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Preparing a passage plan is no more than a formal visualisation of the voyage you intend to take. And in familiar waters, simply 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.
That said, making a more formal plan and actually writing it down helps you to establish what information needs to be collated and helps you to identify hazards and risks and summarise and distil relevant and important data.
We all know from our school days, putting things down on paper helps us to crystallise our thoughts as well as highlighting our ‘workings’! Also, if things do go wrong, having evidence of a carefully prepared passage plan can be very useful - especially if the insurance company or the authorities become involved!
Under SOLAS V Regulations, there is now a legal requirement for the skipper going to sea to compile a passage plan. We can all get into difficulties at sea, so planning to avoid as many pitfalls as possible is just common sense.
So. How do we prepare a robust passage plan?
The first thing to do is harvest as much relevant information as we can. This will include estimates and assumptions, of course, but if you start with approximations, the plan will slowly form into something more robust.
First of all, we need to establish where we are going to and leaving from. Then, decide on the best time to arrive at that destination.
In an ideal world, if sailing to an unknown port, I’d usually like to make landfall about one hour before sunrise. This allows me the benefit of seeing lights and lighthouses on approach and then having daylight for the port entry. Of course, this might also be tide-dependent if the port is not a deep water one or it has a strong tidal gate at its entry.
Once we know the approximate route, we can work out the approximate distance and then, using an average speed, we can establish an approximate time taken for the passage. Of course, on longer voyages, you cannot know better than within a few days what your ETA will be, and even on shorter trips, this may vary if tides have a significant impact or you find you have the wind on the nose, or no wind at all, in which case, allowing for the use of the engine to maintain your average speed over ground might be prudent.
To estimate boat speed, you need to know your boat or know someone that can advise you. Most small cruising yachts probably average about 5 kts on passage but this can vary dramatically, dependent on conditions.
Then, check tides and currents and the weather forecast (both area-specific and further afield). The forecast may change between when you make the passage plan and when you plan to leave, but tides will not.
A look at a large scale synopsis of the weather, maybe 3 days ahead, will help you better understand what to expect and if the reality differs from the forecast you’ll have a better chance at understanding why and what effect this will have on your plans.
Once you have considered tidal flows and heights, you may have to tweak your departure and estimated arrival times because of tidal heights, tidal gates and average speed over ground, after tidal effect.
Once we have this data, check the charts in more detail and by reference to the information they offer. You can now start to more accurately 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 forecast wind direction and wind speed as well as the direction and force of tidal flows. You should also consider things like ferry routes and potential navigational hazards such as TSS.
Once you have an approximate route and an understanding of the tidal flows, you can more accurately plan how long the passage is likely to take by applying a better-estimated speed over ground and amend that still further by applying the likely affect the forecast sea state (from tidal and weather predictions) and wind direction might have on course distance and cruising speed.
You now have a relatively accurate idea of what your passage will look like if the weather and other variables such as departure time remain as planned.
At this point, work back down the route referring to the chart and the tides and 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 take the best advantage of the tide and make the journey as pleasant as possible by avoiding wind against tide scenarios where possible.
Then, mark out the waypoints on your chart (or on your chart plotter) and if you are using electronic charts, you might take this opportunity to input a route. In an ideal world, you will leave on the tide and sweep effortlessly through every tidal gate, arriving at your planned destination in daylight. Ideally a couple of hours after sunrise. This allows you to refer to shore lights and lighthouses on landfall, whilst being able to identify landmarks and marina entrances on port 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.
Once you have the navigational aspect covered, you need to address the other variables which have just as much relevance to your passage plan. For example, if you have a sturdy, long keeled deep-sea vessel you might decide a bracing F6 is fine for your 60 mile beat to Weymouth. In a lighter displacement family cruising yacht, you might consider discretion to be the better part of valour.
But your vessel’s seaworthiness is not just defined by construction, condition, the centre of gravity and stability. Knowing you have a robust hull is only of limited comfort. It’s also important to know that you have a satisfactory choice of sail plan. For more challenging passages knowing you have a sail wardrobe in good condition, a deep third reef, a set of storm sails, storm boards and a drogue or sea anchor will be of great comfort, especially if you are caught out across the Bay of Biscay, for example.
Check the engine’s fuel consumption and your vessel’s fuel capacity, together with its cruising speed under sail and engine. And, of course, check its safety equipment and critical spares and tools are all onboard. Test communications equipment (such as a radio check) and make sure everyone has a fitted lifejacket and harness and that they know where the life raft is and how and when to launch it.
Knowing your vessel will help you make “GO / NO GO” decision but you will also need to be confident that you have a competent crew. 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, a 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.
You would obviously choose your crew based upon the knowledge and experience necessary for the voyage as well as for their joivre de vive. All crew should receive a thorough safety briefing both on deck and below and then be allocated roles during the passage.
As a bare minimum, make sure to brief your crew on the boat’s main systems, such as gas, fuel, water, engine, deck layout, various alarms and how to use the bilge pumps, etc. Make sure that at least someone else can start the engine, send a mayday and know what to do in the event of a man-over-board. Also, allow for changes that might be foisted upon you if a crew member goes down with seasickness, for example.
And whilst on the subject of the crew, you must keep your crew fed and watered at all times, otherwise, you will lose efficiency and morale very quickly, let alone ensure that they never come sailing with you again!
Make sure all relevant crew know how to cook, what to cook, where it is stored and when it will be served. A detailed watch plan identifying the times of watch change, who’s on which watch, when meals are served and who does what and when will make this regime fair and simple to implement.
Now you have a passage plan. But what do you do if things go wrong along the way?
As part of your passage plan, 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 various conditions and hopefully at most states of the 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 sailing for in that surprise on-shore gale - is closed!
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 both before you set off and when underway and set out an appropriate watch system for the passage. You should consider informing a contact onshore and your home marina or the Coast Guard of your plans and let them know when you leave and when you arrive safely. In the UK the RYA have developed an app for this purpose which it might be worth investigating.
Make sure that before you leave, you are fully victualled for the journey (and don’t forget gas, matches - and toilet paper!). If on a longer passage make sure to check all your crew’s paperwork and take their passports and keep them safe in a secure grab bag.
If necessary keep a separate note of any medical issues pertaining to the specific crew, together with details of their next of kin’s contact details and a note of where they keep their medications.
Finally, make sure to update your weather forecast before you leave and if all is well - enjoy a well planned, stress-free passage!
After all, with a passage plan like that, what could possibly go wrong!
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All content created by Mark Burkes, an RYA Yachtmaster™ Ocean Instructor. 200,000 miles logged over 30 years. Learn more...
All charts used in our videos and on this website are used under copyright from HMCO licence no. 35358. Not for navigational purposes.