With careful planning there are still some great bluewater cruising options. Janneke Kuysters and Wietze van der Laan investigate future-proof itineraries to sail the world
In stressful times it’s tempting to cast off the bowlines and head for the horizon to sail the world. But the reality is that cruising in a post-pandemic world is complicated. The sailing community has been on a steep learning curve over the past 18 months. Cruisers are dealing with the new reality of sailing in a world where you have to be creative and adapt to constantly changing limitations.
The list of ‘lessons learned’ is interesting. The most important one is: have access to information. With borders opening and closing at short notice worldwide, rules and paperwork requirements ever-changing, it’s imperative that you stay connected.
Another important factor to think about is your impact on the destinations and communities that you cruise to. Many distribution systems have been disrupted, even for food. You may find yourself competing with locals for food and health care. Especially in poorer countries where vaccination levels are still low, the pressure is high on any kind of health provision.
Another consideration, especially if you are planning to cruise part-time, is where you can leave your boat safely for any length of time. Are flights home still available and is there a chance that you can come back to your boat?
Entry and exit procedures have become more complicated with time constraints on pre-departure tests and quarantine requirements. So choosing a cruising route that will force you to cross many borders will imply a lot of additional paperwork.
To find cruising itineraries that will enable sailors to enjoy a wide range of experiences while keeping paperwork and health risks manageable involves going off the beaten track slightly.
One solution is to sail to larger countries where you can cruise to your heart’s content without having to cross borders. Another consideration is to go to wealthier nations where vaccination levels are high and there is less competition for food and healthcare.
Last but not least, it pays to consider cruising to a country or countries with good facilities for yachts so you can leave yours and fly home. If things go wrong and you get separated from your yacht for a long time, it helps to know that it’s in a safe place.
Atlantic with a twist
If you plan to go cruising for a year, the north Atlantic offers some interesting options to consider: we’ve designated them the Mini Atlantic Circuit, the Bermuda Square and Palms and Polar
The Mini Atlantic Circuit
This is an interesting option for those wanting to go cruising but who are not quite sure if this is the right time. This itinerary is perfectly doable in three months, but can be extended up to half a year if the Cape Verde Islands are included. It’s even possible to leave the boat in the Canary Islands, for instance, and fly in and out as necessary.
The route includes many very interesting destinations and cruising areas. The Spanish Rias, for example, or the historic towns of Porto and Lisbon. Madeira and the Canary Islands are ideal for making short trips from anchorages to harbours and back, while the Azores offer a completely different cruising ground alltogether. If you include the Cape Verde Islands, it brings a truly African experience to an already full list. Apart from the Cape Verde Islands, all destinations are within the Schengen Zone, and so create some time constraints for UK/US/non-EU residents.
Total miles: 3,300 (without Cape Verde)
Best season: Summer months if it is done as a three month trip; if there is more time available then the only consideration is to avoid sailing in the Bay of Biscay in the winter months.
The Bermuda Square
This route looks like the traditional Atlantic Circuit at first sight, but is actually totally different. Opting to avoid most of the Caribbean offers the chance to experience a cruising ground that is relatively unknown: the east coast of the US. It also creates the opportunity to do two ocean crossings and build up sea-time and experience.
After leaving the Canary or Cape Verde Islands, this track leads to the Bahamas with their myriad of cruising options. Our personal favourite are the Exumas, where scarcely populated islands offer fantastic opportunities to anchor in remote bays without seeing anybody for days.
Going north towards Bermuda there are two options. The first one is to get on the magic carpet of the Gulf Stream and fly north, stopping at a few destinations on the way. The other one, suitable for boats with a draught of less than 6ft and air-draught of 62ft, is to cruise the Intracoastal Waterway.
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The ICW was built in the 1800s and the developers of the waterway incorporated naturally occurring rivers, inlets, sounds, and bays and connecting them with man made channels. Along the east coast of the US it makes for magical cruising along the well known historic sites. From New York this itinerary leads to Bermuda, where the azure lagoon waits. Then on to the Azores.
Total miles: 9,500
Best season: This circuit can be done in one year; leaving the UK in the summer and returning again in the warm season. A year can be added by cruising north to Maine, returning south to Florida for the winter and heading back to the UK the next summer.
Palms and Polar
This is a good choice for cruisers who love making miles and travelling to remote destinations. The first half is similar to the Bermuda Square, but extends north from New York. If possible, a visit to Canada (Newfoundland) can be included in this itinerary.
