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Passage-planning – and why do it?
by Fred Roswold

ears before we did our first ocean passage on Wings, we attended a seminar/slide show by some cruisers who had already sailed around the world. Someone in the audience asked them what was the worst weather they had experienced. We all sat up to listen to the answer, because everyone figured that if you go cruising on the oceans of the world you will inevitably get hit by fierce storms, and we all wanted to hear how bad it was going to be. The answer surprised us. These experienced world cruisers replied, “The most wind we’ve had crossing an ocean is 40 knots. You don’t need to be out in storms if you plan your crossings to stay out of the parts of the oceans where storms are likely to happen.” This was news to us. Good news. If we learned how to do that we could avoid the storms. Since then, we’ve learned that their


answer was only partially true. You can’t guarantee storm-free crossings, but you can certainly improve your odds with some basic passage-planning. There are a lot of different approaches to solving this problem, but here is how we do it on Wings. Seasons & routes We start off by making a basic decision: Where are we going and where will we start from? Then we collect information about that crossing and work out route options and the best months. Eventually, we will settle on a general date of departure and our ports of call and make our passage plan. We begin with Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes, then we review the British Admiralty’s Ocean Passages for the World, and finally, by studying the appropriate Pilot Chart published by the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA). Jimmy Cornell’s book gives very excellent descriptions of preferred seasons

and routes. What is most valuable about his book is that he explains in simple terms the fundamental reasons for picking a particular season and route. Probably, we could rely solely on Cornell and proceed directly to charting some waypoints. But we like to refer back to the some of the original resources. Ocean Passages for the World is not as user-friendly, but it gives a wealth of the underlying information. We review as much of this as we can digest. Finally we open up the Pilot Chart for the ocean we are going to be crossing and for the month when we will be doing it. We trace our finger along the proposed route noting the likelihood of gales, various wind directions and strengths, currents, and temperatures. The Pilot Charts give us detailed data for each 5° square of ocean on a monthby-month basis. It not only shows expected wind direction, but also the chances of winds from unexpected directions. By flipping back and forth between

The passage-planning process is part of the fun of cruising, and it is a large part of feeling comfortable and prepared when we go offshore. Here’s how we approach it on Wings

We open up the Pilot Charts, at left, and run our finger along the proposed route, noting the likelihood of gales, wind directions and velocities, and ocean currents and strengths. Right: Part of passage-planning is determining key GPS waypoints to your destination. Here, we’ve noted waypoints from Fiji to New Zealand. 28 Blue Water Sailing • March 2000

