Safe Travels

A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating a Float Plan

John Hawthorne December 5, 2018

Few things are better than a day on the water, right? The sun and wind in your face, water lapping calmly against the hull. It’s peaceful. Relaxing. Stress relieving. If you’re more of the adventurous type, then maybe you’ll strap on some water skis and go flying around a lake. Perhaps you’re headed miles over the horizon on a weekend sabbatical to The Bahamas.

When you go out on the water, you probably tell your spouse or friends where you’re headed and approximately what time you’ll be back. Or maybe you don’t tell anyone where you’re going. You’re an adult after all; you can do what you want! But you really should be more detailed in your description by creating a float plan with specific information regarding your trip. Though you may think this is unnecessary, every year the Coast Guard receives calls about people who haven’t returned back from a boating trip. Unfortunately, unless the missing person left behind a detailed float plan, it can be hard to know where they were headed, who was with them, and when they were expected to return.

Safety Made Simple:

The Coast Guard makes filing a float plan easier than ever, with a downloadable version available at floatplancentral.cgaux.org. Additionally, the user friendly USCG mobile app enables boaters to file a digital float plan with up to three individuals.

1. Pick Responsible Guardians

There should be at least two individuals who have a copy of your float plan. These should be responsible adults. Your buddy Tito who passes out at the bar every night probably isn’t the best choice. You need to pick people you trust who will be able to contact the proper authorities if something goes amiss. On the other hand, you probably don’t want to pick someone who is overly worrisome, such as your grandmother. She’ll be on the phone if you’re more than 30 seconds late for your arrival. Pick two responsible adults, either friends or family, who you know will be able to handle things properly should the need arise.

2. Provide Your ETA

Your guardians should know the approximate time you’ll arrive at the scheduled destination. But (and this is key), they should also know how long to wait before contacting authorities if you fail to check in. This means you’ll need to calculate an approximate buffer window around your arrival time that can accommodate the various conditions you might encounter. To calculate this window, helmsmen must consider a host of variables including weather, cruising speed, potential stops, etc. The longer your trip, the bigger your buffer will need to be to handle all circumstances that could arise.

3. List Emergency Contacts

If things go south, you don’t want float plan guardians scrambling to find the emergency number of the Coast Guard or the marine patrol where you’ll be boating. You want them to have that number on hand quickly. Make sure to include multiple contacts in big, bold print.

4. Include Details About Your Vessel

When your guardians need to contact the authorities, they’ll have to provide details about your boat. You should include all the necessary details and descriptions in your float plan including the boat name, hailing port, registration number, vessel manufacturer, length, draft, hull and trim color, prominent features and primary propulsion type. You’ll also want to list the communications system you have on board including a radio call sign/number, DSC MMSI number, cell/satellite phone info and email address.

5. Specify Visual Distress Signals

If you get in trouble, then you’ll be providing visual distress signals for those who are searching for you. Your float plan guardians should be able to tell the authorities exactly what those distress signals are. Do you have access to an electric distress light, flag, aerial flares, handheld mirror, smoke, bell, horn, or will be you dancing on the deck while launching flares and blaring the chorus to In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins? If the authorities know what to look or listen for, they’ll be able to find you faster.

6. List Safety Gear

Search and rescue teams will also want to know what sort of safety gear is aboard your vessel. List things like the length of your anchor line, whether you have a raft, the number of fire extinguishers, and the amount of food you have aboard. This information will help authorities ascertain the gravity of the situation. For example, if you are lost at sea and have no food, no water, and no raft, the Coast Guard knows they need to move quickly.

7. Fill In Details For All Passengers

Your float plan should include detailed information about everyone who will be on the boat, including yourself and your passengers. This information should include age, physical descriptions, medical information and emergency contacts. This is absolutely essential to rescue crews when they are searching for missing persons.

8. Update Your Float Plan

If there’s a mid-course change during your trip, be sure to update the float plan. This means calling your float plan guardians or sending them an electronic communication if you have access to email. You want to keep your guardians in the loop as much as possible to avoid needless worry. You also don’t want them unnecessarily calling the Coast Guard. Additionally, failing to update your float plan could have disastrous consequences if you get into trouble and the authorities end up searching in the wrong location. Everyone should have the most accurate information possible at all times.

9. Don’t Forget To Check In 

Upon arrival at your final destination, be sure to close out the float plan. You want everyone to know that you made it safe. Don’t be that person who arrives on location, has a blast, and totally forgets to check in with family and friends at home. Nobody likes that person.

Float plans aren’t complicated. They don’t take hours to create and you’ll really want to have one if things get hairy. I highly advise you create a master copy that can be used on future trips, with travel information simply updated as needed.

Even if you’re a seasoned salt, consider this a necessary safety precaution similar to life vests, flares or an emergency radio system. You hope to never use them, but it’s good to have them on hand. Now get out there and enjoy the water…and come back when you’re supposed to!

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