When ice conditions allow, there is a lot of exploring to do in Greenland. Dutch cruisers Manon Swart and Stef Vermeij sailed their Ovni 43 Long John Silver from the Caribbean to Greenland and loved this unusual track:
“We planned to sail around the world, but found ourselves caught in lockdowns in the Caribbean. So we decided to head back to the Netherlands via the northern route. What a splendid cruising ground!”
Although the distances look very large on the map, they are in fact not that big: it’s the Mercator projection that plays tricks with our perception.
Total miles: 9,500
Best season: This itinerary can be done in a little over a year; leaving the UK in summer and sailing across to the Bahamas in December. Then it’s a leisurely cruise up the east coast of the US and Canada, because August is the best month for exploring Greenland.
Exploring the north Pacific
The north Pacific offers great destinations and challenging sailing to intrepid cruisers. Possibilities include the old Clipper Route and an interesting Japan/Aleutians Loop
The Old Clipper Route
This traditional route makes good use of the prevailing winds in the north Pacific. After leaving from Panama, and potentially making some stops in Central America and Mexico, the crew has time to settle into a long crossing to Hawaii.
Hawaii is not a conventional cruising destination given the lack of non-rolly anchorages, but there are good marinas available to base yourself for exploring ashore. Our personal favourite is the municipal marina in Honolulu, right next to Waikiki beach. The Hawaii Yacht Club is a haven of hospitality.
Sailing from Hawaii to Alaska it’s best to sail due north for the first 500 miles to avoid the large high pressure area and to pick up the favourable south-westerly winds.
There’s a choice of two tracks: straight to mainland Alaska, aiming for Sitka, or via western Alaska and aiming for Kodiak.
The difficulty in making the choice lies in the fact that the summer season is relatively short in Alaska and the amount of amazing cruising destinations is mind-blowing. It is very had to pick and choose.
Total miles: 11,500
Best season: The long voyage to Hawaii is best made in March or April, leaving enough time to explore the Hawaiian islands. The passage to Alaska needs to be made in June to allow for the best summer months in the Inside Passage. Travelling back south can be done from September onwards to California and from November onwards back to Panama. The total itinerary can be sailed in even less than a year, but involves a lot of sailing.
The Japan/Aleutians loop
This starts with the Clipper Route, but continues westward. It requires careful planning because the gap between two seasons is narrow and needs to be used exactly right. But the rewards are plentiful: Japan offers sensational cruising and of course very interesting historic sites to visit on land.
“For us, our visit to Japan was one of the highlights of our circumnavigation,” Dutch cruiser Ada Kerkstra says. She and her partner Akko Kalma sailed their 40ft Robert Clark design classic yacht White Haze around Japan for five months.
Then the challenging crossing to the rough and scarcely populated chain of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands gives the opportunity to visit some truly ‘off the beaten track’ destinations.
From Kodiak there are lots of different options to cruise Alaskan and Canadian waters, either offshore or via the magnificent Inside Passage.
“You can spend a lifetime cruising here and not see the same anchorage twice” says American cruiser Fran Hartman. She and her husband, Jim, sailed their Tartan 48 Cape St. James into Sitka at the end of a circumnavigation and never left the region. From Alaska, the loop can continue south.
Total miles: 16,500
Best season: Sailing from Hawaii for Japan must be done before the tropical storms start in May. The best sailing to Alaska is done in June or July, which would limit your time in Japan. So you can spend a season in Japan, leave the boat there and sail across the next year or sail to Alaska a little later to overwinter the boat before continuing next summer.
Best of both worlds
What if you want to combine both the north Atlantic and north Pacific? It’s possible; the unusual itinerary starts in the Caribbean and follows the Gulf Stream north to New York. From there, you travel over the Erie Canal with the mast on deck or you can continue north and sail to the Great Lakes via the St Lawrence Seaway.
“For us the Great Lakes are one of the best cruising areas we’ve been. Thousands of islands, great sailing with wind from all directions. And fresh water, which is a nice change. It is cold, but we loved it,” Turkish cruiser Banu Oney says.
Her New Zealand partner Peter Saggers adds: “Our cruise of the Great Lakes ended in Duluth, Minnesota, where our Beneteau Oceanis 46 Denize II was lifted on a truck and relaunched in Seattle, Washington.” Once in north-west US, there are multiple options for cruising in the Inside Passage and spending several seasons in this beautiful area.
Another option, which involves more motoring, is to sail on the Great Lakes to Chicago. The mast needs to come down to be able to sail down the Mississippi river to Mobile, Alabama. This is part of America’s Great Loop, a very popular route.
From Mobile the options in the Caribbean can be explored.
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