Select Page

Passage planning and pilotage help skippers navigate safely from one port to another. A passage plan takes into account all the various steps and eventualities involved in a voyage, from the welfare and safety of the crew to planning the route itself. Pilotage is a part of the overall plan, concentrating on the navigation into and out of harbours.

Preparing for a voyage

When preparing for a voyage at sea, skippers first need to ensure their boat has been thoroughly checked over and is in good condition, fuelled and suitably provisioned. They must then check their crew are ready and capable to undertake the voyage. Next on the list comes passage planning and pilotage. 

Making a passage plan

While the safety of boat and crew should always be at the top of their list, there are many other considerations that need to be taken into account, which is where passage planning comes in. Making a passage plan helps a skipper to:

  • Decide where and when to go.
  • Calculate how long it will take to get there.
  • Avoid bad weather.
  • Take advantage of favourable tides.
  • Be aware of possible hazards, eg shipping lanes, shallow waters.
  • Decide a watch system for the crew.
  • Be prepared to react in case of emergency. 

When planning a passage, small scale charts are used to create an overall strategy. This helps the skipper consider the most efficient route, alternative routes and possible ports of refuge in case the weather turns bad or someone falls ill.

The best skippers always make a passage plan

Some skippers will know the area they are sailing in very well. If so, you might think that this will mean that they won’t need to make a passage plan. This does depend on the length of the journey and specific circumstances, but the best skippers will always make a plan, whatever the length of journey. This is because they won’t always know what the weather is going to bring, the experience of their crew or what the states of the tide are going to be. 

A crew member studies a pilot guide before entering an unfamiliar harbour.

Pilotage

When approaching land navigators need to know precisely where they are, how to avoid hazards and how to navigate safely into harbour. This requires the navigation skill known as pilotage. 

The art of pilotage entails planning your approach well in advance, known as a track, then using observation and compass bearings to check on your progress. The skipper or navigator will have worked out a plan but are likely to ask members of the crew to keep a look out and help make observations as the boat is steered into harbour, to ensure the boat remains on the correct track.

GPS

It is tempting to rely mostly on GPS navigation when at sea, but it is not wise to rely totally on GPS as it is not infallible. A good navigator will always be able to navigate safely should the electronics fail and be able to pinpoint their position on a paper chart accurately.

Navigation marks

Busy harbours will have a system of navigation buoys and lights to guide vessels in and out of port and to identify hazards to be avoided. These will be marked on the chart and the crew may be asked by the navigator to help identify them as the boat approaches them.

This yacht is slowly approaching a harbour entrance. Just to the left of the yacht’s mast, there are two white navigation marks on the hillside. The pilot guide tells the navigator to aim for these marks before turning to starboard.

Transits

Natural features, such as prominent rocks and cliff tops, and artificial features, such as tall buildings and lighthouses, all help the navigator to pinpoint the boat’s position and track. When two objects line up with each other, they are said to be in transit and if they line up from an observer’s point of view on board a boat then this can become very useful for the navigator, as they then know they will be somewhere along this line. The crew may be asked to help identify transit lines and check the boat is on course.

A crew member checks the compass bearing of a navigation mark.

Pilot guides

Most yachts carry pilot guide books and nautical almanacs which provide detailed information on entering and leaving harbours. Studying these in advance helps to make navigation easier and referring to them on the move will remind the navigator of the best track to take.

Tips:

  • Study the charts well before a trip, to help decide a route, identify any hazards along it and calculate approximately how long the journey will take.
  • Draw your planned route on paper charts, noting marks to be identified and the bearings from one mark to the next. Check the marks as you pass them en route. 
  • Refer to pilot books for information on navigating in and out of harbours. Make a note of the VHF channels used by harbours and marinas. 
  • Make notes of the tidal heights and streams to cover the whole trip.
  • Leave nothing to chance, make your plan ahead of time and share it with your crew.

How to predict wind direction and strength by reading a weather chart

Weather charts, also known as surface pressure or synoptic charts, contain a lot of information that helps weather...

