The Seven Voyage Planning Skills of a Master Circumnavigator

The sternest test of a small vessel is to encounter a severe storm at sea. In prolonged winds of 50 or 60 knots, a yacht will be lucky to survive. Even if it weathers the seas the wind kicks up and has enough room to run off, it may suffer severe damage. The vessel’s crew may be injured and terrified, and the passage will be slow and unpleasant.

Fortunately, good planning can help keep you away from storms and nasty weather, and aim you toward light or moderate winds, which in turn mean light or moderate seas.

We know that the habits of hurricanes, typhoons, tropical storms and severe gales have been studied and charted for hundreds of years. With care in the planning of an ocean crossing, the chances are excellent that you can avoid bad weather, or at least diminish the risk of unexpected meetings. Certainly the management of a vessel in hard going is an important part of seamanship; however, a smarter and more basic approach is to try to avoid storms in the first place. To help us, we have three kinds of guides.

1. Books to cruise by

The first is a big book called Ocean Passages for the World. This is a British Admiralty publication that makes hundreds of recommendations for long voyages and is a basic source of planning and scheduling information. My edition is dated 1973. The book is written in telegraphic style, and a Spartan text tells about routes, courses, dangers, special problems, and likely winds and weather. The text is somewhat general, however, and is more a telephone directory of routes than a reading book of ocean highway information. My edition has 27 pages on wind and weather, 190 pages on steamship routes, 18 pages on sailing ship routes, and 30 pages of general notes and cautions.

The appendix of Ocean Passages has eight foldout charts that show climate, currents, and sailing and steamship routes. No potential voyaging sailor will fail to be enthralled by chart 7 (Admiralty chart 5308), The World-Sailing Ship Routes, a sketch map on which pink, gray, yellow and brown bands flow artery-like across the oceans of the world to suggest routes in various directions for certain times of the year. It’s worthwhile to buy this chart separately and tack it up on a handy wall.

These colorful tracks are based on the experiences of thousands of large commercial sailing vessels over a century or more. Some of the routes have limited suitability for yachts. Not many small vessels, for example, run down their easting in the gale-swept Southern Ocean. Nevertheless, Ocean Passages is a good place to start, and the book’s warnings are well worth strict attention. Instead of buying this bulky and expensive (�45, $65) book, however, it’s easier to borrow a copy, have a look, and type out or photocopy the few pages you want. You may be able to have your local library borrow the book via inter-library loan.

Another useful planning guide is World Cruising Routes, by Jimmy Cornell (International Marine, $49.95). This book, now in its fourth edition, categorizes 67 routes in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Mediterranean in terms of small-boat transits.

If your heart is truly in distant places, I suggest you look at Ocean Passages and at Admiralty chart 5308 (which you can buy separately) for the big picture. Then focus on the Cornell book for a closer look. However, don’t slavishly follow others. Do your own thing, but be aware of routes and seasons that have been successful for others.

2. Excellent weather-routing tool

Pilot charts are the second planning guide. These are inexpensive general ocean charts with details of winds, calms, fog, severe storms, wave heights, gales, sea and air temperatures, magnetic variation, currents, ice, barometric pressure, big-ship tracks, and a weather summary. These special charts are road maps of the sea, and with their neat wind roses and curved lines of different colors, they are fascinating documents.

They are based on the pioneering work of Matthew Fontaine Maury, a U.S. Navy officer who was appalled at the miserable times that both military and commercial sailing ships made from port to port in the 1840s. Maury collected hundreds of logbooks and trip reports. He analyzed the routes and each captain’s experiences, and made suggestions based on prevailing winds, seasonal patterns, gale frequencies and so on. He sorted out the trade winds, the westerlies, the variables and the doldrums on a month-to-month basis. He put this information into tabular form, clever symbols, and compiled sets of easy-to-read charts.

It was Maury’s genius to turn a hodg epodge of largely useless private information into a scientific methodology of routes and winds. Maury proved to captains that longer routes in fairer winds were often much faster. Ships’ officers were quick to follow Maury’s suggestions because it made passages easier on themselves, the crew and the ship. The owners of the shipping lines embraced these new ideas because they made more money for the company. Even today’s enormous, full-powered containerships and immense oil tankers benefit from not bashing into extreme headwinds and blockbuster seas. Maury remains a hero to bluewater sailors.

The U.S. pilot charts of today are based on thousands of ship observations taken by generations of mariners. These charts aren’t infallible, and it’s possible to encounter conditions other than the stated figures, which are averages, not certainties. Yet the numbers are on our side, and these charts are great planning aids.

