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Passage Planning

Sailing Yacht

Passage planning

One could write forever on this subject.

Many sailors are not aware that the act of Passage Planning is a legal requirement. Yes, you are bound by SOLAS V (Safety Of Lives At Sea 5) to passage plan whenever your passage takes you out of waters that are controlled by a Port or Harbour authority. So, unless you are just going to potter around the harbour confine you will need a suitable passage plan. The IMO in its document SOLAS V does state that your plan should include; Times of Departure, Arrival, data on the weather, tides, condition of the vessel, the ability of the crew, dangers en route, and contingency planning. The plan should include these topics BUT should not be constrained to or by them.

There is very little in the way of official guidance on this topic. There are no set forms, tables, formulas or templates for you to work within (or around).  It is you who must produce this plan, you may choose to work to the Passage Planning checklist given in Reeds Almanac (around page 30?), or you may choose to produce a graphical hand-drawn plan or a handwritten or printed plan.

The plan needs to be clear, you should be able to leave a copy of it ashore with a trusted family member or friend. This person will be able to alert the Coastguard should you fail to report in safely from your destination or from a safe harbour should the plan go awry.

The choice is yours. Really the only factor you need to consider is does the plan meet the needs of the passage, vessel, skipper and crew?

According to the IMO and to virtually every Coastguard Agency worldwide the passage plan should follow four (4) Elements. These are;

          1 - APPRAISAL

          2 - PLAN

          3 - EXECUTION

          4 - MONITORING

It is possible that during the passage, or the planning of the passage, you may find yourself going back and forth between these elements.

Just because these elements are shown in an order (1, 2, 3, 4)  does not mean that the order must be followed. These are simply the elements of a plan.


This is where you start. Think about all aspects of the possible passage . . .

Where do you want to go?

When do you want to go?

How do you want to go (racing, cruising, under sail/power)?

You might want to consider the following 7 questions;

  1)          Are there any restrictions for departure?
              Are we locked in, is there a sill/bar that restricts access, when can our crew turn up?


  2)         Are there any restrictions for arrival?
              Do we need to lock in? can we only access a harbour at certain states of the tide?


  3)         How far is it? What is my estimated boat speed? How long will it take?
              Be realistic when estimating boat speed, do not cut corners, or go too far offshore to a waypoint                      that you will never use in the real world


  4)        Are there any impediments to progress (Tidal Gates or other such issues)
             If there are, do we need to arrive or depart at a certain time


  5)        What are the general tidal streams doing?
             Makes sense to travel when the tide (stream or height) is in our favour, if possible


  6)        Are there any hazards or dangers on the route?
             Familiarise yourself with the location of rocks, reefs, overfalls, shipping lanes etc.


  7)       CONTINGENCY, What are my alternative destinations (ports of refuge)
            Where can I go if the weather changes, a crew member gets sick or we have some form of                              mechanical/electrical breakdown 

 These are NOT all the questions you might want to ask. Just an example of some questions you might start with.

 The appraisal is probably going to be the biggest time consumer during the planning exercise.


 The plan can be written, drawn, or sketched, it may be a Mind Map if that works for you. There is no set format. My personal preference is for a written plan that follows a timeline (there are sample passage plans for coastal and ocean sailing in the downloads section of this site)

Your Passage Plan should take you from berth to berth (not always possible)


      Keep the plan simple - complicated plans fail early


      A simple plan with lots of detail is better than a complex plan with insufficient detail


      The Enemy of a Good plan is the dream of a perfect plan


      Develop your own style, this is YOUR plan


      Consider the Weather,  Tides,  Vessel,  Crew,  Navigation 


      Contingency, How safe are the ports, harbours or anchorages I am choosing? During what periods or              legs of the passage will these be available? Is the pilotage into them simple and safe? What facilities              are available within each of them, Engineers, Riggers, fuel, Hospital etc . . .


      Leaving Passage Information Ashore


      Think about how you will fix and or monitor your position and progress along the plan  Include                         navigational hazards, tides, rocks, shipping etc


      Make a robust plan


This is where you need to consider what may happen along the plan/voyage. What might go well, what might go wrong. How will the crew/vessel cope with changes to the weather, sea state, damage/failure, crew injury, sickness etc.

Under these conditions what will you be able to do . . . 

      Consider what may happen along the plan


      How might events affect arrival time?


      Can you go faster if needed? (often very difficult for a sailing yacht, in my experience sailing yachts are          ALWAYS going as fast as possible! 


     Can you go slower?


     How does this affect your contingency planning?

     How will the crew cope if they are short-handed, If the vessel fails If the sea state causes Mal d’Mer

It is possible that events that transpire during the passage as a part of EXECUTION may result in you having to re-assess either APPRAISAL and /or PLAN


An often ignored or underutilised part of Passage Planning. Monitoring is an essential part of the process, without Monitoring how will you know how the plan is going?

When considering how to monitor the plan, you will need to have some idea about where you expect to be with regard to the plan.

Consider this on a very simple scale. If your plan is to cross the English Channel. You think that this will take 10 hours, logically after 5 hours you should be ½ way but ½ way can mean many different things. Halfway in time (5 hours) halfway in distance travelled? halfway on fuel consumption, on food and water consumption.

Monitoring can and perhaps, should, cover all of these things.

How will you know that you are ½ way? use of a waypoint perhaps? 

If you can monitor all of these items at the ½ position, can you also monitor them at the ¼ position? The earlier that you know things are not going to plan the earlier you can do something about them!

The most common (and probably best) form of monitoring is 

by time and distance run (from one waypoint to the next)

Other good methods include ETA at specific points, Lights, Headlands etc

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