Before You Set Sail: The Pre-Departure Sailing Plan

Before You Set Sail: The Pre-Departure Sailing Plan | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

Why should you, as a sailor, think you can just hop on your boat and go, when you may encounter a myriad of issues as soon as you cast off that first line and the first wave slaps against your hull on your way to that horizon?

Pilots have their checklists. Astronauts have their countdown. Even ballplayers have their pre-game rituals before they take the field. Sailors should have a pre-departure plan too.

The Pre Departure checklist is one of the most important parts of voyage planning and day sailing alike. Because once you leave the dock and set sail, there is little you can do if you don’t bring it with you.

A sailboat is an entirely off-grid floating life support system. But who among us hasn’t forgotten the limes or left the socket set on the tailgate of the car at one point?


Table of contents

Pre-Departure Plan

A pre-departure plan will alleviate a great deal of the forgetfulness factor, if you take the time to do it and allow your brain to plan the more interesting details of the voyage like, “what will we make for dessert on the fourth night?” This is where planning really starts to make sense.

Your Sailboat

The first thing you should address in your pre-departure plan is your boat. You want a boat that is reliable and sound. One that will not just get you there and back, but also protect you and your crew against a limitless assortment of trouble that is possible at any moment while at sea. Depending on the length of your voyage and the time since your last voyage, this can be a simple check of the systems or a full how’s-your-father of the inner workings of the vessel.

Working from the top down, you’ll want to get a good understanding of everything from the mast head to the keel bulb. When I am entering a new boat, I walk the boat stem to stern, trying to eye any issues that may creep up like a missing split ring, a worn halyard, a fraying fore stay. A cursory examination of all visible systems should be a daily occurrence on your vessel but before you take off for an open Ocean Voyage, this should be a thorough examination of all systems.

There are many ways to do this and sometimes it’s good to get a little help with boat inspections for some of the more lengthy voyages. I have had several surveyors perform not-quite-for-prime-time surveys of my boats over the years for very reasonable rates.

If they don’t need to do an in-depth analysis like evaluating oil samples and climbing the rig, and additionally if they don’t have to do a 35 page write up afterwards, many will cut you a deal. I have had surveyors look over my boat for as little as $100 and to give me a professional third party perspective on its condition. It’s not a full survey, but it helps to have a critical set of eyes from a pro every now and again and why not use their checklist to prepare for your voyage.

You can also take your boat to some USCG stations and some USCG auxiliary posts to get a safety inspection of your boat without penalty. They will look for things like do all your through hull fittings have two hose clamps and are there any major violations like expired flares that you need to fix.

They won’t write you a ticket if they find something wrong and it is expressly for the purpose of giving you peace of mind about your boat and ensuring its safety. Just make sure that if you go to the USCG that you are certain they are doing a courtesy inspection and that you don’t have any drug paraphernalia or weapons on board that you don’t want anyone to find.


Once you have checked the overall condition of the boat, now it’s time to actually do the maintenance. The basic starting point is an oil change and setting up a checklist for that project can be as simple as watching a youtube video.

Make sure you have the filters, gloves, oil and diapers. A good investment is a 12 volt oil pump that sucks the oil from your motor. By making a list of the items you need to do the job, you will ensure you don’t get half into the task and realize you forgot diapers and oil spills all over your cabin console.

Now is also a good time to replace the impeller and fuel filters as well. Of course this all depends on how far you're going and if it’s just a day trip you can skip some of these maintenance items.

But do yourself a favor and get back up parts to perform all of these tasks. A spare impeller, a few spare filters and a few belts should be in your emergency kit along with an inventory list. I have a 2014 yanmar and for $100 you can get an emergency kit in a waterproof box with all the necessary gaskets and parts for my particular motor to do most of the maintenance tasks required for my motor.

I bought one when I was sailing up from Florida to North Carolina. It was like a first aid kit for my motor and it made me feel much better about going off shore. Best of all it comes with a list of parts so you can be sure not to miss one critical gasket if you need to change your water pump while at sea.

After you have checked the propulsion systems, then look at the living systems - water, sewage, electric and refrigeration.

Most don’t require much upkeep but a look at the batteries and full tank of fresh water makes the trip go that much smoother. I find a general list of systems to check on a daily basis ensures you and your crew don't miss anything.

Tasks like pump-outs also have a few necessary items you should carry on board like gloves, a pump out fitting and hand sanitizer. By the way, if you don’t know how to pump out your black water tank, now is a great time to learn about how the black water system works, so you can trouble shoot it if anything goes wrong. You have no idea how long a voyage can be when your septic tank is clogged with inorganic items and it starts spilling all over your main salon.


