First to sail around the world

The Age of Discovery was led by the the great sea adventurers in their search for a route to spice markets of the Far East when the eastern Mediterranean were blocked by powerful rivals.

When Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to reach India in 1498, the Portuguese concentrated their efforts to the south and east. The Spanish, who agreed to divide the world in two with the Portuguese in the Treaty of Tordesillas on 7 June 1494, sailed west. They were not aware of the American continents and no one knew there was a Pacific Ocean.

The New World

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), an Italian who had moved to Spain, theorized that since the earth was a sphere, a ship could reach the Far East from the opposite direction. He convinced the monarchs to sponsor his search, setting sail in August 1492 with a fleet of three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the flagship Santa Maria.

After 10 weeks, he sighted an island in the Bahamas, which he named San Salvador. Thinking he had found islands near Japan, he sailed on until he reached Cuba (which he thought was China) and Haiti. He encountered dark-skinned peoples whom he called “Indians” because he assumed he had been sailing in the Indian Ocean.

Columbus made 3 more voyages to the New World which he thought was the East, in 1493, 1497 and 1502, exploring Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, and Trinidad. He never reached North America, and until he died, thought he had reached Asia.

santa-maria-replicaReplica of the Santa Maria. Photo via Library of Congress

North America already discovered

Columbus did not know but Viking ships reached North America almost 500 year before he had set sail.

Sailing from Iceland in mid-990, Biarni Heriolfsson was blown off course and located an unknown land. He did not explore or name it. In 1002 Leifr Eiriksson backtracked Biarni’s course and reached the coast of present-day Canada.

Eiriksson then sailed south and discovered an island he called Vinland (present-day Newfoundland) where he established a colony and traded for 3 years with the native population known as Skraelings. The Skraelings eventually forced them to leave, but the Vikings continued to sail to Canada for timber.

“New Found Land”

In 1497, King Henry VII granted John Cabot (1450-1498) a charter to explore. On 2 May Cabot and a crew of 18 left Bristol, England in a small ship called The Matthew.

Cabot sailed farther north than Columbus did, out of the way of the Spanish territories. On 24 June the crew sighted land. Cabot was convinced he had found an island off the coast of Asia and named it “new found land.” It was the first documented landing in Newfoundland since the Viking voyages.

Cabot returned to England on 6 August 1497, and although he brought no spices or treasure back with him, he was the first to map out the North American coast.

the-matthew-replica-photo-by-carolyn-eatonReplica of Cabot’s The Matthew.
Photo by Carolyn Eaton via The Matthew of Bristol

Naming “America”


Amerigo Vespucci

The Portuguese-Spanish dividing line ran through the Atlantic with Spain gaining lands to the west, including the Americas. Brazil was granted to Portugal, who gained eastern Africa and India. But without accurate measurements, the question on the exact line persisted.

In 1501, King Manuel I of Portugal dispatched fleets to Brazil, one of the officers being the Italian Amerigo Vespucci. He was among the first explorers to report that South America was a continent, not an island, calling it the “New World”.

An excellent mapmaker, Vespucci sold copies of his maps to German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller, who, when reproducing it in 1507, gave Vespucci credit by writing his first name on the South American continent. Thus the southern continent became known as “America”.

The first circumnavigation

The first circumnavigation of the globe was led by Ferdinand Magellan, who was born in Oporto, Portugal in 1480.

In 1505, Magellan enlisted in the navy where he learned seamanship and naval warfare under Portuguese viceroys in India. In 1509, he took part in the Battle of Die, which gave Portugal supremacy over the Indian Ocean. For 7 years he traded from Cochin, China and Malacca.

Like Columbus before him, Magellan believed he would reach the Far East by sailing west. Snubbed by the Portuguese king, Magellan convinced the Spanish king, Charles I that at least some of the Spice Islands lay in the Spanish half of the undiscovered world.

In September 1519 Magellan set sail with 280 men on 5 ships (San Antonio, Santiago, Trinidad, Victoria, and Concepcion) on a voyage fraught with hardship and mutiny.

An Italian nobleman on the ship, Antonio Pigafetta, kept a diary of the voyage. They crossed the equator on 20 November 1519 and sighted Brazil on 6 December. Magellan thought it unwise to go near the Portuguese territory since he was sailing under the Spanish flag and anchored near present-day Rio de Janiero on 13th December. They were greeted by Guarani Indians who believed the white men to be gods and showered them with goods.

After stocking up, they sailed south, reaching Patagonia (Argentina) in March 1520. The Santiago was sent to explore further south and was lost in a gale.

In August, Magellan decided it was time to move further south to look for a passage through to the east. By October they sighted a strait. During the passage, the captain of San Antonia turned his ship back toward Spain, taking most of the fleet’s provisions.

