Float Planning Basics

For most of us, our boats are a way to escape the ordinary. When we get down to the water and turn the mobile phone off, the world of job pressures and routine chores disappears into the past. With the sun shining and gulls calling overhead, it’s easy to slip the lines for a spontaneous boat ride or afternoon sail.

If you ever wondered what would happen should something go terribly wrong out on the water, you probably dismissed the thought quickly as not worth thinking about. If the engine should die or you run aground, you’d just pick up your mobile phone or VHF mike and call for assistance. But all of this presumes that you have a mobile phone, that the electrical system is intact, that you have time to make a call—in fact that you are in a position to calmly make a call.

Reading through the logs of search and rescue operations leads me to believe this isn’t always the case. An unexpected rogue wave swamps the boat, a fire breaks out forcing the crew into the water, a lightning strike destroys the radio and sinks the boat, or the crew is suddenly incapacitated. Since nobody knows of the boat’s plight, there’s no help in the offing.

The answer to this dilemma is for the boat owner to file a float plan before leaving the dock. Most of us do a little part of the job by telling a neighbor or dockmate that we’re going out on the boat for a day or two. But even though safety experts have harped at us for years about float plans, very few of us do the whole job as completely as it should be done.

If all your family knows is that you went out at 8am and were due back at dinner, how will they know when to call for search and rescue operations to commence—will they think you stopped at a friend’s house on the way? Would your buddy at the dock miss you if he leaves to go home before you get back? And if anyone does notice that you’re past due, will they be able to give authorities the details about your boat, crew and where you were headed?

Filing a float plan just makes good sense. Whether you’re planning to be out on your boat for an afternoon or leaving for an ocean crossing, you need to let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. The key is to have one or two float plan guardians on land armed with all the pertinent information and your instructions. Because your friends and family are more attuned to your activities, having them as guardians makes good sense too, as they are most familiar with your habits and activities, and will be most alert to possible problems. If you don’t check in from your trip as expected, your float plan guardians will have sufficient information to contact authorities, requesting help or an immediate search.

A float plan, like the flight plan filed by airplane pilots, includes detailed information about you, your boat and your passengers. This information is vital to the US Coast Guard or other search and rescue personnel in identifying your boat, knowing approximately where to look for you and having the proper gear on hand to help you and your crew.

Filing a proper float plan not only protects you and your crew, it saves your family and friends ashore needless worry by providing them concrete details of what to do and who to contact if you don’t return on time. A float plan also provides vital information necessary to search and rescue personnel so that they can help locate and assist you in an emergency. Search and rescue agencies have a much better chance of finding you quickly because the float plan tells them approximately where to look. They will also have will have other important information from your float plan, such as how many people are onboard and any special medical conditions with which they may need to contend.

What kind of information is in a float plan?


  • a detailed description of your boat to assist in identifying it
  • your itinerary, including planned departure and arrival dates, and stopover points
  • a list of all passengers, their emergency contacts and any special medical conditions
  • a list of safety equipment and electronics onboard
  • home port details, including automobile description and parking information
  • emergency phone numbers for the US Coast Guard, local marine patrol and towing companies
  • your emergency contacts

How to file a float plan

Float plans can be filed in several ways and this is where most of us fall down on the job. A note pasted on the refrigerator that says you’ll be back by 5 o’clock is not a sufficient float plan. If all the information is neatly written or typed on a piece of paper and given to the float plan guardians with complete instructions, this will suffice. But this system is usually too prone to errors of omission—information is forgotten or incomplete.

Several boating agencies and groups provide forms, and these do prevent the skipper from inadvertently forgetting to provide all the vital facts. But they force the captain to fill out the same pages of forms over and over again, and this frustrating task often leads many of us to simply dispense with the float plan altogether. With paper float plans, it can be difficult to transmit the information to search and rescue personnel at some distance except verbally by telephone or by a fax machine, if the guardians have access to one.

The best way to file a float plan is electronically. There is no need to fill out the fixed information such as the boat, its safety equipment, the automobile and docking data each time. Unless you buy a new boat or car, these parts of the form are stored from one trip to the next, saving a lot of time filling out the forms. The skipper just types the new dates, his itinerary waypoints if they are different and any changes in crew information.

An electronic float plan can be printed and handed to the guardians, and a copy can be kept aboard the boat for reference there. A float plan on the internet also makes it easy for the captain to modify it halfway through a trip, to check in at established waypoints or to cancel the float plan altogether. The guardians can also access the float plan on a home or office computer to check on the boat’s progress if the cruise is a lengthy one. And it’s easy to transmit an electronic float plan to search and rescue organizations in a matter of precious seconds if an emergency occurs.

MariSafe has developed a free, interactive Float Planner that has all the bells and whistles that any skipper, guardian or rescue person could want. The float plan is saved in the skipper’s personal account and the private information is totally secure. The skipper has the option to save it, adding to it or changing it at any time. It is accessible from any computer with web access using the skipper’s log-in name and password.

Once filed, the float plan is automatically emailed to the designated float plan guardians via a web link with their own custom passwords so they can follow the boat’s progress. The guardians can initiate emergency proceedings at any time they feel a problem may exist. One nice touch MariSafe added to the process is that they will assist the guardians or any search and rescue personnel with a direct request for more information or float plan transmittal. In addition, they have a premium feature for MariGuard members called Float Plan Response, in which MariSafe takes an intermediate position with the guardians, following the float plan electronically and notifying them if a check-in date is exceeded.

Float planning tips

  • Designate two responsible friends and family members as your float plan guardians.
  • Provide your float plan guardians with guidelines as to how long they should wait before contacting authorities when you do not check in as expected per your float plan. Use as many notes as possible to record this information.
  • If possible, provide your float plan guardians with contact information for the emergency personnel (US Coast Guard, marine patrol, etc.) where you will be boating.
  • As you fill in your destinations and estimated arrival dates (ETAs), take into consideration the predicted weather, realistic boat speed and your ability to contact your float plan guardians to update your float plan as you reach (or change) your planned destinations.
  • Don’t neglect to fill in the crew and passenger information. Their ages, descriptions, medical information and emergency contacts are vital to search and rescue personnel.
  • If your destinations and plans change as you travel, update your float plan so your guardians can easily monitor your progress, avoiding needless worry and unnecessary calls to emergency personnel.
  • Remember to close out your float plan by checking in at your final waypoint.

by Tom Wood

Tags: Logs/Echo Sounders , Plotter/Nautical Chart Plotters