Why Do We Need Pilotage Plans?

It has been said that if navigation is the art of knowing where you are, pilotage is the art of knowing where you are not! Meaning that you are not where the hazards are.

Many students on RYA yachting courses find pilotage skills difficult. Instructors often find that students are finding their way around because of local knowledge, but when the student is asked to enter an unfamiliar harbour or to pilot a vessel at night they lack the basic skills that are required to keep the vessel safe.

When a skipper of a small vessel requires pilotage techniques, the vessel must be close to either land or some sort of navigational hazard. This often means that there is little time for elaborate navigation techniques and that keeping the vessel safe is a constantly changing task.

The most important factor is that the small craft skipper knows that the yacht is in a safe position and will remain safe for a period of time. It is vital to have a good indicator to warn when the next change is required.

This means that a great deal of experience is required in difficult situations, probably the most challenging task for any seaman is entering an unknown harbour at night. Even with the best charts and navigational equipment a great deal of judgement is required to ensure the buoyage is correctly identified, that hazards are avoided with a suitable margin and that other traffic is seen is sufficient time. These are just a few of the challenges facing the skipper.

In addition to this, the crew of a sailing boat will be stowing sails, (which reduces forwards visibility), fenders and ropes need to be prepared and the crew require briefing for the berthing manoeuvre.

All these factors mean that the more preparation that can be done, the easier the final task will be. The bulk of this preparation should be done before the vessel leaves harbour at the beginning of the voyage. This ensures the skipper can be on deck for the majority of the time, with only short visits below to check on the chart.

If a written pilotage plan is created and kept in a form that can be used on deck, the problems are simplified. The format of pilotage plans varies with every skipper and probably with every passage. No two skippers do exactly the same thing; I have never found a system of teaching pilotage that works for everyone.

The common elements of the successful plans are:

  1. That there is a written plan.
  2. The skipper remains flexible.

I am certain that the action of creating a plan by studying the charts and publications is a major factor in good pilotage, if that plan is then written down by the person who is going to use it, it is far more useful.

No matter how good the plan, if must be flexible as the vessel will rarely be exactly where it was planned to be and in addition, other vessels or unexpected events should be allowed for.

Leaving Harbour in a small vessel

A factor that is very easy to forget is that a plan is needed for leaving harbour as well as entering, especially when it is an unfamiliar harbour. The first 20 minutes of any passage are the most complex, the mooring gear needs to be stowed, the sails raised, other boats avoided and if the conditions have been misjudged, perhaps clothing or safety harnesses changed.

All this means that the skipper can be overloaded with tasks, if the pilotage has not been well prepared, things will go wrong rapidly.

A simple approach I always use if possible is to go out to the harbour wall and identify the first few marks. I am also looking for where I will raise the sails and any temporary hazards that I may have to deal with (such as the start of a yacht race or a dredger at work). I will even do this if I entered the harbour the day before, as it will look completely different going the other way!

Local Knowledge

In especially tricky areas local knowledge is invaluable. Whenever I am on land and in the vicinity of a harbour I will always take the opportunity to have a look round, I never know when I might have to enter that same harbour in a small boat.

Asking locals for advice can be valuable, occasionally a phone call to the harbour master can simplify a difficult arrival, especially in midsummer when a berth may be difficult to find! But obviously local advice should be treated with caution, you have no way of knowing the ability of the person who is offering it, the skipper should still take responsibility and decide for themselves.

It is important to remember that the regulations in an area that you have sailed in for years may have changed, and it is vital to keep up to date. An excellent source of local information is Local Notices to Mariners, these are issued by harbour authorities and cover changes to regulations and factors affecting navigation. They may be available on the harbour office notice board or on the harbour web site. A good example is the one for Portsmouth Harbour, http://www.qhmportsmouth.com/. They even offer an email subscription service that will keep mariners up to date with important changes with minimum effort.

Modern Aids to Yacht Pilotage

There is no doubt that GPS and chart plotters have simplified pilotage and navigation. However, a pilotage plan must still be prepared as the electronics can only tell you so much and they occasionally go wrong. In addition to this, the errors within the system can be large enough to cause a vessel to hit a hazard that the GPS indicates it is clear of.

I was correcting some south coast charts recently, when I realised the new beacon I was drawing on the entrance at Littlehampton was on the wrong side of the channel. When I checked it was because I had not allowed for the difference between the WGS84 and OS36 Datum. This could have been a disastrous error if I have just been relying on numbers on a display instead of looking at the real chart.

Back Up

A basic principle at sea is to back up your position information from an independent source. This is especially important with pilotage, never rely on one source of position data. A skilled navigator will be monitoring the depth, bearing, any transits and the general surrounding all the time; this will allow them to make good judgements about the situation.

A navigator who relies on one source of information is showing one of the most common signs of inexperience.

Map Reading Skill

It is very noticeable when teaching skippers, that those with skills at map reading are able to cope with pilotage techniques far more easily than those who have limited previous experience of it. If you find pilotage difficult, a simple approach to improving is to do some walking in the countryside with a map.


Pilotage is one of the elements tested in the RYA Coastal Skipper and Yachtmaster exams, a high level of ability is expected. When you realise that pilotage techniques are used when the vessel is closest to dangers, its importance can not be overemphasised.

No two pilotage plans will be alike. A good one will include some of the approaches covered on these pages. And good skippers will practice the techniques before they really need them!

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