Volta do mar. The right way around the world. Or is it?
“Sailing East and West are a bit like chalk and cheese. They are opposites both figuratively and literally” says Round the World Queen Dee Caffari*.
Sailing around the world can be done in several ways. Cruising boats from Europe typically start their journey between November and January, heading towards the West Indies. Before the onset of the following hurricane season, they head towards the Panama Canal and the Pacific, stopping and going according to the seasons. Eventually, cruisers will sail north of Australia and towards the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal. The circumnavigation is, therefore, from East to West, anti-clockwise. The correct maritime term refers to a West-about (westward) circumnavigation.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Clippers dominated the seas before the advent of steamships. With no canals in Panama and Suez, boats leaving Europe had no choice but to head towards Cape Horn first to reach the far East. Many foundered in the treacherous seas of the Drake Passage. Those that reached Asia picked up precious cargoes of spices and tea before heading back to Europe via Cape of Good Hope. Most Clipper routes involved a West-about circumnavigation in very different conditions than the traditional cruising route.
By contrast, when it comes to offshore yacht races, most are East-about (eastward), going the other way around. From the North Atlantic, the route is to Cape of Good Hope, followed by Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn, before heading up the Atlantic again. The route takes advantage of following winds and a shorter distance sailing at higher latitudes in the Roaring Forties and Screaming Fifties.
The Global Solo Challenge follows the traditional East-about route, from A Coruña to A Coruña by the three Great Capes, the same followed by the Vendée Globe that starts a little further North in Les Sables D’Olonne.
So which is the right way to sail around the world? East-about or West-about?
It turns out that it is not as straightforward as some may think.
In a conversation with a few around the world sailors, we understood that what is best for some is not for others, like life. It all depends on your goals and what you want to get out. For those racing around the world, East-about is generally the right way. For the cruising crowd, West-about via the Panama (and Suez) canal is the popular way. Yet it has been done in both directions by both troops.
Jimmy Cornell**, who circumnavigated the world multiple times, explains that “it all depends on the latitudes where you are sailing. At tropical latitudes, sailing West-about is usually the easier way. This is thanks to prevailing winds blowing from East to West.” He adds that “sailing at high latitudes is almost exclusively the preserve of Ocean Races. Most of the round-the-world Races go West to East with boats negotiating weather systems, gales and icebergs to enjoy westerly winds.“
For most round-the-world voyages, the right way is East to West.
“The well known Coconut Milk Run across the Pacific Islands is East to West. Cruising boats choose this direction for the good reason that such a route at those latitudes benefits from mostly favourable trade winds conditions.” Explains Cornell. He then adds that “good planning is essential for cruisers too, to avoid the tropical seasons.“
Whitbread/Volvo/Ocean Race, Clipper, Vendée Globe, BOC Round the World, Global Challenge Round the World Yacht Race are some of the most well-known round-the-globe races. Most of them are East-about. However, Sir Chay Blyth’s Global Challenge famously took its steel boats and amateur crews through the Southern Ocean West-about.
Dee, together with Conrad Humphreys***, is one of the few Global Challenge skippers who sailed the Southern Oceans in both directions “Sailing West-about is a battle. Everything is trying to work against you. When you realise that if you stop and do nothing you will backtrack, it makes you appreciate that there is no rest,” confides Dee, “It can be demoralising. Sailing in the wrong direction, you have to tack through weather systems. You do adjust to the environment. This soon becomes the norm. It is routine to be crashing into, through and over waves and living life at an angle.“
After skippering the fully crewed Global Challenge RTW Race and sailing round one more time, in the same direction and single-handed, she took part in the Vendee Globe: “Sailing East-about is about confidence. Everything is in your favour and you need to hang on for the ride. The boat accelerates down waves, pushed along by strong winds. The uncomfortable feeling is managing to live whilst sailing so fast. Trust in the systems that you have to manage the boat takes priority. Being comfortable at speed is crucial, with fast accelerations and sometimes equally steep decelerations. It is exhilarating.“
Dee explains that both directions require getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. However, the levels are different. Westward lasts for much longer and digs away at you, trying to beat you down. Resilience to stick at it is paramount. Sailing Eastward passes quickly. Yet, with the weather rolling from behind, you need to be efficient at fixing any issues.
