Have you done your passage planning and pilotage?

Passage planning and pilotage - top tips

What should you be taking into consideration and why

Have you done your passage planning and pilotage?   How much time do you spend planning your trips? Passage planning and pilotage are a fundamental part of going to sea, yet the level of detail people go into varies dramatically. So what should you be taking into consideration and why?  

Would you ever go on holiday without knowing your flight time before you left for the airport? Would you ever tackle Christmas shopping without some sort of list?    

Ok these are slightly abstract examples, but they make the point - breaking the ‘whole’ into parts makes life an awful lot easier when you are planning to go to sea, regardless of how long the trip is or whether you are offshore or can see land.  

It’s actually a legal obligation under SOLAS V to plan your passage, Regulation 34 - Safe navigation and avoidance of dangerous situations, to be precise, and although it requires planning in its own right too, pilotage is part of your passage planning.  

Passage planning and pilotage are basically about safety and enjoyment – making sure you have considered, and are prepared for, all eventualities going both in and out of port and everything in between.  

Exploring further afield, often with a bit of spontaneity thrown in for good measure, is unquestionably one of the most appealing things about boating.  

Yet carefree does not mean careless and, just as with that Christmas list, a bit of careful forethought can make everything much less stressful, much more enjoyable and with fewer nasty surprises!     

Making common sense common

Passage planning is effectively just good common sense. But, as we know, common sense isn’t always that common.  

When planning your passage break it down into all the elements that could potentially pose you a problem.  

Consider each of these factors as a starting point:

  • weather forecast
  • tides
  • fuel consumption
  • boat limitations
  • onboard safety equipment
  • navigational dangers including shipping lanes
  • crew experience and physical condition
  • basic boat maintenance equipment
  • required paperwork
  • provisions  

You should also always have a ‘in case of emergency’ contingency plan with boltholes and places to take refuge should conditions deteriorate, you suffer mechanical problems and/or someone on board is injured or falls ill.  

When it comes to your navigational plan, plot waypoints and ensure they are appropriate for the time of day you will be travelling and the forecast conditions.  

Relying entirely on GPS isn’t a good idea. We have all experienced it with car sat nav systems when, despite having entered the right postcode, we haven’t ended up at our intended destination. It is the same at sea.  

GPS isn’t infallible with both signal and accuracy potentially vulnerable, while, like all good electrical items, they can just stop working at the most inconvenient times too!  

You should always be able to navigate yourself to safety should the GPS fail. Knowing exactly where you are at all times is really important and if you are in any doubt stop and re-establish your position.    

Of course it always makes sense to let someone ashore know your plans, and to tell them what they should do if they are concerned for your welfare.  

The RYA’s new route monitoring and alerting App is also a great tool enabling boat users in UK territorial waters to enter a route and estimated time of arrival (ETA) directly on their smartphone. These which are stored and monitored by the RYA SafeTrx App and will alert the designated emergency contacts if the ETA is exceeded.

Note that your phone will require a data signal for this function to work, your network provider may charge for this.  

Once the emergency contact has called HM Coastguard they will be able to access a boat’s location data via the RYA SafeTrx Trip secure server, potentially saving invaluable time in any subsequent search and rescue mission.  

Stuart Carruthers, RYA Cruising Manager, said: “Although RYA SafeTrx is not intended as a replacement for regular approved safety devices (VHF, EPIRB, AIS, etc), it will be beneficial to powerboats users on coastal trips. Now these boat users have a simple, cost-effective system of automatically alerting a shore contact, which has not previously been available.”    

Confidence plays a massive part in how comfortable a skipper is going further afield - if passage planning is not something you have ever had to do before it can be a daunting prospect.  

Where to start

The RYA Essential Navigation and Seamanship course provides an informative introduction to, or refresher for, amongst other topic areas, passage planning and pilotage. The course can work really well in tandem with Powerboat Level 2, for example, and the course pack includes a chart, plotter, dividers, course handbook, exercises and an electronic chart plotter CD. Study can be undertaken online at home or in the classroom at a recognised RYA Training Centre.  

For more experienced boaters, the two-day RYA Intermediate Powerboat course covers the practical use of pilotage and passage planning by day on coastal waters, using a blend of traditional and electronic navigational techniques.  

The beauty of this course is it can be done on your own boat, meaning you can develop your confidence in chart work and boat handling using electronics and equipment you are already familiar with and will be using most often. Own boat tuition can be arranged through an RYA recognised training centre.  

Cleared for take-off and landing!

Pilotage is navigating the safe entrance and departure from a harbour and is a critical part of passage planning.  

Having a robust pilotage plan in place and to hand before you leave is crucial so again, the chance of a nasty surprise is, at worst, kept to a bare minimum, and at best eradicated altogether.  

Speed is a chief consideration going into and out of port - the speed limit maybe one thing but skippers have to make the right call to go as slowly as is required to compare what they are actually seeing with what is on the pilotage plan.  

If there is experienced crew on board, one option is to pass the helm over and just concentrate on the pilotage.  

There is also the added, distinct possibility of departure or arrival pre-dawn or post-dusk depending on the time of year so night-time pilotage is another dimension.  

Make sure you have a clear idea in your head of how the buoyage works, and if you are approaching at night, remind yourself of the lighting sequences.  

A number of different pilotage techniques can be utilised, but the greatest chance of pilotage success comes from using a combination of them all and constantly cross-checking position by another technique.   

Chart plotters and GPS can provide electronic reassurance in pilotage, but is not fail-safe. Double check a GPS or plotter position with what you can actually see and what your other instruments confirm. A 50-100m position error is a problem in a narrow channel but irrelevant at sea, for example.  

Transits can be used by lining up two objects, either marked on a chart or transits you identify, to keep on course, while a prominent landmark can be used to give an approach bearing. Clearing and back bearings are variations allowing navigation of obstructions or to use bearings when there is nothing ahead to fix a position from.  

Tidal height dramatically changes what you can see compared to what you expect to see. Noting the bearing and distance to the next mark ensures you to know exactly which way to go. Calculate the tidal height before entering a harbour, especially if there is a cill or a bar to negotiate.  

Buoys and marks are often laid on depth contours, which make the channel. If buoyage is sparse consider following a contour on one side of the channel instead of staying mid channel as when the depth falls, you know where to find deeper water.  

Don’t forget too that, if you are going abroad, each country, and often each port, has their own regulations and researching your destination’s particular customs is part of your passage planning.    

Always sketch a detailed plan of your intentions. Add useful information such as tide heights, VHF channels, courses, buoys, bearings and landmarks, while if you know you are likely to be returning to the same port at night, note key features and lights likely to visible in the dark. Using clearing lines, waypoints and routes at night are valid techniques for avoiding shallow areas and use your depth sounders.  

Again confidence can be gained from undertaking some training, and the RYA Advanced Powerboat certificate is the natural progression from the Intermediate award, using all of the skills from the Intermediate course but applying and adjusting them for navigation and pilotage in the dark.  

Over time everyone ends up moulding their own preferred passage and pilotage planning routines and procedures, but recognising their importance in the first place, and developing the confidence in drawing up, adapting and delivering those plans for a safe, enjoyable journey opens up a world of new exploration opportunities.      

For more information about SafeTrx   

For more information about RYA Training courses