How to prepare a passage plan

16 May 2017

Preparing a passage plan is no more than a formal visualisation of the voyage you intend to take. Running through the passage in your head is a great way to highlight specific issues or potential areas that require more consideration and/or preparation.

For professional skippers preparing a written passage plan is a legal requirement and under SOLAS V there is now a legal requirement for the occasional sailor going to sea to compile a passage plan.

We all know from our school days, putting things down on paper helps us to crystallise our thoughts as well as highlighting our ‘workings’! If things go wrong, having evidence of a carefully prepared passage plan can be very useful - especially if the authorities become involved.  We can all get into difficulties at sea. Planning to avoid as many as possible is just common sense.

How then, do we prepare a passage plan before a voyage? 

The first thing to do is harvest as much relevant information as you can. This will include estimates and assumptions of course, but some things are factual.

Here are list of things to consider when preparing a passage plan;

  • Proposed destination port and estimated date and time of arrival.
  • Proposed port of departure.
  • Type of vessel and basic data including size and type, draft length overall (LOA) and seaworthiness (this should include knowledge of her displacement and stability curve if you intend a longer offshore passage). Check what sail plans are available (e.g. how many reefs do you have? Do you carry a trisail and storm gib? How do you rig the storm sails).  Check the engine type and fuel capacity, cruising speed under sail and engine, safety equipment and critical spares and tools on board, communications equipment (radio check), battery capacity and water capacity.
  • Check tides and currents and the weather forecast (both area specific and further afield). A large scale synopsis will help you better understand what to expect if the reality differs from the forecast.
  • Check the charts and by reference to the information listed above, start to plan your voyage by setting out specific waypoints on the chart. The waypoints should be chosen to keep you away from dangers and also with careful consideration of the wind direction and speed as well as tidal flows.
  • Once you have an approximate route you can plan how long the passage is likely to take by referring to the likely sea state (from tidal and weather predictions) and cruising speed.
  • You now have an approximate passage and likely time it will take to complete.
  • At this point, work back down the route referring to the chart and the tides / weather forecast to make sure that you do not arrive at known tidal gates (such as narrow channels and headlands) at the wrong time. By adjusting your plan you will eventually decide the best time to leave to allow you to make best advantage of the tide and make the journey as pleasant as possible.
  • In an ideal world, you will leave on the tide and sweep effortlessly through every tidal gate, arriving at your planned destination in good light, ideally a couple of hours after sunrise, thus allowing you to refer to shore lights and lighthouses on your distant approach whilst being able to identify landmarks and marina entrances on arrival. If you manage this you’ll make your passage much easier and less stressful - especially when entering a port that’s new to you.
  • If things go wrong along the way you should have made alternate plans for ports of refuge. These ports should be noted in your plan and ideally you will have a choice of ports that are accessible in the prevailing conditions and hopefully at most states of tide. Remember, strong onshore winds can quickly make a port entrance hazardous, so think about alternatives when planning your passage. Make sure you have pilotage plans for each port entry and you’ve noted particular rules for entry and communication. Check the Almanac before you leave - that way you won’t be surprised when the port you’ve been beating to in that unforeseen gale is closed!
  • Last, but certainly by no means least, you should take a good look at your crew. An exhilarating and rewarding passage for a fit, sea-hardened crew of experienced sailors can quickly become, at best an horrendous and frightening experience and, at worst, a dangerous one, for less capable sailors. When considering crew and crew numbers the type of passage, type of boat, the length of the passage, weather forecast and tidal streams should be carefully considered. As skipper, you need to know that the crew are right for the passage and that you are making it as easy as you can for vessel and crew alike.

Once you have a passage plan, make sure you keep a written record of it (perhaps in the back of your logbook). Make sure you brief your crew properly and set an appropriate watch system. You should consider informing your home marina (or the Coast Guard) of your plans and let them know when you leave and when you arrive safely.

Make sure you leave fully victualled for the journey (and don’t forget gas, matches and toilet paper!). Make sure your crew know their way around the boat (i.e. fuel shut off valves, gas isolators, battery isolators, sea cocks, etc) and that they know what to do in the case of an emergency (e.g. practice a man overboard drill). 

This can seem like a lot of effort but one thing is certain, if you do not plan - one day you will be caught out. The consequences can be very real and very serious - so why not do things right the first time. After all - you’re a sailor. That’s what we do...

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