Passage planning: the float plan


Writing a float plan is a simple thing to do, may be critical in the event of an emergency, and is all too easily set aside and left undone in the stack of tasks that precede going offshore. Provisioning. Checking the weather. Vessel integrity checks. Checking the weather again.

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The bare minimum of a float plan is providing someone you know with basic information about your vessel, passengers, destination, timeline for departure and return, and contact information. That’s it. The USCG doesn’t take float plans; this is for someone you know and trust. If you don’t arrive within an expected timeframe, they’re tasked with notifying the Coast Guard that you are overdue.

Why do you need a float plan? This is boating safety 101. It should not be lost in the false hubris of pride in self-sufficiency. If you don’t think you need one, consider friends/family at home who will suffer if you decide to skip this simple step and the unthinkable happens. A float plan includes the critical details that fall through the cracks of what you think they know…but might not.

Back in Malaysia in late 2014, I got in touch with one of our designated contacts to confirm they’d be on point as an EPIRB emergency contact and for our float plan. In the process of sharing details of our voyage, I was asked a very reasonable question by our friend Dan: “so if they call me – what do I have to do?” This shouldn’t have pulled me up short, but for a moment, it did. We are so accustomed to considering emergency scenarios from our perspective, and not the shore side view, that I had not truly thought through about how to prepare those back at home. What should they expect to happen, if our EPIRB is triggered or we were overdue for arrival? What information did I need to make sure they had available? Details below, and a link to download our plan at the end.

Beyond the float plan: what we do on Totem

Thanks to Dan’s question, we created a document that goes beyond the basics of a float plan, and considers that it’s someone who cares about us that needs more information/explanation than the (otherwise excellent) standard USCG auxiliary’s plan.

Our revised document starts with the key details that will be important for SAR, in a format that is as plain and scannable as possible. First, the basics of our intended departure and expected arrival: where, and when. Details about Totem come next: hull type and shape, rig type, color, any unique details that would identify her from the many other white sloops of the world.


Next is an outline of onboard communications (details for radio, satellite, etc.) and safety equipment, such as our life raft (description/images), and EPIRB unique IDs. A crew list includes the name, age, and passport numbers of everyone on board, as well as shore side emergency contacts for any other crew joining our family.

We’re often traveling in loose company with other boats, and those crews may have the best information about our location or local conditions. Those boats, their names, and their contact details (including at-sea contacts such as sat phone or radio-based email addresses) are included in the document, as are the details for any radio nets we take part in.


Our last critical step is to provide a clear instructions for our contact entrusted with the plan. This is both factual data, and our effort at a kinder/gentler outline of the steps they can take – and why they shouldn’t panic! Even if they get a call because our EPIRB was triggered, odds are it’s a false alarm.

They’re given our expected arrival time/place, a number of ways to locate our position online, and an outside date after which we should be considered overdue. If we haven’t contacted them by that outside date, we provide a list of contacts for them to make. First, to try and reach us at sea (via the IridiumGO or SSB radio). Second, to attempt to reach boats we’re traveling in company with. Finally, to contact the appropriate Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center. I put numbers and links in the document to make it easy.

Cloud storage

Using a Dropbox folder makes it easy to add details that may be useful in the event of an emergency. It includes items like a copy of the float plan file, copies of our EPIRB registrations, and more photos of Totem (in and out of the water: I don’t want to think about her being identified upside down, but it could prove useful to know the keel profile). While I hate to think about it being necessary, copies of paperwork for our insurance policies and the contact for our insurance agents are included.

The address to this Dropbox folder is given to the people provided with our float plan. We also provide our emergency contacts with login details for critical accounts (banking, etc.) in case the unthinkable happens.

Use your EPIRB registration

In addition to providing a float plan to trusted individuals, use your EPIRB registration to capture details. The registration form has an exceptionally important field – “Additional Information”. This free-form field is not required, but is a great place to share any other details which might possibly be helpful for SAR agencies in the event of an emergency. The float plan and other files can be accessible to SAR by providing them with the same Dropbox link via that field.

