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To circumnavigate, to navigate a circumference, such as an island, a continent, or the Earth, is to travel all the way around the edge, particularly when in control of the route taken. It is a term used very much to describe travelling all the way around the world by any method.

World circumnavigation

In principle, if a person walks around either Pole, they will have crossed all meridians, but this is not generally considered a "circumnavigation." A basic definition of a world circumnavigation would be a route which covers at least a great circle, and in particular one which passes through at least one pair of points antipodal to each other. In practice, different definitions of world circumnavigation are used, in order to accommodate practical constraints depending on the method of travel. Since the world is a sphere, a trip from one Pole to the other, and back again, would technically be a circumnavigation, but practical difficulties generally preclude such a voyage.

For the wealthy, long voyages around the world, such as was done by Ulysses S. Grant, became possible in the 19th century, and the World Wars moved vast numbers of troops around the planet. However, it was later improvements in technology and rising incomes that made such trips relatively common.


The map on the right shows, in red, a typical sailing circumnavigation of the world by the trade winds and the Suezmarker and Panamamarker canals; overlaid in yellow are the points antipodal to all points on the route. It can be seen that the route roughly approximates a great circle, and passes through two pairs of antipodal points. This is a route followed by many cruising sailors; the use of the trade winds makes it a relatively easy sail, although it passes through a number of zones of calms or light winds.

The route of a typical yacht racing circumnavigation is shown in red; its antipodes are shown in yellow.
In yacht racing, a round-the-world route approximating a great circle would be quite impractical, particularly in a non-stop race where use of the Panama and Suez Canals would be impossible. Yacht racing therefore defines a world circumnavigation to be a passage of at least 21,600 nautical miles (40,000 km) in length which crosses the equator, crosses every meridian and finishes in the same port as it starts. The map on the left shows the route of the Vendée Globe round-the-world race in red; overlaid in yellow are the points antipodal to all points on the route. It can be seen that the route does not pass through any pairs of antipodal points. Since the winds in the lower latitudes predominantly blow west-to-east it can be seen that there is an easier route (west-to-east) and a harder route (east-to-west) when circumnavigating by sail; this difficulty is magnified for square-rig vessels.

Since the advent of world cruises in 1922, by Cunard's Lanconia, thousands of people have completed circumnavigations of the globe at a more leisurely pace. Typically, these voyages begin in New York Citymarker or Southamptonmarker, and proceed westward. Routes vary, either travelling through the Caribbean and then into the Pacific Ocean via the Panama Canal, or around Cape Hornmarker. From there ships usually make their way to Hawaii, the islands of the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, then northward to Hong Kong, South East Asia, and India. At that point, again, routes may vary: one way is through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean; the other is around Cape of Good Hopemarker and then up the west coast of Africa. These cruises end in the port where they began.


Since the development of commercial aviation many thousands of people have flown around the world. Some regular routes, such as the old Pan American Flight One, circled the globe, and today planning such a trip through various connections is quite simple.

Aviation records take account of the wind circulation patterns of the world; in particular the jet streams, which circulate in the northern and southern hemispheres without crossing the equator. There is therefore no requirement to cross the equator, or to pass through two antipodal points, in the course of setting a round-the-world aviation record. Thus, for example, Steve Fossettmarker's global circumnavigation by balloon was entirely contained within the southern hemisphere.

For powered aviation, the course of a round-the-world record must start and finish at the same point and cross all meridians; the course must be at least 36,787.559 kilometres (22,858.729 mi) long (which is the length of the Tropic of Cancermarker). The course must include set control points at latitudes outside the Arctic and Antarctic circles.

In ballooning, which is totally at the mercy of the winds, the requirements are even more relaxed. The course must cross all meridians, and must include a set of checkpoints which are all outside of two circles, chosen by the pilot, having radii of 3,335.85 kilometres (2,072.80 mi) and enclosing the poles (though not necessarily centred on them).


Though no one has completed a true circumnavigation solely by human power there have been notable attempts. Guidelines issued by Guinness World Records in December 2006 state that a human powered circumnavigation must travel a minimum of 36,787.559 km (the distance of the Tropic of Cancer), cross the Equator, and each leg must commence at the exact point where the last finished off. There are no requirements to reach antipodal points. To date no one has completed a human-powered circumnavigation according to the guidelines set by Guinness.

People have both bicycled and run around the world, but the oceans have had to be covered by air travel, making the distance shorter than the Guinness guidelines.

