Every year I get asked: how do you plan your sailing trips? When planning a trip, I ask myself some basic questions, and from there, consider conditions and amenities specific to that trip.
We sail a 19-foot West Wight Potter, manufactured by International Marine. Whisper is a trailerable sailboat with a classic heritage, constructed of modern materials. I usually describe voyaging in a small, trailerable sailboat as akin to camping in a hard tent. Many of the same clothes, gear, food, and cooking methods are the same as you would use for backpacking or tent camping.
Some of the information below may not directly apply if you sail a small open vessel, or a larger yacht.
Below I’ll cover some basics, tides and currents, charts and navigation, and food. This is not an exhaustive list of everything I do to plan a trip, but it covers the big items. I’m still working on a comprehensive checklist to use when planning every trip.
Table of Contents
- 1 Basics
- 2 Tides, Currents, and Weather
- 3 Charts and Navigation
- 4 Food and Drink
- 5 Written Plan
- 6 More
When will I go?
Weather is not constant. I prepare for daily high and low temperatures, and consider the likelihood of rain (or sleet or hail or snow). A wet, cold sailor is a miserable sailor, and is more likely to make errors in judgment.
For early spring, late fall, and winter sailing, I bring a small catalytic heater with me to help take the chill off in the morning and evening.
Sailing means I want wind, but some seasons are much more likely to generate life-threatening storms than others. Summer wind on Puget Sound is typically light. Spring, fall, and winter weather systems can have much more embedded energy that can test my courage and skill.
Where will I go?
Am I seeking solitude? Puget Sound has plenty to offer. South Puget Sound (which I define as south of the Tacoma Narrows) can be a lonely place, even during the summer. Similarly, Hood Canal sailing can provide a sense of wild beauty, of being close to wilderness.
Am I seeking access to urban amenities? Puget Sound offers that, too. Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, and many other locations provide access to stores of all stripes within easy walking distance of transient moorage.
How long will my trip last?
I like to take a week-long solo trip every year. I find it takes a few days to break my normal daily clock and live instead by the sun and tides.
A weekend trip requires a different scale of preparation and thoughtfulness than does a week-long trip. The longer the trip, the more I need to be sure to consider basics like water, food, and toilet capacity.
Where can I stop for food and fuel?
Finding food is usually not a problem, except in the more remote parts of Puget Sound. Fuel availability is a bit more challenging, and requires some planning to be sure I don’t run out.
I plan my trips as if I will be motoring the whole way at the most economic setting for my outboard, and I like to always have half of my three-gallon tank in reserve.
For a long trip through, for example, the San Juan Islands, I’ll pack an extra container of fuel as that gives me more flexibility in my itinerary.
How much do I want to spend?
I can spend a lot or a little, depending on where I go and what I want to do at those destinations. A great experience is to sail to Bell Harbor Marina on the Seattle waterfront. From there, I can walk to Qwest Field, visit the nearby Seattle Aquarium, or venture up the hill to wander the Pike Place Market. But it will costs a bit, because moorage at Bell Harbor is among the most expensive on Puget Sound.
However, staying on my boat requires much less out-of-pocket money than staying in a hotel. Even though some marinas are more costly than others, sailing remains an economical choice for visiting many places bordering Puget Sound.
I usually purchase a seasonal moorage permit from Washington State Parks and Recreation. For about $65, I can stay at a Parks dock or mooring buoy almost as much as I like. With a moorage fee of $10 per night, I am saving money after about seven nights tied to a Parks dock or buoy.
Occasionally, I anchor out and enjoy the delightful ambience of Puget Sound under the stars. This option costs the least and provides a wonderful way to enjoy the trip.
Do I have required safety gear?
Last year, I put off replacing the dissolvable bobbin in my automatic life vest. It’s supposed to be replaced every year, and I had just not done it. I was surprised to climb into the boat to prepare it for an outing only to discover the life vest had deployed after some particularly humid weather.