Internet age

A related consideration: outside of float plan specifics is worth considering. I’ve seen friends subjected to abuse after disaster struck their families, and news of it hit the general media. To mitigate that, consider nominating a trusted friend to take over any online profiles you maintain in the event of an emergency: login to your blog, Facebook, any other profiles you use. If the unthinkable happens, a friend can shut down your blog to comments, deactivate your Facebook profile, or take other steps to spare you the exposure and pain of judgment from the uninformed but righteous on the anonymous internet.

Templates help: you can download Totem’s float plan by clicking here. I added instructions to help clarify how to customize it to specific needs. And then, look at the turquoise water in the picture below, because getting places like that (Hermit Islands, PNG) safely is the real end game.

Jamie and I have re-opened our coaching service after a hiatus due to “too busy”! Can we help you realize the dream to go cruising? We mentor people to assist with boat selection, how to prepare (without going broke!), how to stay safe, or just better understand what it’s really like. Learn more about how to work with us, or get in touch to get started.


8 Responses

  1. I’m am glad you folks thought enough to mention these things. They are every bit as important as each person having one’s own flotation and location devices.

    By the way, does the Coast Guard cover areas outside the US waters?

    Thank you very much.

    1. Hi Michael, the USCG doesn’t “cover” areas outside of US waters per se. But for SAR (search and rescue) purposes, the world is broken up into RCCs (regional coordination centers), and an event may take place where the USCG has a lead role in that RCC. If our location isn’t a RCC with a USCG, having the nearest USCG RCC contact information will help put our emergency contacts in touch with people who can help direct them best. Where the RCCs fit in is pretty well illustrated with this diagram:

  2. This is important stuff and raises many of the issues that I do need to pay more attention to. We have a smartphone application called SafeTrx, which I recently started using, which once you log your float plan, can track your travels using phone location. It means should we become overdue, our Australian volunteer coastguard and rescue services can access information about our emergency contacts as well as photos of our yacht and know our departure and predicted arrival times and hopefully our last location. Several countries are using this now so it is worth a look. I’m not sure how this would work if travelling internationally though.

    1. Hi Phil, thanks for sharing info about this app. It really is interesting and great for coastal sailors, and I’m glad to know about it. As you suggest, though, it’s problematic for traveling internationally. It looks like the app relies upon your mobile phone connecting to your mobile carrier’s signal. So the ‘tracking’ feature which relies on your phone checking into a tower goes away as soon as you’re far enough offshore to lose the signal, and if you’re departing on an international passage, won’t check in again until you’ve gotten a new SIM card and data plan for your phone after arrival in a new country. Sometimes we’re able to get a SIM the day we arrive (hey, I like my internet, and am quite motivated!) but sometimes it takes a few days. So… kind of useless for cruisers / distance sailors. Also interesting to ponder is what this is also doing: removing the third party. E.g., the float plan is filed with someone you trust, who will report your failure to arrive to authorities. The app sends an automatic update to authorities. Is that better? Maybe. I’m not sure.

  3. Safety check-off items with practically all the items you mention are also applicable to casual coastal weekend sailors & daytrippers. Every year there are calls to the CG or police reporting over-dues but are not able to furnish a description of the vessel or how many souls are aboard. The thought of a worst case situation falls into the “it couldn’t happen to me” category. A sense of immortality can be fatal.

  4. Excellent post. I will be making a couple enhancements to my float plan this evening. I set sail from Bermuda to Antigua tomorrow afternoon so the timing is perfect. Thank you!
    s/v Argon

  5. A float plan? Spreadsheets? Links and passwords? Other boats we’re traveling with? Behan, we need coaching! 🙂

    Keep up the good work, and we look forward to crossing paths again.

    Mike on Galactic

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