Notable circumnavigations


  • Juan Sebastián Elcano 1519-1522, Ferdinand Magellan's expedition, 1519-1522 expedition. At the behest of the Spanish crown Magellan led the first expedition to circumnavigate the world, sailing between August 1519 and April 1521. However, he was killed in the Philippine island of Cebu in April 27, 1521. His second in command, the Spanish Basque Juan Sebastián Elcano, from Getariamarker, Basque Countrymarker, completed the journey to Spain in 1522. The 18 survivors of Ferdinand Magellan's expedition, in the Victoria completed the circumnavigation returning to Sanlucar de Barrameda-Sevillemarker on 8 September 1522 after a journey of 3 years and 1 month. (Seventeen more survivors later returned.) So Elcano was the first navigator to circumnavigate the world.
  • Andres Urdaneta, 1525-1528. He achieved in 1528 the second world circumnavigation after an expedition which lasted nine years (Loaísa Expedition).
  • Francis Drake, 1577-1580, led the first Englishmarker expedition to circumnavigate the world.
  • Martín Ignacio de Loyola, 1580–1584 and 1585-1589. First person to circumnavigate the world twice, and first one doing so in each of both directions (westwards and eastwards).
  • Pedro Cubero, 1670–1679. First around the world including significant travel overland.
  • William Dampier, 1679–1691; 1703–1707; and 1708–1711. First person to circumnavigate the world three times.
  • John Byron in HMS Dolphin, June 1764-May 1766. First circumnavigation in less than 2 years.
  • James Cook, between 1768 and 1779, made two circumnavigations and completed most of a third, though he died before the third could actually be completed.
  • HMS Driver, first steamship to circumnavigate the world, in 1847.
  • Argo, first steamship to intentionally circumnavigate the world, in 1853.
  • Corvette Zaragoza 1896-1897 First circumnavigation by a Mexican vessel and crew.
  • Joshua Slocum, 1895–1898, first single-handed circumnavigation.
  • Vito Dumas, 1942, first single-handed passage of the three Great Capes. First successful single-handed passage of Cape Hornmarker.
  • USS Tritonmarker, 1960, first submerged circumnavigation.
  • Francis Chichester, 1966-1967, first single-handed circumnavigation by the clipper route; fastest circumnavigation (nine months and one day).
  • Robin Knox-Johnston, 1968-1969, first single-handed non-stop circumnavigation.
  • Serge Testa, 1984-1987, circumnavigation in smallest boat.
  • CCGS Hudson, 1970, first circumnavigation of North and South America.

It has also been claimed that the Chinese explorer Zheng He completed a circumnavigation on either of his two last expeditions. Although he undoubtedly commanded a fleet much larger in size and number than any contemporary European one, and he performed extensive travels, for long unknown by the western world, there is no evidence that he ever traveled west beyond Africa. Most scholars regard speculations of a circumnavigation as "deeply flawed and dubious".

There are several people under the age of 18 who are attempting single-handed circumnavigations. None have yet to complete one without any assistance (as defined by the Guinness Book of Records), but currently the record for the youngest to complete a solo circumnavigation is recognized to be Englishmanmarker Michael Perham, who completed his journey at the age of 17 years, 5 months, 11 days on August 27, 2009.


In 1949, The Lucky Lady II, a B-50A of the U. S. Air Force, commanded by Captain James Gallagher, became the first airplane to circle the world nonstop. This was achieved by refueling the plane in flight.
  • Archie J. Old Jr. was the leading commander of the first non-stop round-the-world jet flight in January 1957.
  • Jerrie Mock April 1964, first woman to complete a solo aerial circumnavigation.
  • Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager December 1986, first non-stop, non-refueled, aerial circumnavigation.
  • Steve Fossettmarker, 3 March 2005, first non-stop, non-refueled, solo circumnavigation in an aircraft, 67 hours, covering 37,000 kilometres.
  • Barrington Irving, March-June 2007 (97 days), youngest person to circumnavigate the world solo in an aircraft.

Mixed travel

  • David Kunst was the first verified person to walk around the world between 20 June 1970 and 10 October 1974. Several hitchhikers including Kinga Freespirit and Ludovic Hubler also claim to have traveled around the world.
  • Robert Garside achieved the first fully-authenticated run around the world between 1997–2003, taking 2,062 days to cover across 29 countries and 6 continents.
  • Jesper Olsen in 2004, Colin Angus in 2006, Jason Lewis in 2007 and Rosie Swale-Pope in 2008 completed circumnavigations using solely human power, though none conformed to Guinness guidelines.


  1. Definition of a Circumnavigation
  2. Sailing Speed Record Council Rules 2005–2008, sec. 26, Record Courses
  3. FAI Sporting Code Section 2: Powered Aerodynes: Speed around the world non-stop and non-refuelled
  4. FAI Sporting Code Section 1: Aerostats: Around-the-World Records
  5. About Circumnavigations
  6. :Category:Pedestrian circumnavigators of the globe
  7. Magellan's Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation.'Magellan's Voyage' By Antonio Pigafetta, Raleigh Ashlin Skelton. Published by Courier Dover Publications, 1994. ISBN 0486280993, 9780486280998
  9. Ludovic Hubler's Travel Travel Around the World
  10. Around-World Runner Honoured from the New York Post.

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