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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.

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