The 37-page Atlas of Pilot Charts, North Atlantic Ocean measures 20 by 29 inches and has a chart for each month for the North Atlantic, the Arctic Atlantic, and the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. If you look at my area of interest on several charts, it’s easy to follow seasonal weather patterns. For example, checking the gale frequency off the southeast coast of Newfoundland shows that in January there are 10 storms of Force 8 or more. In June there is one, in July none.

In my judgment the best pilot charts are published by the United States. Five atlases cover all the oceans. The prices vary from $16 to $39. Since the information is based on data collected over a long period, updating is not important.

3. Sailing directions

The third planning guide is a class of books called sailing directions or pilots. In these you will find information about coastlines, ports, hazards, buoyage, regional weather, pilotage and local regulations. Sometimes there are aerial photographs or sketches of a coastline. Although many countries publish sailing directions for their own waters in their national language, the main pilots are from the United States and the United Kingdom, and these volumes tell about every part of the world.

There are 42 volumes of U.S. pilots and 74 volumes of Admiralty pilots, all in English. Of course, you only need books for the part of the world you plan to visit, generally one or two volumes. These are of inestimable value to mariners, and you should purchase new volumes &mdash together with the latest supplements &mdash to cover your itinerary. Although there is almost universal interchangeability, U.S. pilots are written with U.S. charts in mind; Admiralty pilots have many U.K. chart references. If there’s any choice, try to buy pilots and charts from the same country. I recommend Admiralty pilots.

Both the U.K. and U.S. pilots are big hardbound books with text, sketch maps, photographs and drawings; storage can be a problem. The U.S. pilots measure 8 1/2 by 11 inches (each comes with a CD-ROM of the contents) and cost from $20 to $45; most are in the $20 range. The Admiralty pilots measure 8 3/8 by 12 inches and cost �37 (about $52) in the United Kingdom. Supplements are issued from time to time, and every few years, each volume is reprinted.

Though the pilots are prepared for all mariners, the emphasis is on commercial vessels; in recent years the tendency has been to put less emphasis on smaller places and to deal more with major ports. Nevertheless, these books are helpful to small-boat sailors and are definitely worth having onboard. For example, I recently sailed along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Canadian government publishes four soft-cover inexpensive pilot booklets to cover these waters and which constitute the only up-to-date, reliable guides. Without them, I wouldn’t have been aware of some excellent small harbors in unexpected places.

Among my books I have the Admiralty publication Africa Pilot Vol. 1, thirteenth edition. I see that the first edition was published in 1849, so the book comes from a long line of sources. Like their U.S. counterparts, the Admiralty books are packed with information about a particular area and always include a chapter on regional weather. The writing is clear and pithy but decidedly pessimistic and negative, as such books must be that describe every treacherous current and hidden rock.

Charts and nautical publications are big business. In 2001 in Britain, 159,033 Admiralty pilots were sold for more than $8,400,000. A surprising thing about these volumes is that the writing staff is the same size as it was in 1907 &mdash just three naval assistants and one clerk, helped by 18 retired naval officers who work at home as revisers.

“The terse, clipped, informative style of these volumes is familiar to yachtsmen,” noted Yachting Monthly magazine in a recent article. “Verbiage and time-wasting and wooly conceptions are rigidly excluded.” Many are the navigators &mdash including me &mdash who have constructed a crude harbor chart based on these sentences alone when a vital large-scale chart has suddenly been found to be missing.

A special kind of pilot or sailing directions that’s often available is a yachtsman’s guide prepared by a sailing group, a knowledgeable author or local authorities. For example, the Clyde Cruising Club publishes an excellent, up-to-date pilot for Scottish waters. There are six or eight useful yachtsmen’s pilots for the West Indies. In the Galapagos Islands, a local charter-boat captain has written a handy little guide. The various pilots for the Mediterranean by Rod Heikell have a fine reputation. And for Nova Scotia, for example, A Cruising Guide to Nova Scotia, by Dr. Peter Loveridge is helpful.

4. Use with caution

All these books and others need to be used with caution depending on the publication date, the author, and his or her sailing style and experience. These small-boat guides are usually worth buying even if you only pick up a single useful point. You don’t acquire these guides for writing style and beautiful photographs. You read them for information.

Note that I am referring to guides prepared by experienced navigators, not publicity handouts from tourist bureaus or hokum written by pompous boatowners or others whose main purpose is to steer you to advertisers. The best guides carry no advertising.

