7 Best-Known Routes for Sailing Around the World (with Maps)

Route planning is among the most crucial bits of preparation, especially when it comes to circumnavigation. This article will give you seven of the most commonly used routes for sailing around the world. Some routes have been sailed many times by many people, others are obscure or even dangerous.

  • The Fast Route - for the minimum time
  • The Pleasure Route - for the maximal pleasure
  • The Traditional Route - the road most taken
  • The Arctic Route - for the rough ones
  • The Dangerous Route - without regards for piracy
  • The Cheap Route - with a budget in mind
  • The Coast Lover's Route - never going far from the coast

Since circumnavigation is quite a complex matter, let's go through this list one by one below.

How To Choose A Route For You

What route you will take depends on what kind of journey you are looking for. If the goal is to do it in the least amount of time possible, you will be choosing a different path than if you don't care about time and put emphasis on sightseeing.

Similarly, if safety and convenience are at the top of your priority list, you will choose a route that might differ greatly from that of a person ready to spend more on security and cut corners through tricky territories.

If you have specific locations in mind, you will take turns that are, logistically speaking, quite impractical, while if efficiency is what you want, there are certain places it would make little sense to visit.

And finally, if you are after comfort, you will avoid some bumpy places and times of the year, as opposed to somebody who won't mind venturing into the corners of the oceans that require a hell of a warm jacket.

There is no right or wrong answer here; don't feel some approaches are better than others. Just look at what you want from the journey, read through this article, and then choose what best suits you.

Route For Speed

Let's kick this off with a racing spirit. This is the route taken by those competing in Vendée Globe, a circumnavigation race. It takes a bit under three months...

...that is if you are a racer and so is your boat. If you are a cruiser kind of person, it will take more time, but the point is that this route is as straightforward as it gets.

So what waypoints does it touch? Vendée globe racers start in France, then head down towards the Cape of Good Hope, circle Antarctica as close as the rules allow, and after getting to Cape Horn, head up to France again.

Of course, based on where you start from, your route might differ. But the idea is as follows:

  • head south towards the Southern Ocean
  • sail around Antarctica through the Southern Ocean
  • after reaching the point where you met the Southern Ocean for the first time, head back up

Cons

The Southern Ocean is not a breeze, the cold waters mixing with the warmer ones coming from the north, plus the danger of icebergs, as well as the cold temperature, isn't how your typical holiday dream looks. That being said, it's up to you how close to Antarctica you will want to be when going around it.

This route doesn't touch down at any land, so you must be prepared for months on the sea as far as provisions, spares and mental capacity goes. Of course, this is variable, you can easily make landfall in Azores, South Africa, South Australia, or South America, and some of the South Pacific islands, if you need to. Either way, it is demanding logistically, so be sure to have your checklist in check.

Pros

It is among the most straightforward routes. Not just because it is probably the shortest one or the fastest one, but all the hassle with visas, check-ins, going through canals, and other lengthy land creatures' business will be foreign to you.

If you make it through the Southern Oceans unharmed, you will certainly have one hell of a story to tell.

Now let's go on the opposite side of the specter.

The Pleasure Route

Let's suppose you theoretically have unlimited time. Instead of doing things quickly and efficiently, you want to take it at a leisurely pace while admiring all that there is to see.

This route will begin and end in the Mediterranean, but that's just because that's where I am based, sailing-wise. Wherever else you are, just pick the point of the route closest to you and begin there.

Dubrovnik, Croatia.

We will begin in Croatia, because it has beautiful shores and islands, travel around Greece with even more islands, the south around Italy, through Gibraltar. After that:

  • head south to the Azores
  • west to the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal
  • west to Hawaii
  • south to French Polynesia
  • west to New Zealand, then Australia and Papua New Guinea
  • northwest to Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, India
  • south to Madagascar, then along the African coast to Cape of Good Hope
  • north to the Azores and then through Gibraltar back home

Cons

This route takes time since it aims to explore all it can even remotely touch. It's not just that the route is long, because the aim is to visit pretty places. You might also find yourself having to wait months at some places for the bad weather season to clear before you can make your next crossing. Have a look at our article about things to think about when planning for a long trip.

