Is It Safe to Sail Around the World? (7 Real Dangers)

Written by William Porter in Beginner Info

Humanity spent millennia searching out a safe way around the world before the eighteen men on the sole surviving ship of Magellan's voyage limped back into Spain in 1522. Losing four ships on a three-year voyage makes a pretty strong case for the dangers of the trip.

But now, in the twenty-first century, is it safe to sail around the world?

While there are dangers and risks to circumnavigating, it is safe to sail around the world. Technological improvements in communication, boat design, construction techniques and materials, propulsion, weather forecasting and a myriad of other advances make it safe for a well prepared, skilled cruiser to make a modern-day trip around the world. Every year hundreds of boats complete the trip, marking a major accomplishment and a journey of a lifetime.

Because it's not risk-free, we've highlighted seven potential dangers for you and given you ideas on how to minimize them. These dangers include:

  • Piracy and Crime
  • Financial loss
  • Storms and weather
  • Injuries and Medical Emergencies
  • Bad routes and navigation mistakes
  • Boat Failures
  • Going Overboard

Seven Potential Dangers

Magellan had to contend with a lot. From unexplored waters with no charts to strange lands and people, it took a massive effort to make it around the world. Navigation was celestial only, and the marine chronometer was still two hundred years in the future, making much of it guesswork.

The dangers of a modern circumnavigation are quite different. You don't have to worry much about cannibals or scurvy, but you will need to pay for your trip, have a good set of charts, and watch the world around you. While you will have access to great weather data, it's still not perfect and weather systems move faster than you can sail.

But every danger can be mitigated, and with careful preparation, you can have the experience of a lifetime and return safely with stories to tell.

Piracy & Crime

The first question almost everyone asked us when we said we were going cruising was some variety pf "Aren't you worried about pirates?" And my general answer was no, I was not. Concerned and aware of issues, yes. But worried? Our plan was always to go where the pirates were not.

Piracy is just crime on the water, where differing laws and jurisdictions can make enforcement difficult. Most of the world does not have a piracy problem, but there are a few known hot spots. At this writing, the Straits of Malacca are still a problem, as are the waters of Venezuela. The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were notorious for years, but have settled down but still require caution.

Crime on shore is much more of a concern than piracy at sea. And crime is possible almost anywhere there are people who want what you may have. In some parts of the world, a cruiser showing up in a private yacht looks immeasurably wealthy to the local people, and you have to be careful.

Financial Loss

Operating a boat isn't cheap, and one of your biggest dangers is that you'll plan poorly and run out of money. This is extra inconvenient when you're in a foreign country and are struggling to get your boat fixed so you can move out before your visa expires.

It is very easy to underestimate the costs while cruising, and it's an unpleasant surprise when that part you didn't get a spare for costs three times as much to ship to a remote atoll, and takes a month to get there.

Insurance is expensive, but so is losing your boat without it.

Storms and Weather

Technology and meteorology are an enormous boon to circumnavigators. Synoptic charts give a good overview of global and regional weather trends. But they're still not proof against storms, and there's a reasonable chance that despite all your best planning, you may end up in some nasty weather.

Storms catch you two ways - in port, or at sea. You'll never want to head offshore when you know a storm is building, but if you don't have a place to tuck your boat in when you know something bad is coming, you still have problems.

Injuries and Medical Emergencies

Few cruisers take a doctor or nurse with them and rely on a ship's medical kit and some guidebooks for handling major medical emergencies. But most people aren't well trained in field medicine, and if you have a serious injury or medical condition when you're far from a doctor, it could end up a lot worse.

Bad Routes and Navigation Mistakes

With modern navigation gear, it's hard to get truly lost. But that doesn't mean you can't make mistakes in your planning and navigation. Charts aren't perfect, and even professional sailors make mistakes. You can also route yourself to some place dangerous if you don't know the waters or area you're headed to.

Boat Failure

Boats are complex, and things break. Constantly. And errors and failures can cascade, with a worse outcome from a small failure than you'd ever expect. Losing your rig or punching a hole in your hull are rare but catastrophic failures. But even minor failures, like a leak in a seal or a pump, can escalate as sea water works its way into the boat and starts shorting out systems.

The odds of your boat just up and sinking for no reason are near zero. But there are failures that breakages that can sink your boat, like broken through-hull fittings or a hull puncture from a collision with a submerged object.

Going Overboard

Losing a crew member overboard is the worst nightmare. Once you've lost someone offshore, especially at night, the odds of recovery drop for every minute that you don't get them back. In some ways it's worse that a fatal injury or illness on the boat, because you don't know what exactly happened. They're just gone, and if you don't get them back quickly, eventually you have to make the call to stop looking.

