Float plans – Safety can’t get any easier


Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyquan Scullark, an operations specialist with Coast Guard Sector San Francisco, issues a notice to mariners during his shift in the command center. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas McKenzie

Post by Senior Chief Petty Officer Doug Samp

I want to tell you about the most useful safety device available today.  When you’re going through your underway checklist, this item should be the first and last thing you mark off. It’s simple and it’s free. 

It’s called a float plan. Essentially, it’s a “who, what, where and when” of your boat trip. A completed float plan — validated just prior to getting underway and updated if plans change during the voyage — is the Holy Grail to a Search and Rescue (SAR) controller if something catastrophic happens during your voyage and you’re unable to notify the Coast Guard of your distress.


Chief Petty Officer Frederick Clay and Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Newland, operations specialists at Coast Guard Sector San Diego, discuss search patterns to be used in a search-and-rescue case. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Henry Dunphy

For a SAR controller, a mayday call with the Big Four (vessel position, number of persons aboard, nature of distress, and a description of the vessel) or an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) are typically easier cases to manage because there is a known distress and location. The Coast Guard command center would then assume control for the case, issue a UMIB, or Urgent Marine Information Broadcast, launch rescue resources such as a helicopter or boat, and monitor the case until conclusion when the mariner is safely ashore.

The Coast Guard cannot respond to an incident until they become aware that people or a vessel needs assistance. Some of the toughest cases worked in a Coast Guard command center are the reports of an overdue vessel that has a confirmation of departure from its slip or launch ramp, but hasn’t safely arrived at its destination. This open-ended situation leaves friends, family, and SAR controllers uncertain about the status of the mariner. Filing a float plan can greatly reduce that uncertainty for everyone by speeding up the response.

Any boater who has been offshore or even in the Bay knows that the ocean is a big place; trying to locate a boat –- typically 25-feet in length and white in color — or a person floating in the water is a difficult enough proposition without a starting position or a route to initiate a search.


Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Shaffer, a boatswain’s mate with Coast Guard Station San Francisco, updates the charts for the unit’s area of responsibility, Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas McKenzie

Without a float plan, valuable time is wasted while the SAR controller has to fill in the blanks and develop a reasonable search area from scratch.  An overdue report usually comes into the command center around 10 p.m. from the concerned spouse or friend who hasn’t heard from their loved one all day. Believe it or not, the vast majority of people who call the Coast Guard with a report of an overdue vessel have no idea of what kind of vessel their loved one was sailing on or where they planned to go. This leaves the SAR controller with a myriad of questions: did the boat stay in the Bay?  Did it go offshore?  Where did it depart from?  Where was it going? What should the rescue crews look for?  Are these loved ones already at a bar somewhere ashore celebrating the big catch?

A search area for a 25-foot boat reported overdue on a voyage from San Francisco Bay to Monterey Bay is pretty big; the search area only gets bigger over time when the SAR controller and family member have to make guesses about your voyage and recreate your route in order to develop a reasonable search area.  By filing a properly completed float plan, you take control of the situation, helping us quickly develop a reasonable search area, and reduce a mountain of uncertainty for your family members and the SAR controller.

You have the world’s greatest Coast Guard watching your back, ready to respond when you get underway.  Help yourself and help us by carrying all your safety equipment on board and filing a completed float plan.



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