A Guide to Sailing Pilotage and Passage Planning


Every sailor knows that, with the right Planning and Preparation, a voyage can be an amazing adventure. But even if you’ve sailed a lot of different boats and done plenty of coastal cruising, you still need to plan every voyage with care. Planning for your passage is just as important as choosing which route to take or what kind of weather window to aim for—in fact, it’s even more important! You don’t want to waste time or money making mistakes on your way from point A to point B.

A Guide to Sailing Pilotage and Passage Planning - virginislandssailingschoo

What is pilotage?

It’s important for sailors to know the difference between a pilot and A Pilotage. A pilot is a person who has been trained to guide a ship through a dangerous area, usually at night or in fog. The process of navigating a vessel through an area of water with the assistance of such an individual is known as pilotage.

A pilot takes control of navigation by taking over from the captain and becoming responsible for controlling all aspects of steering, speed and position until arriving safely at the destination port or harbour.

Why do you need to plan a passage?

Passage planning is a critical part of safe and successful sailing. The purpose of passage planning is to avoid danger, stay on course, find the right place to anchor, and know where to pick up supplies.

Passage planning requires that you carefully evaluate your route in terms of:

  • Distance from land (a large body of water such as an ocean)
  • Currents and wind direction/speed

When do you need to plan a passage?

A passage is a time-based event that lasts from the start of an intended voyage to the finish. You may have a passing interest in planning a passage, or you may find it an exciting challenge and a great way to learn more about your vessel and its capabilities.

A passage can be planned in advance with greater confidence and accuracy than one which is completed on the fly. Even so, many sailors prefer to wait until they reach their destination before they decide whether or not they want to take advantage of heavy winds and favorable currents by sailing back home again immediately after setting out on their journey.

Where does planning happen?

Sailing pilotage is best done on a laptop or tablet, and passage planning is also best done using one of these devices. If you do not have access to one of these devices, it’s possible to use your smartphone as a substitute.

Who is responsible for the plan?

The responsibility for creating a passage plan lies with the skipper. Of course, he or she may enlist the help of others in order to complete it—that’s fine. The navigator will be responsible for sharing information regarding weather and tides, while crew members can contribute their knowledge of local conditions (e.g., is there a shallow waterway near by?). However, in the end, it’s up to you as skipper to confirm that everyone has been properly accounted for and advised on how best to proceed with your voyage.*

  • For example: if you have four crew members on board but only three life jackets aboard, then they will each need one more life jacket than they have—so make sure there are enough available!

How does a sailing passage plan work?

  • What is a passage plan?

A passage plan is a set of instructions for sailing from one place to another. It can be as simple as “head east for 500 miles, then north for 600 miles” or more complex, like “set your course at 095 degrees and sail at 12 knots until you see the lighthouse on Alden Rock Island; then turn south-southeast and pass between two islands called Tomcat and Tinkers; after that, head straight east toward New York City until you reach the channel between Sandy Hook and Raritan Bay. Once there, head north into New York Harbor.”

  • How does it work?

There are several steps in creating a successful passage plan:

Get the basics of sailing passage planning nailed down first.

Get the basics of sailing passage planning nailed down first.

It’s important to know when and where you want to sail, and who will be putting together the plan for your trip. Your local USCG certified “Sailing Instructor” can help with this process if necessary. Some things are pretty obvious: we’re talking about boats, so as long as there’s water under them, they can go anywhere in the world (with some limitations). However, you’ll find that certain destinations offer different challenges than others in terms of navigation hazards, weather patterns, currents and other factors related to safety at sea. You should also consider whether or not a particular destination has adequate infrastructure (i.e., ports) available for your needs while out at sea; some places may have all sorts of services still standing after years without anyone using them!


So, that’s it. You now have the tools to create a sailing passage plan for your next trip. The best way to make sure that you get the most out of this process is by starting with an understanding of the basics and then building on that foundation as you gain experience. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it! Before long, planning passages will become second nature and something that comes naturally in any situation or scenario on board ship.


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