An editor I worked for back the road espoused the notion that anyone who buys a boat harbors a latent desire to leave life behind and sail around the world. While that dream may not be top of mind when we load up the center console for a day of fishing or set off in a sailing dinghy with the kids for a few hours on the bay, I do believe there’s some merit to his point of view.
The circumnavigation fantasy bit me, as it does many people, in my 20s after I read Joshua Slocum’s classic “Sailing Alone Around the World.” The boat in which he accomplished that feat from 1895 to 1898 was a 36-foot, 9-inch sloop called Spray. I imagined what it must have been like, confined to such a small boat with no electronics, working around all the chaos the ocean serves up.
In the days before yachts, downwind-friendly ships circumnavigated by way of the angry Southern Ocean largely out of necessity: to chase cargo, kill whales, expand empires and establish trade. The ability to sail upwind, the advent of steam and the completion of the Suez and Panama canals changed the game.
Today, circumnavigations are largely undertaken by choice, by cruisers, racers and romantics on yachts seeking adventure. I’ve met some of each and I envy them all. I love living the circumnavigation fantasy through their experiences.
While editing another magazine, I enlisted an acquaintance, David Hughes, to chronicle a circumnavigation that he and his wife, Linda, did aboard their Oyster sailing yacht. Given that there was no professional photographer or writer aboard, my expectations were low. But as his beguiling slides and dispatches arrived during the next couple of years, I became enthralled—and exceedingly envious. His enthusiasm for adventure and discovery overcame whatever journalistic shortcomings he may have had. He became a great friend whom I always admired.
Early May brings the Volvo Ocean Race fleet to Newport, Rhode Island, for one stop on an eight-month, 11-leg, all-out thrash around the world. Those sailors have different motivations than David and Linda, but I admire their determination and focus, risking life and limb sailing hard through the worst ocean weather on the planet. Granted, most are pros, but what a wild adventure that must be. In place of the wonderful prose of Slocum and David Hughes, we benefit from satellite video and reporting that put us on board in real time as the fleet takes on the merciless winds and seas of the Southern Ocean.
Whether it’s Slocum alone in his little wooden boat, cruising sailors knocking off a bucket list item, hypercompetitive racers getting to waypoints as fast as their boats will take them, or octogenarians living (or reliving) the dream, there are as many ways around the world as there are boats and wills to do it.
My thanks to them all for bringing us along for a vicarious thrill. Maybe I’ll wax up my solo canoe and plot a course—if only in my dreams.