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Mother Knew Best: Float Plans Make Sense

by Tamia Nelson

Canoeists and kayakers like to think of themselves as rugged individualists, equal to any challenge that the woods and waters throw their way. And most of the time that's true. But sooner or later we all need help, and when that day comes, a float plan can make the difference between life and death. That's why Tamia is taking a closer look at this vital document. Her conclusion? You guessed it: Mother knew best.

By Tamia Nelson

August 8, 2017

In the Same Boat Article by Tamia NelsonCanoes and kayaks are go‑anywhere craft. You can't take your 40‑foot ketch down the Colorado, and your bass boat won't have an easy time negotiating a chain of beaver ponds, but a kayak has doubled Cape Horn, and a lot of lunkers have been landed by balding gents in canoes. So it's not surprising that paddlers celebrate their independence. Within the limits set by their skill, strength, and stamina, they can negotiate almost any waterway or body of water on earth.

But with freedom comes responsibility. The freedom to travel off the beaten track means that when trouble strikes — real trouble, that is — you're on your own. Help can be a long time coming. There are many things a paddler can do to hedge her bets, of course. Exercising good judgement probably heads the list, followed closely by the oft‑repeated (and oft‑ignored) injunctions to never boat alone and always wear a PFD. And when things go wrong, anyway? There are plenty of technological skyhooks available, from cell phones to EPIRBs. Yet these can prove false friends. As anyone whose livelihood depends on a computer can tell you, technology will let you down. The only question is when. Examples abound. Cell phone coverage can prove spotty to nonexistent. Batteries can die. Water can somehow infiltrate the most sophisticated "waterproof" bags and housings. (I can still remember the look on a friend's face as he drained river silt from a costly collection of SLR bodies and lenses. Dry box and dry bag had both failed.) Even if everything is A‑OK at your end, the satellites orbiting over your head may be having a bad day. Maybe their circuits have been scrambled by a solar flare, or maybe their batteries have just shorted. Or maybe the Martians have binned them during their latest interplanetary litter cleanup. Whatever the reason, the eyes in the sky that you're depending on to save your assets can suddenly go blind.

And then there's the other side of the electronic coin: the problem posed by "false alerts" — calls for help that someone in authority later decides weren't true emergencies. These can carry a monetary penalty of as much as $112,500. That's one hell of an expensive call.

OK. What are your choices? Well, you can always go "commando." Simply ignore the nattering nabobs of negativism and let it all hang out. Rely on luck and pluck to see you through, giving no thought to the consequences if things go wrong. Or — the opposite extreme — you can go armed with every electronic beacon the market offers, even if it means taking out a second mortgage to pay the bills and reserving a whole Duluth pack just for the batteries. Celebrity explorers will probably opt for the latter course, but then they don't have to pick up the tab, do they? And they're probably accompanied by a camera crew. (Along with a makeup person and a hairdresser.) The hired help will look after the electronics, leaving Grisly Adams free to strut his stuff in front of the cameras.

But what about the rest of us, searching for secret waters close to home, unaccompanied by camera crew? Is there some middle ground between the two extremes I've just outlined? Yes, there is. Your mother probably drummed it into your head before you were five: When you go outside to play, tell someone — not the cat; a responsible adult — where you're going and when you'll be back. And guess what? Mother was right. She usually was, in my experience. Of course, no self‑respecting canoeist or kayaker wants to admit he's just doing what his mother told him, many years ago. So he dresses it up to make it sound more … er … adult. He "files a float plan." This ticks all the boxes. It suggests cool and confident professionalism, for one thing. (Float plan, flight plan — get it?) Plus it enjoys the imprimatur of Authority, in the shape of the US Coast Guard, who probably coined the "float plan" tag to begin with. They even make a helpful preprinted form available, though the fact that it has space for the names of 12 passengers/crew makes it obvious that paddlers weren't uppermost in the Coast Guard's mind when they drafted the document. They had a talk with their lawyers, however. The form carries this warning right at the top: "Do NOT file this plan with the Coast Guard." Instead, the anxious mariner is advised to leave it with "a reliable person, who can be depended upon to notify the Coast Guard … should you not return."

That's good advice. Mother would approve. But choosing the "reliable person" (or better yet, reliable persons) is only the first step. You have to decide what information he or she will need in the event that you fail to return on schedule. In this, you could do worse than be guided by the 1819 edition of Darcy Lever's Young Sea Officer's Sheet Anchor: Include everything that is useful and nothing that is superfluous.

My suggestions follow. If the list seems long, that's because it is. You can get by with less on short trips — afternoons on a local river, for instance — but the first, second, third, and fifth items are mandatory, even if you're only going out for a couple of hours on Golden Pond. Trouble can strike at any time and in any place, and when it does, it's good to know that someone will come looking for you.

To begin at the beginning, then, here's what a good float plan should contain:

1. The day you're leaving, and the date and time WHEN YOU'RE DUE BACK. The date and time by which you must contact your reliable person are the most important elements in any float plan. Give them very careful thought, allowing a generous margin for bad weather and rest days. Your failure to check in when expected will trigger a costly search and rescue (SAR) operation, and if it's discovered that you lingered a few extra days in camp because the fish were biting, you may well find that you've bought the costliest shore lunch in history. Helicopters and paramedics don't come cheap. Worse yet, your fecklessness will likely lead to more restrictions and tighter regulations, a legacy that will not endear you to your fellow paddlers.

2. Emergency contact(s). This tells your reliable person exactly whom to notify if you're overdue. Touch base with the responsible authorities before you go, and be sure that your float plan contains all the necessary contact information. It's a good idea to list friends or family members, as well (with their permission), in case volunteer support is needed.

3. A COMPLETE and ACCURATE description of your proposed route, from put‑in to take‑out, including possible alternate routes and bail‑out points. Provide full map references, with UTM or lat‑long coordinates for all planned camps. Better yet, give copies of all your maps and charts to your reliable person, and make sure your proposed route is clearly indicated.

4. A detailed itinerary, giving your departure date, your launch date (if different), intermediate check‑in dates (if any), the date(s) you plan to stay at each camp, and the date on which you plan to arrive at the take‑out. This information should also be shown on your route maps.

5. The names of all members of your group, as well as descriptions of their boats and vehicles, plus contact information for one or more family members.

6. Any additional information that might be useful to SAR personnel. This could include inventories of such things as the medical supplies and distress signals carried by your group, the numbers of all mobile phones, the MMSIs (Maritime Mobile Service Identities) for all VHF transceivers, and the usernames associated with all emergency locator beacons (PLBs and EPIRBs), in addition to the name(s) of any member(s) of your party whose medical history (e.g., diabetes, epilepsy) might give rise to particular concern should the group be delayed for some reason. (NB: This information should only be provided with the affected individuals' express written permission.)

That's it. Now all that remains is to leave a copy of your float plan with one or more reliable persons. Don't forget to sign in at the register at your put‑in, too. And be sure to sign out at the take‑out when you leave. If you're worried about thieves and vandals — and they are a problem at many backcountry parking areas — pay a local outfitter to drop you off at the put‑in. Then you can leave your car sitting safely back at his lot, and while you're at it, leave a copy of your float plan with him, as well.

A paddling holiday should be a carefree time, and no one likes to dwell on the possibility that things could go badly wrong. But bad things do happen to the best of paddlers, and when that day comes — if it ever does — it's good to know that help will soon be on the way. This is where your float plan comes in. So whenever you go outside to play, tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back. That's what Mother told you, right? And Mother usually knew best.

Questions? Comments? Got something to add? Then e‑mail Tamia.

Copyright © 2017 by Verloren Hoop. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

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