There are 4 stages to passage planning.

  1. Appraisal
    This is where you look at the route, the weather, your boat etc and decide whether the journey is a good idea or not.
  2. Planning
    If it looks like a good idea, then you work out your route and come up with pilotage plans for any ports in the passage, including any ports of refuge you might have to fall back to along the way if something goes wrong.
  3. Execute
    Leave port and go do the sailing thing.
  4. Monitor
    Once you’ve left your first port, you need to keep an eye on how things are going. Are we still on course? Has the weather changed? Is there a massive tanker steaming towards us on the course I’d planned to take?

I did the appraisal and planning steps before, and I got to put that plan into practice to see how it played out on a trip from Estepona to Gibraltar via Duquesa.

Execute is mostly about getting the person on the helm to follow your plan. You’re skipper for the passage, so you have plenty to keep you busy without having to steer the boat as well; you have a helmsman for that. They’re already doing a lot of work trying to hold a course with wind and waves pushing the boat around as well as keeping a lookout for any other traffic, so ideally you need to be able to give them simple and clear instructions on the fly. For example, saying “turn left a bit” is not as helpful as “turn port to 211 degrees”, or “See that tower over there? We’re heading towards that” since the first one forces them to work out what they should be going now. But that does mean that you, as skipper, have to know what course you were on (which might be different from the one in the original plan) and work out the new heading yourself, and that takes more concentration than you’d think.

I found the Monitor part the most fun / stressful. There are a variety of techniques you can use to monitor your position. GPS is the obvious one, but we’re in training to be able to do this when the instruments fail. So 3-bearing fixes, estimated positions and running fixes are the order of the day.

The stress aspect of it came into play when shortly after we’d started the Duquesa / Gib leg of the journey. I checked our heading (correct, after I’d belatedly remembered to add deviation to the course I’d given the helm), looked at the landmark I’d chosen for a guide (Europa point lighthouse), and came to the conclusion that there was absolutely no way that we were going in the right direction. I’d clearly screwed up the passage plan somewhere. The lighthouse was supposed to be dead ahead (negligible tidal rate and the set was in line with our heading anyway) and from where I was sitting, it was very clearly off to port.

What followed was 2 hours of me taking fixes on everything I could see on shore and find on a chart, and matching them up with depth soundings to try to work out exactly where we were. Which, naturally, was pretty much exactly where we were supposed to be.

The lesson: trust the maths. It works.

Good things I learnt that day:

  • Getting directions at the helm of “Turn left a bit” are really not helpful, and don’t inspire confidence that the skipper actually knows where they’re going. “Turn port to 211” is easier for the helmsman and boosts your own confidence in a “Hey, I actually have a detailed plan” kind of way.
  • Trust your helmsman.
  • Back bearings are really cool once you get your head around them.
  • Things you think would be easily visible for a bearing can easily vanish into the background the moment you glance away (I’m looking at you, Estepona lighthouse).
  • Look for things on the chart before you start taking bearings, because a bearing on something that’s not on the chart is no help at all.
  • If there’s something on a large scale chart that’s not marked on your smaller scale passage chart, measure the lat/long on the large chart and then plot it on the passage chart. And then you can use it for a bearing 🙂