The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Is It An Expedition Or A Cruise?

Last week a friend gave us a catalogue of “expedition” cruises offered by National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. The glossy photograph-filled magazine touts cruises that you can take to some of the world’s most remote places. The sales pitch runs along the lines of: Buy a ticket, fly to Chile, board a luxury small cruise ship and suddenly you are part of an expedition in the footsteps of Shackleton.

Now I’m not knocking such cruises. I think it is great that people can access these very special places in a safe and, in the case of the National Geographic ships (I assume), reasonably environmentally friendly way.

But these trips are not expeditions, they are cruises. An expedition, at least in my opinion, is something that the participants plan and execute themselves.

For example, a couple from, say Massachusetts, who save to buy a cruising boat, fit her out, learn to sail her safely, and then spend a summer holiday sailing the 200 odd miles to Roque Island, Maine, perhaps including their first overnight sail, are, at least to me, on an expedition. They will be exposed, probably for the first time, to 25-foot tides and fog so thick you can hardly see the bow. And they will succeed or fail at dealing with these challenges by themselves.

Contrast this to a couple that boards a plane flown by someone else, to meet a ship crewed by someone else, to make a voyage planned by someone else, to board a Zodiac piloted by someone else, to land on a beach pre-checked for dangers by someone else.

To me, one of the many wonderful things about offshore voyaging in small boats is that every cruise is an expedition, regardless of how far we go, because we do it ourselves.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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chris andrews

An expedition technically is defined as “a journey or excursion undertaken for a specific purpose”. This, at least, is how it is defined by Merriam Webster. I do agree that there is a connotation in the term that encompasses a certain sense of adventure or individual effort.

I had the pleasure of going on a Quark “expedition” trip to Antarctica. The ship was an old Russian ship with an ice rated hull (read round bilges and rolly in beam seas). It carried 110 passengers who shelled out more than I could pay for such a trip. I was the ship’s physician but was lucky enough to work as a dinghy driver as well because they were short and I had the experience. When I set out on the trip I will admit I shared the same somewhat jaded view of this undertaking as a cruise ship adventure all be it to an epic destination. The first breakfast out was runny scrambled eggs in a windowless mess hall low down in the bow of the ship. Clearly this was not a Carnival Cruise ship.

There was a 78 year old lady on the trip traveling alone. I was not sure we would get across the Drake without her falling and breaking a hip. Not only did she survive the crossing with no more mal de mer than the rest, she also accomplished every shore landing. These were done in 20 foot zodiacs with loading from a narrow platform at the bottom of a narrow set of stairs. This had to be timed and she was bodily loaded onto zodiacs rising and falling 4 plus feet in swells. The only thing worse was getting her off on rocky beaches with not inconsequential beach breaks. No where that I would take my own dinghy.

She made every landing and made it home without any serious injuries. To her this was at least a great adventure if not an expedition. Many if not most of Shackleton’s men could never have planned and executed what he accomplished. Despite that they were part of an expedition.

That said it is clearly a marketing term. What ever you call it… an expedition, an adventure cruise. It doesn’t matter as long as it connects people to the wilderness in a way that they may never be able to accomplish on their own. Thats ok with me as long as they don’t make my wilderness too crowded.


Hi Chris,

A really good point, thanks. For the older lady it was definitely an expedition! I should have thought of that because my own mother made the same trip at 80+, complete with a plastic hip joint.

Just to clarify, my purpose in the post was not to deride those that go on cruise ships, but rather to applaud those that sail their own boats, no matter how short the voyage.

chris andrews

Thanks John,
Good point. An expedition or adventure trip is scaleable. What some see as an adventure others see as insane. We should all be out there looking for adventure within the scope of our experience, tolerance for risk, limitation of plastic joints, etc… Some of my best adventures have actually been some of the least costly.

Martin Muller

Valid points all round, although I think ‘risk’ is an important ingredient. When you have to take personal responsibility for a journey where poor preparation and decisions can cost life, that type of journey and participation may be most deserving of respect. And could bring the highest sense of satisfaction or accomplishment.
If a journey has virtually no potential for danger, or you have no responsibility for making safety decisions, I think the accomplishment is less.
If we compare a small yacht crossing an ocean, with the same yacht accompanied at all times by a 40m cruiser, there is quite a big difference in risk and accomplishment, even if physically everything was the same – same equipment, crew, skills, route etc.

Patrick Lewis

Hi – interesting discussion
I used to guide as a naturalist aboard one of those cruise ships going to the Antarctic Peninsula and offering “expedition” tourism. Indeed such expeditions are a fantastic opportunity for passengers to visit one of the last true wilderness areas remaining on the planet – and having seen the looks of adrenalin charged joy on the faces of hundreds of passengers I can testify that this is a profound and moving experience. On the other-hand … you are offered the wilderness experience without the challenge of adversity. You get access to Antarctica without tackling head-on the elements, waves and ice that have kept this corner of the globe isolated.

That said, I guess “expeditions” are about pushing our own boundaries. As explorers we are hardly likely to discover new lands anymore but we can still explore the world – for some this is a cruise ship, for others it is throwing ourselves headlong into the Southern Ocean aboard a 34ft yacht.

As for me? I loved every minute of the job but I’m now living aboard my own sailboat and preparing to make my own voyages to the ends of the earth. That is my boundary to explore. But I still think that anyone who is motivated enough to step outside of their comfort zone and do something spectacular deserves to boast of their expedition regardless of the scale.

Scott Flanders

You betcha. Currently Egret is in Fremantle. She will return to the U.S. next spring then on to your part of the world via Greenland, Iceland and so on wintering in Norway (free dock) We are very much looking forward to cruising in N Europe. Scott & Mary Flanders


Hi Martin,

The point about risk is a really good one and adds a lot to my original post, thanks.

To all: My goal with the post was to inspire discussion. What is really gratifying is the high level of that discussion. Thank you all.

Robert Bond

I prefer Captain Sterling Hayden’s version: “To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… “cruising” it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about.”

Does everyone need to feel superior to everyone else? Is that what it’s all about?