Although we joke that our plans never seem to last beyond casting off the stern lines, we believe any voyage should be approached seriously and that effective voyage planning is an essential component of a successful cruise. Any plan should be in writing. In its basic form the plan must address seven questions:
1. Is our vessel well found and seaworthy?
2. What is our destination?
3. When shall we depart?
4. What route will we take?
5. What is our expected transit time?
6. Who will be going?
7. What supplies will be required?
These must be answered in order. There will be no voyage if the first question is not answered in the affirmative. That is the Skippers first responsibility. If you are not sure, get a professional survey. The departure date will depend on the destination and seasonal weather patterns which will determine route and transit time. We cannot plan for supplies until we know who and how many are in the crew and how long we will have to sustain them.
Let us get item 1 out of the way right now. Get a professional survey. Find a marine surveyor who specializes in boats like yours, i.e. fiberglass cruising sailboats, and tell him what you intend to use the boat for. Be honest. The surveyor will give you a detailed report including a list of deficiencies and comments. Turn these into a checklist and get to work. When you are done with the surveyors list get a USCG Safety Inspection. Start a new list.
Our most recent survey, five years ago, showed no major deficiencies and our only black mark was a sink drain lacking two hose clamps, since remedied. Still, preventive maintenance must be ongoing if the vessel is to remain seaworthy. Regular inspections are the solution.This checklist was passed on to us. Feel free to copy and modify it to suit yourself. Using our modified checklist so we will not forget anything, we can develop our own “To-do” list of maintenance items. Prioritize your list and get to work.
Once the Captain determines that the vessel is seaworthy and well found, or has taken steps to make it so, the second question may be asked. The answer becomes the title of our plan and the Navigator takes over the process. The answers to questions 2 through 5, along with crew list, registration information and a description of the vessel will form the Float Plan we will file with the USCG and next of kin.
I like to begin, once the destination has been established, by visualizing the end of the voyage - sitting in a waterfront pub near the destination harbor, with a beer in my hand. Then I work backwards, determining each step I had to take to get there from where I am now. Where in the harbor will we moor and where is the nearest pub? What is the destination harbor layout like? What are the aids to navigation at our destination? What bearing is the entrance range? From which direction should I approach the destination harbor? What obstacles will I encounter? Where should waypoints be placed to take advantage of wind and currents. Will traffic patterns be a concern? Given the conditions at our departure point, what heading should we steer once clear of the harbor?
Jimmy Cornell’s “World Cruising Routes” is a hefty volume and with its companion, “World Cruising Handbook”, takes up quite a lot of the allowable book mass aboard but I consider “Routes”, at least, an essential component of my navigator’s library. On the back cover it says that “The World Cruising Handbook can best be described as a nautical tourist guide”. World Cruising Routes, on the other hand, is a navigator’s tool describing sailing routes around the world including such information as waypoints, best time of year, average transit times, what charts are required and which cruising guides to consult for more information. With these two books and the appropriate nautical charts you can plan in detail to your hearts content. I think that is all you need to answer the first four questions. There are, however a few more tools available that I like to use.
Pilot Charts come in books with one page for each month of the year. There are five books, one each for the South Pacific, North Pacific, North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. In addition to showing the great circle routes where the heaviest shipping may be encountered, each page shows the prevailing weather conditions grid by grid for one month of the year. Wind roses indicate wind direction, strength and frequency. Surface currents are indicated as well as storm tracks and frequency of gales in each area.
Coast Pilots are books filled with details about ports and coastal areas. The Coast Pilot books are designed to supplement your nautical charts with more detailed information. A current edition of the appropriate Coast Pilot should be a part of every prudent navigator’s onboard library. There are 9 volumes covering all US Ports including Puerto Rico and the US Virgins, and Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. In the planning stage of the voyage, we use the Coast Pilot to determine what charts we need for coastal areas. When approaching a harbor we consult the Pilot for information on aids to navigation, entrance hazards, restrictions, radio frequencies, telephone numbers, available mooring facilities etc. This is another high mass book but it really is essential in my opinion. Aside from its usefulness in planning, it will bring you a lot of peace of mind if you have to enter an unfamiliar harbor in an emergency.
Now is the time for the navigator to enter waypoints into the navigation system. As a personal policy, I never put a waypoint closer than one nautical mile from any mark, buoy or chart feature and generally never less than five miles from the shoreline unless it is my destination. Google Earth is a good way to take a look at the destination area, especially possible alternate ports. It can be useful to print out a copy of details that might not be obvious on the chart. Use what ever navigation program you like in what ever manner you like but take advantage of every source of information available to learn as much as possible about your route and destination. Somewhere along the way you will come up with an estimated transit time.
Once the Navigator has determined the expected transit time and informed the Mate, responsibility for voyage planning passes. Aboard Lealea the Mate takes charge. Consulting with the Skipper, the Mate will add an appropriate safety margin to the length of time expected for this passage and determine the kind and amount of provisions required. Adequate supplies of any prescription drugs needed by the crew should be acquired and the first aid kit checked. At this point we assume that you know who will be your crew and have an idea of their eating habits, preferences and rates of consumption. Provisioning is a subject worthy of its own article but the essential principle is “Have enough”. The Mate will draft daily menus, including treats, snacks for the mid watch etc., from which to make a list of supplies. Then we inventory what we have on hand and schedule shopping expeditions. If possible, we plan to pick up perishables the day before departure.
During the weeks and days leading up to departure, as list making gives way to shopping runs, planning begins to merge into preparation. We re-stow and tidy up, taking care of any lingering maintenance items while keeping an eye on the weather patterns.
At this point I want to emphasize that, while it is a good idea to establish a firm date to achieve preparedness, it is not prudent to engrave a departure date, or anything else, in stone. Our departure dates are always “Weather permitting”. I like passageweather.com for a good graphic representation of current weather patterns and 10 day forecast. When the weather looks good we dash to the market for a last minute fresh fruit and veggies run. Throughout the process we are updating the inventory list and stowage plan in our logbook. Of course the Plan is subject to change at any time up to and beyond departure but our preparation efforts are organized.