Into the vast Pacific

The remaining 3 ships emerged from the strait to the Pacific by end-November. Magellan thought the Spice Islands were a short voyage away but they sailed for 96 days without sighting land. Conditions aboard the ships were abominable. The crew survived on sawdust, leather strips, and rats. Finally, in January 1521, they stopped off at an island to feast.

In March, they reached Guam. The Armada de Maluco reached the Philippines (which Magellan named San Lazaro) on 15 March 1521. He anchored at Suluan on 16 March and went to Homonhon on 17 March.

On 28 March 1521 Magellan and his fleet made landfall at Mazaua. After befriending an island king, Magellan foolishly got involved in a tribal war and was killed in battle on 27 April 1521.

Sebastian del Cano took command of the ships and 115 survivors. Because there were not enough men to crew 3 ships, he burned the Concepcion.

They sailed to the Moluccas (Spice Islands) in November, loading valuable spices. To guarantee that at least one ship would make it back to Spain, the Trinidad went east across the Pacific, while the Victoria continued west.

The Trinidad was seized by the Portuguese and most of her crew were killed.

The Victoria managed to elude the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. On 6 September 1522, almost three years from the day it began its historic journey, the Victoria and 18 crew members (Pigafetta among them) arrived in Spain. They were the first to circumnavigate the globe.

When the Victoria’s spices were auctioned, the income was high enough to cover all the expenses of the voyage and even produce profit.

nao-victoria-replicaNao Victoria replica, built 1992. Img Wikipedia Victoria

Vicente de Jesus contributed to this article as follows:

“On March 28, 1521 Magellan and his fleet made landfall at Mazaua, a mystery island that is the object of a controversy parallel to the Columbus first landfall question. My studies show Mazaua is in 9 degrees N. A team of geologists, geomorphologist and archaeologist was hired in year 2000 to search for the isle and have discovered a most improbable thing: an isle that has been fused with mainland Mindanao at Butuan City. We hope to excavate and find authentic remnants of Magellan’s visit. If indeed this was Mazaua, there’s no question there will be material proof of Magellan’s having been to this isle.”

magellanshipImage shows the replica of the flagship Trinidad, the ship in which Ferdinand Magellan led the first circumnavigation of the world.

The correct Portuguese name of Ferdinand Magellan is Fernao do Magalhaes. The family coat of arms of Magalhaes are Argent, three fesses chequy Gules and Or. Fernao wasn’t the head of the main branch but the family line continues to this day.

The second circumnavigation

The second circumnavigation of the globe was accomplished by the pirate-turned-explorer Englishman Francis Drake (1540-1596).

Seeing Spain amassing a new vast empire, Queen Elizabeth I secretly sent Drake to the west, with the added intent to harass the Spanish. On 13 December 1577 Drake sailed from Plymouth, England with 6 ships under his command.

In September 1578 five of the ships turned back at the Strait of Magellan while Drake sailed on in the Golden Hind.

By June 1579 he had reached the coast of present-day California and sailed as far north as the present-day United States-Canadian border. He then turned southwest and crossed the Pacific Ocean in 2 months. He voyaged through the Indies, across the Indian Ocean, and around the Cape of Good Hope.

With the Golden Hind laden with gold and spices, he sailed into Plymouth on 26 September 1580, the first captain to circumnavigate the globe.

Captain Cook

Another famous circumnavigation was that of James Cook. He sailed from England on 25 August 1768 aboard the Endeavour with 94 crewmen and scientists. On 11 April 1769, they reached Tahiti. On government orders, they sailed south, reaching New Zealand on 6 October. By April 1770, Cook explored and documented Australia.

The Endeavour then made its way to Java, sailing on past the Cape of Good Hope.

On 13 July 1771 Cook sailed into Dover. Following the historic 3-year journey, he was appointed Naval Commander by King George III.

First solo circumnavigation

joshuaslocum Joshua Slocum, who was born in Nova Scotia in 1844, became an American citizen and Captain Slocum at age 25. On 24 April 1895, at 51-year old, Slocum sailed out of Boston in his 11m (37ft) sloop Spray, a decrepit oyster dredger that he had rebuilt himself. Slocum crossed the Atlantic toward the Suez Canal.

In Gibraltar, he was warned of pirates in the Mediterranean. So, he started back across the Atlantic, and headed down the Brazilian coast, through the hellish Strait of Magellan. He faced deadly currents, rocky coasts and heavy seas as he sailed around Australia, the Cape of Good Hope, and across the Atlantic.

On 27 June 1898, more than 3 years and 74000km (46,000 miles) later, Joshua Slocum entered Newport, Rhode Island, as the first man to sail around the world solo.

sprayJoshua Slocum’s Spray. Img Wikipedia Spray

Later, planning a voyage up the Amazon, Slocum set sail from Vineyard Haven on November 14, 1909, but he was lost with his ship.

