It’s All In The Plan…

It’s All In The Plan…


By Angus Belcher – Seaward Sea School




Chapter V of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, otherwise known as SOLAS V states that ‘Prior to proceeding to sea, the master shall ensure that the intended voyage has been planned using the appropriate nautical charts and nautical publications for the area concerned….’ This part of the SOLAS regulations applies to leisure boats of less than 150 gross tonnes, and that means us!

The words ‘Passage Planning’, I’m sure, take us all back to a classroom somewhere, buried in books and paperwork, sweating over secondary port calculations, streams atlases and tidal vectors.  Words such as ‘Appraisal’ ‘Planning’ Monitoring’ spring to mind.  All very headache inducing.

Passage planning can, however, be fun… Really!

The season is just starting and while work and spring weather keep us away from the sea, what better than getting a chart out or poring over the Almanac thinking of a summer trip to the West Country; that, to an extent, is passage planning.

Let’s face it we wouldn’t set off in the car to somewhere we’ve never been without some idea of how to get there. A passage plan need only be as complex as the vessel, distance and weather need it to be.  Too much information, though, is better than too little.

While SOLAS V tells us that we must have a plan, it only applies outside of ‘categorized waters’ so the average motor-boat skipper in the Solent doesn’t need to comply.  That being said, every trip should have some sort of plan.

Planning our trip, of course relies on the fact that we have had some training (perhaps a R.Y.A. Day Skipper course) and have some navigational knowledge like the ability to understand a chart, a pilot book and a compass.

So what’s in a plan?

The idea really (and, please, tell me if I’m teaching our collected grannies to suck eggs here) is for us to leave our harbour, enjoy some quality time on the water and arrive safely at our berth in the next.  This, of course, assumes that we go in the right direction, don’t hit anything on the way, nothing breaks down and the marina isn’t overbooked by the World Gig Racing Championships!  This is why planning ahead is a good thing.  My dear old mum is very fond of the expression ‘worse things happen at sea’.  Well, since that’s where we’re going we’d best be prepared.

A very good skipper that I’ve used many times for delivery work always seems to return disappointed and grumpy from his trips because something broke down or the gps failed or the weather delayed him.  I, on the other hand am always surprised and delighted to have arrived afloat and alive and see it as a bonus that any electronic or mechanical equipment is still tickety-boo.  Basically, I think, what I’m rambling on about here is contingency plans.  Assume the worst and plan for it and if it doesn’t all go wrong we will all be eternally cheerful skippers!

Our boats today are bristling with technology to help us navigate and feed all sorts of information at us (some useful and some not so)  and some would say these things mean we no longer need charts and paper plans.  I truly believe that we’ll understand our plan better, be much more confident and safer if we prepare an old fashioned paper plan from a paper chart and a pilot book and put the route this gives us into our chart plotter (we also then have something to fall back on if the plotter packs up)

I’ve always reckoned that the best place to do a plan is the kitchen table. Lots of room for charts and books, it’s warm, it’s dry and there’s coffee and biscuits on tap.  Also, if you’re technologically minded, you can fire up the laptop and plot your planned route onto your chart card ready to pop in to the gps when you get to the boat.





Know Before You Go!

Even before starting your plan it’s handy to know some basic information about the boat that may never have been needed in your local cruising.  Do you know the Air Draft of your boat (height to the top from the waterline), The deepest draft and of course the fuel consumption per hour/mile at some relevant speeds and the amount of fuel you carry.

Crew – Who’s coming on the trip.  If you don’t know already, find out the level of experience your companions have, can they help you by taking a watch at the wheel, do they get seasick, have they got any medical issues you need to know about.  All these things might change the way you plan your trip.  If a few of you are going, pick the most experienced as a ‘first mate’.  Having someone to discuss options with and who can take some of the load from you can make the trip a lot more fun.

