MAKE A PLANNING SPREADSHEET
I use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets for my planning documents, and I use four different worksheets. The main sheet covers a full year of sailing (I know, that sounds like a lot of planning but I have found that it is very helpful to me) while the other sheets detail my plans for a long trip in the spring, plus shorter weekend trips and another long trip in the summer.
The first worksheet covers the whole year, and there’s a row for each week with columns for week number, start day, end day, days of the week, duration destination, notes and a special column called Long Weekend. The worksheet lets me choose a start-week, and then I use the Excel auto-fill function to extend it so that it covers the whole year.
With a year laid out, you can create one-week blocks and then review your whole sailing year. Changing the start date in a given row lets me shorten the week so that it covers only the weekend. This way I can see when short weekend trips happen and when longer weekends are available. Once you have your overview worksheet, you can build a working plan for the year and for every trip during the year.
The second, third and fourth worksheets cover the details of those one-week overviews. My schedule happens to be flexible, but those of my wife and children are rigid, driven by work and school . Knowing when long weekends occur is very important. I flag those weeks on the seasonal overview and then plan those weekends and holidays in more detail on the other sheets.
Example: detailed planning table
The data below shows how I set up and use the columns on my detail sheets. The categories you see here in bold show up along the top row of my planning sheets and entries appear below.
Day # This column lets me plan the duration of a trip. Say the kids have a 3 day weekend. I can use this column to build a 3-day trip.
Date This is the start date. I usually enter the first day manually and then auto-fill the cells below based on the number of days I plan to be out.
Day This cell shows the day of the week for the date in the previous column. It is automatically filled in, and more than once it has saved me from making a serious mistake in planning a departure day.
Port This is the starting point for a given day. The first one is always my home port, but after that, the “Destination” value in the next column is automatically plunked in as the “Port” value for the start of the next day.
Destination Here is where the first real bit of planning takes place. I figure out roughly where I want to end up each night.
Departure Time How early do you like to get up in the morning? This is an important decision, especially when you have to worry about tides and currents.
Distance How far is it to your planned destination? You will need to get your charts out to work on this, and now you are deep into planning your voyage. Of course, this distance will depend on your Speed Over Ground, and it will impact your ETA in port.
SOG How fast do you usually go on average? Since I have a sailboat, this is always an interesting challenge. But I have enough experience to know how to estimate this. As a rule, I estimate 5 knots SOG
Run Time This is calculated to the nearest half hour using my SOG and distance.
Layover There are a number of places my family insists we stop along our way. For example, no trip to Desolation Sound would be complete without lunch in Lund. So here I put a time estimate for any planned stops.
ETA This column is automatically calculated from the Departure time allowing for the duration of the trip and stops.
Current/Tide Watch This is a text column where I can put any information I need on tides or currents that will affect me. Knowing this can change my departure decisions and any possible stops along the way.
Notes This item speaks for itself, I hope.
CHARTING SOFTWARE PACKAGES
There are a number of electronic charting and GPS management tools, many of which have shareware or trial editions you can download on a “try before you buy” basis. This is a great opportunity for newcomers to digital charting to try a variety of programs before purchasing. Some have versions that are included in their digital chart packages and all have “full featured” versions you can purchase online or from your local marine supply store. Here are a few ideas.
Maptech offers a variety of digital charting and planning packages ranging from the Offshore Navigator software included free with their digital chart kits to their Chart Navigator ($249.95) and Chart Navigator Pro ($499.50) software, all of which include GPS upload/download capabilities.
The basis for the Maptech offering is their full-featured Offshore Navigator software program, which provides the tools for route and trip planning and navigating in real-time, plus tides and current information for U.S. waters. Chart Navigator can interface with autopilots and other NMEA0183 instruments.
Nobeltec Visual Navigation Suite (www.nobeltec.com)
Nobeltec is a veteran in the digital chart business, and their Visual Navigation Suite™ ($490.00) is a full-featured program with a price to match. It offers real-time vessel positioning, quilting for seamless chart integration, distance and bearing to active mark/route/target, unlimited route and waypoint placement, GPS upload/download, and many other features. It also integrates with radar and other navigation systems.
