Helm notes are a cruiser’s best friend. If you’re doing anything more than a short daysail in familiar waters, there’s probably going to be at least one “tricky” area. Sometimes far more if you’re in an area with bridges, locks, shoals, ship channels, big tide swings . . .
So how do you remember it all? And make sure that everyone who might be at the helm knows all the pertinent information?
Our answer is “helm notes.”
Include in Helm Notes
When I plan a trip and create a route for us, I keep a piece of paper at hand and jot down notes as I plan. I use information from charts, cruising guides, Active Captain and whatever other sources I have. Depending on the trip, I’ll include:
- High and low tide heights and times at any critical places
- Slack tide times at any critical places
- Time change if crossing a time zone
- All bridges. I note fixed bridges with heights, opening with type, schedule and VHF channel/hailing info, where to circle while waiting if there are special conditions or shoals nearby
- Locks. Note which side to put fenders out, VHF channel/hailing info, where to circle while waiting, height were dropping or raising, locking procedure if known, other info as pertinent
- For bridges and locks in particular, if there are changes in openings by date or day of week, I’ll note them. You never know if you will end up delayed.
- Ship channels or areas where ships are likely to be seen or where they are likely to be moving
- Work being done in or near a channel — dredging, nav marker replacement, bridge or lock repair — if work info is available
- Shoaling or shoals near a route
- Cuts with special considerations, including notable current, rough patches, etc.
- Any navigation markers that are out of place, not working, hard to spot, in weird locations . . .
- Any places where navigational “colors” or markers change (often when turning from one system, such as the ICW, to another, such as the sea buoys in/out of a harbor, you’ll change which side reds and greens are on)
- Touristy areas where we might encounter kayaks, Jetskis, parasail boats, whale-watching boats, dive boats (with divers in the water) and so on
- Potential bail-out locations — marinas, boat yards, and anchoring spots if we run into mechanical, weather or medical problems
- Anchorages and routes that are “sailable” should our engine have trouble
- Places where we have to stick right to the plotted route due to obstacles
- If using a chart book or cruising guide as the backup info, page numbers for various features
- Landmarks to help orient us as we are going through any tricky areas and particularly in anchoring areas, such as “dinghy dock is next to the big blue building; do not anchor east of red house due to cargo ship dock”
- Anchoring depth/bottom if unusual, mooring field info, or marina info and how to contact
No, there usually aren’t all of these . . . and sometimes there will be others, such as restricted areas near military bases. Basically, if something might affect where we could go or when we could transit a particular place, I make a note.
Pre-Planning & On the Day
Before leaving (usually the night before), Dave and I will look at the chart together. We tend to use paper charts for this and go over the noted spots. This is usually only a few minutes of going over the route. But it can be considerably longer when there numerous hazards, such as when we went down the Okeechobee Waterway with locks, bridges, manatee zones, changing mark colors and the “Miserable Mile.” The idea is for both of us to be familiar with the route and what we may encounter. We’re not trying to memorize it.
If the list is fairly short and straightforward, I’ll just tape my handwritten notes near the helm. If it’s likely to be a wet day, I’ll put it in a Ziploc.
On the other hand, if the helm list is long, I may type it up and print it out. That makes it easier to read and refer to. Also when the list is fairly long (on the ICW or other waterways, for example), we cross items off as we pass them. It’s easier to refer to quickly and find the information we need.
We consult our list when we have questions. For example, “is this a good time for lunch?” (no, there’s a lock just around the bend). We’ve also used it to decide if we’re better off circling in a deep wide place while a squall passes rather than risk having very limited visibility while in a narrow cut.
Not only do our helm notes help keep us out of trouble, they also considerably reduce the stress of tricky passages. They make us aware of potential hazards ahead of time so that we can discuss them long before they arise. We have far fewer surprises and “what do I do now?” moments!
Further, with the information written down, it’s easy to access if the other person isn’t available to ask a question (napping, cooking, in the head). And neither of us is relying on our memory!
Helm notes don’t replace keeping an eye out at all times. Use your radar, depth sounder, and chart plotter. And have paper charts handy to double-check and so on. Helm notes are simply one more tool. As is stamped on every chart:
The prudent mariner will not rely solely on any single aid to navigation.