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How to create a passage plan for your next boat trip

Research suggests that 80% of navigational accidents are caused or contributed to by human error. Lack of preparation, poor interpretation of available information and avoidable navigational mistakes are behind most of these incidents. Passage planning is both a legal requirement and a fundamental aspect of seamanship. Here are some tips on how to get it right…

Recognise your boat’s capabilities and limitations

You need to be fully satisfied that your craft is suitable for the passage you intend to undertake. As well as taking into account the size and type of your boat and its handling characteristics, you should also factor in its condition, the equipment on board and the capability of the vessel to handle the wide range of conditions you may anticipate whilst on passage. 

Bear in mind that seemingly insignificant ‘niggles’ with the controls or other functions can rapidly become major issues. As such, you should address these problems by having your boat serviced at regular intervals and performing thorugh checks prior to each passage.

If it’s a power-driven craft, make sure you know its fuel consumption and range - and how different conditions and speeds might affect this.

As the proposed passage date approaches, consider carefully whether the anticipated conditions are appropriate for your craft. This should involve setting an upper wind strength limit - and postponing the trip if the forecast indicates anything stronger.

Appraise the abilities of your crew  

This involves an honest assessment of your crew’s abilities, experience and limitations (and your own). As with the physical capabilities of your boat, this assessment should form the ‘upper limit’ for weather conditions which will determine whether you set out on your proposed date of sail.

When you come to examine the navigational features of your passage route, you should keep your crew in mind. How are your piloting skills? Does the likely reality of this journey appear suitable for the people who will be undertaking it? Do they have experience in similar conditions to those which you are likely to encounter?

The navigation plan: essential passage research

For this, you will need charts, pilot book and a tidal atlas for the area of passage. As you complete your plan, your research should tell you whether there are any restrictions on leaving the home port and on entering the destination port. It should also tell you whether there are any hazards, shallows, reefs and/or rocks en route that may require additional sea room. 

You should also factor in tidal heights on leaving and on arrival and any traffic separation schemes in place in the area through which you will be transiting.

The navigation plan: what to include

Set out a step-by-step plan, incorporating compass courses to steer and distances to run, with reference to identifiable features. You should also have contingency plans in place, including alternative  ports of refuge to head to in the event of sudden changes in weather or other emergencies such as mechanical failure or a crew member becoming incapacitated.

Conditions and restrictions: interpreting the information and timing your journey

Study the weather for several days in advance of the passage in order to get an indication of the patterns you are likely to experience. As well as wind speed and direction sea state should also be an important factor for you to consider. 

Also take into account the effect of rain, fog and mist on visibility. Comfort is another consideration: it might be technically possible for you to set off windward in a force 5 wind, but will it be an enjoyable experience for your passengers?

Referring to your tidal tables, consider timing your journey to take into account when the tide is in your favour. If relevant, also consider whether  You need to time your departure and arrival to take into account tidal constraints such exiting / entering of lock’s or clearing sills into ports with significant tidal ranges. Ensure your pilotage plans cater for both day time and night time entrance / exit of ports.

As important as the need for passage planning is the need to constantly monitor the plan whilst on passage and where appropriate to modify the plan. Factors such as unanticipated bad weather, equipment failure or other complications may well provide a reason to change the plan. Only by monitoring the plan can you determine whether changes might need to be made.

 Preparing your boat

Calculate your fuel requirements and ensure you have adequate supplies. On a power boat you will need sufficient fuel for the intended passage plus a suitable safety margin. On a sailing vessel other than on relatively short passages you may need to accept that you will not be able to motor the entire way in the event of light winds. This awareness of range is an important part of the planning process.

The same goes for food, water and cooking gas. If you plan on replenishing during the trip, do you know where  you will be obtaining supplies from and  opening times of the marina? Carry out all necessary maintenance checks on your craft (including electricals and the GPS system) and ensure necessary tools, spare batteries, safety equipment and paperwork are all present and correct.

Your next steps…

For getting more fully to grips with passage planning and piloting, TheRYA provides a wide range of navigational courses covering everything from introductory navigational and pilotage skills (RYA Essential Navigation and Seamanship) right through to Yachtmaster Ocean which prepares the student for the challenges of trans – ocean passage planning.  

For more details about RYA Training visit www.rya.org.uk/training


Any views or opinions expressed in this briefing are for guidance only and are not intended as a substitute for appropriate professional guidance. We have taken all reasonable steps to ensure the information contained herein is accurate at the time of writing but it should not be regarded as a complete or authoritative statement of law.