Checklist Passage Planning

Passage planning is not only a good habit that is essential for every voyage. It is actually required by law in most countries of the world. All 164 countries that have ratified the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) require by law that the master of every sea-going vessel prepares a passage plan for every voyage. SOLAS Chapter V Regulation 34 is very clear about the definition of the word “every”. For all commercial and privately operated vessels that go to sea, no matter if the passage is just a few minutes or many weeks, a passage plan must be made. And it is the master only, i.e. the captain of the vessel, who is solely responsible.

Recently, I was asked to help out quite some young, less experienced fellow sailors in critical situations. They always got into these critical situations because little attention was drawn to the art of passage planning. So I now decided to publish my very personal passage planning checklist to provide some guidance to this admittedly complex topic.

We must not forget, seafaring remains dangerous. However, we don’t need to add risk by venturing out to sea without a plan.

  1. Is ship and crew ready to navigate the anticipated sea area in the anticipated time? 
    1. Ship
      1. Is the ship seaworthy?
      2. Are all essential systems operational?
      3. Are required maps and manuals on board?
      4. Is the necessary navigation equipment on board and ready for use?
      5. Is the necessary communication and safety equipment on board and ready for use?
      6. Are there sufficient fuel and other consumables on board?
      7. Do you hold the necessary documents for your boat?
    2. Crew
      1. Is the crew healthy?
      2. Is the crew sufficiently experienced for the planned voyage?
      3. Is there sufficient personal safety equipment required for the anticipated sea area, voyage duration and crew number?
      4. Is there seasickness medication on board?
      5. Is the crew briefed for the upcoming trip?
      6. Does every crew member have all documents required for entry into the destination country?
  2. What weather, currents and tides can be expected on the upcoming trip?
    1. What are the normal weather and ocean current conditions for the anticipated sea area at this time of year?
    2. What is the short and medium term weather forecast?
    3. What is the ocean current forecast?
    4. What tides (water levels and currents) can be expected at departure, arrival and at critical waypoints?
    5. Prepare your weather routing based on your previous planning steps (departure date and time, weather and current related waypoints)!
  3. What are the active warnings and hazards for the sea area to be navigated?
    1. Are there active warnings (storm, hurricane, tsunami, etc…)?
    2. Are there any active travel warnings?
    3. What navigational hazards and abnormalities can be expected?
    4. Are there restricted areas?
    5. Are there nature reserves?
    6. Are there dangerous reefs and shoals?
    7. Are there structural obstacles (e.g. bridges)?
    8. Are there high traffic areas and/or traffic separation schemes?
    9. Are there areas with abnormalities (e.g. extreme magnetic variation, areas of dangerous races, etc…)?
  4. Preparation of the Route
    1. Where is the destination, and what are possible alternative destinations?
    2. Set your navigational waypoints!
    3. Consolidate the results from the previous steps into a consolidated route!
    4. Estimate distance, travel time and time of arrival! Consider various scenarios!
    5. Are there any mandatory reporting points?
  5. Preparation of the Float Plan
    1. Prepare your float plan on the basis of your passage plan!
    2. Deposit your float plan with a person/persons of trust!

Notes to Checklist Passage Planning

This checklist is roughly based on SOLAS V Regulation 34 (Safe Navigation and Avoidance of Dangerous Situations) and Annex 23 (Voyage Planning). The literature of these documents is strongly recommended. This checklist is addressed to the skipper, as he is solely responsible for passage planning. For the purpose of the notes, it is assumed that the planned passage is to take place in the North Atlantic and its adjacent seas. The checklist itself is universal and can be used worldwide, for long as well as for short passages. For short passages, many items may be omitted, so the checklist will be greatly reduced.

Re 1
It is important to get an overview of the capabilities of ship and crew and the challenges of the intended voyage at the beginning of the planning process. A first and comprehensive, though not sole, source of information on required crew and ship documents is

Re 2
Weather, currents and tides play an essential role for us sailors. It is therefore important to look at these natural conditions in great detail and from different perspectives.

Re 2.1
Being aware of the seasonal conditions that prevail in a given sea area on a long-term average helps in the subsequent assessment of weather forecasts. My personal favorite planning document are the “Monthly Charts for the North Atlantic Ocean,” published by the German Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency. 

