Sailing Adventures – Circumnavigating the World in the 21st Century

Sailing Adventures – Round the world sailing is nothing new to the world’s adventurers. In fact, it was way back in the 15th century when Magellan and his crew completed the journey via the Capes.

Sailing ships have since ventured to all parts of the globe, commanded by sea captains flying the flag of their respective countries.

They sailed in search of wealth, find new lands for settlement and, at the same time, spread the word of Christianity.

It wasn’t until many centuries later that the first solo circumnavigator took to the helm. The American Joshua Slocum, in his 12 metre engineless yacht “Spray”, achieved this feat in the 1880’s.

A book followed documenting his adventures including how he warded off pirates in the Straits of Magellan by placing copper tacks upside down on his deck.

Chartless and engineless he tacked through the Straits for days before being swept around Cape Horn backwards by a great storm and forced to transit the strait again in Magellan’s footsteps.

Today, it almost seems that everyone either has or wants to sail around the world. Girls in their teens such as Australian Jessica Watson in her 34 foot yacht “Pink Lady” go out to try and break a record.

She had spent much of her life living aboard her parents’ yacht before succeeding in circling the tempestuous Southern Ocean.

In reality, the ports, harbours and anchorages are brimming with yachts of all shapes and sizes as they and their crews slowly make their way around the world.

This fraternity has changed dramatically over the last twenty five years. Small yachts, barely larger than 10 metres, plied the trade wind routes in the 1970’s and 1980’s, unknown to the world, but happy on a small budget to achieve a dream.

There were no fancy electronics on board and navigation with a sextant and the sun and stars was the norm.

There were few lavish marinas to leave a yacht for inland sojourns and many of the yachts people who were in their late twenties or early thirties had no pressing family commitments to detract them from their challenge.

A postcard or a quick telephone call from a port was enough to console parents and friends that all was well.
Circumnavigating in the 21st Century is completely different. Novels, magazine articles and TV presentations about world sailing adventures have attracted a huge following.

Every year couples in their 50’s and 60’s swallow their savings into buying yachts with all home comforts and with the intention of turning it into a long term lifestyle and not simply a challenge.

A great impetus for this has been the proliferation of rallies that have been staged to cover part of the route.

The annual ARC rally is composed of up to 200 yachts that depart the Canaries in November each year to cross the sometimes boisterous North Atlantic.

Every conceivable comfort is piled onto the yachts. Electronic navigation aids such as GPS chart plotters, radar, AIS transponders, state of the art EPIRBS, electronic autopilots, desalinators and satellite telephones make navigation and communication somewhat less challenging than in Slocum’s era.

All this enables minute by minute weather information; second by second telephone contact with family and a watchful eye by the organizers as the yachts make the 18 day trip.

For some this is the start of their circumnavigation and for others simply a trip to the Caribbean and back.
The Blue Water Rally is another organized event that keeps a group of yachts together for two years as they do the run.

This sort of rally is more for those taking a short career break whereas most circumnavigators have a five to ten year lifestyle plan and join rallies for shorter legs like the well renowned Sail Indonesia rally which, with a hundred yachts in tow, over three months, visits ports and villages in the Indonesian Archipelago engaging in social events along the way, culminating in Singapore.

Marinas in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, The Caribbean and The Mediterranean as well as South American countries provide refuge for yachts and their crews in storm and cyclone seasons.

This is the time when the intrepid grandparents go back to their home countries to visit their families, deal with financial and health matters while leaving their lifestyle homes under watchful eyes in these refuges.

For those that remain with their boats social events are set up often mimicking events back home such as quiz nights, Pilates, darts tournaments and, for the more physical, hiking trips into inland areas.

Fitness centres and swimming pools are often on hand as well.
Sailing around the world has become a lifestyle choice rather than an adventure. You can choose your own yacht, your own itinerary, even your own beach!

As a retirement option, it will never match Magellan or Slocum’s experiences and it’s hard to find new lands to settle in, but as one old timer, on his third trip from New Zealand up to Tonga once said “It sure beats the rocking chair.”

Panama’s Prisoner Island

Have you ever dreamt of lounging on the beach of a tropical island for an afternoon? No noisy crowds, no phones and no hassles. Something to eat and a nice nap in the warm sun would make a wonderful interlude for any day dreamer.

Sailing north bound from Panama Bay, our Alden schooner approached a small picture-postcard tropical island off the starboard bow which beckoned us to stop there for lunch and maybe to explore a bit.

The little island, looking lonely all by itself, showed us alluring beaches, palm trees and multitudes of greenery.

We dropped anchor in a small cove with a white sandy beach and a backdrop of thick jungle flora.

There were six of us aboard the sail boat and all but one jumped in the inflatable dingy for an enthusiastic row to shore.

We carried with us all the makings of a gourmet lunch and enough wine to assure a glass or two for all.

Landing the dingy and making sure we beached it far enough to avoid the impending high tide, we turned to face about 40 yards of dry sand and a group of red crabs about the size of a compact disc. They were lined up together near the jungle.

We had a laugh at their self arranged formation making them look like some kind of crab drill team. About 4 dozen of them, 2 to 3 deep, arranged in a wide group, but absolutely determined to remain parallel to the beach.

As they were approached from any direction, they would move away together, always in formation and always parallel to the water. It was fun to watch as they moved as one unit, curious behavior we thought for a bunch of crabs.

A little exploring took us a few steps into the jungle which was like stepping into a giant oven. Protected from the sea breeze, the plants, trees and vines apparently trapped very humid air causing highly uncomfortable temperatures and the feeling that you had just entered a steam bath.

After some tentative wandering about, we happily retreated to the beach, unpacking our midday snack with grand plans to relax in the warm sun and light breeze.

As soon as we had unpacked the sandwiches and other goodies for lunch, one of the crew spotted three people approaching near the waters edge.

They were still some distance away, but our binoculars found a man walking briskly up the beach towards us with 2 others following close behind.

The leader was dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and a gun belt with pistols on each hip.

A tasty lunch on this seemingly tranquil beach was now immediately put on hold.

A Spanish speaking crew member and another brave soul walked toward our impending visitors to intercept them before they reached the rest of our group.

After a lengthy chat in Spanish and Spanglish we learned that we had landed on Panama’s prisoner island where 3000 hardened criminals were kept. Some were allowed to roam about without much supervision.

The pistol packing beach comber was actually one of the armed guards who strongly suggested we return to our sail boat and put to sea as quickly as possible.

He could only offer us protection if we left immediately and promised never to return. As the crabs watched (still in formation of course) we made a very quick retreat in the inflatable, rowing with adrenalin-induced determination back to the boat.

Hauling anchor, we set sail and made way as fast as we could. Lunch on board seemed a wonderful idea at this point and we were pleased to watch the island slowly disappear as we now headed toward our next landfall, Acapulco.

The visit to Isla Coiba took place 12 years ago. Since that time the Panamanian government has made some big changes, releasing the island to tourism.

While once home to Panama’s most dangerous criminals for many years, in 2004 the island was transformed into Coiba National Park. Now the beauty and tranquility of this unique tropical destination can be enjoyed in safety.

It would be fun to now return to the beaches of Isla Coiba and finish the peaceful lunch we had attempted some years ago.


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