Don't rely on everyone remembering all the details of the day's journey. Detailed notes at the helm will make the trip safer and less stressful.

Helm Notes

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.”

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 — 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 — 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 — info as to side for fenders, 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 in case our trip gets 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.

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 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 to make 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 so that it’s easy to quickly refer to the list and find the information we need.

We consult our list when we have questions such as “is this a good time for lunch?” (no, there’s a lock just around the bend). We’ve also used it to know that we’d be better off to circle 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 by making us aware of potential hazards ahead of time so that we can discuss them long before we’re dealing with them. 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!

Important note: helm notes don’t replace keeping an eye out at all times; using your radar, depth sounder, and chart plotter; having 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

Don't rely on everyone remembering all the details of the day's journey. Detailed notes at the helm will make the trip safer and less stressful.

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12 Comments
  • Cheryl bular
    Posted at 10 April 2017 Reply

    Absolutely love reading your Web site and meeting you in Annapolis at the boat show

  • Diana K Weigel
    Posted at 10 April 2017 Reply

    That is fantastic advice. I’ll be talking to my DH about doing this since we plan on venturing further this year.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 10 April 2017 Reply

      It has really helped us (literally) “be on the same page”

    • Diana K Weigel
      Posted at 10 April 2017 Reply

      That’s our goal this year. With shortened season here in the NE and prior work & kid commitments we really have actually cruised much. That all changes this year. We are exploring ways to make this a true partnership. Definitely don’t want to “be the show” wherever we go!

  • Brenda Whitcomb
    Posted at 10 April 2017 Reply

    Will you be going to the Annapolis boat show this year? We will be there. I would love to meet you if you are going to be there.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 10 April 2017 Reply

      We’re not currently planning to be there. If things change, I’ll be sure to announce it!

  • Andy French
    Posted at 10 April 2017 Reply

    It is a great idea and in solo racing circles it is called a road map and a good habit to get into. Certainly means everyone can have access to same info and no panic looking for what you need. Plans can change but it is a good start.

  • Larry Blankenship
    Posted at 10 April 2017 Reply

    No doubt good advice but if having FUN is that much WORK ….well no thanks.

  • Pamela
    Posted at 10 April 2017 Reply

    We’ve also found helm notes really helpful. Often I’ll do the initial notes and planning and hand them off to my husband to check against tide tables so we can arrange the best times for leaving and arrivals at critical waypoints. That gives us both ownership for planning and helps us both be familiar with it.

    I only wish we had a printer. The notes would be useful for the return too.

  • Jana Gregg Soward
    Posted at 11 April 2017 Reply

    I use an 8×10 white board that I bought from Dollartree to make notes on and put it in the cockpit. I also include where we plan to stop for the night as well as a backup spot and potential arrival times based on our our speed. Makes the trip more enjoyable!

  • Laura Ann Via
    Posted at 11 April 2017 Reply

    This is such a terrific idea! I use a Livescribe pen for our logs, so we can also reference them digitally through either OneNote or Evernote. Having ‘Helm Notes’ accessible on the tablet we use for at a glance maps whilst under sail, we can also pull up either OneNote or Evernote. You’ve got my brain thinking of how to incorporate a checklist with my Livescribe.

    I always look forward to what goodies y’all have pop up in my inbox every week.

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