While I was inside the boat, I pulled my flares to check their dates. They had expired the previous Christmas. I also couldn’t locate my extra whistles, and my electronic horn no longer worked.
It is critical to carry the correct safety equipment, and to make sure they are usable in case of emergency. A list of equipment required by the U.S. Coast Guard is available here.
I have an electric bilge pump and a manual bilge pump, but one of the most useful items I carry is a sturdy plastic bucket. I use it to bail, to wash, to sluice mud off the decks, and as a garbage pail.
I consider rain gear and fleece clothing to be required emergency gear, because cold and stupid are not acceptable options for solo sailing.
Tides, Currents, and Weather
After I’ve tentatively decided where and when and how long I want to go sailing, I turn to tide and current charts. I try to sail with the falling tide whenever possible.
A sailboat is a slow means of transportation. You would think that a small reduction in boat speed would not be significant, but it is. Let’s say your boat will go about four knots under moderate conditions, with the sails well trimmed. Sailing for eight hours will get you to your destination 32 nautical miles distant.
Now let’s say you are sailing against a one-knot current that reduces your over-the-bottom speed to three knots. Your eight-hour journey will now take nearly 11 hours. It’s important to plan for currents, because adverse currents change the timing of your meals, can lead to dehydration or exhaustion, and can mean you don’t get that dock slip or mooring buoy you were counting on.
An adverse current can also change the conditions you’ll encounter later in the day. There are some places in Puget Sound I will only sail through at slack tide. If I miscalculate, I’ll miss my window. I may then have to use more fuel to get through, or if I try to push through, I may face increased risk.
Tide and current resources
Please visit my Links page for several links to websites about Puget Sound tides, current, sand weather. For tides and currents, my “go to” resources are the predictions provided by MobileGeographics which I find to be very easy to use:
Using online tide and current predictions
Here’s an example. Let’s say I want to launch from Port Orchard on Saturday, June 13, 2009, and sail through Rich Passage to reach Blake Island, Eagle Harbor, or Seattle.
I’ll go to the MobileGeographics tide prediction page and scroll down to Bremerton (because there is no entry for Port Orchard). Note that there are two listings for Bremerton: one link returns tidal range in meters, and the other in feet. I choose the one in feet. When that page opens, I’ll go to the date selector, select June 13, and click Go.
From the chart, I can see that a Saturday morning launch at 8:30 am will put me at the highest morning tide of just over eight feet at Bremerton and Port Orchard. I’ve launched from Port Orchard before, so I know that’s plenty of water for launching.
The chart also shows me the tide will be falling rapidly after I launch. I want to go through Rich Passage, but how much current will I encouter, and will it be going with me, or against me? Since it’s a falling tide, and I’m going out with the tide, I know the current will be with me. I don’t know how much current I’ll encounter.
So next, I’ll go to the Mobile Geographics current prediction page. Notice there is no listing for Bremerton or Port Orchard. Something you need to know is place names along your planned route, because tidal stations and current predictions are often not named the same way.
I’m going to transit Rich Passage, so I search the web page for the word “rich” and find four entries for Rich Passage: East End, North of Blake Island, Off Pleasant Beach, and West End. The east end of Rich Passage is where I’ll exit the passage later in the day. The prediction for north of Blake Island is in a mixing zone where the current spreads out and swirls, and again, I won’t encounter that until later in the day.
The east end prediction is for the entrance to Rich Passage. The prediction for Pleasant Beach is partway through Rich Passage, and I choose that one as somewhat representative of what I may encounter. From about 10 am to around 1 pm, I’ll have an increasing outbound current, rising from about a knot to over two knots.
How is this information useful to me? I know if I have to motor because of no wind, I can throttle back and save fuel, because the current is going to flush me out of Rich Passage. All I have to do is maintain steerage and avoid hazards, and I’ll make it through the passage. If I’m in a hurry, I can crank up the throttle and achieve more than five knots net speed because of the extra push provided by the current.