“They both take their toll on you physically.“
In deep thought, Dee shares her experience further “Tacking a boat feels safer and easier despite it still requiring some effort (going Westward). Gybing (going Eastward) can be more involved. It can require a reef to be taken first before the manoeuvre to make it easier and more manageable and therefore takes time and effort. Once through the gybe, you will need to shake it out again. Many choose to chicken gybe (tack instead) but I think you have to do what you have practised“. For Caffari, that was gybing.
Now that Dee has sailed with the winds and currents and enjoyed going fast and getting the best performance out of her boat, she cannot imagine going the wrong way again. Yet, she stresses that she did enjoy her West-about circumnavigation both times: “It is tough and relentless and there is a reason not many go that way – maybe that is its attraction. Sailing is sailing no matter what direction!“
Conrad Humphreys started by crewing the then Whitbread before winning the GC. He then went to race the VG. Contrary to most beliefs, he feels it is safer to go against the prevailing winds and currents. “As much as it’s uncomfortable, bashing upwind is safer unless the crew is very experienced. When sailing downwind, you need good skills onboard to drive the boat and keep it safe. And obviously, at the high speeds the boats go with the wind, the chances of injuring a crew or damaging the boat are much higher.“
Conrad adds that the experience of having done both directions is rewarding in equal measure, “I loved leading a team around the world the wrong way. However, I cannot honestly say that I loved going upwind all that distance! But, tactically, it makes for an interesting race. It keeps the fleet very close together. You need to focus on boat speed rather than making a big tactical break.“
With regards to sailing the correct way round the world, the experience of the Whitbread and the Vendée Globe gave Humphreys a different Southern Ocean experience: “I loved surfing at high-speed day after day after day. That is my best memory of the Whitbread.” He enjoyed a week or two at a time of consecutive days of surfing with the wind down the waves.
“That feeling of raw energy and power was amazing.“
As for going East-about single-handed, the experience is similar yet not quite the same. “You cannot push quite as hard when you are on your own. Yet you still have the same experience of riding waves endlessly. It’s just magical.” Some of us can only imagine….
Conrad shared his knowledge on the role of the weather in each direction. “There are huge differences when it comes to it“, he said. “The secret to sailing in the Southern Oceans with the prevailing winds is to stay in front of weather systems as long as you can.” He added that sailors must try to stay in that stable Northwesterly air pressure before the front goes through and gets all messy, bumpy and difficult to sail fast: And that’s all it is about!“
The round-the-world sailor concludes that “when sailing upwind (racing) around the globe you take all the weather systems very quickly. You go into a system and it passes very quickly. You may have to face six, seven or even eight weather systems on a long leg. Some can be very squally and difficult. Sailing eastward you might only face two or three weather systems if you can keep ahead of them“.
Most sailors seem to agree that the choice of West-about or East-about is closely associated with the type of sailing you plan to do. Experienced ocean sailor and racer Nick Bubb is now sailing around the world with his wife and two young boys. The family follows the classic blue-water cruising route at tropical latitudes, in a very different fashion to Nick’s previous voyages as part of a crew that raced successfully non-stop from Qatar to Qatar during the Volvo Ocean Race.
When we asked Bubb whether he prefers to sail West or East, he smiled and, from his sunshine-bathed family catamaran moored in beautiful blue waters, replied: “The right or the wrong way very much depends on your perspective!“
*Dee Caffari has sailed around the world six times. In 2006, Dee became the first woman to sail solo, non-stop, around the world against the prevailing winds and currents and was awarded an MBE in recognition of her achievement. She is also the first woman to have sailed single-handed and non-stop in both directions.
**Jimmy Cornell is a Romanian-born British yachtsman, bestselling author of World Cruising Routes, among other books and the founder of the World Cruising Club. In 1975 Cornell left the coast of England for a voyage around the world, with his wife Gwenda and their two children (Doina, age 7, and Ivan, age 5). It lasted six years, taking them to 70 countries and 68,000 miles at sea.
***Conrad Humphreys has a wide range of experiences with over 25 years working with partners across several marine projects. Conrad has raced around the world three times. He joined a team for the Whitbread (Volvo Ocean Race) in 1993/4 before being recruited as skipper for the BT Global Challenge where he led his team to victory and became the youngest skipper to win the Princess Royal Trophy. Conrad then secured a major partnership with the global communications company Motorola and skippered an offshore sailing campaign to become the fifth Bri