Boating emergency – how to broadcast a MAYDAY emergency call

How to broadcast a MAYDAY emergency call   How to broadcast a MAYDAY emergency call if a vessel or person is in grave...

Keel maintenance and Repair – Part 2

If you have ever witnessed a boat colliding with a rock or other submerged obstacle you will know that there is an almighty thump and the whole boat shakes and judders. While such hard groundings seldom result in catastrophic keel failure, something has to give and even the sturdiest keels can easily be damaged by such an impact.

How to operate a winch

Winches are drum shaped mechanical devices used to handle halyards, sheets and control lines. One of the important crew...

A simple guide to understanding tides when passage planning

Understanding tides when passage planning When planning a trip in tidal waters, check the tides before going afloat. Use...

ColRegs Nav Lights & Shapes, Rules Of The Road and IALA Buoys Apps

ColRegs Nav Lights & Shapes, Rules Of The Road and IALA Buoys Apps Make Learning Rules on iPhone, iPad, iPod and Android...

How to Avoid Collisions At Sea With The ColRegs

      Every Skipper Needs Accurate Knowledge of the IRPCS ColRegs As a responsible skipper it is every skipper’s duty to learn and apply the IRPCS...

Sector lights, directional lights, leading lights – how do they differ?

Sector lights, directional lights and leading lights guide vessels safely through hazardous waters or narrow channels at...

Top 5 Reasons Why an Inflatable SUP Should Be Your Next Yacht Accessory

In this article, inflatable paddle board expert Jason Paul gives the top 5 reasons why an inflatable SUP should be your next...

VHF DSC radio – how best to communicate at sea

There are many ways to communicate with others at sea. What makes the VHF DSC radio the best form of short range...

An explanation of the IALA maritime buoyage systems – IALA A and IALA B

What are the differences between the two IALA buoyage systems, IALA Region A and IALA Region B, and where are they used?   As recently as the 1970s...

Essential Boat Safety Briefing

Skippers Responsibilities Skippers are obliged to give a safety briefing to the crew even if they are a regular crew. At...

Sail care and maintenance – Part 1

When thinking about the care, maintenance and repair of sails it helps to have some understanding of the properties of the ever growing range of modern sailcloth and the fibres they are made from, as opposed to the traditional canvas sails of the past.

Competent crew skills: arriving and leaving a berth

Skilled boat handling is needed when entering or leaving harbour. Crew tasks include preparing the mooring lines and fenders...

Hourly Checks when sailing or motoring

  Hourly Checks Get into the habit of carrying out these checks and both yourself, your crew and your boat will be...

Rewiring a boat – overcoming the challenges involved

Skippers need to have a basic knowledge of boat electrics, to avoid potential problems and to be able to solve them when they happen.

Essential Knots: Sheet bend

Essential Knots: Sheet bend Use: Joining two ropes together. A sheet bend is particularly useful for joining two ropes of different...

Navigation safety: a quick-reference mobile app to learn the ColRegs NavLights and Shapes

 Safety at SeaSafety at sea will always remains a topical and important subject that will no doubt dominate the syllabuses of nautical...

Seasickness – how can you prevent it?

Seasickness is a common problem at sea and affects both seasoned sailors and novices. What are the causes and symptoms of seasickness?...

Anchoring – getting it right is not always straightforward

If you can set an anchor correctly with confidence and know your boat will be safe in a secure anchorage, then you can rest...

Points of Sailing

The course on which a boat is sailing can be described by its angle to the wind, not to be confused with its compass...

Light characteristics – how do navigators identify lights at night?

How do navigators identify the different types of light around our coasts at night and what are their characteristics?Navigating at...

Boat ownership

Owning a boat is a big commitment that should bring no end of satisfaction for the owner as well as the owner's family and friends. In...

Essential yacht tender safety for skippers and crew

Essential yacht tender safety - the dangers inherent in using a dinghy to get ashore from a moored or anchored yacht are all too easily...

Peer to Peer yacht charter – How can you monetize your boat?

There is a growing trend in peer to peer yacht charter. How does it work? People already rent rooms, cars and bikes from one...