On any trip, however short, it’s essential to give your crew and guests a good safety briefing; show them how to put on and operate their lifejackets, go through the location of things like liferafts and emergency equipment, seacocks and bungs, fire extinguishers, the first aid kit and the grab bag. Depending on your destination you might also need to make sure that you’ve got the necessary paperwork with you; your qualifications, travel insurance, passport and the boats registration document.

We need to make sure we’ve got everything we need with us.  Lists of things to take on your trip are far to involved for these pages so I’ve put some lists on-line, click here to take a look – VictuallingPackingEquipment – they are by no means comprehensive but they might help as an aid-memoire.  Basically we need all the things required to make our boat move, things to keep her from moving and things to keep us warm, dry, fed and comfortable.


The wonders of Google!

Google Earth is a great passage-planning tool.  We can measure our trip leg by leg in nautical miles to help with our fuel and time planning, zoom in to see what the harbour will look like (often very different to the impression given by charts) and, very helpfully, some enthusiastic holidaymakers have uploaded lots of pictures of the harbour.  You can even use the Street View to take a stroll round the dock.  Great background information!


Accurate Ish!

George Hackforth-Jones, in his excellent 1948 book ‘Come Sailing’ (still a relevant read today) entitled one of his chapters ‘Navigation Is Not An Exact Science’  and he was right.  If we set off knowing that we’ll likely make a steering error and our boat may run a couple of knots under or over our planned speed we’ll build in our errors at the start, keeping that little extra distance off of hazards and double checking our position as we get close to our destination.  Ish is a proper navigational word and should be used whenever referring to headings, time and distance and tidal calculations!


Start at the End!

There’s not much point in preparing our excellent cross-channel plan (charts, almanac, pc, coffee, biscuits, tidal calculations etc.) if we end up sitting outside Barfleur in a sloppy seaway waiting for the gates to open in three hours time.  It’s probably best if we take a look at our destination first; is it tidal, when are the gates open, is there a berth.  The Almanac is the place to start, with a chartlet, detailed descriptions of approach, the harbour, and all of the extra information it provides.  Don’t forget though that this years Almanac was printed last year and probably researched the year before.  Take a look at the harbour website and maybe give them a call (the number’s in the Almanac) this way you can check your tidal information (the harbour will know exactly when they’ll open their gates) and pick their brains for lots of useful local knowledge.  The harbour may even have some Notices to Mariners that we should be aware of, new or temporary rules introduced at short notice, knowing about these could keep us out of a lot of trouble.

On a delivery trip not so long a go this tactic saved me from looking a complete Muppet (that’s a nautical term) on a trip to The Seinne.  I had meticulously planned the leg from Boulogne to Honfluer including tidal calculations for the gates opening.  I just thought I’d ring the harbour to double check my calculations, to be told that the lock was closed for servicing for three months.  I slipped quietly into Le Havre and none were the wiser!

Knowing when we should arrive for the tide and perhaps in daylight, if it’s a complicated entry, allows us to work backwards to our departure (Don’t forget if we’re crossing the Channel continental clocks will be an hour ahead). Now we’re ready to do some work.



For all of us boating regularly in the UK, the weather is the biggest factor in our decisions about where to go and when. It’s fairly easy when we’re popping out in the Solent for the afternoon. A quick check of the TV weather in the morning should tell us all we need to know and if the weather turns while we’re out we can dash for home.  Planning a longer passage, though, means we need a bit more detail.

While still sitting at the kitchen table we have a host of weather information.  The Met office website is great, we can see the shipping forecast for a mid range picture of our route for the next 24 hours; the Inshore Waters Forecast for a 48 hour detailed analysis of areas we shall pass through and a glance at the Surface Pressure Charts to see what horrors may be inbound from the Atlantic. There are also a number of other great sites, one I use regularly is Passage Weather, which gives pictorial forecasts of wind, waves and weather for seven days ahead.  Remember, of course, the further ahead you look the less accurate it’s likely to be.  Beyond 7 days only the Gods and Mystic Meg know what’s in store!

