bermuda in 2015 was 732 confirming a 37 per cent decline that has been noticeable since 2000. This is mainly due to the large number of American boats that nowadays bypass Bermuda and sail directly to the Eastern Caribbean. The situation is reversed in May and June, when many more boats returning to the US mainland call at Bermuda. 

French Polynesia is still mythical and often remains the true goal of a circumnavigation…

The total number of boats that spend the winter season cruising in the Caribbean has remained relatively stable in recent years, but one country that has seen a significant increase is Cuba, which is benefitting from newly normalized relations with the USA. Its major ports and marinas recorded in 2015 a total of 1,256 foreign flagged yachts, both sail and power – double the figures for 2010. According to Commodore José Miguel Escrich of the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba, ‘By the summer of 2016 the figures for 2015 had doubled again as we witnessed a steady influx of visitors from the United States. We are so happy to be able to welcome and offer our friendship to all those who love the sea’.

Two high latitude destinations in the North Atlantic that are now regularly visited by cruising yachts are Spitsbergen and Greenland. The former showed a small increase over 2010, but Greenland is poised to become more frequented both as an attractive cruising destination in its own right and as a base for preparing for a transit of the North West Passage, which has become more accessible as a result of climate change. An estimated 32 boats called at Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, in 2015 with most limiting their cruising to the spectacular west coast. The more intrepid struck out west to brave the challenges of the North West Passage with eight succeeding to complete a transit of that elusive shortcut to the Pacific. Three boats completed an eastbound transit, among them my own Aventura, the 87th sailing vessel to achieve that feat unassisted.Cape Agulhas, Africa’s most southerly point and the gateway to the voyage home… 

South Atlantic

At the other extreme of the Atlantic Ocean, voyages to Antarctica showed a remarkable 44 per cent decline since 2010, with drops for both the main jumping off points on the South American mainland – Ushuaia in Argentina (23%) and Puerto Williams in Chile (44%). Skip Novak, who has been operating in those waters since the early 1990s, does not sound optimistic about the future: ‘The Chilean government has banned all foreign charter yachts from Cape Horn and the Beagle Channel circuits. We are trying to find a solution for the future, but it won’t be easy.’

Jamestown in St Helena: these days a stopover here is almost mandatory on a round the world trip on a sailboat. 

Most yachts heading for the South Atlantic from Tierra del Fuego and the Beagle Channel call at Port Stanley in the Falklands, which saw 29 yachts in 2015. Yachts arriving in the South Atlantic from the east, of which there has been an increase due to the danger of transiting the Suez Canal, call at Cape Town and then typically on to St Helena. Compared to 2010, there has been an increase of over 138 per cent, with 358 long distance sailing boats calling at Cape Town, 236 bound for the Atlantic, the rest for the Indian Ocean.

St Helena is such an important port of call in the South Atlantic that, with the exception of a handful of boats that sail directly from Cape Town to Argentina or Brazil, virtually no boat on a world voyage sails by without stopping. St Helena saw a modest 16 per cent increase over 2010 with the most common onward destinations being the South American mainland (38%), Ascension Island (31%), Caribbean (17%) and the Cape Verdes (6%).

 Vava'u is a popular stopover which has seen… 424 boats making landfall in one year.

The deteriorating safety situation in Brazil coupled with an unwelcome attitude by the authorities has resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of cruising boats. Sandoval Matos, the manager of Marina Pier Salvador, described the main reasons: ‘The Brazilian Federal Police no longer renew visas for European nationals, claiming to be applying the law of reciprocity. Violent incidents involving foreign visitors have exacerbated this situation by giving Brazil a bad reputation, the number of visiting boats having dropped to 20 per cent of what it used to be.’

Against this background, Marina Jacaré, near the town of Cabedelo, and run by two French expat sailors has somehow managed to remain an oasis of tranquility with 81 visitors in 2015.

 With many families on the startline, the Atlantic Odyssey organized by Jimmy Cornell has over the years become the “children’s transat”!

The number of Panama Canal transits by pleasure craft may have peaked in 2010 (1,177), although there were only 100 fewer in 2015 (725 Pacific bound and 354 Atlantic bound), but what has remained mostly unchanged are the Pacific destinations after the transit, with two thirds of the boats turning north, towards the west coast of Central and North America, and the rest heading for the South Pacific.

The restrictions applied to visiting yachts in Galapagos are still in force. Just as in Panama, the record high of 395 arrivals in 2010 had dropped in 2015 to 280 boats, some sailors obviously being deterred by the complex formalities and the expenses associated with them.

For those who are determined to bypass Galapagos, the logical option is to sail directly from Panama to the Marquesas. In 2015, 397 boats arrived there, the majority at Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa. The total of arrivals for the entire French Polynesia was 556 – a drastic decline from the record 826 reported in 2010.

