For centuries the early explorers did not care how long they took to sail around the world. Simply, they were glad to get home with crew large enough to handle their ships. Usually it took couple of years to make their voyages, full of adventure and danger. The reason for the first voyages was to find a way to the Rich East and to make profit, then to establish fortified bases in distant countries to secure the trade. Stopping to plunder the lands and the natives along the way and claiming the remains for king and queen were normal procedures during that time.
Colonization and exploitation became the rule India for cotton, Indonesia for spices, China for tea and china, and of course Australia, first for disposal of criminals, rebels and anyone else who stood in the way of the Establishment and then for grain and wool. With financial gain to be made through swift passages, the shippers started building fast ships and demanded speedy voyages.
At their best, these ships could dash to Australia in nearly 60 days, spent about a month off and on loading, then speed home in about 70 days, thereby going around the world in almost 160 days. Unfortunately those fast clippers were replaced by the larger grain-hauling barks, until steam ships eventually replaced them.
Since Magellan proved that one could sail continuously in one direction until once again reaching ones homeport, circumnavigating the globe has been aspiration of countless sailors. Probably the first yacht to circumnavigate was British schooner Nancy Dawson in the middle of nineteen century. Joshua Slocum did the first solo circumnavigation one hundred years ago. Then others followed their example of leisure cruising from one port or anchorage to the next, until 1967-68 when Sir Francis Chichester sailed from Plymouth to Sydney and back via Cape Horn for speed.
He did not beat the clippers time, but he set the time mark for those who followed. Now the challenge became not simply to sail around the world, but to be the fastest to do so. More sailors, either solo or with crew, set out for circumnavigation and started to claim they were fastest. And here the trouble started.
As we know the speed is calculated as time over distance. During circumnavigation the time is done by our calendar system but the distance could be very different. Basically, to circle the globe means that you cross all 360 meridians of longitude. If everybody would be able to do it on the equator, everything would be OK because everybody would have to cover the same distance for the speed claim. The problem is that you can cross all 360 meridians close to the North or South Pole and you may claim that you have done circumnavigation as well.
If you do it a few feet off the pole, you can be very fast too, but would it be fair to claim it as a circumnavigation?
So how to set fair rules for specification of circumnavigation, especially when everybody can start the voyage in a different corner of the world? The answer is very simple: you must at least follow a great circle. But what is a great circle?
A great circle is a line traced on the surface of the globe by a plane cutting through the sphere at its center. It is a largest circle, which can be drawn on the surface of globe.
All longitudes are great circles because the plane cutting through every meridian of longitude cuts through the center of globe as well as through North and South Pole. Unfortunately there is no way to sail just following meridians.
If you put plane through the latitudes, only plane going through equator crosses the center of the globe and therefore only equator is a great circle. But again, you cannot sail following the equator, because the continents.
The simplest way to prove that one followed the great circle is to put the plane through any point of ones sailing, preferably through the start point, and through the center of the globe, and then to find the opposite point on that plane the point called antipode. Simply put, if somebodys journey crosses pair of antipodes, he sailed a great circle (most probably even more due to passing around the continents), and he can claim true circumnavigation.
If a trip did not cross a pair of antipodes, the sailing did not follow the great circle. It does not matter how much shorter voyage was, even if the passage was longer that the one done just around the pole, the claim has no merit and is doubtful. Also the Guinness Book of Records required a passage to contain at least one pair of antipodes to be considered a circumnavigation.
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