File a Float Plan

File a float plan before you go and you won't be alone if things go awry.

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Let's face it, unless you're a commercial mariner, time spent on the water is supposed to be as carefree as possible: The sun on your face, the wind in your hair, etc.

But it should be pretty obvious that taking a boat out on the water, even with crew along, is not the same as going for a drive. Yet the more comfortable most of us become with handling our vessels in various weather and sea conditions, the more nonchalant we tend to be about getting where we're going.

Carefree and careless are not the same and that's where most of us get tripped up. I wouldn't dream of driving a car without my seat belt or riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Yet I have never once filed a float plan, and I know I'm not alone.

Simply put, a float plan lets someone know your basic voyaging schedule. It can be as simple as a phonecall to a shore-based loved one who jots it down and expects to hear from you at different points along your route or as formal as a written, detailed document you file with a responsible party who will turn it over to the Coast Guard in an emergency.

Almost all of my voyaging has been near coastal and it's pretty easy to believe nothing could go terribly wrong in such a situation, despite the fact that we know things do. In fact, I think back now to a trip I made between Cuttyhunk and Block Island several summers ago, I still shudder. Despite a mild forecast, the wind picked up and the weather turned vicious. The sky was black and low, the seas were steep and high. The auto-pilot was useless in those conditions and I spent about 8 of the longest hours of my life at the helm, just having to ride it out. Idiotically, no one knew we where we were. Sure, we had a reservation at a marina. But as a former dockmaster, I can tell you that no-shows (even ones that have paid in full) are fairly common and don't set off any alarm bells.

So, why are we all so resistant to float plans? A little forethought isn't always a mood killer, after all. You plan your provisioning, your fuel load, monitor the weather, even trace out the basics, at least, of your route. Hell, planning is half the fun! Yet when it comes to communicating that plan to someone who could keep an eye out for you, most of us fall down. Perhaps it's just the thought of being committed to an itinerary when we'd rather believe we're autonomous. But even a float plan that's deviated from provides valuable information.

If you're ready to turn over a new leaf, www.floatplancentral.org offers a free USCG pdf document for recording all your vessel specifics, onboard safety equipment, names of people on board, and itinerary-fill it out and give it to someone you trust. At www.floatplangenerator.com you file the plan with them and volunteers monitor your arrival. And www.usfloatplan.com is a site that lets you "open" a float plan with them electronically. If you fail to "close" your float plan within a specific window of time, people and/or agencies you've designated will be notified that you've failed to arrive and be given the details they need to start a search.

Look, odds are you'll never need it. But it's easy, it's free, and it'll give you peace of mind when you need it most.