You’d probably let someone know where you’re headed and when you’ll be back before taking a trip, right? The same goes for boating excursions – although you have to be a lot more detailed than that.
Today’s not just about me convincing you that preparing a float plan is a vital safety measure, though.
It’s about showing you how to plan your route and create a float plan that describes your boating excursion as accurately as possible!
We may receive a commission if you click a link on this page and then go on to purchase something, but at no extra cost to you. Learn more here.
Float Plan 101: What Is It & Why You Need One
Do you know that note you sometimes leave on the fridge? It usually says something like:
“Went fishing with so-and-so; will be back by dinner.“
Well, think of your float plan as the more detailed equivalent of that note.
It’s a document that contains an accurate outline of your boating excursion, covering the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN of your outing.
It’s a plan that informs others of where you’re boating, who’s coming with you, what equipment you’re using, and when you’ll arrive at your destination.
You also might find there is a mandatory responsibility to capture each person’s contact to comply covid-19 regulations.
Helping Others Help You: What Is The Purpose Of A Float Plan?
A float plan essentially acts as a safety measure, much like wearing a PFD or using kayak night lights. It gives the authorities a head start in search and rescue missions – otherwise, they might have to base it solely on vague conversations.
You can’t always rely on someone to remember every detail about your outing and convey that info in an emergency situation. Family and friends might not know where the missing person could be or can, at best, provide some basic – often unreliable – information.
In short, rescue personnel has to go in blind.
And yet, reliable information and hard facts make a difference in the outcome.
So, prepare a float plan to help others help you. The more detailed and specific the outline, the better.
Who Should Prepare A Float Plan?
Float plans sound like a big-boat type of document. Someone with a yacht or cruiser might have to fill it out – but it doesn’t apply to you, right?
If you’re a recreational boater going on an excursion, you will need a float plan. That applies to someone paddling a small kayak or canoe as much as it does to someone operating a yacht or a motor-powered boat.
Here’s who should prepare a float plan:
- Sail boaters
- Stand-up paddlers
- Power boaters
- Private charter boat services
- Sport fisherman and hunters
- Jet skiers and water skiers
The boat operator will likely be in charge of putting together a float plan for larger vessels with multiple people on board. Don’t hesitate to write one yourself – even if you’re tagging along – and leave it with a reliable person at home. The same goes for paddlers traveling in a group.
The 4 Ws Of A Float Plan: What Should Be Included On A Float Plan?
Float plans can vary from home-made, common-sense lists to standardized documentation – but the idea behind them remains the same:
You’re leaving a footprint of sorts for search and rescue personnel to follow in an emergency situation.
There are plenty of online resources for creating a float plan, many of which are available as PDF forms you can fill out, save, and then email or print before filing. For instance, the USCG has a free float plan available for download.
I took the liberty of creating a downloadable and print-friendly float plan template, as well. Be sure to check it out before your next outing.
A float plan should accurately describe the boating excursion and include concrete details, such as vessel information, number of people on board, proposed route and destination, and departure and return dates.
If it’s easier to grasp what should be included, you can view it as the four Ws of a float plan.
#1 WHO Is Going?
Float plans usually start with a round-up of all group members. And no, “Jack, Mike, and me” doesn’t count as accurate – let alone detailed – passenger information.
So, be sure to provide the following information about the people on board:
- Boat or cruise operator’s name, age, physical description, medical information, experience, address, contact information, and, if applicable, the Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number
- Number of people on board
- Name, age, physical description, medical information, address, and contact information of each person; add skill levels if you’re kayaking or canoeing in a group
Furthermore, this section should also cover the details about your vessel, including:
- Name of the vessel
- Type, year, and make of the boat
- Boat size and color
- Type of propulsion (engine, paddle, sail)
- Hull Identification Number (HIN)
- Onboard boating safety equipment, including navigation equipment, distress signals, anchor, and number and color of the PFDs
Consider providing a photo of your vessel to back up the info provided in this section, too.
#2 WHERE Are You Going?
The point of this section of your float plan is to note down your line of travel. It’s there to provide information regarding where you’re going as accurately as possible.
Think of this as putting together a trip itinerary – the proposed outline of your route, containing a list of different locations you plan on visiting on your trip.
Don’t just write down the name of the river or bay they’ll be boating in, though – that would be of little help. Instead, try to be as detailed and accurate as possible when outlining your boating route – and include:
- Your planned launch spot
- A list of take-out points for each day of the trip, as well as other put-in sites if you’ll be portaging at any point along your route
- Alternative “plan B” routes you might take depending on conditions
- Description of your vehicle – make, model, year, color, and license plate – if you’ll drive to the launch spot
You can even include a map – in paper or digital form – with your paddling route marked on it.
#3 WHEN Will You Be Back?
You should file a float plan with someone you trust so that they can alert the authorities if things go South.
