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The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

The Right Place at the Right Time

Ken Gillstrom

Voyageur 10.10
45' Custom Aluminum
May 25th, 2015

We all seek those euphoric moments while making a passage, where there is a favourable current and the wind is on our beam, or better yet, the stern quarter with calm seas. Top this off with a blue sky that is clear as far as our eye can see, and we are in heaven. We have found ourselves in the right place at the right time! Luck, happenstance or good planning with due diligence? Maybe a little bit of each, who cares how it happens… Just enjoy it! It probably won’t last, or…maybe it will.

Many of us know somebody that hit the jackpot on the first or second pull at the one arm bandit, or that lucky friend that dropped off a resume the same day a company decided they needed a new manager of something or other. Many of our endeavours in life have very much to do with what we call “luck or happenstance”, for a positive outcome. Quite often we refer to this as, “being in the right place at the right time.” Is this really luck? Luck is something we don’t normally think of as being controllable, but more often than not, we can control where we are, and the time we are there. That means we can affect our “luck” and control the outcome in most situations during a passage.

During a 30 hour Yachtmaster evaluation a couple of years back, I was required to complete a blind navigation exercise. The navigator, me, had to remain below deck, with all windows blanketed, simulating dense fog. We were required to find a buoy that was a couple of miles away. The helmsperson could only tell me the speed through the water, depth and heading. The only visuals they could indicate had to be within 1 boat length, a mere 35 feet. Oh yah, this was in the Bristol Channel, Wales, with a tidal range of 36 feet (second largest in the world) and current running upwards of 4 knots. I took out the paper chart along with tide and current tables, calculated the exact tidal height and current for that moment in time and how much it would change over the next 25 minutes. Yikes, the depth is changing a foot every 10 minutes. As I worked out the course to steer, distances, time and depth contours, the sweat was pouring down my face, even though it was a damp 18 degrees C outside. I relayed this pertinent information up to the helmsperson, and for the next 20 minutes my heart beat as if it was auditioning as a drum for the movie, “Whiplash“.  Every minute or so, I would wipe my brow and ask the helmsperson the depth and speed, then diligently check my course line on the chart to confirm location. One last confirmation on the depth at the 22 minute 34 second mark and I exclaimed “the buoy is directly abeam on the port side. “Can’t see it” came the reply. “It has to be there,” I urged, “Stop the boat!” The crew still insisted that they can’t see it in their simulated 35’ visual range. The examiner called me on deck, and there was the buoy 50 feet away…my idea of perfection. The examiner suggested how lucky I was, to which I grabbed the chart and my 2 pages of calculations. “Really…luck?” I questioned. He retreated by saying, “point taken.”

Nobody asks us about how many beautiful days we have experienced at sea. The question always relates to quantities of violent storms and rogue waves. Our reply is always the same, “a couple of gales in 35,000 miles.” Then comes a large reference to how lucky we are. Well, this so called luck was derived from months of research and planning, trying to figure out where we should be at any particular time.

On the macro (global, long term) scale, we spend days and weeks thumbing through Jimmy Cornell’s books on World Cruising Routes and Pilot Charts of Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These have a hundred years of historic information compiled in a neat format. They advise the would-be traveler, where to be and not be at any particular time of the year, and the best route to get there. These documents look at seasonal shifts in global weather patterns and currents. This is how we determined our overall routing strategy for our adventures at sea. Our luck here is that someone accurately compiled all this historic information and made it available to us. Beyond that, it was hard planning that led to our successful passages.

On the micro (local) scale, we need to do our due diligence on a daily basis. We will have to transit passes at slack tide, predict depths and wind directions in anchorages, plan arrivals in daylight hours, and calculate currents that may help or hinder our progress, bridge clearances or openings. While cruising, we need to make this planning routine a morning ritual.

We drag ourselves out of bed and head to the coffee maker or kettle. As we pass by the VHF radio, it gets switched to the appropriate Wx channel while we shake our heads, trying to clear some of the cobwebs that encrusted our brain overnight. No matter what the method of preparation, that first cup of brew is at least 5 minutes away. Our ears perk up, and our body gets its first self-induced shot of adrenaline when we hear the VHF blurt out the name of the area we will be travelling in that day…oops, missed it…they are giving the long range forecast now. Our attention turns back to that first cup of brew, knowing that the forecast will take some time before they get back to conditions in our area. Still blurry eyed “what else was I supposed to do before heading out today?” “Crap…did I miss that forecast again?  Well the sun is out and it looks like a great day…let’s eat breakfast and get underway”.

Counting on luck and happenstance will eventually lead to disaster, probably sooner than later. We need to properly plan our day, every day, to ensure that we are in the right place at the right time. This takes but a few minutes in the morning and helps to get our brains in gear…

Many times it is prudent to do some preliminary calculation the night before. That first cup may have to be brewed in the pre-dawn hours in order to make a slack or favourable tide later in the morning.

