How to sail around the world without navigational instruments

19th November 2015


Cruise ships and other vessels of the 21st century are assisted by modern technology that is satellite navigation. The narrowest and most difficult of routes have become easier to sail than ever before. Prior to this technological advance in navigation, many tools were used to navigate the seas.

Magnetic compasses were used in China over 2,000 years ago, but were not used in Europe until the 12th century, when Italian ships started using them. Astronomical instruments such as the sextant proved to be highly useful. It enables the sailor to measure the angle between the sea horizon and the sun – from which they can then calculate the latitude. Knowledge of latitude alone wouldn’t be overly helpful without also having knowledge of longitude. For that, a reliable clock known as a chronometer was devised in 1730 that could withstand movements in a ship and show the correct time to the second. All three of these instruments became vital for sailors and were commonly used right up until the 1970’s.

But would it be possible to sail around the world without the assistance of such navigational instruments? In 1982, Marvin Creamer, a 67 year old professor of geography from New Jersey, attempted such a feat. He planned to sail around the world in his small boat, Globe Star, with the natural elements his only aid. He set off from New Jersey on 21st December 1982 and sailed eastward towards South Africa, before docking in various locations in Australia and New Zealand.

Creamer had spent the two years previous to his departure researching the possibility and making practice runs. He had an extensive knowledge of geography and, for the evenings, designated a north star, which would enable him and his crew to remain within one degree of latitude and longitude.

During the day, Creamer had to find other methods of navigation and applied his knowledge of ocean currents, marine life, water colour and temperature. New Zealand boy scouts taught Creamer how to Southern Cross and a small amount of sky to find the Polar Point. It was the leg from New Zealand to Cape Horn and Drake’s Passage, however, which would prove to be the most challenging.

His endured a treacherous ordeal along the Drake Passage, describing the currents as strong enough to turn the boat 15 degrees without realising. Creamer dislocated his shoulder and, whilst in agony, managed to cut loose his camera mount and built a makeshift steering shaft. He eventually headed north towards the Falklands, which had a reputation for being difficult to sail due to their remoteness and frequently changing conditions.

To make matters worse, the British, who were on high alert after a period of conflict, spotted him below whilst flying British fighter jets. Creamer unknowingly docked by a top secret British base and was immediately placed under house arrest. After Creamer described his objective and previous ordeal, his gained full support of the British, who treated him royally and provisioned him for the final leg of his journey northwards to New Jersey. After sailing for nearly a year and a half, Creamer arrived victoriously at his final destination on 17th May 1984.

Whilst wind-powered ships may be a thing of the past, Star Clippers tall ships still provide one of the most elegant ways to travel the world. Rather than sailing treacherous routes, though, you will be able to experience more tranquil regions such as the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Additionally, from December 2016, cruisers will also be able to experience Star Clippers in Far East Asia.

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