Dangers vs. Risks (and how to avoid them)

There's a reason experienced cruisers spend years preparing themselves and their boats for the journey. You need a solid set of skills, a well-prepared boat, and a plan. If you don't have the skill or you haven't taken the time to prepare for contingencies, you'll have a lot more difficulty avoiding risks and bad outcomes.

There's a difference between a danger and a risk. Dangers are the hazards that exist - whether it's rocks on a lee shore or thieves who will steal your dinghy while you're at dinner. Risks are more about chances and probability. You can reduce the risk of that dangerous rocky lee shore with careful and conservative navigation. And you can almost eliminate the risk of dinghy theft with a stout chain, padlock, and engine lock.

The danger always exists, but you can almost always minimize your risk of being harmed by it, or avoid it completely.

Avoiding Criminals

Just like you wouldn't walk in some parts of a big city at night, crime and piracy are best avoided with situational awareness. Research where you're going on sites like or the Caribbean Safety and Security Net. Just like crime on land, learn where and when the dangers are and avoid those areas. Lock your boat and your gear and don’t leave things on deck. Don't make flashy displays of wealth, and pay attention to what is happening around you.

Protecting Your Nest Egg

Planning, saving, and budgeting are a crucial part of actually making it around the world with your financial hide intact. Things break, plans don't work out, and costs aren't always what you research ahead of time. Without a financial plan for basic repairs and operating costs, one colossal failure can start a daisy chain of disasters than end your cruising dreams and put you back on land.

If you set off on a shoestring budget on an under-prepared boat while hoping to earn your way as you go, you may be in for some rude surprises if you don't have a savings buffer. So always have a cushion. Even if it's modest, it can buy time to fix a problem before it cascades out of control.

Minding the Weather

Commercial weather routing is a phenomenal way to minimize your weather risks. Even better is learning how to read synoptic charts and weather forecasts yourself to understand how to avoid dangerous weather patterns.

But just like with pirates, the big key to avoiding storms is to be where the storms are not. Global weather patterns and seasons are well known. Cruisers move seasonally to avoid storm patterns. Learn the safest times to move around in the world to avoid hurricanes and cyclones.

Preventing and Dealing with Injuries

There's no substitute for training and a well-equipped medical kit. You may need to treat broken bones, major lacerations, dislocations, and other serious traumas from your ship's medical bag. Field and survival first aid courses are excellent ideas for cruisers in the planning stages.

Preventing injuries offshore is much better than treating them. To prevent injuries, you need to take care how you work on the boat, and take planned actions unless delay is life or boat-threatening. Working deliberately and paying attention to where you put your hands and feet saves injuries.

Unfortunately, some conditions that happen outside the reach of a doctor are very hard to treat. Set up remote and telemedicine options before you leave sight of land to increase your odds. If you know you have pre-existing conditions and likely health risks, talk to a doctor, step up and prepare for them. Even if it's expensive.

Finding Your Way

Research and preparation will help you avoid the worst mistakes. Keeping your charts up-to-date and checking multiple sources of navigation data is a big help. Some parts of the world are poorly charted, and you need to know where they are before you discover the sea bottom where you don't expect it.

Even with poor charts, you can look to other cruisers for help. It was common in Fiji for cruisers to swap GPS tracks for reef passages, for example. Just make sure the person you get the tracks from draws at least as much water as you!

A Well-Found Vessel

Boat preparation is the most important key to keeping your boat working. Before you leave, you should know your boat. Come up with a list of spares for the most critical systems and get them. Learn how to troubleshoot and fix common problems as you find and fix them before you leave.

While you would never leave shore with a hull you knew was unreliable, it might surprise you how many hidden problems you may be overlooking. Take the time to prepare your boat in exacting detail and make sure that everything works properly. Your odds of a catastrophic failure drop with careful preparation.

If you see a problem, fix it immediately. Deferred maintenance on critical systems is dangerous.

Staying on the Boat

The easiest way to recover a Crew Overboard is to never let them get off the boat. This is an operational and behavioral issue for you and your crew. Your best chances of staying on the boat lie in good safety habits - getting into them and doing them every single time you go through the companionway.

Run jacklines for passages, use tethers any time you leave the cockpit, always wear flotation - all these aren't just rote recitals of safety recommendations. They'll keep you in the boat, and keep you alive longer if you go over, giving more time to rescue you. Set your sailing strategy to minimize leaving the cockpit in the dark, like reefing for the night before sunset if you expect building breezes.

Look at crew recovery gear, both to get crew on board and to help track and find someone in the water.

On our boat, we had a few key rules that we never broke when sailing offshore. These included:

  • Never leave the cockpit without a PFD. We wore them above decks at all times, because when things go wrong, they go fast. In a rush to fix a problem, it’s easy to forget to stop and put your PFD on before tackling the problem.
  • Never leave the cockpit at night without waking someone up to watch you.
  • One hand for you, one for the boat when working on deck, as much as possible. Hold on to things.
  • Use your tether.

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