A somewhat longer but potentially more attractive alternative is to make a detour to Easter Island and continue from there via Pitcairn Island to French Polynesia. The number of yachts calling at Easter Island has almost doubled in the last five years from 44 up to 79, and 70 boats made landfall at Mangareva, the south-eastern point of entry into French Polynesia. 

 For those who like extreme solitude, there is always the option to head a long way north or a long way south!

Sailing west from Tahiti there are several detours that can be made from the main trunk route, such as to the once rarely visited Palmerston atoll, which was visited by 71 boats. Another highly popular place, also in the Cook Islands, is Suwarrow, an uninhabited atoll where a caretaker is based during the peak arrivals time and welcomed a total of 69 boats. The total of arrivals for the entire island group was 209. In neighboring Tonga, the main island of Tongatapu was once again eclipsed by the northern island group of Vava’u. This long time favorite among sailors in the South Seas welcomed 424 arrivals.

By the time they have reached Tonga or Fiji, most cruising boats leave the tropics before the cyclone season and sail to New Zealand or Australia. Although ports in South Queensland and New South Wales have been attracting an increasing number of boats, New Zealand continues to be the favorite destination. This was borne out by the 669 arrivals (491 from overseas) in New Zealand, the majority making landfall at Opua in the Bay of Islands, with late October and November being the bumper time. While in New Zealand the numbers have remained stable, in Australia the number of foreign vessels has dropped 21 per cent since 2015. A similar decrease has been seen in neighboring New Caledonia. 

More and more families and sailing couples are choosing a multihull for their blue water cruise… Ideal for comfort and safety! 

The situation in the North Pacific has remained almost unchanged compared to 2010, although there was a considerable decline in the number of foreign visiting boats in the western North Pacific. This is the first area in the world to suffer the consequences of climate change on a large scale, with weather conditions being noticeably affected by the warming of the oceans. The worst affected were the Philippines, with a tropical cyclone striking the country in every month of the year. A defined safe sailing season can no longer be counted on. A similar trend now appears to affect all of Micronesia, which was visited by 27 tropical cyclones in 2015.

In spite of the uncertain weather conditions mentioned above, the Philippines continue to attract visiting boats, but most of them limit themselves to the southern part, which is rarely affected by tropical storms. There were 37 arrivals in the Marshall Islands, which is probably a fair estimate of the approximate number of boats calling at the Micronesian islands generally.

On the Asian mainland, the expected boom in cruising boats has so far failed to materialize and the estimates from Hong Kong show in fact a decline compared to the previous survey. No wonder, since visiting yachts are not allowed to operate in Hong Kong waters without a Hong Kong captain’s license. There was not much more movement in China either, where formalities for visiting yachts continue to be both complicated and expensive.

A small number of cruising boats make it as far as Japan every year with an estimated 20 foreign yachts passing through Osaka in 2015. Ten of them could be traced as they made their way east, with some stopping at Dutch Harbor on their way to Canada or the US west coast. This busy fishing port at the western edge of the Aleutian Islands saw a record 23 visiting yachts in 2015. Both its provisioning and repair facilities are excellent and this is a good base to prepare the boat for those planning an eastbound transit of the North West Passage.

 Brazil’s popularity among sailors is in decline. 20% fewer boats are stopping there!

Because of the serious threat of piracy in the North Indian Ocean, 2010 was the first year when more boats on a world voyage sailed the Cape of Good Hope route than crossed the North Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. This trend continued in the intervening five years, however, due to the presence of an international naval force in the North Indian Ocean, the threat posed by the Somali pirates has been virtually eliminated. As a result, 2015 saw the first cruising boats braving that northern route, with a total of 14 boats arriving in Suez from the North Indian Ocean. In spite of the fact that these boats had passed safely through the critical area of the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, it must be stressed that sailing in that area is still potentially dangerous.

As a result, there has been a noticeable reduction in SE Asia in the number cruising boats on a world voyage as many avoid the North Indian Ocean altogether. The Singapore port authority recorded just over 200 foreign flagged boats calling in 2015, with the figures obtained from Phuket confirming an increase in visitors from neighboring countries.

With very few sailors daring to risk a passage to the Mediterranean via the North Indian Ocean and Red Sea, on reaching SE Asia their only reasonable option is to switch hemispheres and head south. A convenient port en route is Galle, on the south coast of Sri Lanka, where 98 arrivals were recorded in 2015. Some made a further detour to Cochin in South India, but few boats persevered on a westbound course, with the notable exception of the 14 boats that reached Suez. Among them, 12 were on a world voyage that had originated in Australia or New Zealand, and the remaining two had started from ports in the Persian Gulf area. 

A circumnavigation is also about seeking out different corners of the globe where others don’t tend to go.  How about anchoring in New York? 

Rather than face the challenge of a passage to and around South Africa, many Australian and some New Zealand sailors are now buying a boat in Europe, mostly catamarans, and sailing home via the Panama Canal, completing a safe and convenient semi-circumnavigation. Some French sailors do it the other way round: they leave home, stop at various French territories in the Caribbean and South Pacific before finishing in New Caledonia, where they sell their boats and return home having completed a similar semi-circumnavigation.

