How to race around the world.

How to race around the world.

How to race around the world.

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 1 2005 5:34 PM

How To Race Around the World

Which way should you go?

No stopping  to ask for directions
No stopping to ask for directions

Millionaire maverick and adventure pilot Steve Fossett took off early this morning for what could be the first nonstop solo flight around the world. His record-breaking flight will take him over North America, Africa, and Asia; he'll cover tens of thousands of miles in about three days. Could he have picked a shorter way around the globe?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate.

Not if he wanted his journey recognized by the World Air Sports Federation, which keeps records for remarkable flights involving anything from hot-air balloons to spacecraft. According to federation rules, an around-the-world flight must start and finish at the same airport, cover at least 36,787.559 kilometers, and cross every longitudinal meridian.


The exact distance used corresponds to the length of the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the rings circling the globe 23.5 degrees north and south of the equator, respectively. If around-the-world pilots had to fly around the equator, they would need to traverse an additional 3,287.601 kilometers, which is about 9 percent of the required course.

The FAI also gives out "circumnavigation badges" to anyone who can prove they piloted a flight around the world. You can get up to four diamonds on your badge for going east, going west, taking the polar route, or traveling nonstop like Fossett.

Three weeks ago, Ellen MacArthur completed a 71-day voyage around the world in a sailboat, setting the record for a solo trip. (Steve Fossett set the record for sailing around the world with a crew, in April 2004.) Sailors have to travel somewhat longer distances than pilots.

The World Sailing Speed Record Council, which keeps track of around-the-world sailing records, dictates that a voyage must be at least 21,600 nautical miles, or about 40,000 kilometers. The voyage must also start from and return to the same point, and cross all of the meridians as well as the equator. The route can recross some of the meridians but not all of them, so sailing around Antarctica twice won't count for a record.

The classic route begins near France and England, heads around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, and proceeds east around the globe, leaving Australia and New Zealand on the port side, before rounding the southern tip of South America and returning to Europe. Prevailing winds make the same trip in reverse much more difficult. The first circumnavigation of the globe, by Ferdinand Magellan in the early 16th century, followed a similar path going west, but skipped north of Australia.

Explainer thanks Dan Nowlan of the United States Sailing Association.