Re 2.2
Nowadays, short- and medium-term weather forecasts can be obtained worldwide via applications such as PredictWind, Windy or others. However, there are a few things to keep in mind to avoid disappointment at sea due to a supposedly incorrect weather report. The various prevailing weather models, for example the US GFS or the European ECMWF, use different algorithms that evaluate different factors differently. In addition, care must be taken to ensure that the correct mesh size is selected. If the selected mesh size is too large, the model will not be able to “see” local disturbances. It is also important to understand how certain terms are defined by the weather forecast publisher. What does “sustained wind” or “gusts” mean, for example? There are significant differences between different forecast agencies. One should also know the exact definition of “significant wave height” and how to translate it into conditions in the open sea. Even if many publishers offer a forecast for ten or fourteen days and also prepare this in a user-friendly way, this should not hide the fact that a reliable forecast beyond five days is almost impossible. At this point, a strategy should also be drawn up for receiving weather data at sea if the planned duration of the voyage exceeds three days.

Re 2.3
A general assessment of the current situation can be derived from the monthly charts. A specific current forecast is offered by Windy or the website for instance.

Re 2.5
Even if there is software that offers weather routing (e.g. PredictWind), this should be an aid at most and in no case the sole decision-making criterion. It makes sense to set waypoints that, for example, make maximum use of a favorable current or already take into account a predicted wind shift.

Re 3
Hazards and active warnings occupy a separate section in the passage planning because a single critical warning is already sufficient to cancel an otherwise non-critical passage. 

Re 3.1
Storm warnings are issued by the national weather services and are to be taken very seriously. It is important to interpret the partly coded language correctly. One can assume that every single word of a warning has been deliberately selected and used. It is also instructive to read the so-called “discussion” of the warnings, i.e., the elaboration by the weather service of how and why the warning was issued. For the North Atlantic, hurricane warnings are issued by the National Hurricane Center in Miami:

Re 3.2
It is important to also be aware of any existing tourist travel warnings, for example for piracy. For us Germans travel warnings are issued by the German Foreign Office and are constantly updated and I am sure other countries are offering a similar service. Warnings of local authorities should be monitored, too.

Re 3.3
For analysis of navigational hazards and special features, large-scale charts should be consulted. Those working with electronic nautical charts should now work at a high zoom level so that no essential details are lost.

Re 4
The route is both the result of passage planning and the benchmark by which its fulfillment is monitored. It consists of waypoints and a travel period, i.e., a departure date and a planned arrival date.

Re 4.1
As trivial as it sounds, the route must have a destination that is not “some anchorage in that area”. The destination can be a specific anchorage or harbor, and the approach must be planned thoroughly for this destination, since there may be no possibility of re-planning a conscientious approach at sea. Even if unexpected weather conditions make it necessary to change the approach, it helps to have studied the area thoroughly beforehand. Alternative destinations must be planned as precisely as the actual destination, so that in the event that conditions arise that make the approach to the actual destination impossible, the approach to an alternative destination can be implemented quickly and safely. 

Re 4.2
Weather waypoints are supplemented and detailed with navigational waypoints here.

Re 4.3
The result of this planning step is the finished route, from which, in turn, travel duration and the float plan can be derived.

Re 4.4
It is important, even for short passages, to have an approximate idea of when you will arrive at your destination. It is the ETA, the estimated time of arrival communicated by the skipper, that is ultimately used to decide whether a vessel is overdue.

Re 4.5
Reporting points for private, small sailboats are rare. However, in certain countries there is an obligation to inform a certain station by VHF when passing defined reporting points. Failure to do so can result in severe penalties. Therefore, checking whether such points exist should be included in passage planning. For this, too, is a very good first point of contact, sometimes they are also marked on the charts.

Re 5
For longer passages, it is highly recommended to prepare a so-called float plan and leave it with people you trust. The float plan contains information about the ship’s equipment, crew, route and passage. It is intended to facilitate the work of the SAR forces in a Mayday event and can thus save lives. The float plan is NOT deposited with the MRCC, but only forwarded to the responsible MRCC by the trusted person in the event of a suspected maritime emergency. I personally use the float plan template of the USCG: