Passage Planning - Passage Making - Sailing Watch Systems

Sections: Roles Passage Planning Watch System Preparation Skills Sailing Windward Rough Weather Navigating in Fog

Sailing passage planning guidelines and sailboat sea passage weather

Roles of the Skipper and Crew

Running of the yacht, its safety, and the welfare of the crew are the skipper's responsibility. He should be accomplished with every facet of sailing to inspire the confidence of the crew, along with being a good communicator. The skipper must be able to maintain his duties while delegating the crew tasks that are suitable to their level of ability and experience.

When learning the skipper's role, the skipper should not undertake passages beyond his level of experience. The skipper’s work will be made easier if some crew have passage making experience. The skipper may feel pressure if there is no experienced crew member for whom some executive tasks can be delegated and must adjust sailing plans to suit the crew's experience level.

The important crew qualities are a positive attitude, a sense of humour, and teamwork within the confined space aboard a yacht. It is ideal if some crew possess good sailing or navigation skills and the crew should be involved in the boat's management and passage planning.

Guidelines for Sailing Passage Planning

Sailing passage planning starts some time prior with the skipper, or navigator preparing a detailed navigation plan or sail plan. Using this plan, an estimate of the number of hours of sailing and any involvement of night sailing can be assessed. An alternative sailing passage plan to cater for weather or other factors should be prepared also.

From the sailing passage plan or sail plan, fuel, food, and water requirements can be judged, and any stops required to replenish supplies .

Apportioning Tasks

Especially in rough weather, offshore sailing can be mentally and physically tiring. If the passage is to be enjoyed, all on board should be able to contribute some way to the sailing of the yacht. A sailing watch system divides the crew into two or more watches, one has the task of sailing the yacht, while the other watch rests or prepares meals. Ensure the watch stay alert and are well fed and rested and there is minimum disturbance to the off watch crew by keeping light and noise to a minimum.

Sailing Watch System

When passage making of more than a few hours, all crew members including the skipper, should undertake an altered rest pattern so that a sailing watch system can operate.

The importance of being on time to start watch should be emphasized as the confines of a small yacht causes tempers to fray if the watch on deck is not relieved on time. With some watch systems with large crews, the skipper is not included in the watch system but remains on call and is on deck at each change of watch.

Sailing watch systems are arranged to run from midnight to midnight, splitting the twenty-four hours into periods of four hourly on-watch duty and off-watch rest.

To rotate the periods on watch each day, the watches are staggered by two dog watches of two hours each in the late afternoon and early evening, during which everyone is usually awake.

There is no need to use a traditional watch system. Many experienced skippers devise their own watch system to suit the particular needs of their crew and the length of the passage. What is important is that everyone gets enough sleep.

Sailing Passage Preparation

Check the yacht's insurance details and whether the yacht and crew are covered for the passage. If going abroad, check of all crew’s passports to ensure any visa arrangements have been made. Check the yacht's registration papers are on board. Some countries have are requirement that a skipper possess a certificate of competence.

Coastguard Services

The Coastguard Service in many countries is responsible for managing rescue operations at sea. The coastguard service requires a yacht setting out on passage to inform the coastguard of its sailing passage plan or sail plan, destination, and estimated date and time of arrival.

When reaching the destination, the skipper notifies the coastguard of the boat's safe arrival. This system alerts the coastguard to commence a search-and-rescue operation if a yacht is overdue.

Passage Making Skills

Once the individual navigational skills of pilotage, shaping and plotting a course, and fixing a position have been learnt the navigator is ready for an extended offshore passage. Passage making skills starts with the navigator planning the trip making sure all the relevant charts, pilot books, and other references that are needed are on board.

After that, passage making begins by navigating from harbour to harbour with pilotage out of the departing harbour to a position called the departure point which is fixed on the chart. Commencing from there, the navigator shapes the course to reach the destination. Periodically the navigator works up an estimated position (EP), obtains a fix, and assesses any errors found, checking that the boat is on the required track. When reaching the destination the navigator reverts to pilotage guiding the boat to a safe berth.

