Note we do not have any financial arrangements or other interests in any the products mentioned here!
For just about every question, there are almost as many different opinions as there are sailors. And, most of these different opinions are in fact valid for the specific individual with their particular boat and their unique mission. That said, below are our opinions based on our experiences to date. We reserve the right to change them, or even admit they are wrong, at any later date :)
No. True piracy is pretty rare and mostly limited to the area around the Horn of Somalia. There are thugs and thieves in more places but you deal with them just like you do ashore - don't go to bad areas and certainly not after dark; keep a low profile and don't flash your wealth around. We have only had three minor bad experiences. In Iceland, someone came on board one night and stole our American flag. I have always figured it was some college students making a statement. In Fiji, a pair of flip-flops went missing from our dinghy, but we mentioned it to the village chief and they were returned the next day. In Costa Rica, someone stole the oars out of our dinghy when it was pulled up on the beach 50 yards from and in plain view of a police station.
If your interest is in Cape Horn, the Beagle Canal (which is one of the most spectacular section of all the canals), Antarctica, and S. Georgia then the best choice is to come down the east coast of South America (along Argentina), through the Straits of La Maire and into the Beagle arriving at Puerto Williams around Christmas. Sailing along the Argentinean coast you can have quite strong winds but they will typically be blowing right off the beach so if you stay close to shore you can reach along in relatively flat water. There are decent harbors along most of the route in case of really bad weather.
However, if you are interested in exploring more of the channels than just the Beagle, in seeing the Castro/Puerto Montt area in the north, or in going into the Pacific, then the choice is not as clear. The winds in the channels are almost entirely from the north. Even when it's blowing from the southwest offshore, the Andean mountain chain will bend the winds so they are blowing down the channels from the north. In one two-month period in the channels we had only two days of southerly winds. From Puerto Williams (at the southern end of the channels) to Puerto Montt/Castro (at the northern end of the channels) is approximately 1,100 miles and it will be almost entirely upwind (often into 20-30 knots) and up current. It is mostly in quite protected channels and the water is usually flat (without big waves). A boat that goes to windward well and a crew that has a lot of patience can sail the route, however there are paperwork difficulties with a slow trip because you are only issued a three-month visa with no easy way to renew it in the channels. But all the crews we know that intended to do it under sail gave up, either exiting the channels very early and sailing offshore to Puerto Montt or turning on their engines (most people motor somewhere between 50% - 80% of the way on a northbound trip).
Those who choose to sail down the east coast of South America do have one other option if they wish to make a northbound trip, and that is to make the voyage in the winter. In most years, the weather is actually more settled in the winter months than the summer months, though the storms that do come through can be more intense. Friends of ours who have made the trip north in May, June and July have had much shorter, colder days, and have found many of the glacier and freshwater anchorages frozen and unapproachable. But they have also had more light winds and calm days, and some periods of easterly wind which almost never occurs in the summer months. But the weather varies more year to year than season to season, so you do run the risk of arriving in a bad year and having to fight your way north even in the winter.
It is much easier to enjoy exploring the Chilean channels when southbound, and not fighting the wind and current every day. There are two alternatives from the Pacific that accomplish this: (1) Going down the Pacific coast (Ecuador, Peru, & Northern Chile) will be upwind in light winds much of the way, with reasonably light winds and seas until the last 400 miles where it can get very ugly (big offshore ocean waves and swell on the nose and very strong & rapidly changing winds). There are stops along the coast about every 200-400 miles. This is the route of choice if you have quite a bit of time to coastal hop (perhaps five months), wait for weather, and a strong enough engine to push through big seas in the last 400 miles. It's best to time this to arrive in Puerto Montt around Christmas. A friend who just completed this trip put 585 hours on the engine (Panama to Puerto Montt). (2) If none of those options sound attractive and you have a typical sailboat engine/prop (e.g. don't motor into waves very well) and want to get to Chile relatively quickly/directly, then the route for you is to sail from Panama out to about Easter Island and then back into to Puerto Montt. This takes you around the S. Pacific high, with winds as favorable as possible. From Panama to Easter Island you will be mostly close hauled/close reaching, mostly in light winds, and then mostly broad reaching/running in much stronger winds from Easter to Puerto Montt. This is a much better sailing route than #1, but it is a longish offshore passage (between 3,500 and 4000 miles), there is a lot of wind forward of the beam to get to Easter Island and then it is a deep-water mid-latitude offshore route where the weather can get quite tough.