First around with only one stop

gypsymothiv The honor of being the first to sail around the world alone with only one stop went to Francis Chichester (1902-1972).

In 1966, the 64-year old Chichester sailed his 16m (53ft) ketch Gypsy Moth IV from England.

The steering mechanism broke 3 700km (2,300 miles ) from Australia. Soon after leaving Sydney, the Gipsy capsized but righted itself. Around the Cape Horn, Chichester faced 15m (50ft) high waves. But he was not a man to step back from a challenge. In 1960, he was the winner of the first single-hand transatlantic race. Chichester also made the world’s first solo long distance flight in a seaplane (England to Australia).

On 28 May 1967, after 226 days at sea, he was welcomed back by a half-million people at Plymouth, England.

First solo non-stop circumnavigation

From Wikipedia: “On 14 June 1968 Robin Knox-Johnston left Falmouth, UK in his 32-foot (9.8-meter) boat Suhaili, one of the smallest boats to enter the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Despite losing his self-steering gear off Australia, he rounded Cape Horn on 17 January 1969, 20 days before his closest competitor Bernard Moitessier, who subsequently abandoned the race and sailed on to Tahiti. The other seven competitors dropped out at various stages, leaving Knox-Johnston to win the race and become officially the first man to circumnavigate the globe non-stop and single-handed on 22 April 1969, the day he returned to Falmouth.”

suhaili-robin-knox-johnstonRobin Knox-Johnston, Suhaili, first solo non-stop circumnavigation.

Around alone

Today, sailing single-handedly non-stop around the world grabs the imagination more than ever.

Chay Blyth, nicknamed “the man of steel” became one of few when he sailed against the winds around the world from east to west aboard the ketch British Steel in 1971, completing the voyage in 302 days.

Two years later Frenchman Alain Colas aboard his trimaran Manureva circumnavigated around the 3 great capes, taking only 129 days to complete the voyage.

The first woman to sail solo around the world was Krystyna Chojnowska- Liskiewicz, starting the journey in the Canary Islands on February 28, 1976 and completing it there 401 days later, on April 2, 1978.

In 1979, 29-year-old Naomi James braved the seas for 272 days to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe via Cape Horn, the classic “Clipper Route.”

The first woman to circumnavigate the world single-handed non-stop was Kay Cottee, completing the 189-day feat on June, 5 1998.

On 21 May 2008, Adrian Flanagan became the first person to complete a single-handed, vertical circumnavigation, covering the 31 000 miles in 405 days 18 hours 50 minutes.

Australian Jon Sanders circumnavigated the globe 9 times single-handedly, the ninth time in 2015 at age 75. He also achieved a remarkable non-stop triple circumnavigation between May 1986 and March 1988, covering 131,535km (71,023 nautical miles) – the longest distance ever sailed continuously by any vessel.

His other records, according to his Wikipedia page, includes:

  • First solo circumnavigation trip east to west mostly sailing through tropics (1970).
  • The first single-handed sailor to remain continuously at sea twice around the world (1981 – 1982).
  • First circumnavigation of Antarctica, circling the continent twice in 1981 – 1982.
  • First single-handed sailor to round the five southern most Capes twice on one voyage.
  • First single-handed sailor to round the five southern most Capes twice.
  • Longest distance continuously sailed by any yacht: 48,510 miles (78,070 km).
  • Longest period alone at sea during a continuous voyage: 419 days: 22 hours: 10 minutes.

The circumnavigation contests

Circumnavigation had become the rage, as with the Whitbread race, now known as the Volvo Ocean Race.

In 1982, British company BOC Gasses launched the BOC Challenge single-handed race around the world, with stops: “One person, One boat, Around the world.” It was renamed AroundAlone in 1998 but continued as the Velux 5 Oceans in 2006. The race is managed by Clipper Events, who also handle the Clipper Race.

In 1989, two times winner of the BOC Challenge, Frenchman Philippe Jeantot, launched the idea of a single-handed non-stop race around the world. The Vendee Globe is extreme, the “official supplier of legends.” The finish line literally is a world away.

The Barcelona World Race, since 2007, is a non-stop around the world yacht race along the Clipper route for a crew of two.



In 120AD, Egyptian mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus) invents a number of projections whereby an area on the curved surface of the Earth can be represented on a flat surface. His geography is introduced in Europe in 1406 and with the invention of the printing press in 1450 his plans are published and widely accepted.

Shipping company Cunard Laconia introduced the first around-the-world cruise on the Laconia in 1922. More about cruise liners.

The quest to become the first to circumnavigate the earth in a hot air balloon

It took 175 days to complete the first circumnavigate of earth by air

World Sailing Speed Records

World on Water sailing news and documentaries on YouTube.

Contributions to this story made by Susanna Viljanen.

02/04/2010. Category: vehicles. Tags: , , , , .

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