Start your weather watching a few days before your trip, it’s important to be able to see how the forecast is changing.  A forecast that remains similar over a few days is likely to be more accurate than one that continually changes.

Once at sea we can keep up to date thanks to the Coastguard’s regular forecast on the VHF (times are in the Almanac) and alter our plan if necessary.



The tides and the weather are inseparable when it comes to planning a trip.  Of course, we’ve checked the tidal heights and times at our destination in case we have any limitations on entry and we’ve done the same for leaving.  We should also make a note of the tidal information for some of the harbours on the way just in case.  The other important factor is which way it flows and how fast, in comparison to our journey.  The tide could help or hinder our progress and make our journey considerably more or less comfortable depending when we choose to go.

It’s free mileage!  Just because we’re in a powerful motor boat, don’t ignore the help the tide can give you.  Heading into the flood tide in The Channel can mean 2.5 knots of tide on the nose for a good few hours instead of 2.5 knots pushing you along on the Ebb.  This means that careful planning and using the tide could save you up to 20% on your fuel bill!  Having said that, it may well be the case that we must go against the tide in order to make our journey safe and smooth, taking the opportunity to travel when the wind and tide are travelling in similar directions.  When the wind blows against the tide the short steep seas that build up make life really uncomfortable for motor boats, especially if we’re heading into the wind.  This effect can make an area of sea that was, a few hours ago, relatively smooth and safe, a dangerous, frightening place to be  (this will be considerably worse around headlands, narrows or over shallow areas; The Portland Race, Raz de Seinne, Corryvreckan and Needles Channel are all legendary examples).

Don’t forget, of course, it could be pushing us sideways, as in a channel crossing and we need to account for this in our plan.

All the information we need to find out how the tide affects us is on our charts and in an up-to-date Almanac. But we’re sitting at our kitchen table (remember?) so let’s also take a look at the excellent Admiralty Easy Tide website (  Easy Tide gives us seven day predictions and accurate tidal curves for just about any port in the world.  When I’m planning a delivery I’ll print seven days of tides for a selection of the ports that I’m passing so that anytime, a quick glance will tell me what the tide’s doing right where I am.

Just a note; tidal predictions appear very accurate and, indeed, have been prepared by incredibly clever folk, for years ahead, to within decimals of a metre or knot.  I’m afraid, though, that the weather gods come along and muck it all up.  Low air pressure will let the tide rise above prediction and high pressure press it down a bit.  Add in the effects of wind and rainfall and the numbers could be off by quite a bit. All in all, this just means that we need a comfy safety margin regarding depth and distance off hazards.


The General Route

Taking a look at a small scale planning chart or two should allow us to see the whole of our journey and give us an idea of distance, time and things that we’ll come across on the way.  We’ll see, straight away, the areas of our trip that will need some detailed and careful planning and the parts where a course to steer and a time will be all we need.

The other thing that should jump off the chart at us are the hazards on our route; shipping lanes, shallows, overfalls and tide rips; rocks, wrecks and sandbanks.

The bones of our trip will be coming together now. We’ll be combining what we’ve discovered about the tide and the weather and what our chart’s telling us.  The tide generally runs less strongly in bays than further out; Headlands and shallows cause overfalls and wind off the shore means a much smoother ride than an onshore breeze.  All these things will shape our plan.

Try not to overdo the detail, navigation need only be as accurate (ish) and detailed as the leg of the journey requires. Plan assuming that at any time the visibility could go, electronic gizmos could pack up and we may be back to just an old-school chart and compass.  It is important, though, to have the information at hand that allows us to change our route or go to a different harbour.



Things may go wrong!  As we said before, I like to plan as if things like engines will stop working, gps units will go on-the-blink and the weather will change for the worse (cheerful aren’t I?).   It’s not that I’m particularly pessimistic; it’s just that, over the years, these things (and many more) have happened to me.

The first thing that we should do is build in safety margins around hazards especially if wind or tide would drift us towards them in the event of a breakdown.

