Jimmy Cornell, doyen of world cruising, finds there have been some big shifts in global cruising patterns. Now could be the best time to go, he says. But where?
I have been tracking the global movement of cruising boats since 1987, when I published the results of my first survey on this subject. In the intervening 35 years I’ve conducted follow-up surveys every five years. Since the last in 2016, the world has experienced two major phenomena that have seriously affected offshore cruising: the Covid pandemic; and the climate crisis, the effects of which are already felt – and its consequences are expected to get worse.
The pandemic had an immediate impact on the international cruising community and caused havoc among sailors on a long voyage. As many popular destinations closed their borders, those who were caught out had to either postpone their plans, or leave their boats unattended and return home. The prolonged interruption resulted in some abandoning their voyage.
As a result, international cruising traffic came to a standstill. Since then, statistics from cruising hubs such as Panama, Bermuda, Las Palmas, Tahiti and Noumea show that whereas some places fared better, others saw an unprecedented reduction in the number of visiting boats.
Big fall in numbers
In 2021, Las Palmas in the Canary Islands recorded its highest ever influx of 1,256 visiting boats. As the starting point for the annual ARC transatlantic rally, as well as an important transit hub, it proved its lasting popularity thanks to the tolerant attitude of local authorities faced with such an unexpected crisis. A similar situation was experienced in the Azores, the favourite landfall at the end of a transatlantic from the Caribbean. Horta Marina recorded 1,102 arrivals compared to 465 in 2020 and 1,132 in 2019.
But the figures obtained from these Atlantic hubs aren’t reflected by the statistics from other parts of the world. A most drastic fall occurred in countries where Covid restrictions continued into 2021, such as Tonga, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Australia, which recorded no arrivals, while in Tahiti, South Africa and the Panama Canal numbers were considerably lower than in previous years (Panama Canal transits went down to 806 in 2021 from 1,122 in 2020).
During 2022, most countries began to lift temporary restrictions. As the situation was slowly returning to normal, I contacted officials in all locations featured in my previous survey requesting statistical data on the number of foreign flagged yachts that had passed through in 2022.
The port of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands boasts a larger concentration of boats preparing for an ocean passage than any other place in the world, with the majority setting off from there across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.
Approximately 75% of the boats that called at Las Palmas were bound for the Caribbean, either directly or via the Cape Verdes. An increasingly popular intermediate point for a transatlantic passage is Mindelo Marina, on São Vicente Island, which recorded a total of 1,120 arrivals in 2022, the highest ever number of visiting yachts.
Located in the north-east trade wind belt, this is now considered to be a better starting point for an Atlantic passage to the Caribbean than the direct route from the Canaries, as the chance of consistent favourable winds is higher, and the distance shorter.
Most of the European boats that sail to the Caribbean usually cross the Atlantic after the middle of November or early December, and complete their Atlantic circuit by sailing to the Azores the following April or May. Horta, on the island of Faial, continues to be the preferred landfall at the end of an eastbound transatlantic passage. The data from here confirmed that the majority of boats on passage from the Caribbean to Europe now sail directly to the Azores, rather than via a detour to Bermuda.
While Horta has overtaken Bermuda in overall number of visiting yachts, Bermuda continues to be an important transit point for North American boats sailing between the mainland and the Caribbean or Europe, as well as for boats returning from the Caribbean to the US or Canada. A steady decline since 2000 is mainly due to the large number of American boats that bypass Bermuda and sail directly to the Eastern Caribbean. The situation is reversed in May, when more boats returning to the US mainland call at Bermuda.
Caribbean: only for a season?
Over half the boats that arrive in the Caribbean from either Europe or America used to spend at least one full season there, but many now limit themselves to a one year circuit.
Those who decide to stay longer in the Caribbean usually have their boats stored on land in a secure place during the hurricane season. Trinidad has several boatyards for this purpose, and 478 boats spent the summer there in 2022, a significant reduction from 2,664 in 2000 and 1,367 in 2010. According to Donald Stollmeyer, former president of the Yacht Services Association of Trinidad and Tobago: “The explanation is the gradual decline in the number of sailors who are prepared to keep their boats in the tropics during the hurricane season.”
