As the sun sets and casts its glimmering light over the soft flow of the ocean, the moon is only just beginning to awaken. Blackness swallows you and your vessel whole, leaving close to zero visual cues behind.
While many sailors find night sailing daunting, it doesn’t have to be. With the right preparations and procedures in place, a night passage will fill any sailor with glee and excitement.
As with any sailing expedition, checking the weather before you head out will set you up for success. Ideally, you want consistent, clear lighting conditions for a night passage and, if possible, a full moon. The full moon not only adds natural light, which proves to be very helpful in the darkness, but is downright gorgeous. If this is your first time sailing at night, it can also help build your confidence for future endeavours.
When plotting your course, ensure the way points are clear and note down any navigational marks which have light characteristics. By having a sequence of expected lights or navigational markers, it can create good reference points whilst underway, helping to avoid any disorientation.
Sunset is the perfect time to prepare for the night ahead. Ensure all the sail covers are off, halyards are attached and that the engines are primed and ready to go. Navigation lights should be switched on and all touches should be in easy reach. For the crew, PFD’s, or personal flotation devices, with personal locator beacons and touches should be issued and life lines should be prepared. If applicable, turn on AIS and weather radars.
Most importantly, take some time to prepare the sails before the darkness sets in. It is advisable to always sail slightly more cautiously at night for the comfort and safety of those aboard. This might mean putting a reef in the main sail and furling in the head sail. It is far easier to put a reef in before dark, which can easily be shaken out if conditions prove to be lighter than predicted.
Watch patterns are dependent on how many people are onboard, how mentally and physically draining the conditions are and personal preference. There is no right or wrong time frame, just what feels right for you and your crew. Typically, watch patterns can be anything from 2-4-hours.
While on watch, dress accordingly. There is nothing worse than feeling cold and wet in the deep chill of the night. Be sure to layer warm undergarments and wet-weather gear under your life jackets, or whatever your PFD may be, and lifelines.
Avoid using bright, white lighting. Instead, use red LED to preserve your night vision. A blast of bright lighting can hinder your vision and create unnecessary difficulties. In some cases, it can take up to forty minutes for your eyes to readjust to the darkness of the night sea. This goes for the bright, black-lights in your cell phone, electrical equipment and chart plotters as well. Before the day is done, ensure you have dimmed the back light settings on your devices, which will not only save your night vision, but also help conserve power as well. So, what actually happens on watch? Listen to a few of The Ocean Cruisers Podcast episodes, or catch up on that latest Netflix series you have been hooked on. While these will keep you well occupied and awake, it’s still important to remain attentive. Always keep one ear and eye on the job. Hearing that slight change of waves slapping the hull or the flapping of the leech of a sail can all be tell tail signs that you have shifted course or a weather change is approaching.
Tips for staying alert and safe
- At least every 15-20 minutes it is important to do a full scan of your area and check your course and instruments.
- When scanning the horizon, rotate your head whilst keeping your eyes forward, which reduces eye fatigue.
- As you scan, stop and focus every 5-10 degrees so you don’t miss anything.
- Never leave the cockpit at night without notifying another crew member and ensuring your lifelines are clipped in, no matter what the conditions are.
Some find it useful to keep a log for everyone to stay updated on the conditions, boat performance and any mechanical failures. No matter your watch handover tactics, there is nothing quite like the contact with others to simulate you from your slumber. Before returning to your cozy berth below, remember that the person coming on to watch has only just woken up, so taking the time to chat and update them on the events during shift is imperative. After all, they now have your life in their hands.
Night sailing offers a different feeling of connection with your crew and vessel that day sailing will never quite provide. Each morning, after the sun chases the darkness away, you’ll start the day with even more confidence knowing that you can make it through each night safe and sound. Now the warm sun is awake and a new day of exploration begins.