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Figure 8 Voyage: The Toughest Leg

Randall Reeves, author of The Figure 8 Voyage writes:

I’m often asked which leg of the Figure 8 Voyage was most difficult, the route around the bottom of the world or the one over the top.

The Figure 8 Voyage was an attempt to solo circumnavigate the Americas and Antarctica in one season, and it was my best answer to the wife’s challenge, “Make sure your next cruise is a big one.” Sailed as an eight-shaped double loop, the route included a full, north/south transit of the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, two passes beneath Cape Horn, and a run through the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic for a total of nearly 40,000 continuous miles—a rather tall order for this singlehander, who had by this time 13,000 miles under his keel but had never been south of Tahiti.

Though well prepared, I failed during the first attempt in 2017/18 when Moli, my 45-foot aluminum expedition sloop, was damaged in a knockdown west of Cape Horn and then again in the Indian Ocean. I sailed home (a circumnavigation) for a second attempt in 2018/19, departing San Francisco to the south in late September and returning successfully from the north 384 days later.

Particularly challenging was that the two high latitude legs—the historic Clipper route below the great capes and the equally historic Northwest Passage—were so different in their extremes: hard gales and heavy seas in the vast openness of the south; narrow, poorly charted waters and unpredictable pack ice in the north.

In retrospect, I think the south was the more difficult if only because it was longer. From the first pass below Cape Horn to the second required 110 days and 15,000 miles of gale-a-week sailing at an average of 47 degrees south latitude. Remoteness down here is one’s usual companion. During that entire leg, I saw two ships, tankers making way under South America because they were too big for Panama. No other evidence of humanity revealed itself, no jet contrails, no satellites, no plastic trash. On many days my closest neighbors were bunking on the International Space Station.

The north was equally strenuous, but the distances were shorter—5,500 miles from the Arctic Circle on one side of the Americas to the Arctic Circle on the other. Here the big risk was of pushing deep into the ice maze only to become encased in the pack for the ten long months of winter. In 2019, Moli and I completed this leg in 48 days.

Differences to one side, both routes amply fulfilled the requirements of adventure; they were grueling, cold, no-sleep enterprises, but, at least from the comfort of my shoreside writing desk in 2021, both were glorious fun.


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