OZI Explorer ($99.00) is a chart-planning package that will upload and download information using Garmin, Magellan, Lowrance, Eagle, Brunton/Silva and MLR GPS. It has real-time map displays and can import a variety of the most popular digital map formats (except ENC charts).
OZI Explorer is offered via its website and on most of the popular “shareware” download sites where you can download either a trial version or the shareware version. The shareware version has a limited feature set, but it does allow full communication with the GPS for upload/download and moving the map. However, it can load maps only in a BMP format with WGS84 datum, a significant limitation. The Trial Version has almost all the features of the full version but does not support communication with a GPS for upload/download and does not save waypoints or routes.
Fugawi Global Navigator
Fugawi offers two marine navigation packages, both of which support a full feature set for charting, planning and upload/download to GPS. They even have a Google Earth plug-in.
The Global Navigator ($134.95) software is a general charting package for land, sea and air with GPS interface and a host of useable map formats. The Fugawi Marine ENC ($279.95) software is designed specifically for the new ENC digital chart format with upload to a memory card for a digital chart plotter and directly to a GPS.
EasyGPS (free) is NOT a charting program. Instead, it is GPS management software designed to allow you to create waypoints, routes and other GPS data on your laptop with upload/download capability for your GPS. If you simply want to identify GPS waypoints and use the routing capacity in your GPS (rather than using digital charts) this free program is an ideal starting point.
I back-up my laptop to a portable USB-connected hard drive, one that is powered by the computer. (A good backup strategy is important for any computer user.) When underway I don't take any "special" precautions. I keep my laptop in its case whenever I am not using it and use it with some caution, but nothing extraordinary.
My laptop is used onboard as at home: on my lap, on the table, and occasionally in the cockpit, but never in the rain or in rough seas. This underlines the value of downloading a route into a hand-held GPS the night before and planning well in advance. The GPS uses less power, is more durable, and is water resistant.
When running at night I have a navigator (usually my daughter, since she is very comfortable with both the computer and with navigating), who keeps the laptop screen facing away from me to avoid glare. But this, along with interior and navigation lights, consumes a lot of power. This also shows why you should load a route into your GPS well before you need it.
Keeping the laptop powered up is the greatest struggle; you really need a laptop with long battery life and low power consumption; an "entertainment" laptop like mine is not a great choice for marine use. It uses too much power and has poor battery life because of that, even when running on low power mode. But my laptop doubles for my work, so I like it.
While I do have automotive-style power adapters for my boat's connections, plus an inverter for the regular power supply, generating power for the laptop is always a challenge. I use the power from my outboard but sometimes can't keep up, especially at night.
The best strategy is to charge-up onshore and conserve power when using The computer on board. In critical situations, I start the outboard just to get a charge into the boat batteries and the laptop.
In 2006 I circumnavigated Vancouver Island. I spent a day motoring out of Quatsino Sound from Port Alice and sailing to Klashkish Inlet. I ran under power for an hour in the morning and an hour at night to charge the power systems including my laptop. I did the same on any day when I was in a remote anchorage.
Now that solar panels are getting less expensive, I am considering a small, folding solar panel just for the laptop. I need to do some experimenting with this, including wattage tests and charge times, so I don't have an opinion here yet.
The Sail Magazine website at sailmagazine.com is another great resource with free charts and a number of cruise-planning articles and tools. Other sites I keep in my favorites for easy planning access:
BC BoatNet Forum (bcboatnet.org)
Catalina Trailer Sailor Forum (trailersailor.com)
Cruisers Forum (cruisersforum.com)
Environment Canada Marine Weather (weatheroffice.gc.ca)
The Weather Channel Marine Weather, including tide data _weather.com
For my Knight Inlet trip, I have already purchased “North of Desolation” by Peter Vassilopoulos and The 2008 Waggoner Guide by Robert Hale. I read these guides both at home and while I am underway.
The list of websites above is a good starting point and a Google or MSN search will usually produce more information than you can imagine. Spend time browsing at home so you can enjoy your time cruising on board. In addition, many of the published guides have websites, such as The Waggoner Guide, with supplemental information supporting their published books and reference materials. Those sites will link you more sites and on and on. Enjoy.