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How to create a pilotage plan

Pip Hare walks through the dos and don’ts of creating a pilotage plan and explains why they are still important in the digital age.

Creating a pilotage plan has long been a key navigational skill and most of us will have encountered various examples through our sailing lives.

The plan is a simplified recreation of the chart, on a piece of paper that you can take on deck and annotate to aid with eyeball navigation en route.

It allows the sailor to change the scale, focussing only on the features that are important to them, and is derived from the days when we all used paper charts and it was a cardinal sin to take them on deck.

Times have moved on. Most of us have chart plotters on deck and apps on our phones that allow us to see, in real time, where we are on the chart, as well as monitoring traffic. So it would be easy to think old school pilotage is dead.

However, the pilotage plan is still as relevant as ever and I’d suggest this skill is beneficial to all sailors, as the more we engage with and understand our movement through an environment the fewer mistakes and the more confident we’ll be to focus on sailing well.

With that in mind I’ve been thinking about creating a pilotage plan in today’s world and how we can utilise technology to aid this traditional skill.

Make the right pilotage plan

There is no ‘right way’ to make a pilotage plan. It simply needs to be relevant and useful to you and your circumstances.

If you are a list person then make a list, if you process information better through drawings, do that. You could also annotate a screenshot of a chart – adding grids, bearings, distances over the top.

A pilotage plan should be easily and instantly understood, either through paper sketches, digital annotations, or lists – whichever suits you best

Take into consideration whether you expect others to understand your notes, if you will be reading it in the dark, and what types of information will be useful.

The trick is to bring the flat image on your chart into real life. I use a combination of notes, screenshots and pictures.

Multiple research sources

The chart is going to be your primary starting point for pilotage. It will show you the key navigational features with distances and bearings between them. But while these basic transitions between point A and point B are simple to follow on a chart plotter, there may be limited value in just transposing these into another form.

The real value of a good pilotage plan is the ability to bring a two-dimensional chart to life, so bearings and positions can be backed up by visual references. To gain this level of insight you’ll need to research multiple sources of information, pilot books, online guides and photographs.

Pilot books will give a detailed account of entry and exit to ports, with pictures and chartlets to help. As with paper charts, they do need to be kept current. Check the publishing date of each of your pilot books and search online to see if there is a live updates page to accompany your publication.

There is also a huge amount of crowd-sourced information out there which can help a lot with entering new places.

Many harbours and estuaries have their own information pages, you can search cruising forums, and several navigational apps benefit from live community updates. Just remember that many of the threads on forums are two or three years old and community updates are not always verified so make sure you take a practical view on the validity of your sources of information.

Use photographs

A photograph will bring any chart to life and I use them a lot when entering new places.

If you are using a navigational app then overlay the satellite view onto the base map. This will put a satellite photo over the shoreline and is incredibly practical. It can show how obvious landmarks on the chart are in real life, whether trees obscure views and will also help identify uncharted objects and features, which will give you a quick positional reference.

Compare chart information (left) to chart satellite images (right) and annotate things that aren’t clear, eg the position of the Martello tower

An online search using Google images can also prove invaluable. Make sure you use a tight search term to get the best result. For example, to research the entrance to the river Deben, I used the search term ‘River Deben entrance buoys 2020.. 2021’.

This took me straight to some aerial shots, some great drone footage flying over the entrance produced by the local sailing club this year, and the harbour authority’s latest chartlet.

As with any online source, check the date it was produced and where it came from to assess the reliability.

Use transits

I love a good transit, it provides an instant way to assess multiple things. At the most basic level transits on the chart will help us find the best route down a restricted waterway, leading lights at night and shapes during the day.

If using day shapes, see if you can research a picture of their actual size and shape. But transits are everywhere and we are not confined to using only the ones shown on a chart.

You can add quick transits to a pilotage plan to confirm position along a route. If there is a significant landmark on the shore, it can be lined up with buoys or posts on the water and cross-referenced with a depth reading to provide a quick and dirty confirmation of position.

Lining up any two objects, on the shore or the land directly in line or behind your course, and watching the rate at which they ‘travel’ away from each other will confirm tidal drift and allow a helmsman to compensate and stay on course.

Use all your kit and crew

The pilotage plan allows a crew to keep their eyes off a screen at the times when it is most critical to observe your wider environment. But that does not mean we should ignore the chart plotter when making landfall – it’s still going to be a vital part of good navigation and it would be counterproductive never to check your position in this way.

In an ideal world we’d enter a port with one person navigating using their plan, notes, the chartplotter with AIS and radar overlay if available, but also include a hand-bearing compass and a pair of binoculars.

The navigator will give the helmsman points of reference to steer to and then ask the rest of the crew to look for key features, report on depth, wind, tide and other situational information.

If sailing double-handed this can be a challenge but try to simplify things as much as possible. Use the autopilot to hold the course, take the sails down and motor if it is easier and maintain one person on navigation and the other looking for information.

Night pilotage

Arguably night is one of the most useful times to have a plan prepared. Following a chartplotter screen at night time destroys your ability to see long distances outside the boat, missing other vessels and navigational lights.

Any interaction with a screen or white light will ruin your night vision so for that reason it’s better to make notes on paper, use red headtorches or chart table lights, and turn instruments onto night time mode, with the lowest back lighting that allows data to still be seen. Don’t make notes with red pens as these can’t be seen under a red light.

If in doubt go back

Whether you’re looking at your chartplotter or working from notes, don’t forget that if you’re not sure where you are, or things don’t look right, then you can normally turn around and go back to your last confirmed position.


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