Basic Principles: Planning a Passage

Written by Capt. Juan Watson
Written by Captain Juan Watson

During my time as a professional captain and first officer I came across a wonderful acronym APEM. You may be thinking..huh?! Simply this stands for: Appraisal, Plan, Execute & Maintain. It is the basis for all thorough passage planning from commercial vessels to the coastal cruiser. So let us examine this in a little more detail.

Appraisal: This is where we apply that time old principle “begin with the end in mind” and decide if the passage is even viable before we spend hours planning and come to the realization that is not. Here are a few points that form the basis for your appraisal phase:

  • Start with measuring the distance from start to finish and estimating how long it would take. This will be a strong indicator of the scope of the trip and will help evaluate fuel, water, provisions (food) spares and any other needs.
  • Evaluate your vessel and crew. If we have only two of us is it prudent to do several overnights in a row (is everyone capable of standing a night watch?) will we have depth/draft concerns? Is the vessel and crew equipped or capable to go offshore?
  • Factor in seasonal weather considerations such as particularly “foggy” months or areas, prevailing winds, regional weather systems or anomalies and tropical storm seasons
  • Anticipate dangers. These will range from shallow water, reefs, heavily transited shipping lanes to an “avoid at all costs” seafood restaurant.
  • Be aware of the limitations of your navigation systems i.e.?  Electronic chart plotters are only as accurate as the GPS info provided, are your users competent on the equipment, are there any errors on your steering and electronic compass. All of these factors have a large impact on your ability to navigate safely

Plan: This is where we get to the nuts and bolts of the passage plan so take into consideration the following:

  • Your plan needs to be from berth to berth, this will require pilotage plans. Pilotage plans detail the port of departure and arrival. Your plan should note and include; tides, current, dangers, buoyage, marina location and any special port considerations ( busy commercial port with lots of traffic) This information is normally found in cruising guides or pilot books and almanacs.
  • Is your departure based around an event i.e. tidal gate (Hells Gate, NY) , tidal heights at your departure/arrival port, is the destination point a day entry only or what time does the fuel dock close? You might need to plan your voyage around these factors
  • Do you have up to date/recent paper charts (or do you have something that resembles sand script on papyrus?), cruising guides and tide tables. Do our charts have enough detail to make approaches at our destination   Also don’t forget to check if you use a chart plotter that it has full coverage in that area and has “chips” that are recently updated
  • Navigational dangers on route can be noted in a voyage plan book (has notes on proposed trip) or can be marked off on the chart for watch keepers to be aware of.
  • Prepare a contingency plan incorporating a port of refuge or an anchorage is key in case of bad weather or breakdowns. Have a pilotage plan for these ports or anchorages.
  • Give rough overview of the vessel, passage plan and crew details to shore contact ( family member etc.) so any delayed arrival can be passed onto the Coast Guard or any other relevant authorities

Execution: The first two phases are now complete and we are on our way. The skipper/captain should have briefed his crew of the passage plan before departure if they were not part of the initial planning process. The plan must be executed as per the captains’ instructions. The captain also needs to be aware if unpredicted situations are to arise, the plan might need to be altered.

Maintaining: This final part is where all the planning in the world will be for naught if we don’t maintain a good watch and monitor our position. Whether you are using an electronic chart plotter or more traditional means, you should record your position on a chart and in a logbook at intervals specified by the captain. Note: More regular fixes might need to done around more dangerous areas.

Juan Watson is a 14-year mega yacht veteran. Currently, he owns and operates Pelorus Yacht Consulting, LLC in Annapolis, MD. PYC focuses on educating yachtsmen and owners.