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Where do all the boats go? Global Movement of Sailing Vessels

My interest in the global movement of cruising boats goes back to 1987, when I published the results of my first survey on this subject. In the intervening 35 years I have conducted follow-up surveys every five years. The latest was done in 2016 and examined the global situation during the previous year. In the intervening years, the world has experienced two major phenomena that have seriously affected offshore cruising: the Covid pandemic, hopefully only in the relatively short term, 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 cruising destinations closed their borders, those who were caught out had to either postpone their plans, or leave their boats unattended and return home. Those who were allowed to stay where they had been overtaken by events could not stay in a marina with access ashore but had to stay at anchor. There have been several reported cases of hostile and unsympathetic attitudes from authorities and local people even in areas where previously visiting sailors were warmly welcomed.

The unforeseen circumstances caused by such an unexpected and prolonged interruption resulted in several cases in the abandonment of the planned voyage. As a result, the international cruising traffic came to a standstill, and the plans of doing a follow-up survey in 2022 looked like suffering the same fate.  It soon became obvious that even if I managed to get figures from the previous places that had supplied such data in the past, in most cases the figures would be meaningless. However, in order to get at least a rough idea of the real situation, in early 2022 I contacted some of the most frequented hubs on the world cruising circuit, such as Panama, Bermuda, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Tahiti and Noumea. The figures that I obtained showed that whereas some places had fared better, others had seen an unprecedented reduction in the number of visiting boats.

Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, recorded in 2021 its highest ever influx of 1256 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 the local authorities faced with such an unexpected crisis.  A similar situation was experienced in the port of Horta in the Azores, the favourite landfall at the end of a transatlantic passage from the Caribbean.  Horta Marina recorded 1102 arrivals compared to 465 in 2020 and 1132 in 2019. But the figures obtained from these traditional Atlantic hubs proved to be deceptive as shown by the statistics from other parts of the world. The Panama Canal transits of pleasure craft had gone down in 2021 to 806 from 1122 in 2020.  The fall was even more drastic in countries where the 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.

During 2022, as the Covid pandemic appeared to have been brought under control, most countries started to lift their temporary restrictions. As the situation was slowly returning to normal, I resumed my survey by contacting officials in the most significant cruising hubs or transit points in every ocean requesting statistical data on the number of foreign flagged yachts that had passed through those ports in 2022.  The figures obtained from the most popular destinations on the world cruising circuit, as well as some of the less visited places, allowed me to construct a picture of the current movement of cruising yachts. 


Atlantic Ocean

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 across the Atlantic to the Caribbean from there.  The port authority recorded a total of 1237 visiting boats in 2022, flying the flags of 44 countries. The largest contingent was French (266), followed by Germany (194), United Kingdom (83), Netherlands (49), Sweden (42), Switzerland (38), Denmark (27), Norway (24), USA (19), Belgium (17), Poland (16), Finland (14), New Zealand (13), Spain (12), Australia (11), Italy (9), Russia (8), Czechia (7), and smaller numbers from other countries.

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 in 2022 a total of 1120 arrivals, the highest ever number of visiting yachts. Located in the NE 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. Horta Marina has been keeping detailed records of visiting boats since 1985 and the latest data made it possible to extract a raft of interesting facts about the boats, their crews and routes sailed.

While the total number of boats (1131) that cleared into Horta during 2022 has not changed significantly, the data 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. The number of boats that called at Bermuda in 2022 was 838 and confirmed a steady decline since 2000.  This 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.

Over half the boats that arrive in the Caribbean from either Europe or America used to spend at least one full season there, but in recent years concerns over the effects of climate change have resulted in a significant increase in the number of sailors who prefer to limit themselves to a one year circuit, be it from Europe or North America. Those who decide to stay longer in the Caribbean usually have their boats stored on land in a secure place during the hurricane season. The island of Trinidad has set up several boatyards for this purpose with 478 boats spending the summer there in 2022, which shows a significant reduction from 2664 in 2000 and 1367 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. It was hoped that the restrictions imposed by the US authorities on American boats sailing to Cuba would be lifted, but this has not happened. Even so, its eight marinas recorded in 2022 a total of 284 foreign flagged yachts. According to Commodore José Miguel Escrich of the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba, ‘We are always happy to welcome and offer our friendship to all those who love the sea’.

While warm water cruising has remained generally stable on a global level, cold water cruising is becoming more popular as sailors strike out for more challenging destinations. Two high latitude destinations in the North Atlantic, which are regularly visited by cruising yachts, are Spitsbergen and Greenland. The former has become the most popular high-latitude destination in the Atlantic, with 52 visiting boats recorded in 2022. Greenland is poised to become more frequented both as an attractive cruising destination in its own right and as a base for those preparing to transit the Northwest Passage. In 2022, 14 yachts called at Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, with most of them limiting their cruising to the spectacular west coast. The more intrepid struck out west to brave the challenges of the Northwest Passage, which has become more accessible in recent years as a result of climate change.  Four boats completed a westbound transit to the Pacific, while also four boats made a successful eastbound transit. The total of eight successful transits in 2022 compared to none in 2021 and only one in 2020, may indicate a return to normality. However, this may not last, as the pollution caused by the increase in the number of cargo ships and cruise liners, and the impact on local communities by hundreds of passengers have become a serious concern both to the local people and the Canadian authorities. Small boats may also be affected, as in recent years there have been a few cases when they have been called upon to assist sailors in difficulty. All those factors may result in restrictions being imposed on any vessel planning to use this waterway.

Such restrictions are already imposed at the other extreme of the Atlantic Ocean, where voyages to Antarctica on private yachts need to obtain permission from their own national authorities and abide by the strict environmental protection regulations specific to Antarctica. The Argentinian port of Ushuaia, at the tip of South America, is where boats planning to sail south to Antarctica or north to the Chilean Canals prepare and provision for their voyage. The 38 arrivals in 2022 were down from the 64 in 2015 and the peak figure of 105 in 2000.

Across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia is Puerto Williams, a Chilean military outpost and the southernmost settlement in the world. The small port is only a short distance from Cape Horn and, as the Chilean authorities have jurisdiction over an area that includes the Antarctic Peninsula as well as parts of Tierra del Fuego, any boat planning to sail that way must complete formalities here. The movements of all vessels are monitored by the Chilean Navy and show that the total of 77 yacht movements in 2022 was well below the 143 recorded in 2015. There was also a significant reduction in the number of private yachts that sailed to Antarctica, from 43 in 2019 to 12 in 2022.

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 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 that had been replaced 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 126 yachts calling at Cape Town in 2022.  This was a considerable decline from 2010 when 358 yachts stopped there. 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, which was visited by 95 yachts in 2022.  


Pacific Ocean

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 1177 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, deter most sailors from stopping there. From a record high of 395 in 2010 the figure for 2022 dropped to 66, as many sailors prefer to sail a different route to French Polynesia.

For those who decide to bypass Galapagos, the logical option is to sail directly from Panama to the Marquesas. A somewhat longer but potentially more attractive alternative is to make a detour to Easter Island and continue from there via Pitcairn Island to French Polynesia. Easter Island is one of the most remote sailing destinations in the world and recorded the steepest decline highlighted by this latest survey. According to the port captain of Hanga Roa, the main settlement and port of the island, ‘Compared to a record of 79 yachts that called in 2015, only seven stopped here in 2022.’  Most of them continued west to Pitcairn Island, once the hideaway of the Bounty mutineers, whose descendants continue to live on this remote speck of land. Visitors are always warmly received by its tiny community, and one of them, Brenda Christian, emailed me, ‘In 2022 we were pleased to welcome eleven yachts.’

The majority of boats bound for the South Seas, whether from Panama or North America, make their first landfall in the Marquesas. Arriving at those spectacular islands after weeks spent at sea is an awe-inspiring and unforgettable experience. 264 boats arrived there in 2022, the majority at Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa. The total arrivals for the entire French Polynesia was 404, a significant drop from the record 826 reported in 2010.

Sailing west 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, where a caretaker is based during the peak arrivals time. Only 16 stopped there in 2022 compared to 69 boats in 2015. Another popular place, also in the Cook Islands, is Palmerston Atoll, which was visited by only three boats in 2022, with none in the previous year because of the Covid restrictions. This was also the case in neighbouring Tonga, which was closed to visitors during the entire 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 have 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 has 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 conditions, the Philippines continue to attract visiting boats, but most of them limit themselves to areas that are 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. The few foreign yachts that visit Hong King are participants in one of the regional races organised by the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. There has 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 was visited by nine yachts in 2022. Both provisioning and repair facilities in Dutch Harbor are excellent, making it a good base to prepare the boat for those planning an eastbound transit of the Northwest Passage.

Although rarely affected by tropical storms, and enjoying benign conditions throughout the year, foreign flagged yachts are still a rare sight in Hawaii. Probably for that reason, the authorities do not keep a record and the best guess is that only an estimated 20 foreign yachts called at the islands in 2022. Hawaii does attract many mainland boats, both cruising and racing. Some sail from there to French Polynesia and a few continue west towards Micronesia and the Asian mainland. Some of them were among the 14 arrivals recorded in the Marshall Islands, which is a fair estimate of the approximate number of boats visiting the Micronesian islands generally.


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. By contrast, there continues to be a significant amount of coastal traffic with more local and regional boats, both racing and cruising, joining the rallies and regattas held during the winter season in Western Malaysia and Thailand.

