It’s fairly easy to learn to understand a weather forecast, predict tides and get information from a guidebook. The real challenge lies in synthesizing this information to create a good plan for a day’s paddling - especially when conditions aren’t straightforward.
The ability to make good plans comes with time and experience. However, the following process might provide a guide for beginners:
A) Choosing where to go
Check wind strength and wave size. Is the wind light enough (e.g. F1) that we can ignore it? Is it strong enough (e.g. F4 or more) that we need to hide from it behind land? If not, it’s probably still sensible to plan a paddle that starts upwind, so that the wind is behind us at the end of the day.
Assuming we need to consider wind, use an overview map of the area to identify coastlines that we might be able to paddle on and access points that allow us to start upwind. This should give us a short-list of options
Are there any tidal effects (height of tide, tidal streams) to worry about for the areas in our short list. Does this limit options due to (e.g.) wind-against-tide effects, having to paddle against tidal stream or access constraints due to areas drying out?
Are there any other limits to our options or hazards to consider - e.g. other water users, danger areas, logistics, lack of escape routes?
We should now have a list of options that are safe and practical, and need to discuss which we’d prefer to do.
B) Focused planning
Confirm wind, waves and tide for the area. How will they change through the day? How do we expect the shape of the coastline to affect these? Do we need to consider other factors (e.g. shipping, local rules…)?
Where are the put ins and take outs? Where do we park and how far do we need to carry? Where else can we get off if things go wrong?
How far will we paddle? What are the rough timings? Do they fit with weather and tidal changes? Are there critical places that be need to be at specific times? Where will we stop for breaks and lunch?
What are the main hazards and where are the crux points of the trip (e.g. exposed sections, headlands, concentrated wind, waves or tidal stream?). Where are our key decision points to keep going or turn back? How will we make those decisions? Do we have fallback plans if conditions prove worse than expected? At what points do we become committed? What will we do if things go wrong at each point?
Finish by copying key information to the map that you will carry on the water. Aim to keep your plans flexible - consider different options and be prepared to change if things don’t turn out as expected.