Sailing Totem: Route Planning—The Big Picture

Need a sailing fix while stuck in port? Try planning your dream route!
sailing route planning map
Hopping through the North Pacific: a dreamscape route Behan Gifford

This story originally appeared on Sailing Totem.

Route planning is something we geek out on a little. During the last year, it gave me an outlet for escapism during the pandemic. Improbable routing across the North Pacific? Great daydreaming while isolating on Totem, not even swimming off the boat while in view of closed beaches on shore.

What were the distances we could voyage between destinations (open to us during the pandemic) in the Pacific? What seasonality did they introduce? We might not be going anywhere, but I could ponder the possibilities! Getting smarter on route planning is something that’s readily researched ahead of cruising, too.


There are three levels of routing: first, the most zoomed-out big picture view, second, pre-passage plan, then finally, routing once underway. Each one has different dynamics.

Many sailors are dreamers, so dreamscaping destinations comes easily. Covid reduced the options for Pacific stops; an imagined route was challenging, but not impossible, for this dreamer. Hawaii? Family in Hilo to visit! (~2,600nm) Guam? Friends landing there and found a welcoming safe harbor. (~3,300nm) From there, on to Okinawa, southern port of entry for Japan. (a mere ~1,200nm) It’s open to American nationals; perhaps we’d be lucky enough that Taiwan – which I dearly love, thanks to finishing high school and spending time in college there – would open by the time we made it that far. In three big passages, we’d be back in the western Pacific: it is a goal for the years ahead.

Big picture routing might start with a wide-open imagining. Making it into a real plan starts with seasonal constraints. What are the best times for these passages? Does the full distance allow a reasonable pace, and time to enjoy stops along the way? When would it be better to hold off for a month? Where would you want to meander slowly for a season? From there, the planner considers other features of the journey and destination to create a sensible trip framework. Seasonal weather, security, legal, and practical considerations.


Planning For Weather

Weather defines life on boat. Trip up the inside passage sounds fine! In July, that is, but not January. Or to Caribbean islands in search of the last bottle of rum – best outside of hurricane season. The deterrent factors of cold and hurricanes are plain, but there are other weather seasons to consider, based on location: gales (higher latitudes), lightning (Central America and Southeast Asia), squalls (tropics), and monsoon seasons. Monsoonal regions bring seasonally changing winds that blow in the right or wrong direction depending on your timing. Plan weather patterns that makes sailing easier on the boat and crew. My dreamscape is complicated by seasonal conditions layered over distance. Arrive in Guam before cyclone season in the western Pacific: that means leaving for Hawaii… now-ish, and without time for more than a break on the way.

Pacific ocean cyclone tracking chart
Pacific chart with cyclone tracks overlaid; Totem’s prior track shown Behan Gifford

Researching Safety Issues

Security during the journey and at the destination requires research. Skimming along the coast of North America doesn’t carry much threat to personal safety, but still good to learn if your outboard could sprout legs in a given anchorage. When we sailed north from Australia to Papua New Guinea, we were given dire warnings about the dangers that awaited. And like many countries, while it can be painted as dangerous – it is not reflective of the entire nation. I mapped a route based on first hand reports, and it remains among our favorite places. I’ve written in more detail about how to research both regions and destinations for safety issues in “Is Cruising Dangerous?”.

Papua New Guinea map
Pattern partially decoded: avoid the mainland, curve an outer-island arc Behan Gifford

Learning Legal Requirements

Legal procedures for traveling to and from countries can be surprising, and limiting if not prepared. Last year we planned to get a 90 day visa on arrival in French Polynesia; there was also a long-stay visa available through application at French embassies overseas (currently, these are not being issued). We looked further out in 2020 and discovered we’d need proof of measles vaccinations to legally arrive in Samoa. Jamie and I don’t have our childhood vaccination records, and were looking into titer tests and re-vaccination options… and then covid happened.

small boat off the coast of Madagascar
Remembering Nosy Mitio, Madagascar… we’ll be back. Eventually. Behan Gifford

Making Practical Plans

Practical route planning is a common pitfall of the new cruiser: to dream a big picture route spanning an unrealistic range of places. It’s hard to know until you live underway at sea level, one nautical mile at a time, what those distances really mean. Passage making can be a joy (I’m craving it right now: a glorious respite!) but constantly being on the move to meet an unnecessary objective (Trinidad to Halifax and back this year!) is exhausting. For folks planning from the fast lane of modern life, it’s hard to imagine life at six knots.

Stopping short of an overzealous objective might leave a disappointment in failing to achieve. But achieve what, exactly? We’re here for the experiences, and not the notches in a logbook. Making a plan helps that dreamscape evolve into an achievable future.

Let’s Talk!

TOTEM TALKS: what makes a bluewater boat? This Sunday, Feb 28, at 3pm PT / 6pm ET we’re hosting another open forum on Zoom. There’s a lot of conflicting information and misinformation about features of a bluewater boat. Let’s talk about it! Register to attend.


Clubhouse. Join us for a chat sometime on this newish platform! We came on this week thanks to the other Jamie (from Follow the Boat), finding it fun to engage on this new platform to talk about cruising and help the enthusiastic on their way. Find me lurking around Salty Vagabonds and Sailing Club. The app is iOS only but that should change soon.

Coho Hoho kickoff. March 16. The Best Awaits: Southbound on the West Coast. Sharing information for safe planning and fully enjoying their voyages south for the rally runners! Register at Coho Hoho / events.

Cruising sails seminar. March 25, 4pm Eastern. Sail fundamentals, part of Salty Dawg Sailign Association’s winter webinar series. Jamie’s covering materials, terms, and loads; sail repair basics and common causes of problems; self-inspection before going offshore; observations to make while underway. Fee paid for non-members of SDSA; register on their site.