Most successful pilots are being revised constantly, so be sure to inquire about the latest printing before you buy. Ask for the latest supplements, which are usually free.

To explain the use of these books and charts, let me tell about a Pacific trip that my wife, Margaret, and I made a few years ago. Our goal was an extended voyage around the major part of the Pacific basin. When we studied the planning guides, we discovered that we faced three main problems: the South Pacific hurricane season, typhoons off the coast of Japan, and a high gale and fog frequency in the Aleutian Islands. The problem was to juggle dates so that we would minimize our exposure to these hazards. In addition, we hoped to stay in the belts of running or reaching winds, to sail with favorable currents and to maintain a reasonable schedule. We pulled a figure of 18 months out of the air and started sticking pins with date flags into a general Pacific chart.

Reading in Ocean Passages and various Pacific pilots and studying the pilot charts along with accounts of other voyages indicated that we should sail north from Samoa by November to miss the South Pacific hurricane season. Similar reading about the east coast of Japan suggested that we should be away to the north and east before July.

In the Aleutians, we had no season of severe storms, but there was a winter gale frequency of up to 20 percent (a Force 8-plus storm every six days on the average). We changed dates, moved the schedule backward and forward, and decided to leave Japan in midsummer so that we would be in the North Pacific when the gale frequency was not so severe. As expected, we encountered some fog, but the August gale frequency in the Aleutians varied from 1 to 7 percent, suggesting that summer was the time for a visit.

In other words, we tried to play the averages to have as storm-free a trip as possible. This could have meant staying in a protected harbor during a bad season or hurrying to cross a dangerous area to minimize exposure to severe hazards. We also talked with several friends &mdash merchant ship officers &mdash who made useful suggestions about routes and places. We have found that big-ship people are often fascinated with small sailing vessels and will go out of their way to help you. The captain and mates will sometimes give you extra charts and pass on all sorts of good ideas and advice. If it seems convenient for them, Margaret and I try to pay courtesy calls on the captains of nearby big ships when we are in foreign ports. We have made some wonderful friends.

To sum up: To learn about sailing conditions for a long route, we study Ocean Passages. We look at pilot charts for more detailed information. Pilot books tell us about destinations and the next port. All these guides help us avoid severe storms and find fair or reaching winds.

5. The long way can be shorter

The long way around is often shorter if the detour takes you away from strong head winds and adverse currents. For example, we know a yacht owner who repeatedly tried to go northeastward into the Caribbean toward Venezuela from Cartagena, Colombia. The month was April, and the trades blew strongly; according to the pilot chart, the prevailing wind was Force 6 from the northeast, plus 28 miles of adverse current per day. Though the captain was determined and his big ketch was powerful, it could make no easting until the owner abandoned his head-on approach. He finally made his easting via long reaching legs to the north, where the wind and current were more favorable.

Ocean Passages does not recommend the direct route between Hawaii and San Francisco because a sailing vessel would be thrashing to windward for hundreds of miles and beating back and forth trying to make mileage to the northeast &mdash directly into the trade wind and contrary current. The suggested route is roughly northward or even a little west of north, close-hauled or almost close-hauled on the starboard tack, until you pass above the northeast trades into the westerlies, the latitude of which varies somewhat with the month, depending on the location of the North Pacific high-pressure area.

6. Use different chart scales

Before you set out on a long trip, a sound investment for safety and peace of mind is a stack of up-to-date charts. If you are in doubt about a certain chart, buy it. You need small-scale charts for planning and navigational use, medium-scale for the approaches to islands and coastlines, and large-scale detailed drawings to guide you into harbors and through intricate passages. Not only should a prudent mariner have adequate information about intended ports, but he or she ought to have limited coverage of contingency stops. If you have a problem along the way and decide to run off to a convenient port to leeward, you will need the chart. If you haven’t room for all the charts when you set out, or are unsure whether you will continue after the first long jump, arrange to have charts sent to you at a convenient port.

Unfortunately, the cost of charts has risen astronomically. It’s hard to believe, but years ago, I had a U.S. chart of the Chilean channels with officially stamped prices of 15 cents, 25 cents, $1, $2.60 and $3.50 on its lower margin. All the old prices (except the last) had been crossed out. In 2003, the official U.S. price for a new chart of the same place in Chile was $17. For an extensive trip requiring 50 or 75 charts, the charges can be heavy.

World voyaging sailors crossing paths and going in different directions often trade charts. Yachts in Suva, for example, will swap Society Island plans for Vanuatu charts. Sometimes when a family has completed a big trip, they will give away or sell a pile of charts for a low figure. Often big-ship officers pass along slightly outdated charts to small-boat sailors.

In the Pacific, Margaret and I met the Norwegian yacht Preciosa, whose crew was given a set of charts for almost the entire world by a friendly shipping company. Some small-boat sailors buying old charts from large chart agents that periodically replace the charts of ships.

While I am not a fan of outdated charts, which can be dangerous to use, an old chart is certainly better than no chart. Furthermore, old charts can be brought up to date by consulting suitable Notices to Mariners, which are available on the Internet and easy to download. Occasionally you can borrow donated charts from cruising associations and sailing clubs. In the eastern Caroline Islands, for example, I salvaged an enormous roll of southeast Asia and Japan charts from a wrecked tuna boat.

A few years ago in Monastir, Tunisia, I borrowed a dozen German charts of the Italian coast from a German yacht next to us. The captain told me how to find a nearby copying place. I walked into town to an office where a local entrepreneur had a giant copying machine and a sizeable business copying charts. The cost was $2 U.S. each. I noticed that the young woman in the office also dealt with Canadian and British charts, which are copyrighted and are not supposed to be duplicated. Not only did the Monastir clerk copy the German charts I had brought in, but she quietly made a negative of each plan to add to her stock for future sales to others. U.S. charts are not copyrighted and can be duplicated by anyone.

To find out what’s available on a worldwide basis, you need the big Catalogue of Admiralty Charts and Publications, which costs �18, or about $26, and is good to have on hand both for purchases and for general planning. The big Admiralty chart catalog is an extremely handy guide and a good world atlas as well.

Admiralty charts fold to essentially the same size, while U.S. charts come in a collection of sizes that are less handy to fold and store. Admiralty charts arrive corrected to the date of purchase. U.S. charts are corrected up to the time of printing and must be corrected from Notices to Mariners by the purchaser. This is not a small matter.

At the moment we have about 150 paper charts on our boat, Whisper, plus six volumes of pilots, Ocean Passages, a slim atlas of pilot charts, three cruising guides, and a Reed’s Nautical Almanac. We have about 35 charts in current use. I carefully fold each chart exactly in half (with the printing outside so I can see what it is) and then stow it flat in the chart table. We store the other charts away in three or four big rolls (kept dry in black garbage bags) in the forepeak. Margaret keeps a list that shows all the charts onboard by number, title and geographical area. Borrowed charts are on a separate list.

Half our charts are from the United States, but as I’ve indicated, we often buy Admiralty charts directly from a British agent. I find the Admiralty small-scale charts are especially good for planning purposes, and in general I prefer the English plans because of more information, better draftsmanship and uniform paper sizes. If possible we try to use the charts of the country through which we plan to travel (Canadian charts for Canada, New Zealand for the Cook Islands, Chile for its channels and long coastline, etc.)

When you sail to foreign places, it’s hard to decide where to go. Venice and Rome are famous, and you want to see them. Tahiti and Moorea are easy choices, but should you go to Kapingamarangi or Pingelap? To Suvorov or Rakahanga? To La Digue or Raroia. To Funchal or Lanzarote? You make some stops because of your reading or from recommendations of friends, because of protected anchorages, because you are tired and want to rest, or simply because you are intrigued with the name. Margaret and I prefer to make fewer stops but to stay at new ports for longer times.

7. A clear and uncluttered route

Another planning consideration &mdash at least in the areas of the world with low and dangerous islands &mdash is a clear and uncluttered route. It’s best to go out of your way to avoid unlighted islands at night. Not only will your passage be simpler in deep water where the currents may not be so variable, but you can relax and enjoy the passage instead of dying a thousand navigational deaths. Commercial shipping lanes mean constant vigilance and worry; if you can arrange to cross shipping lanes at right angles in daylight and to leave them far behind, all the better.

A voyaging sailor’s schedule shouldn’t be too detailed and structured. In the first place, you are almost never on time. You are behind schedule because of maintenance on the yacht or because you have found a delightful new place. Perhaps in ports along the way, you have met new people or old friends. Or best of all, the sailing may be so pleasant you would like it to last forever.

Three-time circumnavigator Hal Roth has sailed 200,000 miles, much of the time with his wife Margaret, and is the author of 11 books on sailing, including How to Sail Around the World, published in October 2003 by International Marine. He lives in St. Michael’s, Md.

By Ocean Navigator