Realtime float plan updating with Twitter

by Tim on August 21, 2009

[It's another MadMariner feature from a few weeks back. —Tim]


Boating safety authorities agree: you should create a float plan, and you should leave copies with trusted friends or family members. “We’re going cruising in the islands for a couple of weeks” does not constitute a float plan. The information must be comprehensive.

These days, float plan management goes well beyond a paper itinerary and the occasional telephone call. Social networking websites, such as Twitter and Facebook, properly used, can augment a traditional float plan. They can providing folks at home with real-time updates, and in an emergency, can give authorities access to concise, relevant information about your voyage prior to the emergency, while simultaneously reducing the record-keeping task burden placed on the folks following your voyage from home.


The term “float plan” can mean two slightly different things. An “operational float plan” is something you create for your own use, including waypoints, course headings, weather and tide forecasts, navigational notes, and other details.

The second type – the kind we’re concerned about here – is similar to an aviator’s flight plan: a brief description of your trip so that others will know how to locate you. If you do not check in with the holders of your plan at the scheduled end of your trip, they contact the authorities to report you overdue.

This kind of float plan should include all the information that incident responders might need, including a description of your boat, your land vehicle, the number of people on board, a description of the safety equipment you are carrying, where you expect to be, when you expect to be there, and the route you expect to take.

Creating float plans can provide secondary benefits, as well, that are valuable even when everything goes well. Completing one for each voyage encourages mariners to plan their trips appropriately, helps you keep a log and gives the folks at home a way to support and follow your journey. If any of your relatives tend to worry when you travel, a good float plan can ease their concerns, as well.

Of course, you don’t have to go overboard (the figurative overboard, mind you). If you’re going out for a few hours on your boat, let someone know where you expect to be and when you expect to return.

But if you plan a longer cruise, leave a copy of a written float plan with your marina, yacht club or trusted friend or family member. Instruct the person holding the float plan to notify the Coast Guard or other appropriate agency if you do not return within a reasonable time after your scheduled arrival.

When you arrive at your destination, or if your plans change, notify the people holding your float plan. There is no official form that you must use for a float plan, though you may find convenient pre-printed forms available in boating supply stores and catalogs. I suggest that you use the template available at


I like this one, in part because it looks so “official.” That may sound silly, but this form looks serious, and that can encourage boaters to engage in more rigorous, formal thinking while completing it. The fact that it’s extremely comprehensive is a plus.

Keep in mind you don’t have to fill it out from scratch for every voyage; lots of the fields contain “static” data that seldom changes.


9:10: Two Lucky Fish underway from Cornet Bay 0900. 1POB ["person on board"]. Bound, ultimately, for Lake Union in Seattle.

Once you’ve completed your float plan and distributed it to trusted folks ashore, you need to consider ways you can check in during the voyage. You’ll want to report on your progress, and indicate any changes to your schedule, routing, and ports of call. For most of us who voyage in coastal waters with reasonably good cell phone coverage, this usually involves making a few phone calls. When voyaging farther afield, of course, your options become a bit more limited.

9:30: Currently running outside Whidbey Island, far east end of Strait of Juan de Fuca. Light westerly wind, <1 foot chop. Good visibility.

These days you can provide status reports on your progress using social networking sites, such as Twitter.

This is where social networking comes in handy. Today, you can provide status reports and float plan updates using Twitter and Facebook, even if all you have is a cell phone capable of sending text messages. One benefit of sending brief, real-time log entries in text format is that they are available, verbatim, to incident response authorities without being misinterpreted or misremembered by the people you might speak to on the phone. This also eliminates the need for people at home to take notes about each of your telephone reports; note taking, or the lack thereof, constitutes a likely point of failure with traditional float plan management while underway.

9:34: 2′ chop off Whidbey I. Naval Air Station. More than I would like, Unforecast southerly wind here, possibly local effect off Pt. Partridge?

Twitter is marketed as a micro blogging service, allowing you to publish updates containing up to 140 characters at a time, even from your cell phone. Mariners might prefer to think of it as a public “micro vessel log.” In practice, you can use Twitter to update your float plan and create a “breadcrumb trail” of vessel location and status reports while underway.

10:25: Pretty rough here at Pt. Partridge Bell Buoy.

There are some privacy concerns with Twitter, however. Unless you adjust your account settings, absolutely anybody in the world will be able to read your updates. This doesn’t bother me, but if it bothers you, just make your Twitter updates private. Click on “Settings” and check the “Protect my updates” box at the bottom of the “Account” tab. Only people you approve will see your updates.

10:28: And about 1/4 mile beyond Pt. Partridge, the water is smooth…yeah, must be a local effect.

I use my personal Twitter account to log my passages while underway (as you can see here), and my wife, for one, really appreciates knowing where I am and what my plans are. If you already use Twitter, and you want to keep your vessel updates separate from your personal or professional updates, you might consider creating a separate Twitter account just for your boat.

10:36: Going to Port Townsend to visit my sister for an hour or two.

If you use Facebook, keep in mind that you can update your Facebook status automatically from Twitter; go to to set that up. Alternatively, you can update Facebook directly from your mobile phone. To configure Facebook for mobile updates, go to “Settings” and click on the “Mobile” tab. Facebook updates are available to all your Facebook “friends,” but they are not available publicly, eliminating many of the privacy concerns with Twitter.

11:13: Two Lucky Fish secure Port Townsend city dock.

I’ll admit that I was a Twitter skeptic for a long time. But it’s been fascinating t
o watch Twitter develop, and at this point I’m a believer. Oh, I don’t mean that everything you find there is true or worth your time. The majority of the content is pure junk. But it has meaningful applications, like this one.

12:30: Two Lucky Fish underway for 30-minute tour with Aaron and Logan aboard. 3POB.

But with judicious filtering, you can make Twitter serve your needs. In fact, I think it’s only a matter of time before cruising clubs and groups of fishing buddies start using Twitter routinely to keep track of one-another. Twitter is all about “right now,” and older updates tends to scroll off the screen and into the dustbin of history pretty quickly.

13:07: Passengers ashore in Port Townsend, and Two Lucky Fish is underway again for Lake Union via Ballard Locks. 1POB.

This extreme form of “recency bias” actually matches my needs underway very well: I want to know which of my boating friends are out and about right now, today; I want to know where they are and where they’re going. Yesterday’s news is pretty much irrelevant to me.

Obviously, for voyages off the beaten track, where cellular coverage is minimal or nonexistent, none of these online tools is much good. SSB radio and satellite communication tools are a much more appropriate choice. But the fact is that the majority of cruises for the majority of recreational boats occur where cellular coverage is at least intermittent. It makes sense to use all the communication infrastructure available.

Remember, of course, that “the prudent mariner will not rely solely on any single aid to navigation.” I would be remiss not to mention that a good old fashioned phone call is still a good idea from time to time, and in an emergency situation, your marine VHF radio is a lot more valuable communication tool than Twitter or Facebook – or even a cell phone.

So good luck, and keep in touch.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Merv Floyd August 21, 2009 at 6:17 am

Agreed, leaving a float plan is common sense and anything that aids that task is probably a good idea, as long as it is secure. It is NOT a good idea to post the fact that you are going to be many miles away from your home for precisely “x” days on any public blog, forum or whatever.



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