The Float Plan
           I graduated from a Maritime College and have decades at sea.  I have also taught at two of the Maritime Academies (SUNY Maritime College and Massachusetts Maritime Academy).  One of the courses taught to cadets is Voyage Planning.  This is so important that the US Coast Guard require a Voyage Plan for every commercial vessel on the high seas before they depart port.  This is now a IMO requirement too (International Marine Organization an organization in the United Nations).  Copies of these plans are kept in a notebook for years.  A copy is also sent to the Port Office of every shipping company headquarters. These ships have daily communication with their home office as well as customs and immigration for appropriate countries.
           Studies show that human error is a factor in 80 percent of navigational accidents and that in many cases the human making the error had access to information that could have prevented the accident.  The practice of voyage planning has evolved from penciling lines on nautical charts to a process of risk management.
           No one sets out on an ocean voyage without a plan.  It’s common sense! No one sets out on a river or lake paddle without a plan.  We are now seeing the adoption of these plans for small boats including the paddling sports.
The following describes the planning process.  Appraisal and gathering, formal planning and what should be included, execution of the plan, monitoring, and support.
Is this Overkill or what?
           Some of you reading this may find this a little too much for a three-mile paddle around a pond.  Your float plan might be to tell your family your off paddling around the lake right now.  I will call you in an hour if I’m not done or have any problems.  What’s important here is that someone knows who, when, and where the paddle is taking place.  A contact person is established and agreement on communication made.
           Another trip might be a group going down a river for a few hours.  Your friends Andrea and Bob will shuttle cars.  We will call you when were about half way and let you know when we will be at the take-out.
           For longer trips involving whitewater and/or portages around dams it should be more formal as described below.  If the trip involves overnights then a more complete assessment of each paddler may be required.  Coordination of camping and food may be substantially more complicated.
         Float planning starts with the appraisal stage. Before each paddle begins, the Paddle Leader should develop a detailed mental model of how the entire paddle will proceed. The appraisal stage consists of gathering and contemplating all information relevant to the paddle. This is where Massachusetts Paddler website excels!  Much of this appraisal is done by us for you.  You should also consider consulting nautical charts, USGS maps, publications including river guides etc. Don’t forget to check the weather forecast, prediction of tides and currents, rivers levels and checks of local regulations and warnings.
            Once information is gathered and considered, the paddle leader can begin the process of actually laying out the paddle. The process involves projecting various future events including landfalls, narrow passages, rapids, alternate put-in’s and take-out’s and course changes expected during the paddle.  This mental model becomes the standard by which the Paddle Leader measures progress toward the goal of a safe and efficient paddle trip, and it is manifested in a formal Float Plan.
           A good Float Plan will include a track line laid out upon the best-scale charts or maps available.  This track is judged with respect to a list of Guidelines:
  • Paddle skill level required by paddlers
  • Safe Speed (usually based on the weakest members)
  • Details on each portage
  • Campsites and related arrangements
  • The maximum time allowed for the paddle
  • Logistics involving people, facilities, and supplies
  • The availability of contingencies in case of emergency.
  • Medical training of paddle members
  • Rescue experience of paddlers
  • Medical situations for any and all paddlers

Plan Review
            All members of the future paddle should be included in a planning meeting.  The use of Skype, computer presentation software and conference calling can all be used for the meeting. The Paddle Leader presents the plan and everyone can add information and ideas as needed.  After the meeting, the plan is updated to reflect any changes and distributed to key members.  If possible, a copy of the new plan can be sent via email for everyone on the paddle.
           Any group or organization should be careful to include execution as part of the process of float planning. This underscores the fact that the Guidelines list a number of tasks that are to be executed during the course of the paddle. It also reiterates the Paddle Leaders responsibility to treat the plan as a "living document" and to review or change it in case of any special circumstances that should arise.
           With a group of paddlers, it is a good idea to laminate at least two copies of annotated maps and paddle information.  One copy resides with the Paddle Leader and the other with the leaders second.  If a support group is involved, they should also have a copy.  Any member of the paddle group should be able to view all this information on request.
           Some State Parks, National Parks, or Wilderness Authorities may require you to submit your plan with them.  In this case, once you have submitted the plan, all you need to do is call them at the start and end of the paddle.  They will know who, where, and when. They will also know when to start Search and Rescue if it becomes necessary.
           The final stage of float planning is the monitoring stage. Once the paddle has begun the progress of the paddle group along its planned route must be monitored. This requires that the group’s position be determined, using standard methods including dead reckoning, pilotage, electronic navigation (GPS), what bridges you just passed under, or the miles to the mouth of a river as we give on this website.
Support Group
           For groups larger than a few, you will need a support group.  Sometimes this will be only one person and sometimes more.  The duties of the support group are many including:
  • Updates - This person should expect updates during the paddle.  Planned waypoints, possibly with an identifying name, on a river or large lake and the time of arrival will insure a safe passage. 
  • Movement of vehicles and trailers to the final destination.
  • The acquisition of equipment for unexpected problems.
  • Bail Out – waypoints
  • Overall communications.
  • Coordination of emergencies if they occur.
  • Meal preparations and rendezvous
  • Campsite setup and take-down.