Because of that, this route is more demanding when it comes to planning, visa hassle, check-in research, more ports and anchors, more provisions planning. Also, your boat will need to be a solid liveaboard, since you will spend so much time on it. Logistically, it will be demanding.

Pros

But for all that hassle, you will literally get to see the world. You will visit many fantastic cultures, get to taste the cuisines from all over, and the long times waiting for the winds to calm down will be spent on exploring the place you are 'stuck' at.

What more does one need...

...except perhaps some middle ground. Now that we've been to two extremes, let's look at something in the middle: the route most commonly taken when circumnavigating.

The Traditional Route

It is rather similar to the Pleasure Route above except for skipping the Mediterranean, Pacific, and Southeast Asian stops.

Thus it goes as follows:

  • From Europe, head south to the Azores
  • west to the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal
  • west to Australia
  • west to Cape of Good Hope
  • north to the Azores and then through Gibraltar back home

This route accomplishes the circumnavigation while stopping at beautiful places but doesn't necessarily explore everything that happens to be around. Its strong suit is the variability. If you like the Caribbean, you stop and cruise around there. If Australia excites you, you do the same there. If you want to see Madagascar, well, it will be almost on your way. And so on.

Pros

It has been a traditional route to take because it is relatively painless and does not go through any hazardous areas.

It has been traveled by many before you, so there is a lot of info floating around if you want to do your research on specific parts of the journey.

Cons

On its own, it has a lot of long legs where you will not see anything but the ocean on the horizon. So for those of you who mind this, you gotta make it your own, customize it a bit, so that you spend more time at places that you like.

This planning really is important. Some of those legs can't be made during certain seasons if you want to be careful, so to make sure you don't get stuck somewhere you don't particularly like, you should plan well.

With that, let's get crazier.

The Arctic Route

For those who want to do things the hard way. Perhaps you really like the scenery, perhaps you want to test yourself, or maybe you've done every other passage, and now it is time for the icy one.

There is a circumnavigation route that leads through regions so far up north you mostly don't encounter them even on a map. Because why would you look up there.

Now I don't know how long this article will survive on the internet, but note that this route is rather climatically contextual. Given enough time, it might freeze over and become unavailable.

For me, it would begin in one of the northern ports of Norway and then:

  • continue west to Iceland
  • west to the south of Greenland and then up its western coast to the Baffin Bay
  • south of Devon Island and through the archipelagos to Beaufort and Chuchki Seas
  • west along the northern coast of Russia under the Lyakhovsky Islands
  • west under the Yuzhny Island to the Barents Sea and back to the north of Norway

To this, you will have to add the most straightforward route north from wherever you are to any point on the route above.

Cons

Cold. Thus this requires clothing, equipment, and a boat that can withstand the polar temperatures along with chunks of ice floating around.

Pros

How much more adventurous can you get? Circumnavigation has been accomplished by plenty of people. This, not so much.

With the above, the major sailing routes have been covered. So what follows are mostly variations. Important ones, though.

The Dangerous Route

Imagine this one mostly as the Traditional Route, except with a few twists. One of them leads through the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal.

Why take it? Because if you look on the map, you will see that when going from the general direction of Australia or Southeast Asia west, meaning you are probably aiming for the Azores or further for the Caribbean, it will save you a lot of time.

Money, not so much. You will have to pay for security. Because although you will save yourself the long southern route around the whole continent of Africa, which is nearly a 10,000-mile detour, you will have to go through the aforementioned areas that are famous for piracy and require professional armed company if you want to be on the safe side.

Not that it hasn't been done without it, but you know… Furthermore, many insurances won't cover you there since the risks are just too high.