It is estimated that approximately 200 yachts transit the Torres Strait every year. Some of those that are heading directly for the South Indian Ocean stop at Darwin in northern Australia, which saw 72 arrivals in 2015. The alternative is a cruise through the Indonesian archipelago and 236 foreign vessels obtained the required cruising permit issued by the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That requirement has been discontinued in 2016, in an attempt to attract more visitors to one of the most interesting and diverse cruising grounds in the world.

Heading west from either Darwin or Indonesia, the Australian outpost of Cocos Keeling continues to be a popular stop with 99 visitors in 2015. From Cocos Keeling the westbound route splits into a southern branch to Rodrigues and Mauritius and a northern branch bound for Chagos (British Indian Ocean Territory). The latter recorded a 54 per cent drop in visitor numbers compared to 2010, as the British authorities, who administer this territory, now limit the issuing of the compulsory permit only to those who can justify the need for a stop, discouraging those who regard them as an interesting cruising interlude.

The most popular stop along the more frequented southern route is Port Louis in Mauritius, with 281 boats being recorded, a major increase over 2010 and a definite proof of the predominance of the Cape of Good Hope route among boats on a world voyage.

Madagascar was once expected to become the major attraction in the South Indian Ocean, but the lack of facilities, cumbersome bureaucracy and the ever lingering threat of piracy has put paid to those hopes. The activities of the Al-Shabaab terrorist group in East Africa has cast its shadow over neighboring cruising destinations such as northern Madagascar, the Seychelles and Mozambique.

Nosy Be, on Madagascar’s north-west coast has established itself as a modest base – an estimated 30 boats visited the area in 2015, half made up of South African boats undertaking a one-season round trip. On the eve of a new cyclone season, all boats make their way south. Richards Bay and Durban are the usual South African landfall ports, with arrivals evenly split between them. A total of 110 boats arrived in Durban from the north in 2015. 

Cruising safety and climate change

The figures from Las Palmas, Bermuda, Panama, Galapagos, Tahiti, Tonga and Australia seem to indicate that the popularity of long distance voyages may have peaked in 2010. Those numbers may also point to a global trend among potential world voyagers.

There are various reasons for this, but they all seem related to safety concerns. Although climate change is still only visible in its effects on offshore weather, most sailors are worried about conditions becoming less predictable, with safe seasons no longer being taken for granted. The world is also regarded as less safe on a personal level, not only in such high risk areas as the North Indian Ocean and Red Sea, Venezuela, Brazil, Honduras, North, East and West Africa, but also in parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and Caribbean. The prevailing economic uncertainty may also deter some sailors from setting off on a world voyage not knowing what to expect on their return.

I estimate that worldwide there are approximately 8,000 yachts either cruising in a certain area or actually voyaging. About half are in the Atlantic, 1,500 to 2,000 in the Pacific, 1,000 in the Indian Ocean, and 1,000 in the Mediterranean. This estimate is about 20 per cent lower than the conclusion I drew in 2000 and 2010, when I reckoned that there were between 10,000 and 12,000 boats roaming the oceans of the world.

Finally, those who are planning a world voyage should take heart from the fact that, in spite of some concerns, such attractive destinations as the Azores, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Tonga, Vanuatu and Indonesia, not to speak of more remote or high-latitude destinations, have not been overrun by visitors and show no signs of that happening soon. There is a move towards regional cruising with many sailors now preferring to limit their voyages to one area or just one ocean. In line with this trend, for many sailors the aim of completing a circumnavigation seems to have lost its aura – nowadays it is only the most determined who find the motivation to go all the way. 

And what about multihulls?

This latest survey has brought to light three interesting factors: the small number of crews on boats on long-term cruising, many sailing as a couple, the number of couples with young children setting off on a sabbatical break of more or less long duration, and the ever-increasing proportion of catamarans among cruising boats.  These factors may be inter-dependent and the data collected in certain of the biggest hubs on blue water cruising routes tends to show this.

The number of long-term cruising catamarans is steadily increasing and this study is a good opportunity to determine their true proportion among cruising boats. Once again, I referred to statistics obtained from the Azores, and I worked out that 22 of the 184 boats which arrived in Lajes were catamarans (12%), against 103 out of 775 (13%) for Horta. This percentage rises to 17% for the Panama Canal (185 out of 1058). The greatest percentage was recorded in Nouméa (New Caledonia), with 61 catamarans out of a total of 328 boats. This comes as no surprise when you consider the large number of French boats based there, of which many are catamarans. The situation in some rallys confirms this trend, with 17% in the Blue Planet Odyssey, 19% in the World ARC, 14%  in the ARC (35 out of 259), and 17% among the 209 boats in the Pacific Puddle Jump. The Atlantic Odyssey had the highest percentage, with 11 catamarans among the 39 boats (28%) in the last edition in 2015…

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