With your systems all checked, you are ready to prepare to navigate. There are all sorts of pre-departure items for trip planning that should be on your list. Your GPS should be updated for any and all chart updates. You should have a collection of charts for the waters you plan to travel.

There are also notices to mariners that you should also apprise yourself with. Places like the Outer Banks change all the time and closures like the ones this fall on the Illinois River are common. Updates can be found online if you search notice to mariners.

You might also take this time to research ports of call and figure out where you might anchor or dock should you wish to. You should also get an understanding of alternative stops if the weather turns foul or you get tired and want to stop. You should also have a nav kit with dividers, parallels, some good pencils and a calculator on board as well.

Personal Care & Food

Now it's time to take care of yourself and a checklist here makes a lot of sense too. You want to pack for your trip which includes all the items you might need for your health and safety like sunscreen, bug spray and medication. Make sure you plan for the weather and bring an assortment of clothes. Wet underwear is a true downer on a sailing trip so make sure you pack extra.

From there it’s on to my favorite part of the planning - the food. It’s a well known rule in the military that if you want to eat well, you join the Navy. That is true on sailboats as well.

Food has won and lost wars and a crew is happiest with a full belly. Sailboats are designed to make living well a priority. But when I was in college we didn’t quite get that concept and really couldn’t afford to eat well at all.

For a weekend long race one time our entire list of provisions included a half pound of salami, a loaf of white bread, a six pack of Natural Light Lite beer and a bag of riesens for four college boys. I learned on that voyage to take provisioning very seriously and a sailboat has lots of storage and galley features, so go big or don’t go.

But provisioning should also take into account the unique features of sailboat living. Even if you have a top notch chill chest, it's not the same as your home fridge and things go bad on the water faster than on shore. So you’ll want to pack lots of items that don’t need refrigeration. Canned vegetables, Canned Milk and Canned Potatoes are all ideal over their fresh counterparts while on a boat.

And if you bring meat, which any proper voyage should include, freeze it solid before you leave and that will buy you an extra day or two in your chill chest. A galley checklist makes sure you have everything you need and don't forget something critical like salt and pepper.

Say you want to make spaghetti one night at anchor. There are a whole bunch of things you will need to be successful. Pasta travels great as do canned sauces, but if you want garlic bread or salad you’ll need to prepare some extra items. A list will help you remember a colander for draining the pasta and a set of tongs for serving. If you break each meal down into the items you will need to prepare it, you can then cross reference each meal item and find multiple uses for certain meal ingredients and equipment to save money and space.

In this pandemic, there are other concerns for the live-aboard lifestyle. Masks, gloves and hand sanitizer are all required gear these days but planning ahead is another must. Lots of places are on lock down and finding dockage or shore access can sometimes be a challenge.

Word is that many of the islands of the Caribbean have been closed to new arrivals and this past spring, lots of marinas stateside were on lock down making it tough to find necessities like water, gas and ice. You can also find lots of info on social media about closures and tactics to survive while sailing in the pandemic. A little pre-departure planning will make your voyage a lot less stressful and keep you healthy and safe in this time of craziness.

Both sailing for the day and sailing for a lifestyle requires a ton of preparation. We all just want to raise the main and go, but without a plan, that idyllic image of a sailboat cruising into the sunset can become a nightmare of misery for both you and your crew.

Even the well planned voyage comes with all sorts of challenges, so trying to go when you have forgotten something critical makes for a really bad experience. The more you sail, the easier it will get and the length of the voyage really dictates how much planning you will have to do. Checklists and a thoughtful pre-departure plan does take some effort, but by doing so, you will enjoy your sail that much more and so will your guests and crew.

To be sure this just scratches the surface of voyage planning and your boat and crew have a whole bunch of needs that I may have missed. So be sure to take lots of pictures and share your sea stories and any tips you might have for making a voyage more enjoyable with us at Thanks for reading and make sure you do good, have fun and sail far.

Example Pre-Departure Checklist:

  • Mast
  • Rigging
  • Sails
  • Nav Lights
  • Hull
  • Batteries


  • Impeller (is the raw water valve open???)
  • Oil
  • Coolant
  • Fuel filters
  • Hoses
  • Gaskets

Sewage Tank

  • Gloves
  • Pump Out Fitting
  • Sanitizer
  • Refrigeration
  • Galley (Menu & Food)
  • Personal Items
  • Health and Safety
Before You Set Sail: The Pre-Departure Sailing Plan
Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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