But that’s the thing:
They can’t know when it’s time to get the Coast Guard and SAR teams involved if you don’t provide any information regarding when you’ll be back.
So, when it comes to the third W of your float plan, you want to include:
- Planned launch date and time
- Estimated date and time of arrival
- Estimated date and time of return from your trip
- Check-in times (when you’ll call to check in and let them know everything’s going as planned)
- How long to wait until they notify the authorities about a missed check-in
#4 WHAT To Do If You Don’t Return?
Filing your float plan with someone you trust is a crucial step – but so is agreeing on who you’ll call to close out your float plan when you reach your destination. The same goes for deciding on check-in points along the route.
Now we get to the scary stuff – the scenario in which something goes wrong:
You missed your estimated arrival time and failed to check in with people at home. What are the guardians of your float plan to do in an event such as this?
Or, simply put:
What’s your escalation plan?
If you don’t check in as scheduled, fail to close out your plan in due time, or don’t return from the trip, how long should they wait before alerting authorities?
You want that timeframe clearly stated in the float plan, too.
A Quick Word On How To Plan Your Float Route
While we’re on the subject of putting together a float plan, we should take a second to talk about how to pick your destination and plan your boating trip:
- Pay attention to water and weather conditions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s website offers tide predictions and local water levels. Also, double-check the weather forecast.
- Use the Go Paddling app to find over 25,000 paddling locations suitable for kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. It’s free for iOS and Android users.
- Upgrade your Chartplotter with marine chart software such as Garmin BlueChart G2. The combination of GPS data and electronic charts will prove invaluable for planning your route, pinpointing your exact location, and navigating the waters.
- Print your nautical chart and learn how to do manual chart plotting. You never know when electronics might fail.
- Mark your exact launch spot, proposed route, check-in points, and take-out location on the map, including rough timing estimates for each checkpoint.
- Take note of important, recognizable landmarks and checkpoints along your route that you can easily identify from the water.
- Pinpoint alternative take-out points along the route that you can use in an emergency. Determine at least one alternative way to your destination and include it in the float plan, too.
Filing A Float Plan: Who To File A Float Plan With & Your Responsibilities Afterwards
Pick two responsible adults to file your float plan with – be it your spouse, your best friend, family member, or your next-door neighbor; anyone you trust to have your back. It’s also wise to leave a copy with your departing marina. Do this before you depart and allow enough time for everyone to go over it and ask questions.
They must understand what their responsibilities are as guardians of the float plan. You’re counting on these people to contact the Coast Guard should something go wrong or you don’t return as planned, after all.
They will, in a way, act as intermediaries between you and the Coast Guard – which brings me to another common float-plan-related question:
Should I File My Float Plan With The US Coast Guard?
Going straight to the authorities in charge of search and rescue missions seems like a good idea – but:
You should, under no circumstances, file your float plan with the US Coast Guard; they won’t accept it.
Don’t leave your float plan guardians scrambling to find the right emergency contacts. Include these numbers in a big, bold, can’t-miss-it type of print, right there on your float plan.
What If Your Plans Change Mid-Trip?
If you need to make changes mid-trip, remember to notify your float plan’s guardians. Your person of trust should be up-to-date at all times.
Failing to reach out to your float plan contacts could cause lots of unnecessary worrying. They might alert the authorities and launch an expensive rescue mission when there’s no need for it.
Lastly, remember to do a final check-in and “close out” your float plan once you arrive at your destination. You know you’re alive and well – but the people waiting at home don’t.
Sending A Distress Call In A Boating Emergency: What Are The VHF Radio Protocols?
Smartphones won’t be particularly reliable when you’re more than a few miles off the shore – and you can only call one number at a time. A VHF marine radio will broadcast your call not only to the Coast Guard but other boats within range, too.
And if you find yourself requiring immediate assistance, you want your distress call to be heard loud and clear, right?
That said, you might only have seconds to send that distress call; understanding how the VHF marine radio protocols work is crucial:
- Channel 16 (156.8 MHz) is reserved on VHS marine radio for safety and distress calls and is monitored by the US Coast Guard.
- “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” is the internationally-recognized preface in VHF radio transmissions, indicating an immediate threat to life. Critical information to communicate is the vessel’s name, GPS coordinates, distance to identifiable landmarks, nature of distress and assistance required, and the number of people on board.
- Pan-Pan said three times over is the international urgency call used to signal an urgent situation that isn’t an immediate threat, such as mechanical issues.
Float Plan – A Quick Summary
To sum it up, here are the general rules for putting together and filing a float plan:
- Provide a detailed description of the vessel, preferably with a photo attached, and information about safety equipment
- List all passengers by name, complete with physical descriptions, age, address, contact info, and experience
- Describe the intended route in detail, stops along the way, and put-in and take-out spots
- Note launch date and time and provide estimated date and time of arrival
- Leave instructions in case of an emergency
- Choose two responsible adults to be the guardians of your float plan; don’t file it with the US Coast Guard