Below is a map showing the our westward route around the world via the two canals, Panama and then Suez. This is a fairly standard tradewind, tropical circumnavigation and it took us three years until our inbound path crossed our outbound path in the Turks and Caicos Islands, just south of the Bahamas.
Our passages were timed with the optimum seasons, to statistically reduce the chance of encountering bad weather - the most important first step in planning ocean crossings. We always shake our heads when we read of people surviving hurricanes during the season. We enjoy their stories, but spare giving them our sympathy. What were they doing there in the first place?
Of course in certain areas of the world there is no perfect season. To cross the Tasman Sea you travel either in spring or fall, between the winter storms and summer hurricanes. During our fall passage we faced an early winter storm and then a late tropical depression on the same two week passage. You choose the weather to leave in, and then hope for the best.
We learned about all this in the superb cruising bible, World Cruising Routes , by Jimmy Cornell. Get this book and a large map well in advance, and start plotting and dreaming. That's what we did. We also used his World Cruising Handbook to tell us what to expect once we arrived in each country. Get the latest edition of this book just before departure, as the information is always changing. (See what other guides to take.)
We joked with friends that if we stayed in one place an extra week or two, then we'd have to wait another year. In a sense this is true, if you don't want to be pushing the edges of the seasons and risk bad weather, or a slow passage. Every passage is contingent on the one before it. Thus, based on a few options, our circumnavigation was fixed at three years (excluding time getting to and from our starting point).
It is very easy to add more years to the trip by lingering in certain areas, typically wintering in the Mediterranean, or spending another season in the South Pacific (and hiding from hurricanes in either New Zealand or Australia during the summers). The quickest you can comfortably circumnavigate is about 18 months, but this is very quick, without much time for the inevitable boat repairs. We decided to spend a summer in New Zealand since Alec has relatives there. This gave us a five-month hiatus to explore New Zealand and a chance for six weeks in the boat yard to fix everything that broke or obtain what was now needed after the first year crossing the South Pacific. We also decided to go through the Med, instead of around South Africa. At the time, South Africa was trying to dismantle apartheid, whereas the Red Sea was in a remarkable period of peace. Politics play an important part in this decision and now, more boats are opting for South Africa. These two decisions, when combined with the seasons, made ours a three-year circumnavigation.
The other major detour we made was to sail from Australia through Southeast Asia to Thailand, rather than sailing straight to Sri Lanka or directly across the Indian Ocean and missing Southeast Asia entirely. When we were there this area had just opened up to cruising boats and was stable. We then made an even greater deviation by sailing around northeast Borneo and through the pirate-infested waters of the Sulu Sea, but the reasons for that are all explained in Alayne's book, Sailing Promise.
We are often asked about the charts we took. Our philosophy was to buy small scale charts and use guidebooks for the region we were in. Guidebooks typically give you detailed anchorage sketches plus a bit about local customs and things to see. We often supplemented this information with Lonely Planet Guides, especially when sailing guides were non-existent (such as Red Sea and SE Asia - although there now are guides for these areas) or were incomplete due to the wealth of shore-side attractions (such the Mediterranean). Guidebooks save you from buying expensive harbor charts of which (1) you only use for 5 minutes entering the harbor, (2) you must buy extra, in case weather forces you there, (3) you may never use if plans change and, (4) you are not interested in going to anyway (not typically used by small boats).
Guidebooks provide little sketch diagrams that I found sufficient for navigating, but you may be different. Also we drew less than three feet, so tides and/or a slight error (by us or in the chart) would not affect us. We actually bought a bundle of photocopied harbor charts from a guy. They covered the world via South Africa and we used them in the South Pacific. Once in the cruising scene you will be able to photocopy any chart you need. I would recommend buying official charts for the oceans.
Gentleman's Guide to Passages South by Bruce Van Sant
Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas by Meredith Feilds
Guide to the Windward Islands and
Guide to the Leeward Islands
Guide to Trinidad and Tobago by Chris Doyle
Turks and Caicos Guide by Stephen J. Pavlidis
Charts of Polynesia by Charles Wood
magic miles of the Great Barrier Reef : the Whitsunday Islands by David
Australia's coastline by Jeff Toghill
Planet South Pacific
Planet Indonesia and Lonely
Planet Indonesian Phrasebook
Planet Mediterranean Europe
There are still many places in the world where you can escape from the beaten path. We hope our journey helps to get you planning, or keeps you dreaming!