When I left England to set off on my single-handed Atlantic crossing, I didnít file a float plan with anyone. It wasnít as though I didnít care or that none of my friends or family knew when I was leaving or what the boat looked like or how much safety equipment I had aboard. It was merely that no-one really files a float plan in England when they set out on a passage. However, I have come to accept the value of preparing such a document and, since I have lived here in Texas, I have filed a float plan each time I have set out offshore.
I presume that the idea of a float plan arose from the requirement to file a flight plan when making a plane flight. But making a passage by water, especially aboard a sailboat, is very different from making a flight aboard a plane. In a plane you will have a definite destination, a very good idea of arrival time and if you donít arrive within a very short time of your estimate then it is safe to assume that something has gone seriously wrong.
Sailing is different. You may set out for a particular destination and quite reasonably change this during the passage. Perhaps the trip is taking longer than you anticipated and a closer destination would be a good idea; perhaps the winds are different from those anticipated and an alternative destination is easier to reach; or perhaps you are having such a great passage that you decide to go further than you had originally intended. What it amounts to is that the certainty of your arrival at a particular place and at a particular time is in no way guaranteed. This uncertainty was formalized for me when I took some of my first coastal sailing classes in England. At the beginning of a passage I was taught to enter details in the shipís log such as the names of the skipper and crew, the date and time of departure and a destination. But instead of writing To Dartmouth or To Falmouth I had to use the word Towards: Towards Dartmouth or Towards Falmouth. Towards indicates your intended destination but implies that you may not necessarily reach that place. I believe the custom arose from the early days of sailing in England and it was considered a bad omen to be so complacent as to presume that a definite departure meant a certain arrival.
Though a float plan cannot be as precise a prediction of a passage as a flight plan, it can still be an extremely valuable document. Should an emergency occur at sea, a float plan will include much information that may be valuable to those ashore who may be searching for the vessel or planning a rescue. In these circumstances the details of the crew, the vessel and its equipment, and the intended passage, will all be extremely helpful.
Information that should be included in a float plan
The skipper and crew
A float plan should be used to record the names of skipper and crew along with contact names and phone numbers. This way there is a record of who departs on the passage. An additional advantage of having this information is that copies can be given to friends or partners of those leaving so that they can easily stay in touch with each other and can pass on messages while the crew are away.
The owner of the vessel
If the owner of the vessel is not aboard then details should be included on a float plan. In an emergency the owner will need to be contacted and will, in most cases, be the person ashore with most details of the vessel, the crew, and the passage.
In addition to details of the crew, a good float plan should include details of the vessel so that it may be easily identified. Such details will include its name, official number, size color, type etc. Any unusual or distinguishing features should be noted.
The safety equipment aboard
Including a list of safety equipment that is aboard the vessel will indicate how well prepared the vessel is to cope with a situation and will additionally give any rescuers an idea of what to search for. If, for example, the vessel has an emergency indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) then knowing the type could be extremely valuable. Because of the many false alarms from the 121.5 MHz types, their signals are usually not acted upon unless a specific vessel is being sought.
Though a definite destination cannot be assured, giving details of the date of departure, intended destination and anticipated date of arrival is all useful information to record on a float plan. I usually give an earliest date of arrival (i.e.: Arriving not beforeÖ) and in some circumstances will include a note suggesting that no action be taken before a date later than this.
Filing a float plan
Once a float plan has been prepared then it should be given to some responsible person who will be remaining ashore (float plans are not filed with the U.S.C.G or any other official organization). When selecting a person to leave the float plan with you will need to select someone who will responsibly act on the information if necessary. Ideally the person will themselves have some experience in passage making and so will be able to exercise educated judgement.
What I want a person to do is not panic if they donít hear from us immediately. If the weather has been calm it is most likely that the passage is just taking a little longer than anticipated. However if there has been unusually severe weather in the area it may be appropriate for the person to alert the Coast Guard of the passage even before the anticipated date of arrival. Each situation will be different.
On many passages that I have made it has been communications that are the biggest source of all problems. Crew members who promise to phone home each evening using cell phones that donít work as they anticipated; VHF or SSB radios that do not transmit sufficiently well or even the lack of payphones when travelling the Intracoastal Waterway through rural areas. If the boat is otherwise well equipped and has an experienced crew aboard then it is most likely that all is well despite the lack of communication.
Float Plan Forms
Inside the cover of the U.S. Coast Guardís publication Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats is a suggested form for use as a float plan. Expanding upon this I have developed my own Float Plan Form (Table 1) and I have found it sufficient enough for most purposes. You are welcome to use a copy of this form when you make your next passage!