An even more significant reason is the fact that many insurance companies are no longer prepared to provide cover to those who plan to spend the critical season in the tropics.
The total number of boats that spend the winter season cruising in the Caribbean has remained relatively stable in recent years. However, one country which was expected to see an increase is Cuba, and its eight marinas recorded in 2022 a total of 284 foreign flagged yachts.
The south Atlantic
From Puerto Williams and Ushuaia most cruising yachts heading for the South Atlantic call at Port Stanley in the Falklands, which saw 12 yachts in 2022, compared to 29 in 2015. From there, the routes diverge and either follow the contour of the South American mainland, or continue nonstop to St Helena or Cape Town.
Both of these have seen an increase in the number of visiting yachts, initially as a result of the risk of piracy in the North Indian Ocean, and more recently by the safety concerns caused by the political uncertainty in some of the countries bordering the Red Sea.
As a result, the majority of yachts on a world voyage are sailing the Cape of Good Hope route. With the exception of a few boats that sailed directly from Cape Town to Argentina or Brazil, most boats headed north and stopped at St Helena.
Routes across the Pacific
The Panama Canal is the most valuable indicator of yacht movement both between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and on a global level. The latest figures show that the steady increase in the number of transits by pleasure craft seems to have peaked in 2010 when 1,177 yachts transited the Panama Canal compared to 919 in 2022, of which 725 were Pacific-bound and 354 Atlantic-bound.
What has remained unchanged are the Pacific destinations after the transit, with one third of the boats turning north, towards the west coast of Central and North America, and the rest heading for the South Pacific.
The Galapagos Islands used to be a favourite stopover en route to French Polynesia, but the restrictions imposed on visiting yachts, and complex formalities, and the expenses associated with them, now deter most sailors from stopping there.
The ‘Coconut Milk Run’
Sailing west across the Pacific from Tahiti, there are several detours that can be made from the main trunk route, such as to Suwarrow, an uninhabited atoll in the Northern Cook Islands. A caretaker is based there during the peak arrivals time.
Another popular place, also in the Cook Islands, is Palmerston Atoll, which was visited by only three boats in 2022, with none the previous year because of the Covid restrictions. Neighbouring Tonga was closed to visitors during the pandemic and only lifted restrictions in early 2022. The northern island group of Vava’u, a long time-favourite among sailors roaming the South Seas, welcomed only 14 arrivals, compared to an all-time peak 424 as reported in the previous survey.
The above places are close enough to the main transpacific route not to entail much of a detour, and this may explain the fact that only four boats called at Tuvalu. This small Polynesian community is threatened to be the first victim of the rising sea levels caused by climate change.
Fiji is an important cruising hub in the South Pacific and its capital Suva welcomed 83 yachts in 2022. By the time they’ve reached that point, most cruising boats leave the tropics before the start of the cyclone season and sail to New Zealand or Australia. The decision of both countries to close their borders to all visitors at the start of the pandemic, caused mayhem among sailors planning to spend the cyclone season there. The restrictions were only lifted in 2022 when 324 boats were welcomed in New Zealand and 330 in Australia. After nil arrivals in 2021, New Caledonia was visited in 2022 by 241 boats, a hopeful indication that the situation is gradually returning to normal.
While the South Pacific continues to attract most of the yachts undertaking a world voyage, there’s been a considerable decline in the number of visiting boats in the Western North Pacific. This is the first area in the world to suffer the consequences of climate change on a large scale, with weather conditions being noticeably affected by the warming of the oceans. The worst affected are the Philippines, with tropical cyclones now occurring in every month of the year.
In spite of the uncertain weather, the Philippines continues to attract visiting boats, but most limit themselves to areas rarely affected by tropical storms.
On the Asian mainland, the expected boom in visiting cruising boats has failed to materialise, and even the figures from Hong Kong show a considerable decline compared to previous surveys.
There’s not been not much more movement in China either, where formalities for visiting yachts continue to be both complicated and expensive.
A small number of cruising boats make it as far as Japan every year with an estimated 12 foreign yachts passing through Osaka in 2022. Most of them continued east, with some stopping at Dutch Harbor on their way to Canada or the US west coast. This busy fishing port at the eastern edge of the Aleutian Islands has excellent provisioning and repair facilities, making it a good base to prepare for an eastbound transit of the Northwest Passage.