On Sunday, I’m faced with a more difficult scenario: a falling tide from mid-morning to evening, and water too low at dinnertime to retrieve the boat. And of course, with a falling tide, I’ll have to transit Rich Passage against the current. If you’ve ever studied rivers, you know about backeddies, where the water flows upstream even though the main current is flowing downstream. One of the things I like about Rich Passage is there are backeddies, and even with a strong current, I can dart into those eddies to gain ground, even against the direction of the main current.
With the tide at close to zero at about 5 pm, I won’t be taking the boat out at that time. I might sail for a while, or I could visit Bremerton and have a quiet dinner ashore, and when the tide rises, take out late in the evening at Port Orchard.
My links page lists some of my favorite weather-related websites. I like to look not only at near-term weather reports, but also check Pacific Ocean weather maps and read weather-related blogs about long-term patterns. Doing these things makes me more aware that weather is changeable, so while I may start a sailing day expecting warmth and light winds, the weather may change to cold, windy, lumpy conditions, and I like to be prepared!
The discussion about tides and charts demonstrates I need to know where I am, and the names of places along my route.
For navigation, there is nothing better than real charts, a good compass, and the skill to use these resources. I have a GPS system, and I use it whenever I sail, but I also carry charts and make sure they are at hand when I’m underway. I also use the printed charts for planning a day or two in advance so I can picture the route clearly in my mind. I do this no matter how familiar I am with the route. It is easy to take the same route over and over again and become complacent, but if you take a familiar route and your motor fails, or get moved off course by adverse winds or currents, you may not be familiar with certain hazards. In this the Boy Scott motto is a perfect reminder: be prepared. I prepare by poring over the charts before getting underway.
Whisper is a small boat, so I carry few full-size charts. Instead, I carry chart books from West Marine. In most cases, these provide sufficient detail to safely navigate. There are passages for which I carry more detailed charts, like Hammersley Inlet near Shelton. The detail available in the chart book is simply not sufficient for a safe passage through Hammersley, in my opinion.
The pages in the chart book are waterproof (important, because things always get wet on a sailboat) and the binding is spiral bound so the book will lay flat when open. It is just the right size to slide under a foam pad in the cabin, making it easy to reach but out of the way at the same time.
I also carry a Washington Atlas and Gazetteer. This helps me find place names, and also gives me insight into how wind might be channeled around surrounding hills and through valleys. I also use it to get an idea of how shaded a moorage or anchorage might be; I like having a bright sunrise greet me when I awaken on Whisper.
Compass and GPS
Built into Whisper is a bulkhead mounted compass. The GPS also has a compass. I also carry a backpacking-style compass with a sighting mirror, and use that compass for shooting angles between features like mountain tops or radio towers. The mirror comes in handy when I feel the need to shave.
I also carry a waterproof watch. Consider what happens if a fog bank rolls in while you’re underway, as happened to me on my Hood Canal trip in Appletree Cove. If you know where you are, and how fast you’re going, and your direction of travel, the last ingredient for dead reckoning is something to calculate elapsed time, as in: from this point, I am traveling 2 knots, heading due west, and calculate I have an hour of travel before encountering land. My first rule of thumb when boating: don’t hit things with the boat.
But don’t forget about currents! If the current is pushing you along your direction of travel, you’ll hit land before you expect if you don’t account for that extra speed. If the current is pushing you sideways, you may hit a point of land or island if you aren’t aware of the effect of the current.
Food and Drink
If I’m sailing from marina to marina, I won’t plan every meal, because I’ll be eating some meals in cafés and restaurants.
If, however, I will be anchoring out, or staying in rustic parks and marinas, I plan for sufficient calories to sustain me. Remember that sailing can be a physically demanding activity, so I plan to consume more calories than normal.
I can cook on board and carry some freeze-dried meals made for backpacking. I also look for pre-cooked main dishes that just need to be heated. Many microwaveable foods are already cooked and can be heated by immersing the plastic-sealed food in boiling water. I’ve also repackaged canned foods and home cooked foods in vacuum-sealed bags that can be heated in boiling water. Experiment first at home!