Similarly, the area around Malaysia and the Philippines, which you might encounter during your Southeast Asia travels, bears the same story. No coverage by many insurances for piracy reasons.

Then again, exploring Southeast Asia while avoiding these regions means a few detours and no-go zones.

So if you want to explore the world on your sailboat and don't mind the risk, add these to your route plans.

Cons

Obviously, the risk or costs related to security. You will find plenty of sailors arguing that there is no real danger unless you are a cargo ship or a kidnapping worthy target. You will also find plenty who would rather travel in a fleet through there. And plenty who would never set sail towards those places.

Then there is the insurance issue.

Pros

With Suez, the upside is the saved time as well as not having to go around the treacherous South African cape waters.

With the Philippines and Malaysia, it's the convenience of being able to go wherever you want to in one of the most beautiful regions worldwide.

The Cheap Route

See this one as a variant of the Traditional Route and the Pleasure Route.

Some places are cheaper than others. And some places straight up make very little sense to go to.

Going through the Panama Canal is at least a $1,300 expense. Or, there are countries, like Ecuador, where check-in can cost you a $1,000 fee. And last but not least, prices of resources, like food, vary too. The Caribbean is famous for its steep prices in the provisions area.

The prices change, so it would not be bulletproof to give you a precise circumnavigation route exclusively through cheap places. Still, the moral of the story here is that when planning your route, do have a look at the local prices when it comes to check-ins and visas, food and various passes.

The result should be a route you are comfortable with financially. Avoiding the Panama Canal means a detour around the whole of South America, so it rarely pays off. Avoiding Ecuador, on the other hand, won't hinder your progress and save you money. Stocking up on food before getting into the Caribbean is also a sound logistical choice - unless you plan to stay for longer than your stocks can take you.

Cons

Saving money can mean detours, inaccessibility of various places, and more thought put into logistics. So it can result in a less elegant route.

Pros

On the other hand, being smart about it can result in a much lower bill overall.

The Coast Lover's Route

Let me start this one by admitting that I don't believe anybody will actually take this route in its entirety, as delineated here. But it serves as an inspiration to those who are perhaps a bit unsure or simply like to combine two different sailing styles.

Some like to cross vast oceans and love to see nothing but the horizon for months. And then some like to stick to coastal waters for most of their journeys. Nothing wrong with that; at least it gives you something to look at any given moment.

And then there is the benefit of relative safety, a port or an anchorage close by most of the time, the ability to resupply whenever you like, to pick up and drop off people, and last but not least the lack of need for a really ocean-worthy boat and equipment.

The rocky coast in Turkey

I'm talking about the coastal cruiser's dream of circling all the world's continents, whereby effectively circumnavigating the globe. Eventually. This is the longest route ever.

The idea is pretty simple. You can go around the world sticking to the coast with no crossings, except for the Norwegian Sea and a few short stretches in Southeast Asia.

Or, if you feel up to it (and want to avoid the freezing northern places), you can cross the Atlantic, the Pacific and keep close to the coasts otherwise.

As mentioned in the beginning, not many will actually take this entire route. But it is not uncommon for circumnavigators to have weeks or months where they do exactly this - stick to the coast and enjoy the country.

Cons

Lots and lots of time and resources are needed.

You will constantly be checking into countries and solving visas.

Understand the required paperwork for sailing the world

This is an article on the topic of check-ins and paperwork, so have a read through it
Read up on global licenses

Some areas are arguably less hospitable than others - the coast of Yemen as an example. So you might want to skip a few.

Pros

You don't need a proper ocean exploring boat - an island-hopping model will suffice. Many of the modern ones are capable of long crossings if needed here and there.

You don't need as much equipment as power, water, food, and all that jazz will be available most of the time.

The logistics will suddenly become a whole lot easier. Fewer provisions planning, less spare parts planning, broken stuff won't be a disaster… you get the point.

This is the true world tour.


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