True Circumnavigation

A short history of sailing circumnavigation record taking

By Barry Pickthall

The first recorded circumnavigation was begun by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519, who led a 5-ship fleet from Seville, Spain with the aim of finding a maritime route westwards from Europe to the East Indies via the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, before returning across the Indian Ocean. Magellan was killed in the Philippines and replaced by Spanish navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano, who returned to Seville in 1522.

Ferdinand Magellan set out from Spain with a fleet of five ships to find a western route to the Spice Islands. | Image: Arindam Mukherjee | ThePrint []

Joshua Slocum is acknowledged as the first solo circumnavigator. Like Magellan, he also went west-about, setting out from Boston on 18th April 1895 aboard his 36ft 9in gaff rigged oyster boat Spray and returned there on 27th June 1898. It was an amazing voyage, but since he chose to cut through the Magellan Straits rather than round Cape Horn, his circumnavigation is excluded from modern records.

Joshua Slocum's solo circumnavigation cut through the Magellan Straits, rather than round Cape Horn. Credit:

Francis Chichester was the first to contemplate a solo one-stop circumnavigation in a small yacht in an attempt to beat the best Clipper ship times from a Century before. In planning this voyage in 1966, he was first to grapple with the meaning of a true circumnavigation. He wrote: "What fast small boat circumnavigations was I competing against? Vito Dumas, the Argentine, had circled the world in a year and ten days, and during his voyage he made the longest solo passage that had been made up until now, 7,400 miles. But his circle was round the bottom of the globe, and while this does not diminish the fine achievement of his voyage, it gave him a route of some 20,000 miles only; a circumnavigation where the vessel passed through two points on the earth's surface which are diametrically opposite each other would be more like 30,000 miles."

Vito Dumas' solo circumnavigation took in the 3 Great Capes but did not venture into the Northern Hemisphere. Credit: PPL [link]

Setting the rules for the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1968 to encourage the first solo non-stop sailing circumnavigation, the newspaper's editors played fast and loose with their wording of the rules in order to best fit their narrative. Initially, the start was to be from any UK port but this was changed to any port north of the 40°N latitude to encourage Frenchman Bernard Moitessier to take part from his home port of Toulon, though the finish remained as any port in the UK. As it happened, all 9 competitors started from UK ports, four of them from Plymouth, including Moitessier, but in the end there was only one finisher - Robin Knox-Johnston and his 32ft 6in ketch Suhaili who started and finished from Falmouth, setting a benchmark time of 312 days.

Before the two World Wars, record keeping was limited to the ships' log books archived in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and similar repositories in Australia and Canada. It was not until the late 1960s when sailors began venturing across oceans and around the Globe in ever greater numbers that Group Captain DH 'Nobby' Clark, a noted navigator and keen statistician, began to document these voyages. He was joined in this record keeping by the American Richard Boemers, and became advisor to the Guinness Book of Records which published their list of sailing superlatives each year.

For Clark, no detail was too small, and his list of solo circumnavigations included eldest and youngest, those with different categories of disability, and via Cape Horn or Panama Canal. Those who simply circumnavigated Antarctica or popped just north of the Equator to round St Peter & Paul Rocks in a sop to traditionalists who believed that any sailing circumnavigation had to encompass both Southern and Northern latitudes, were also included.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston brought greater gravitas to the issue with his listing of all known solo circumnavigations by insisting that Cape Horn be a course marker. His listings formed the basis for IACH's current register of solo circumnavigations.

It was not until 1983 that the WSSRC first established in 1972 to record the sailing speed records set over a 500m course at the Sailing Speed Sailing Week at Portland, expanded its remit to include trans-ocean and circumnavigation records, and established a set of rules, now recognised worldwide. The WSSRC focus is on first and fastest records, and takes no interest in actual sailing distance, age or disability, whereas the International Association of Cape Horners recognise all known circumnavigations via Cape Horn in its solo and multi-crew registers.

Following in the wake of the Whitbread Round the World Race, the 2023 Ocean Globe Race follows a true circumnavigation route via the 3 Great Capes and meets the minimum 21.600 n.m distance calculated on a perfect spere. In calculating this distance, it is to be assumed that the vessel will sail around Antarctica at a latitude of 63°S

The current circumnavigation record was set in 2017 by Frenchman Francis Joyon and crew aboard the trimaran IDEC III with a time of 40 days, 23 hours, 30 minutes and 30 seconds.