Foreign-flagged yachts are still a rare sight in Hawaii.
It does attract many mainland boats, both cruising and racing, and some sail from there to French Polynesia and a few continue west towards Micronesia and the Asian mainland.
Across the Indian Ocean
In recent years the number of foreign flagged boats has shown a steady decrease in the North Indian Ocean, with most boats on a world voyage sailing the Cape of Good Hope route to reach the Atlantic Ocean, rather than the Red Sea and Suez Canal alternative.
For those who are not deterred by the uncertainty in some of the countries bordering on the Red Sea, and continue west across the North Indian Ocean, a convenient port is Galle, on the south coast of Sri Lanka, or a further detour to Cochin in South India.
Djibouti continues to be the only safe haven to prepare for the arduous transit of the Red Sea, and 29 boats stopped here before heading north. All made it safely to Suez.
It’s estimated that roughly 250 yachts transit the Torres Strait every year, of which about half continue west into the South Indian Ocean and the others take the opportunity to explore the Indonesian archipelago. The complex formalities of the past have been discontinued in an attempt to attract more visitors to one of the most interesting and diverse cruising grounds in the world. Even so, only 46 foreign vessels obtained the required cruising permit issued by the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2022, compared to 236 in 2016.
There was also significant reduction in the boats heading directly for the South Indian Ocean that stopped at Darwin in Northern Australia, which saw 23 arrivals in 2022, compared to 72 in the previous survey.
The popular Australian outpost of Cocos Keeling was also affected by the Covid pandemic, with only 31 arrivals in 2022 compared to 99 in 2015. From Cocos Keeling the westbound route splits into a southern branch to Rodrigues and Mauritius and a northern branch bound for Chagos (British Indian Ocean Territory). The British authorities now limit the issue of the compulsory permit to those who can justify the need for a stop in those islands, rather than those who regard them as an attractive cruising interlude. The most popular stop along the southern route is Port Louis in Mauritius, proof of the predominance of the Cape of Good Hope route among boats on a world voyage.
Madagascar was once expected to become the major cruising attraction in the South Indian Ocean, but the lack of facilities and cumbersome bureaucracy has put paid to those hopes. Few world voyagers bother to make the lengthy detour from Mauritius or La Réunion.
On the eve of the cyclone season, all boats make their way south. In 2022, Richards Bay was the favourite South African landfall. Thanks to the efforts of the Ocean Sailing Association of South Africa, this was one of the very few countries in the world that didn’t close its borders to visiting yachts during the Covid pandemic.
Yachts and crews changing
Besides the drastic reduction in the number of cruising boats on a world voyage, this survey has highlighted three interesting factors: the small size of crew on long voyages, with many couples sailing on their own; the number of couples with young children setting off on a sabbatical leave; and the steadily increasing proportion of multihulls.
More efficient and better-equipped boats, with reliable automatic pilots, electric winches, furling gears and countless other accessories have resulted in an overall reduction in the size of crew. This was evident from the crews of the boats that called at Cape Town having an average of 2.9 people, while in St Helena it was 3.2, in Cocos Keeling 2.5 and in Tahiti 2.8. In the latter two cases, more than half the boats were crewed by just a couple.
Another interesting trend highlighted by the survey was the change in the predominant flags of the boats on a world voyage. Whereas in all the previous surveys USA-flagged yachts were usually in the lead, they’re now superseded by the French tricolour.
Go now… or wait?
Since my first global survey in 1987, the cruising scene has seen important changes and overall statistics seem to indicate that the popularity of long distance voyages may have peaked in 2010.
There are various reasons for this, but they all seem related to safety concerns. As the consequences of climate change are now visibly affecting offshore weather conditions, sailors are concerned about how those changes will affect their future plans.
The Covid pandemic has undoubtedly had a significant negative impact, but it will be interesting to see whether more sailors will decide to leave now rather than wait until it may be too late. This seems to be already happening, as boatbuilders are reporting full order books, with waiting times of up to three years, and the used market is enjoying an unprecedented boom. Carpe diem!
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