two or three different months, we can see the advantages or disadvantages, if any, for speeding up or delaying our departure, and we identify detours or doglegs which might help us with a speedy or safe crossing. This process might take several sessions over a period of weeks and months while we assimilate the information and invariably discuss it with other cruisers. The experience of other sailors is not to be ignored, and we always try to get as many opinions as we can, while remembering that much of what we hear is only opinion. Often, but not always, there is a consensus about when to go and what route to take, although usually people have different ideas about the best ports of call. In the end, though, we have to make up our own minds. After this often lengthy process, we will have settled on a general plan, and it will be time to collect the necessary charts, guides and other pertinent publications. Selecting charts Small or large-scale: After we have made our passage plan we have to obtain our charts, and guides or sailing directions. One of the quickest ways to spend a lot of money is to walk into a chart supply agency and try to pick out all the charts you might need for a passage. We have decided that we really only need one small-scale chart that covers our whole voyage and quite a few harbor and approach charts. We use the small-scale chart to plan our crossing and to plot our daily position while under way. It is important, however, to make sure the whole voyage is covered. We know an inexperienced cruiser who was surprised on a crossing to see an offshore island that was right on the space between his ocean chart and the harbor chart of his destination. Many cruisers use blank plotting sheets instead of charts to note their positions at sea but we have never carried these. We do sometimes use a clear sheet of plastic over the small scale chart and write on the plastic with a grease pencil, particularly if we are tracking several other yachts crossing an ocean. Mostly however we write directly on the chart. How many charts? Even for harbors and the parts of our passages that are near land, we don’t buy every chart available. We might buy a new chart for our primary destination, but for the remaining charts that we need, we either purchase photocopies or chart books, or we trade for charts. Every cruiser we know is constantly on the lookout for used charts, and these always seem to turn up. It is a good idea to start collecting charts months or years in advance. Often several cruisers will get together and pool their charts. One or two persons take a stack of charts to a copy store and make photocopies for everyone. Some stores give a better rate if they are selling a few hundred copies and the customer does all the work. Read the chart carefully before making photocopies, because some charts are copyrighted and cannot be copied. When using photocopied charts, remember that they are often out of date. Don’t rely on navigation aids shown on an old chart. If you are put off by the lack of color of copied charts, you can improve them by coloring them with colored pencils. Foreign charts: Whether you pick up charts before you leave or along the way, sooner or later you will accumulate foreign charts, those published in other countries and by agencies other than NOAA or DMA. These charts may have some differences that need to be recognized – such as how the water depths are shown (meters rather than fathoms and feet) and how longitude and latitude are shown (seconds and tenths of a minute). We are careful to check our charts to see if each minute is divided into 10 or 12 divisions, and then we make note of it on the chart margin. Other differences are how the compass rose is presented, or even if there is one at all. GPS settings: Finally, one area of importance to note on each chart is which chart datum is used. If your GPS is set to give positions based on World Geodetic System of 1984, and your chart has locations based on another datum, such as the Geodetic Datum of 1949, position can be off by 200 yards. Other datums have wider variations. We found that, while sailing in Fiji, we had charts on board that showed the same lighthouse in positions which varied over a quarter of a mile, not due to poor surveys but to different chart datums. When you find these datums, it is usually a simple matter to change your GPS to read the same datum as your chart. Detailed passage plan With a general plan for our passage in mind and our charts onboard, we make some final detailed plans. We start by determining the key GPS waypoints along the route and entering these into the GPS. We also make a list, kept at the nav-station, which shows the waypoint name, number, coordinates and chart to be used. Plotting and entering the waypoints is a job for two people – one who does the plotting and the second person who will double-check the figures. This safety technique has prevented several errors on Wings, and at least one close call with a reef was caused by a mistake in plotting a waypoint that was not checked by the second person. We also make some notes about the wind speeds and directions we expect and what kind of speeds we think we might make. This, in turn, can translate into estimated passage durations. Finally, before we leave we organize the charts and books we’ll use so that they’ll be easy to find. What navigation tools do we use aboard Wings for passage-planning as well as navigating while en route? We use parallel rules and dividers, and also a ruled protractor. We have simple mechanical pencils with built-in erasers, and as mentioned earlier, a piece of clear plastic (window material) on which we use a grease pencil to make rough marks for positions of other yachts we receive over the radio. Judy has some colored pencils that she bought in French Polynesia and a cheap plastic sharpener that hardly works. On large-scale harbor and approach charts, she marks some rocks and reefs in red and the shallow water is blue. Electronic alternatives Many, if not most, cruising yachts now have electronic chart-plotters on board. Most of our position-finding and plotting can be done quickly and conveniently with the electronic charts. One thing to remember is that we will still have to carry the paper charts or a bulletproof electronic backup in the event that our primary systems fail. Electronic aids that we think are extremely useful are the PCbased passage-planning programs that allow routes and waypoints to be estab-

Blue Water Sailing • March 2000



You don’t need to be out in storms if you plan your crossings to stay out of the parts of the ocean where storms are likely to happen
lished on your PC and then uploaded to your GPS. Several of our friends have a package known as Visual Passage Planner that includes an electronic version of the Pilot Charts and will calculate predicted boat speeds, passage durations, and expected weather conditions. The Wings conclusion After we planned a few passages this way, we realized that the passage-planning process is a large part of the fun of cruising, and it is a big part of feeling comfortable and prepared when we go offshore. Mostly we do simple stuff – nothing complicated – but we are always ready to learn a new way and a new technique. As long as it is simple.

Photocopies of charts can be made more functional, as well as more appealing, by colorizing with colored pencils. Here, Judy touches up a large-scale chart of the approaches to Fiji’s Kandavu Island.


Blue Water Sailing • March 2000