(About cooking on board: I don’t cook inside the cabin. I cook outside, and usually I remove the companionway steps and just stand inside the boat while the cookstove is outside. A side benefit is this is a great way to meet people as they walk by!)
I buy as much of my food as I can at a grocery store. Although I carry a few freeze-dried meals to make sure I have extra meals available, they often have very high sodium levels. When the weather is hot, salt replacement is important. Still, I save these freeze-dried meals for emergency use, because they just taste too salty for me. I’ll eat them if I have to. (In my teens, a friend carried dry dog food as his emergency rations, claiming he knew he wouldn’t eat it unless it really was an emergency. I prefer freeze-dried backpacking meals to dog food!)
For breakfast, I usually pack oatmeal with raisins and spices as individual portions, one portion to a sandwich bag. I write on the bag with a felt-tip pen how much water to boil to make my morning oatmeal. My alternative breakfast is granola with fruits and nuts, with soy milk. Again, each breakfast is pre-packed as individual portions.
When I’m sailing, I usually graze my way through lunch, starting at mid-morning and ending at dinnertime. I have dried fruits, nuts, some whole grain foods like granola bars (or even just granola from a baggie), cheese, whole wheat or other whole grain crackers, fresh fruit, vegetables, beef jerky, smoked salmon, hard-boiled eggs, and many more choices.
Since I am more often than not sailing solo, I can’t take much time away from the actual sailing of the boat to gather food to eat. After breakfast, I usually position my snacking foods in a bin near the companionway, where I can simply reach in and get what I need. This works well for foods that do not require refrigeration. For foods like cheese or leftovers from the night before, I usually pack them in a baggie and lay them in the bilge where the cold water of Puget Sound will help keep these items cool. Items that have to be refrigerated go in the cooler, which I open as little as possible.
Dinner is the daily meal that challenges me the most. I look forward to something warm, but after snacking all day, I don’t need a lot of calories. I usually aim for a high-protein meal that requires little preparation, because by evening, I’m tired. Stews and other one-pot meals are usually my first choice.
Staying hydrated while sailing is a challenge, because I’m busy sailing.
Water is my drink of choice. I budget for one-half gallon of drinking water a day per person, but usually don’t consume that much. This doesn’t include washing water which is also potable. I have one can of diet soda per day. I will often have a small glass of wine in the evening, after my cooking and cleaning chores are completed, and after I’ve checked my tie-up or ground tackle.
(This year, I may return to my Boy Scout youth and try using a bota bag. I find a can or a bottle is always in the way in the cockpit, getting knocked over or rolling around. A bota bag in the cockpit would snuggle into whatever corner I put it, and remain there until I need it.)
Finally, I make two written plans. One is my daily plan that I carry on the boat. The other is my planned itinerary and contact information, and I give a copy to a relative and to my employer.
My daily plan is simply a grid, with days across the top and categories along the side. It might look like this:
|Launch/takeout||Port Orchard||Port Orchard|
|Overnight at||Blake Island via Rich Passage||Poulsbo via Agate Passage|
|Dinner||Stew||Scrambled eggs and rice||Burger|
My actual plan is more detailed than that. I have found if I don’t write down my meals and at least try to stick to the plan, I’ll eat all the good stuff the first couple of days, and end up unhappy with my choices toward the end of the trip.
This is really a float plan, describing not only my daily itinerary, but also:
- A description of Whisper
- Boat registration number
- Description of basic safety equipment on board
- Communications systems on board, and appropriate contact numbers
- Who to contact if I am overdue
This is really a basic overview of my initial planning. I spend a lot of time going over the boat, checking fittings, making sure the motor runs and has oil, making sure the water in the onboard tank is good, checking the trailer, etc. But for basic trip planning, this discussion should provide a good overview of how I get started.