The literal definition of circumnavigation is a journey around the earth. According to John Vigor, a rule of thumb is that the route must encompass two points opposite each other on the surface of the globe. It is not literally possible to stick to the equator in a boat, and the northwest passage is only navigable by boats of extraordinary capabilities (they must be able to withstand extreme cold and perhaps being frozen in ice, as in ‘Fram’) so when one considers the ‘usual’ route for circumnavigators it is the southern route where the sailors must double the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa) and Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America). Both of these capes are fraught with danger, as the winds are always high and the seas are always rough as the southerly latitudes are reached. I’m sure you’ve heard the term the ‘Roaring Forties’ and perhaps even the ‘Screaming Sixties’ but that does not refer to the 1940s nor the 1960s (though they might be referred to in jest). No, those terms refer to numbers of latitude. The Equator is the horizontal line of zero degrees latitude and as one moves further north or south the numbers increase until ninety degrees at the poles. The terms ‘Roaring Forties’ and ‘Screaming Sixties’ refer to the unending sound of wind tearing through the rigging that sailors hear in those regions of the earth. Intrepid indeed are those who choose to face those winds and seas and braver still are those who do it alone.
The first recorded solo circumnavigation was by Joshua Slocum in his ‘Spray’.
Spray was a gaff-rigged oyster sloop Slocum found that was going to seed in a pasture. He rebuilt her and sailed her around the world, leaving in April of 1895 and returning more than three years later in June of 1898. He wrote about it in his book ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’, which is a classic of sea literature.
He was the first but nowhere near the last, followed by Harry Pidgeon and Sir Francis Chichester. But to me, the most incredible circumnavigation solo was by Bernard Moitessier.
In 1968 Moitessier was entered in the first organized non-stop solo race around the world, the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. He was the fastest, the best and the hot favorite to win as all the other sailors and their vessels but one (Robin Knox-Johnson) had either dropped out, sank or committed suicide. On the homeward leg Moitessier decided that the money, the publicity and inherent materialism of the race were not the reasons that he sailed and to continue to participate in it was contrary to the personal values he held dear. Therefore this vagabond sea creature decided when he was in the Atlantic on the homeward leg, victory within his grasp, to alter course and keep sailing. He sling-shotted a message onto the deck of a passing freighter for his London Times correspondent, saying: “parce que je suis heureux en mer et peut-être pour sauver mon ame” (“because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul”). He completed another two-thirds circumnavigation for a total of 37,455 nautical miles in 10 months and ended up in Tahiti. He wrote about it in his book ‘The Long Way.’
I have dreamed of sailing around the world, after reading the books of Slocum, Robin Graham, Moitessier, and more recently the youngest to sail around the world alone, a remarkable 14 year old girl (she finished when she was 16) named Laura Dekker. I have dreamed of it, but unfortunately a deadly combination of extreme mal de mer and claustrophobia have prevented me. A friend years ago took me with him on a passage to Bermuda and I found that after a few days at sea there is a mental shift, that the boat becomes not so much a mode of transport as it is a domicile. After those few days I could not sit still. In the middle of all the light and space in the world, those limiting few feet of deck and the simple need to take a walk drove me mad. So I am not a creature of the open ocean like the sea gypsy Moitessier, but I am glad that such people exist in the world to show us what is possible with a bit of knowledge, faith and sweat.