Considerations when writing a pilotage plan

06 March 2018

What’s a pilotage plan?

A pilotage plan should form part of your passage plan. It’s likely that you will have at least two and perhaps more, especially if you have several ports of refuge in your passage plan where access is tide dependent or tricky to navigate because of natural features and obstructions.

In simple terms, the pilotage plan should be a portable, brief guide that incorporates everything you need to know to navigate safely to your destination when inshore.

What do I need to compile a pilotage plan?

The pilotage plan will be based on data you already have access to, namely;

  • relevant and up to date Charts of the area at the appropriate scale
  • an up-to-date Almanac and/or pilot book of the area
  • vessel information, such as draft, air draft, length, etc

From the charts, vessel’s papers and the almanac the navigator can compile a pilotage plan for exit or entry to any port or navigational channel. The plan should be compiled well before it’s needed, in many cases during the creation of the passage plan, and it should be clear, simple and portable. In other words, this is the piece of paper you take to deck with you because if you lose it overboard you can always refer back to the chart rather than risk losing the chart overboard.

What’s included in a pilotage plan?

The pilotage plan will usually start at a fairway mark (when entering a channel) and will then;

  • list each relevant mark (its name and its light configuration) along the channel.
  • between each marker buoy there should be a compass bearing (ship’s compass, having allowed for variation and deviation) and
  • a distance in nautical miles or 1/10ths thereof (a cable).

In addition to port and starboard hand marks, cardinal marks and isolated danger marks, lighthouses, leading lights and transits, you should also consider;

  • obvious natural features or lit towers, etc
  • hazards, such as chain ferries, bridges, shallows, unlit mooring buoys, rocks, etc
  • check-in points where you may need to contact port radio
  • tidal times and heights for the port (and access / navigational restrictions as a result)
  • any reference to locks, visitor berths, etc
  • pertinent pilotage, navigational or communications info contained in the almanac
  • customs information and local port regulations


The pilotage plan can be an ornate and exquisite work of art representing a 2D image of the port you’re entering or, and this is the writer’s preferred option, it can be a blank A4 sheet (or more) of paper with a straight line drawn down the middle. 

In the latter case, take the paper and, along the centre line you’ve marked, mark porthand marks on the left side of the line and starboard hand marks on the right side of the line (this assumes you are entering port - it would be the opposite if leaving) and then (as with the artistic option) you simply mark the port and starboard marks, their light configuration and their light range and a bearing and distance between each. In most circumstances, staying to the starboard side of the channel makes marking bearings only on the starboard marks. This saves you cluttering your pilotage plan with too many bearings or having a strange ‘squiggly’ line meandering across the page. 

If you decide to go the artistic route, make sure it’s clear and keep it roughly to scale. Also, mark a small compass rose in one corner so that swift recalibration is possible just by glancing at the compass and the pilotage plan.

What makes a good pilotage plan?

A good pilotage plan should be simple, complete and portable. Never take your chart, almanac or navigational instruments on deck (except for your sextant of course).

What equipment should I carry to deck?

The properly attired navigator should possess;

  • a hand bearing compass
  • binoculars
  • access to the vessel’s log, depth sounder, log reading and binnacle compass
  • a VHF Radio
  • red torch or head torch (for use at night)
  • self-filling cup of sweet tea (optional)
  • possibly RADAR / AIS where available and helpful


If you properly prepare your pilotage plan, entering an unfamiliar harbour, even at night, should be no hardship whatsoever. In poor visibility you might allocate a competent crew member to monitor the RADAR, AIS and VHF radio, but in most cases a good pilotage plan will allow you to stay on deck most of the time and therefore retain night vision (when applicable) for collision avoidance and therefore instill confidence in your crew. A skipper popping up and down the companionway every 3 minutes does the opposite!

How to use a pilotage plan?

Once you have a plan prepared, you can arrive at deck confident that you know where you are and where you’re going. This is always a bonus for any navigator - and his crew!  As you pass each mark simply give a new heading to the helm and cross a line through each mark as you pass it. 

If you get lost, you can always stop and retrace your steps using a reciprocal bearing to the last mark. Remember to use tidal information and your depth sounder and refer what you see to what you should be seeing. This means you must trust your charts and your instruments.

At night, when looking for lights, always ask for the light configuration of a red or green light (or cardinal mark) and don’t tell your crew what they are looking for - because crew are awfully obliging and might just see what they are looking for rather than what’s actually there!

Remember, as with all navigation, be aware of the wind direction when entering port and be conscious of how a change of course might require a tack or gybe. Also, make sure you leave yourself space to drop sails and slow down if necessary. Furling away a headsail in a busy channel improves visibility for you and the helm. If sailing downwind, consider dropping the mainsail sooner, so as to avoid the potential for a crash gybe. After all, running a preventer when changing course regularly may not be feasible.

As with everything else in sailing and navigation, preparation is everything. Don’t just rock up at midnight in a Force 6 with a falling tide and little water under your hull and hope for the best!

Preparing a pilotage plan is an exciting part of our RYA Day Skipper practical sailing course. Click on the link for course dates and prices.

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