Let’s also make sure that our written plan makes sense to all who’ll need it and is on the chart or on paper so that if the electronics fail we have something to fall back on.

Make a mental note of ports and harbours en-route that would make good ‘ports of refuge’ and check them out in the Almanac. The instinct, when trouble strikes, is to dash to the nearest harbour.  This may not always be the best plan; a harbour a bit further away, but downwind, may be preferable.  Is our chosen harbour entrance safe in the weather conditions; making a dash for Salcombe and trying to get over the bar in southerly winds on the ebb tide could be a more dangerous solution than staying at sea!

I’m not, by any means, anti-technology; it’s great! GPS is the best aid to navigation since 1765 when Harrison came up with his really good clock.  So let’s take a spare handheld in case the electrics on the boat stop working (I’ve even got a spare spare in the form of the Navionics app on my phone which works without phone signal. this was a godsend recently in a foggy approach to Lezardrieux when, guess what, the gps packed up). Let’s take a hand held VHF with us too, just in case.


Writing a Plan

There are many ways to write a passage plan, from the ‘Excel Spreadsheet’ style table of words and figures to a few notes on a scrap of paper.  It’s very much down to personal preference and as we’ve said before it depends how much detail we need.

Being a ‘Bear of Little Brain’ I tend to like pictures instead of too much writing; from experience, when bouncing about in a planning cruiser in a lumpy seaway, simple diagrams and pictures are easier to read.

Ideally, of course, we’d work on the chart, (as we all did in the classroom on those Day Skipper courses) sat comfortably at our 2 metre square chart table with our tools and chart plotter nearby;  Have you got one of those on your boat?  No? Didn’t think so, nor have I.

While we’re still sitting at the kitchen table it makes sense to draw our plan on sensible, useable sheets, maybe A4 or even A5 size.  I tend to create a simple diagram with a line up the page, my plan starts at the bottom with buoys, features and hazards right and left of the line indicating what will pass to Port or Starboard.  With the headings and timings and notes written large and clear we’ve got a simple, understandable paper plan.  Sample plan

We’ll brief our ‘First Mate’ on the plan so they understand it too and we’re ready to go.


Captain’s Log!

Once we set off, the sun beating down, the sea flat and the First Mate having made a steaming cup of coffee and dug out the custard creams, it’s easy to watch our progress on the chart plotter and feel that all is going swimmingly.  If, after a couple of hours, the gps stops working and all we can see about us is sea, we’ve got very little idea of where we are, save for the fact that it’s wet all around and we are somewhere between Milford Haven and Southern Ireland.  To avoid this embarrassing predicament let’s keep a log.  One simple method is to take a GPS position (while it’s still working) and plot it onto the chart with a note of the time, our heading and our speed.  This gives us a recent known plot to work from and the information to work up an estimated position if we need to navigate the rest of our journey on paper. I tend to do this every 30 minutes in a fast boat (10 knots plus) and every hour in a slower vessel.

The passing of buoys, headlands and on course changes are ideal opportunities for an extra note.

Perhaps a more comprehensive method is keeping a separate log book with simple columns for time, position, heading, speed and notes (the notes often make a good read after the journey).

Either way we’ve got a back up for the chart plotter and, after all, it’s just good seamanship!

We’ll pop some extra information into the log when we stop in to fill up the tanks to help us have a good idea of fuel use, range and the like.  We could also note the weather and any spares used.

So many elements make up a good passage plan. The most important is a good basic knowledge of navigation and chartwork and the ability to apply this at sea. This allied to time spent researching information and following a logical sequence.

Everything we do at sea needs a plan from simply leaving the marina to a circumnavigation of Britain.  A shipwright and boat builder friend of mine, known to all as Uncle Dick, always says, in his laid back Isle of Wight accent, “Before you do a job Nipper, you should always give it a coat of looking at.”  Well, that’s what we’ve done with our journey, given it a good coat of looking at!

Safe Watch…

© Angus Belcher 2015