Can a Novice Sail Around the World?

Can a Novice Sail Around the World? | Life of Sailing

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Elizabeth O'Malley

June 15, 2022

Been bitten by the sailing bug? Wondering whether it is possible for a novice sailor to circumnavigate the globe? The answer? Yes, in a variety of situations!

Most novice sailors assume they’re on their own when considering circumnavigation, but that’s not the case. Different circumnavigation options exist for novice sailors – aside from the 100% DIY version – and these scenarios are worth exploring. If you’re committed to doing it on your own, that’s possible - and sometimes practical too.

If you’re new to sailing, it’s likely you’ve already considered what it would be like to sail around the world. From organized circumnavigation rallies to I-have-never-set-foot-on-a-boat participation in a grueling round-the-word race to getting familiar with some superstars of novice circumnavigation, this article takes a high-level overview of several options for round-the-world sailing and introduces you to some notable novice circumnavigators.

Like many sailors, I’ve always been fascinated by the thought of a round-the-world-cruise. While I’m not a novice sailor – for the purposes of doing a circumnavigation, I don’t consider myself remotely sea-worthy. But my continued curiosity on the subject has prompted me to read multiple books on circumnavigation, watch a variety of documentaries about it, and follow sailboat circumnavigators (seasoned and novice) on social media for the past decade. I’m happy to share some of what I’ve learned and observed – primarily that, yes, it is possible for a novice to sail around the world.


Table of contents

The Allure of Circumnavigating as a Novice Sailor

Oh, the beaches, the friendly faces, the sunsets, and the taste of hot coffee on the morning watch as the sun’s rays tickle the eastern horizon. The visions of the places you’ll visit and the amazing adventures you’ll have. Dolphins frolicking alongside. Peace and solitude unlike anything you’ve experienced before. Delicious fresh fish dinners and a refreshing glass of your favorite beer, wine, or iced tea. See the world – for a few dollars a day.

These are the romantic images easily conjured when, after a few weeks, months or even years of puttering around the lake or bay on a sailboat, novice sailors start thinking of bigger and bolder underway excursions. “Let’s get a sailboat and sail around the world!” I’ve heard it before – from my own father – and, while I personally have not circumnavigated, I fully understand the allure.

The Reality of Circumnavigating as a Novice Sailor

Broken electronics. Howling, terrifying winds. Treacherous icebergs. Moldy bread, instant coffee, fruit-fly infested bananas, ramen noodles eight days straight. Shipping lanes. Pirates. I’m not saying that these less-than-pleasant incidents are specific to novice sailors, rather these are the realities that must be paralleled to the alluring images for any level of sailor. While the seasoned sailor may be savvier in avoiding fruit-fly infestations and navigating icebergs and shipping lanes, all sailors ultimately will contend with mis-functioning or broken electronics, extreme winds, and natural and manmade hazards at sea.

In the words of Sir Robin Know-Johnston, creator of the Clipper Race, “You will never conquer or master the ocean, but you can endure it. Mother Nature is an unforgiving mistress, always with one last trick up her sleeve for you when you least expect it.” This quote always makes me think of the last few minutes of any horror flick – when after endless scary scenes, the movie is seemingly over. Peaceful, calm, relief. “We made it! We’re going to be okay!” And then, from the depths of the lake or from behind the door, one more terrifying act happens, and the viewer’s adrenaline rushes again, until the final credits roll.

To me, that’s a good analogy to sailing: Mother Nature is the ultimate Freddy Krueger. As such, I have a healthy respect for everything that could go wrong and give those possibilities more square footage in my brain than I probably should.  That’s me though and you, well, you’re more determined -- and you want to stop pondering and begin planning to sail around the world, despite your lack of underway experience. Before you run out and buy your own boat or start provisioning the boat you have, there are a few other options to consider.

Chartering Captained Boats for Circumnavigation

Something that many people fail to consider is that sailing around the world does not have to be a start-to-finish, non-stop experience. Nor does sailing around the world have to be a solo experience or conducted with only a few friends or family members. In recent years, a spate of opportunities to sail around the world have emerged which allow a sailor – or someone who hopes to become a sailor – the chance to circumnavigate with a group of strangers.

Whether you locate a charter company with whom you can leapfrog the world from port to port on a variety of boats with a variety of captains to participating in something as unique and exciting as the Clipper Race (details below), there are a variety of ways to circumnavigate the globe without being on the same boat with the same people start to finish.

Participating in the Clipper Race as a Novice Sailor

The Clipper Race, in which people from all walks of life sign on to race 40,000 nautical miles on one of 11 identical 70’ ocean racing yachts, is now in its 12th year. Billing itself as “one of the biggest challenges of the natural world and an endurance test like no other,” this sailing adventure requires no prior sailing experience! Webinars are offered on a regular basis and cover what the Clipper Race seeks in their crew member applicants and provides details for the selection and training process. During these webinars, you’ll learn what to expect from the Clipper Race and have your questions answered during a live Q&A session.