Planning a Passage

The passage is planned using a small-scale chart showing both the departure point and the destination. The required tracks are pencilled on the chart, along with identifying any position which a course alteration will be made. If using a GPS unit, programme these points in as waypoints, making sure they are clear of hazards, and double-checking the waypoint’s latitude and longitude.

Avoid using waypoints that are published in pilot books or almanacs because of the probability of a printer's error in the latitude and longitude figures. These published waypoints could be popular, meaning several yachts may all be heading for the same position guided by their GPS units and autopilots.

Ensuring a Safe Passage

The track should be carefully checked making sure that it is clear of any danger. Adjust the track to keep away from any charted hazards such as areas where waves break sharply over shallows or where currents meet called overfalls or tide races. If crossing any shipping channels, plan to do so with the boat's heading at right angles to the lane.

Making Passage Notes

When satisfied with the track, transfer any notes to a notebook for reference later. Calculate the passage’s total distance and the distance between turning points or waypoints. All track bearings between turning points and details of navigation marks are noted. List the times and heights of low and high water in the area for the sailing days then mark up the tidal atlas with the correct times on each page. Make passage planning notes about the destination harbour from information in the pilot book.

Sailing to Windward

If the destination lies to windward, it is impossible for the navigator to shape a course to steer as the boat has to beat to windward. The heading will be determined by the course that the helmsman can steer close-hauled, and changes every time the boat tacks. When this occurs, the navigator records the course steered, and periodically plots an estimated position.

When sailing to windward, there is a chance of the wind shifting to one side or the other of its initial direction. Getting too far to one side of the direct course, the boat loses ground because of wind shifts. Minimize this risk by drawing tack limiting lines on the chart and stay within them to exploit gains from wind shifts.

Diverging Track Limiters are used for short distances, where a line is drawn on the chart downwind from the objective. Two lines are drawn on either side, diverging by 5-10 from the centre line.

A tack is performed each time the EP reaches a tack limiting line. Parallel Track Limiters are used for longer distances, where a line is drawn on the chart downwind from the objective. Two parallel lines are drawn on either side, about 10-20 miles apart. A tack is performed each time the EP reaches a limiting line.

Rough Weather Sailing

During rough weather sailing, the navigator works down below as the boat is pitching and heeling and is prone to seasickness. The navigator tries to limit the time spent at the chart table by accomplishing as much passage planning prior setting off. Tackling rough weather produces tiredness, increasing the risk of mistakes.

Double-check all information while allowing for steering errors and log errors, which may be more considerable in difficult rough weather sailing conditions. When passage planning, identify safe harbours and have an alternative plan in case of deteriorating weather conditions.

Navigating in Fog

The possibility of obtaining visual fixes to determine position disappears at the onset of fog. If the boat is near shipping lanes, the skipper will be anxious to reach shallow water to minimize the risk of collision with larger vessels. The navigator in this situation should be prepared to navigate to a safe anchorage or harbour.

The GPS navigation system will continue delivering position-fixing information but confirmation of this data is required by comparing it against another source. The best electronic aid in fog conditions is radar, as it provides both position-fixing and collision-avoidance information.

A GPS set information combined with a radar enable two sources to cross check against. When working up DR and EP positions, compare against all available information from a depth sounder and electronic aids.

Fog and Depth Soundings

The depth sounder provides valuable data when navigating through fog. Observed depth readings are reduced to soundings which can confirm an EP or fix or alternatively, a line of soundings can be used to fix a position.

[ Depth soundings ] are used to follow a contour line on the chart. For instance, if trying to find a buoy at the harbour entrance, see if it lies near a depth contour then check that there are no charted hazards along it.

  • Calculate the height of tide
  • Add to the chart datum depth get the actual depth of water at the time.
  • Plot the approach, trying to cross the depth contour to one side of the mark that is aimed for before turning towards it.
  • Steer a zigzag course crossing and re-crossing the contour to the buoy, while monitoring the depth sounder at all times.


depth soundings