Chile is a difficult place to get to by any of these routes, which is one of the reasons that the sailors who have made the effort required to get there are a special bunch. Top of Page
No, we believe that tourists should not go to the Antarctic. It should be left as the one last pristine place on the planet. We believe only a very few (say 25 at a time) select scientist should be allowed there. During our time cruising we have seen the Galapagos opened to tourism and ruined. The same thing is happening right now to the Antarctic. Our not going will have no real effect on the situation (there is simply too much money involved for the tourism to be stopped), but we will not participate in or contribute to destroying this last pristine spot on the planet. Top of Page
When we were crossing the Pacific on our first circumnavigation, we were in Fiji and had spent the past year in the tropics. Evans woke up one morning, looked at me, and said, "If I never see another sandy beach with palm trees in my lifetime, that would be fine." To me that sums up one of the things we liked least about the tropics: they are much the same all the way around the world. And while warm weather, snorkeling and swimming and tradewind breezes are REALLY nice, we enjoy variety in our cruising.
When we got back from our first trip and decided we were going again, it was the non-tropical areas we remembered most fondly and most wanted to re-visit: the Azores in the North Atlantic, New Zealand, South Africa. Four things attracted us.
(1) The diversity of the geography and the wildlife. Colder seas are more productive, so you see a lot more wildlife like seals and whales and dolphins than in most tropical areas (reefs being the exception). You also see a lot more wildlife ashore, especially in South Africa, Australia and any of the polar areas. And the land is so different from place to place. You could never look at a photograph of a place in the temperate latitudes and not know where it was taken. But a tropical beach with gorgeous aquamarine water and palm trees - well, that could be almost anywhere in the tropics.
(2) Generally speaking the people in the temperate/high latitudes have a standard of living similar to ours. That means that we meet on a more equal basis and we find it easier to have meaningful interactions and build long-term friendships. We find it uncomfortable to be anchored off a small village in the Pacific and to be treated like royalty and given gifts when the value of our boat exceeds that of the material possession of the entire village. We also don't enjoy being in places where the economic disparity makes the local people resent the sailboats and see them as a target for theft, as is increasingly the case in Venezuela, Costa Rica and other places.
(3) The cruising community tends to be much more like it was back in the 70s and 80s, in large part because there are fewer boats. This is particularly true in the real high latitudes - Chile, Greenland, South Island of New Zealand. But even in less extreme areas like Newfoundland, Scotland or Tasmania, you are, for the most part, off the beaten track, which means cruisers stick together more and the locals are more welcoming. We have increasingly found that cruisers in the tropics are bringing their suburban picket fences with them and resent intrusions by other cruisers. Instead of rowing over to welcome a new boat with fresh bread, as most people would do in Chile or Greenland, cruisers growl at one another because they are anchored too close. We saw this in the Caribbean last time, but we have heard that the same thing is happening in the more well traveled parts of the Pacific.
(4) Beth is not a hot weather person and if she can't have 70F degrees, She's much happier in 50 than 90. I have ear problems so I can't snorkel, which is one of the best things to do in the tropics. When Evans snorkeled and dived, he preferred the tropics, but Beth has always preferred the cooler weather sailing. Temperate and higher latitude cruising does tend to be more challenging and demand more of us. That's a plus for us because Evans gets bored if he's not on the steep part of the learning curve, one of the reasons why we have pushed ourselves to increase our skills and visit more remote areas. The tropical circumnavigation on SILK was the perfect way to build our skills for the cruising we have done on HAWK. Of course, even now we do very much enjoy a few months in warm tropical seas with pleasant tradewinds when we've been cold and stressed for months on end! But it always seems like after a little while we're ready to head back above 40 in search of more adventures. (Top of Page)
The short answer is that Beagle is both the most attractive and easiest/safest. It has two towns with safe harbors (Puerto Williams & Ushuaia), dozens of safe anchorages, and very pretty mountains and glaciers.
The Magellan is the big ship channel, but it is not so attractive for sail boats. It is more of a wind funnel than the Beagle, with strong westerly winds much of the time. It also has stronger currents and nastier waves. And the one town (Punta Arenas) does not have a really safe place for a sailboat - the anchorage is very exposed and the piers are ugly with a lot of trawler traffic. The Magellan could make sense if you are going west to east and only want to get through as fast as possible without stopping or seeing anything.
The Drake is offshore with strong winds and big waves. It's the option for the round the world racers and record breakers and folks going to Antarctica, but not for cruisers looking for the safest and most attractive route. (Top of Page)
The latest NATO threat map shows that the route up the red Sea is VERY dangerous. We figure the odds right now (Spring 2011) of being attacked are about 5%, being captured about 1% and being killed about .5%. For vessels in the Northern Indian ocean there are 5 options. (1) just "going for it" in the normal way up the Red Sea. I personally think this is too dangerous. But that's an individual risk assessment and there appear to have been about 50 cruising boats that have done it this season. (2) going up the Red Sea with a couple armed Mercs on boat. This will cost about #1000/day and will create some hassles with officials and may make your boat a war zone if you are attacked, but will probably drive off the pirates. Again, it's not an option I would choose. (3) Shipping your boat to the Med, with the crew flying. This will cost ballpark $35,000 for a 'typical size' cruising boat. This is the relatively safe and expensive option. Personally I would hate to do it because it would break the spirit of a circumnavigation, but it is certainly an attractive option for those intent on getting to the MEd as quickly as possible. (4) Sail by the classic Rodrigues, Mauritius, Reunion, Durban route around S Africa. This route is out of the pirate zone of operation and S Africa is an attractive destination. The weather is easily manageable with a typical cruising boat, but it is rougher than the tropics and does need preparation. This would be my personal choice. Here are two articles (Part 1, Part 2, sidebar) on transiting the Southern Indian ocean (via South Africa). (5) Sail to the top (north) end of Madagascar and down the Mozambique channel. This minimizes exposure to most of the rough weather but does graze the pirate operating zone and there have been violent thugs in some of the Mozambique channel harbors. This is a controversial route, with some knowledgable people saying its safe and others saying its not. I personally don't have enough information to make a good judgment and would thus personally avoid the route. (Top of Page)
We have really enjoyed the islands along the southern Indian ocean route – they remind one of what the Caribbean was like in the 1970’s before it got so commercial; and South Africa is a fabulous area/country to visit. The game parks are just simply unbelievable and to dream of. So, very honestly, we consider the South Africa to be the preferred route in any case, even if the red sea was open. The weather around Africa is really not so bad – you will probably get one gale under Madagascar – it will be fast moving and you just heave-to, get some sleep and let it pass, that’s probably it. Really the only advantage of the red sea route was that it was shorter and I understand is if someone was simply desperate to get back to Europe but if you are still up for the cruising life then the Africa route is and always has been the first choice.
If you go to Alaska, you add the possibility of going back thru the panama canal and across to Europe that way. We loved the Pacific Northwest, and if we were going to keep our boat in one area and cruise it for ‘the rest of our lives’, it would definitely and clearly be the PNW. So, that would be a tough choice, but I think a world cruising sailor MUST do and see Africa. It’s just simply so unique and different. You can then later ‘retire’ to cruising the PNW.
“Remember that happiness is a way of travel - not a destination.”
'Happiness is a how, not a what; a talent, not an object,"