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, where 23 arrivals were recorded in 2022. Some made a further detour to Cochin in South India, which welcomed 11 boats last year. 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 of them made it safely to Suez, which recorded 36 arrivals in 2022. Compared to 2010, when 171 yachts transited the Suez Canal, that number highlights the continuing popularity of the Cape of Good Hope route.

It is estimated that approximately 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 reported in the previous survey. The Australian outpost of Cocos Keeling, a popular stop on the world sailing circuit, 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 latter recorded six visitors, a significant drop from the 23 boats six years previously, as the British authorities, which administer this territory, now limit the issuing of the compulsory permit to those who can justify the need for a stop in those islands, and are determined to discourage those who regard them as an attractive cruising interlude.The most popular stop along the southern route is Port Louis in Mauritius, with 242 arrivals recorded in 2022, a definite proof of the predominance of the Cape of Good Hope route among boats on a world voyage.

When first discovered as an as yet unexplored cruising destination, Madagascar was 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.  Nosy Be, on Madagascar’s NW coast, has established itself as a modest base, but few world voyagers bother to make the lengthy detour from Mauritius or La Reunion over the top of Madagascar. Only eight visiting boats were recorded in the Nosy Be area in 2022.

On the eve of the cyclone season, all boats make their way south. In 2022, Richards Bay was the favourite South African landfall, with a total of 103 arrivals. The number of boats that called at Cape Town was 126, of which 123 were bound for the South Atlantic and three for the Indian Ocean. It is important to note that 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 sailing boats during the Covid pandemic.


Sailing hubs

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 shorter or longer sabbatical leave, and the steadily increasing proportion of catamarans among cruising yachts. These factors are possibly interrelated and the data gathered from some of the most important hubs along the world sailing routes may prove that.  I therefore decided to widen the scope of this survey to find out more about the type of boats undertaking long voyages, such their average length, size of crew, whether they were monohulls or catamarans, as well the predominant nationalities among them.

Figures obtained from Panama and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria made it possible to calculate the average length of the boats. To arrive at a realistic figure, only boats under 60 feet were taken into account as very few of the larger boats would fit the description of a standard cruising boat. The average length of monohulls in Las Palmas was 12.97 m (42.6 ft), and multihulls 13.80 m (45.2 ft). In Panama, the average for monohulls was 15.20 m (49.8 ft), and for multihulls 15.00 m (49.1 ft), while the average length of boats over 60 ft (18 m) in Panama was 34 m (111 ft).

The number of multihulls on long voyages has been steadily increasing and this was a good opportunity to find out their proportion among cruising yachts. In Las Palmas, multihulls made up 10.1% of the total number, whereas in Panama it was much higher at 17.2%. The proportion of multihulls was even higher in ARC 2022 from Las Palmas from Gran Canaria to Saint Lucia. Among the 140 boats that sailed this classic route, over a quarter (36) were multihulls (33 catamarans and 3 trimarans), equivalent to 25.7%. The average for monohulls was 15.7 m (51.4 ft) and 14.1 m (46.3 ft) for multihulls. The size of boats taking part in the ARC  has been steadily increasing over the years and in this latest edition 31 monohulls were over 50 feet and 22 multihulls over 60 feet long.

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, 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. Statistics obtained from Gran Canaria, Azores, Tahiti, Cape Town, St Helena and the Suez Canal show that whereas in all the previous surveys, USA flagged yachts were usually in the lead, they are now superseded by the French tricoleur, with British and German boats competing for third place.



Since my first global survey in 1987, the cruising scene has seen important changes and while this survey has found that in a few places there has been an increase in the number of visiting yachts, the figures from Las Palmas, Bermuda, Panama, Tahiti, Cape Town, New Zealand and Australia 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. This aspect was the subject of my latest survey among 65 experienced sailors who were asked how their own decision would be affected were they to plan a world voyage now. Without exception every one stressed that while they were aware of the consequences of climate change, they would take that factor into account, and would still be prepared to leave on a long voyage. They all agreed that proper voyage planning was now even more important than in the past and were confident that with careful planning a safe voyage could still be accomplished.

The results of this global survey have confirmed the fact that from a peak recorded in 2010 in some of the most popular cruising destinations, there has been a steady reduction in the number of boats undertaking world voyages. The Covid pandemic has undoubtedly had a significant negative impact, but it will be interesting to see whether climate change and the uncertainty, which prevails in some parts of the world, will result in fewer people setting off on a world voyage or, as happened in similar situations in the past, more sailors will decide to leave now rather than wait until it may be too late. This seems to be already happening, as boat builders are reporting full order books, with waiting times of up to three years, and the used market is enjoying an unprecedented boom.


Carpe diem!


Jimmy Cornell

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