Circumnavigation Rallies as an Option for Novice Sailors

Organizations like World ARC and the Oyster World Rally offer the opportunity to circumnavigate in your own boat with a group of like-minded cruisers. While there’s nothing that says you can’t jump in the deep end and start off with a full circumnavigation rally, novice sailors may want to consider doing smaller rallies like the North American Rally to the Caribbean, ARC Europe’s west-to-east Atlantic rally, or the Pacific Puddle Jump in conjunction with Latitude 38. Several circumnavigators that I’ve met over the years started as novices in the rally world going on a handful of lengthy rallies and quickly (in sail years) built up the competence and confidence to do their own self-administered circumnavigations. Engaging with an organizing group has numerous benefits for the novice sailor.

ARC World Rally

The rally team handles many of the details, including safety gear requirements, boat documents, communications, and itinerary. Depending on departure location, round-the-world rallies typically range from 15 to 24 months. World ARC’s minimum requirement for boat size is 27’.

Oyster World Rally

In 2013-2014, Oyster hosted their first circumnavigation rally. Covering 27,000 nautical miles and crossing three oceans in a 16-month timespan, the route covers mind-blowing destinations and takes world weather patterns into consideration for maximum safety and enjoyment. Oyster World Rally is specific to Oyster boats and, if you’re seriously considering buying a boat and doing a round-the-world sail, then Oyster certainly is a top-of-the-line option.

An excellent setup for novices – including the benefit of having an immediate network of peers and professionals – programs like this are often not on the radar of individuals who first think of sailing around the world. More and more boat brands are getting into the rally business – including circumnavigation options. When looking for this scenario, googling “circumnavigation rally” can be a great starting point.

Notable Novice Circumnavigators

When the question “Can a novice sail around the world?” is asked, the answer of course depends on what one’s definition of “novice” is. In my mind, at the mercy of Mother Nature, everyone who sets foot on a boat is a novice, but certainly that’s extreme thinking. The second -- less severe – thought that follows is my knowledge of two specific and somewhat unique “novice” circumnavigators – Laura Dekker and Ramon Carlin. Two very different people with very different backgrounds and very different circumnavigation tales.

Laura Dekker, the World’s Youngest Solo Circumnavigator

Some would argue that, having solo sailed since she was six-years old in an Opti accompanied by her father on a windsurfer, Laura was no novice sailor. But for me, the fact that at the age of 14 she began her two-year solo circumnavigation makes her a standout in the variety of round-the-world sailing sagas. Laura was born in New Zealand in 1995. At the age of 14, she announced her intention to become the world’s youngest solo circumnavigator, and a month before turning 15, she set sail on a 40’ two-masted ketch named Guppy. Approximately 500 days later, she concluded her successful round-the-world voyage. For sailors of any level of experience who have dreams of circumnavigation, you may want to watch Laura’s documentary, “Maidentrip” and read her book “One Girl, One Dream” that were released in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Ramon Carlin, Winner of the First Whitbread Round the World Race

Ramon Carlin, a Mexican of humble birth and lacking any formal education, became a highly successful businessman in the washing-machine industry. A true “weekend sailor,” he spied an ad for the first Whitbread Round the World Race while visiting his son at boarding school in Ireland.  Against logic and odds, he captained his 65’ Swan fiberglass sailboat, Sayula II, to victory over a seven-month period and across 27,000 nautical miles.  His story is a fascinating one and the documentary of his life and the sail of a lifetime, “The Weekend Sailor,” can be viewed on Prime Video.

The ins and outs – and there are many – of a novice sailing around the world in the 100% do-it-yourself capacity differ vastly from the experience and considerations of rally circumnavigation and likely vary from the scenarios of Laura Dekker and Ramon Carlin that we’ve shared here. Future articles here on Life of Sailing will explore firsthand recommendations for steering a global course on your own boat, with your own itinerary and route, and with your own planning, provisioning, and plotting.

The allure of circumnavigation is undeniable – and maybe more so for a novice than a seasoned sailor. In my twenties, the thought of circumnavigation and how I might accomplish it was a consuming thought of mine. While I haven’t ruled it out, after all the reading and documentary-watching I’ve done, the realities of what a circumnavigation actually entails has given me pause. An adventurous, risk-tolerant person most of my life, now at 55, age has given me greater wisdom, respect, and humility for thoughts of “conquering” or “mastering the sea.” But just as I continue to have a romantic notion of cowboys (Giddyup!) and pirates (Arrrr!!!), the thought of a sailing circumnavigation will likely live in my heart forever.

Can a Novice Sail Around the World?
Elizabeth O'Malley

Elizabeth O'Malley

Elizabeth has sailed Sunfish, Catalinas, Knarrs, and countless other boats. Forty years later, she finds herself back on the waters of Bogue Sound, where she lives and sails with her daughter, Morgan, and chocolate lab, Choco.

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