Its Place in History

The Figure 8 Voyage connects two historic sailing routes, one of which has only recently opened to small boats.

The Clipper Route around the bottom of the world has been accessible to sailing craft with stout hearts for ages, but the frozen Northwest Passage is a different story. Only in 2007 did the Arctic ice pack recede enough to allow transit by a small boat.

The Clipper Route

sir francis drake map

Sir Francis Drake Circumnavigation, 1577 – 1580

Prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, commerce between Europe and the American west and Asia required ships to shape a course down to the stormy southern ocean and around menacing promontories like Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope.

Cape Horn was successfully rounded for the first time in 1520 by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan and not again until the voyage of Sir Francis Drake in 1577. Even in the late 1700s when Captain James Cook lead three voyages of discovery around the globe, shipping in these waters was far from routine.

Though dangerous, the strong winds of the high latitude south allowed for fast passages, and in the 19th century the bulk cargo square riggers, known as Clippers, often pushed their ships to new speed records between ports like Liverpool and Melbourne, New York and San Francisco.

The Golden Globe Race, the first solo, non-stop, round the world attempt, utilized these southern ocean routes. In 1968, nine small boats set off from England to sail the world below the three capes–Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope and Cape Leeuwin. Only one boat completed the course. Robin Knox Johnston in Suhali returned to Falmouth after eight and a half months at sea and traversing over 26,000 miles of open ocean. Bernard Moitessier in Joshua was a chasing second and gaining on Suhali when he decided to quit the race and continue on to Tahiti because “I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.”

The Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage

Assumed Northwest Passage Route of 1687

Though fast, the Clipper Route is both long and arduous. For centuries it has been known that a much shorter sailing route between major continental ports was not around the bottom of the world, but over the top, and its discovery has lighted many an arctic explorer to expeditions of disaster.

Attempts at the Northwest Passage date back to 1497 when John Cabot made it no further than present day Newfoundland before being frozen out by icepack. The many advances and many failures over the centuries–some spectacular failures, like that of the Sir John Franklin expedition of 1845–meant that though most of the coastline north of Canada and Alaska had been charted, no ship had made the entire route until Raold Amendsen’s success in Gjoa in 1905, and even he was frozen in (albeit intentionally) for two winters.

​Only in the last six years has the northern ice pack receded enough in summer for the Northwest Passage to be practicable for small boats. The first American crewed sailing yacht to complete an east to west transit, Cloud Nine, did so in 2007, and it wasn’t until 2012 that the route was successfully singlehanded by Matt Rutherford in tiny St. Brendan, simply one leg of his first-ever circumnavigation of the Americas.