Your float plan is an important safety tool when you’re on your boat. Many cruisers, however, either don’t use one or don’t use one as effectively as they could.
WHAT’S A FLOAT PLAN?
A float plan is a document that you leave with someone not on your boat, with details of your planned trip, expected ports and arrival dates/times, and important information about your boat should search and rescue be necessary. It provides the necessary details for someone to “sound the alarm” if you don’t check in as expected. You do not file it with any government authority.
No matter what other communications and emergency gear you have, you should also use a float plan as it provides additional information and sets up an “off boat” backup emergency system. If your communications go down, your designated person ashore can notify both the authorities and other boaters that you are overdue. Or, if you set off your EPIRB or make some other emergency call (cell or sat phone, VHF, SSB, tracking device), it will provide more detailed information about your boat and the equipment aboard for the rescuers.
NOTE: In the US, Customs and Border Protection also require you to file a “float plan” as part of the Small Vessel Reporting System (also called the Local Boater Option) when enrolled boaters are returning to the US or its territories from foreign countries. That is a totally different document and it is unfortunate that they used the same name.
WHEN SHOULD YOU USE A FLOAT PLAN?
You should leave a float plan anytime you’re out on the water, just in case something unexpected happens. Admittedly, many of us don’t leave one for day sails, or perhaps leave more informal information.
We tend to think about setting one up more for “big trips” — say crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas or Cuba — or for multi-day passages. You definitely want to leave one for these trips — but read below on who to leave it with.
For shorter day trips or coastal trips, we complete a float plan with all the pertinent information about the boat but no day-to-day details and send it to our emergency contact. Then each day, we send a quick email or text with that day’s planned itinerary and time to start worrying if we haven’t checked in. It’s a good idea to send it as an email or text so that the person has a written record — it’s all too easy to forget what was said in a phone call.
IMPORTANT: Be sure that you do check in with your emergency contact at the end of your trip or if your plans change. Also, if you use a Spot or inReach tracker, be sure to tell them (and any worrywarts in your family) not to prematurely panic if it stops transmitting — explain that it’s possible for you not to notice it needs recharging (several friends’ trackers have stopped tracking mid-way through a trip and they didn’t realize immediately that they needed to plug it back in to recharge).
WHO TO LEAVE THE PLAN WITH
It may seem logical to leave your float plan with someone in your family, but that’s not always a good idea if they are not also boaters. Simply put, you want someone who will sound the alarm when appropriate — that is, they won’t either forget or initiate search and rescue before there is cause for alarm.
We find that close cruising friends who are in — or at least familiar with — the same general area are best. Key qualities:
- Not heading out themselves
- Pay attention to weather (knowing that a wicked squall crossed your path would be important, as would knowing that winds were light for a sailboat that didn’t plan to motor)
- Calm in an emergency (no drama queens!)
- Knowledgable about who to contact
- Good communications capabilities as appropriate for the area (generally, this means a cell phone with plenty of minutes and good coverage) should there be an emergency.
Your contact does not need to be at your start or end point — they simply need to be where you can let them know your plans and that you’ve arrived safely (or need help or have changed plans).
Many times, the person you leave your float plan with won’t be listed as one of your emergency contacts on your EPIRB. Make sure that your EPIRB contacts know who has your float plan in case information is needed. Since none of our family members are boaters, we do not leave our float plan with them but we do tell them who to contact (the person we left the float plan with) if they can’t reach us and are worried. We’re simply trying to avoid having S&R called when we are perfectly fine.
THE FLOAT PLAN ITSELF
Several organizations — BoatUS, Power Squadron and others — offer PDF “fill-in-the-blank ” float plans. My favorite is the one put out by the US Coast Guard Auxiliary.
VERY IMPORTANT — THERE’S A POTENTIAL PROBLEM: When you click on that link (or if you use the float plan PDFs from any of the other sources) — depending on your computer and browser — it is likely to open the PDF in a browser window. And you’ll sit there and spend a bit of time filling it out, and then save it to your hard drive. Then you’ll go to print it out or email to your friend and discover that the PDF you saved or printed is the original blank one. And you will scream and curse and wonder why you ever listened to me and used this thing.
Keep reading for the solution. For two years, I printed out the blank one, hand-wrote in the information, then scanned the form so I could send it to our float plan caretaker. This past week I got geeky and figured out what was happening and, more importantly, the solution.
Note: I work in Windows; I’m told that the problem and solution are the same for Mac users but don’t have personal experience.
THE SOLUTION: Most browsers now have support for PDF files built in and few people download and install Adobe Acrobat Reader anymore. But the browser PDF support won’t let you save the form with the data — it will only save the original blank form.
To be able to fill in a form and save the completed form, you have to install Adobe Acrobat Reader DC — it’s free.
If you need installation directions, get them here:
Now you’re set to complete, save and email your float plan.
Click on the link for the Coast Guard Auxiliary form. It will open in a new browser window and just as it opens, there will be a drop-down menu in the upper right corner. (It disappears after a few seconds; if you need to make it “reappear,” reload/refresh the page.) Click on Open in Acrobat Reader.
It will open in Adobe Acrobat Reader. Click on the blanks (light blue spaces) and fill in your information. (No, I haven’t yet completed it all in the screenshot below.)
To save the completed form, either click on File/Save As or on the floppy disk “Save” icon. Put it in the folder you wish and name it whatever you want — I call ours BG Float Plan (BG=Barefoot Gal). If needed, you can print a completed copy, too.
Now you can attach the file to an email to send to your friend!
For future trips, you can bring up the same file — again in Adobe Acrobat Reader (if you haven’t made it your default PDF reader, don’t just double-click the file name to open it but instead, right click on the file name, select Open with and then choose Adobe Acrobat Reader). Simply edit the fields that have changed and then save and send to your contact — no need to fill it out from scratch.Some links above (including all Amazon links) are affiliate links, meaning that I earn from qualifying purchases. Learn more.