The whole purpose of this pre-planning is to get as many environmental conditions as you can, working in your favour throughout the day. This is making your own luck.

The Wrong Place at the Right Time

Forgetting to plan, getting it wrong, or having delays along the way, can quite often ruin your day or even night. However, sometimes a delay can lead to some incredible new adventures. We were 30 hours into a passage from Milford Haven, Wales to Whitehaven, England, when we calculated that we were a little behind schedule. The marina in Whitehaven is only accessible during a period 2 hours each side of high water. The other eight hours of the tidal cycle finds the large iron gates to the marina closed. The marina becomes landlocked, surrounded by muddy brown silt, littered with red and green navigational buoys lying flat on their side ready to be awakened by the next flooding tide. Knowing that, we may be cutting our arrival time a little too close, happenstance had us looking to port, noticing an island about 7 miles away…Isle of Man. Never thought of going there…Okay, change course.

Entering the commercial harbor, the cruising guide indicated that there should be a small floating pontoon that two pleasure craft could tie up to. We had tried to reach the Harbourmaster on VHF 12 before entering the port, to no avail, but our radio crackled as we circled in the harbour. “Voyageur 10.10, please state your intentions?” After explaining our situation, they directed us to a 60’ long pontoon that already had a 35’ sailboat tied up to it. We nestled up behind her and could see boulders submerged just under our keel. Our sounder indicated lots of depth, but it wasn’t picking up the jagged mass under our keel and rudder, just aft of the transducer. Out came the lead line, tide tables and tidal curve; with pencil in hand we decided that at the lowest tide that night we will have at least 12” between our keel and immoveable mass on the bottom. According to the weather, there would be no wave action to worry about. We were good!

We contacted the Harbourmaster to indicate we are tied up and he replied that the officials will be at our boat in a couple of minutes. “Officials?” Well, you learn something new every day. Isle of Man is its own little kingdom, not even part of the UK, a tax-free banking haven for the wealthy. They even have their own money, the Manx. The official gave us a few and indicated they were worthless anywhere else in the world. Explaining that we would only be in their country for 18 hours, what are the best things to see and do? Following his advice, we set out on a journey back in time, taking the horse-drawn streetcar past a few dozen derelict mansions to the end of the line, then boarded a century-old pint-size electric train to head up into the mountains. The wooden cars twisted and buckled as we traversed the hilly countryside and made our way higher into the mountains. We were sure that the panes of glass were going to dislodge themselves from the splintered frames. We arrived at another end of the line, Laxey – a mining town, lead-mining to be exact, which utilized the world’s largest waterwheel to power its operations. The Laxey Wheel was impressive at 72 feet in diameter and what appeared to be a thousand buckets. Lead has been linked to mental disorders for centuries; however, it was only recently that the powers-at-be have restricted its use. Before this, we just called these challenged individuals, “Maniacs.” Could this term be related to the condition found in great numbers of lead miners on the Isle of Man?

Returning to the train station nestled amongst the large pines, we inquired about the next scheduled train back to town. “Sir, you arrived here on the last train of the day!” More adventures…as a result of lack of planning and research. Fortunately, on this populated island, short cuts to pre-planning did not prove life-threatening!

Yes, there are times when our extensive planning goes out the window due to unforeseen circumstances and we have to be prepared to adapt to new situations. We have to create a new plan and sometimes, just go with the flow.

Getting it Right

While on the water, either anchored or under way on a passage, we are confronted with an ever-changing dynamic environment. Prepare your plan every morning, while having that first cup of brew. It will help give you an idea of what is in store for you that day, and what you can comfortably accomplish. To make sure that you are in the right place at the right time, your daily pre-plan should include:

  • Weather forecasts from multiple sources
    • Cell. Sat or SSB Download
    • VHF
    • Check and record barometric pressure
  • Notices to Shipping
  • Times for sunrise and sunset
  • Tidal heights and times for the day
  • Prepare a tidal curve to determine intermediate depth
  • Current tables for related passes
  • Go through a complete boat checkout using a list

On Voyageur 10.10, we use two primary planning sheets when starting off our day and update them during the day as conditions dictate. This ensures that all pertinent information is used when making decisions on how our day will be set up and ensuring that we will be at the right place at the right time. This information is also retained as a permanent record in our logbook. Full size PDF files of these documents can be downloaded from our website by following the links.

SSJ Gillstrom-3

SSJ Gillstrom-4


  1. Karl Marits says:

    Thanks Ken for a very important article. Like mountaineers, offshore sailors are not seeking risk, but using their skill and knowledge to reduce an ever present risk. You couldn’t have emphasized more how important preparation is to safe voyaging. The planning sheets will be used on Halcyon when we leave in December.

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