There's a First Time For...Sailing at Night - Sail Magazine

There's a First Time For...Sailing at Night

Without a doubt the most magical moments I’ve experienced as a sailor have occurred after the sun was down. I will always recall one summer night I spent off the Carolina coast—horizon lost in a low-lying blanket of fog, brilliant shotgun blasts of starlight directly overhead...
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
29
NightSailing

Without a doubt the most magical moments I’ve experienced as a sailor have occurred after the sun was down. I will always recall one summer night I spent off the Carolina coast—horizon lost in a low-lying blanket of fog, brilliant shotgun blasts of starlight directly overhead, and the water alive with phosphorescence. When the dolphins came we could see them from a mile off, drilling bright green tunnels of light through the black water. They spiraled about our keel like an acrobatic underwater meteor shower as our sails overhead pulled us on silently toward the dawn.

But I can also remember, just as vividly, another dark night off the New Hampshire coast when I was almost run down by a trawler. An array of running lights that had seemed far away suddenly wasn’t, and though I changed course to avoid them, the other vessel also changed course and continued heading straight for us. Its massive trawling boom swept by so close I swear I could have reached out and touched it. To this day, my heart races at the thought of it.

This is the challenge of sailing at night. It is at once awe-inspiring and potentially terrifying, and to come through in good order with magical memories intact, you need to sail safe and smart.

Standing Watch

Rule number one is to set a watch schedule. Even on a short passage with only one night spent underway, don’t think you can muddle through without one. Crew on deck conning a boat at night need to know when they can stand down; crew members in their berths need to know when they’re expected on deck. The structure of the schedule, however you arrange it, imparts a sense of order and security that helps keep the demons of the night at bay.

Inexperienced crew should not be left to stand a night watch alone, and the skipper should make it clear to all that he or she can be called whenever the crew on deck is nervous or uncertain about what’s going on. At every change of the watch, the crew being relieved should give the new watch a short briefing as to the weather and sea conditions and the state of the vessel, noting in particular any traffic or navigational hazards in the area.

On the first night of a long passage, or on a single-night passage, you may have difficulty falling asleep when off watch. Resist the temptation to stay on deck enjoying the scenery. Even if you can’t sleep, you should stay in your berth resting so you’re as fresh as possible when you are on watch.

 Be prepared to handle sails and running rigging. Good lighting is important

Be prepared to handle sails and running rigging. Good lighting is important

Sail Handling

Many skippers like to shorten sail before dark, regardless of conditions, so as to minimize the chance of having to handle sails at night. This is fine, but you should still be willing and able to change sails, or take in or let out reefs, if necessary. It is a very good idea to mark your running rigging so that you can make routine sail-trim settings without having to see the rig. You should also have a working set of deck lights, so you can illuminate everything when doing big jobs.

At the beginning of the night, the skipper should make sure everyone understands what adjustments can be made unsupervised by the watch on deck and when more crew should be called up to assist. This may vary from watch to watch, depending on the crew’s experience. All crew should also be wearing life vests and harnesses, and jacklines should be rigged.

Power Management

On most modern boats, sailing at night consumes an inordinate amount of power. Between your nav lights, autopilot, chartplotter, radar, VHF radio, AIS transceiver and a myriad of illuminated instrument displays, you’ll see your amp-meter spiking a lot higher than it normally does. Be sure your electrical system can handle the load.

You should also do what you can to lighten the load. Dim all your illuminated displays, and have the crew carry small flashlights so they can read in their berths, get dressed, and find gear without having to turn on any cabin lights. (This will also save everyone’s night vision.) If you sail often at night, it’s a good idea to replace any incandescent running lights with LEDs.

Collision Avoidance

On the one hand, it’s often easier to identify traffic at night, as the running lights of other vessels make them visible at much greater distances. On the other, it is much easier to get confused. Lighting on shore can make it especially hard to pick out and track other vessels. Unless you have some experience, it can often be difficult figuring out how another boat is oriented, even if there is a clean horizon behind it.

Yes, modern technology has done much to make all this easier. But not every vessel shows up on a radar screen, nor do they all carry AIS transponders. Only large commercial ships are required to carry AIS; many fishing boats don’t bother with it, and it is these, in particular, that you need to look out for. Their lighting arrays are often confused and irregular, and their movements can be unpredictable. If the crew is busy working, there will typically be no one keeping watch.

To keep your own vessel secure, you need to first make sure your crew understands the technology on your boat. You don’t want them reading instruction manuals by flashlight, so it’s a good idea to deliver thorough briefings as to the operation of any radar and AIS equipment aboard before you leave the dock. Ideally, one member of each watch should also have at least a basic working knowledge of which vessels show which lights, in case your technology is irrelevant.

Again, the crew should not be shy about waking the skipper if there is any threat of a collision. This should always be done sooner rather than later, so the skipper has time to observe the other vessel’s movements before deciding on a course of action.

Clothing and Food

Even in the tropics, it can get quite cool at night, and everyone aboard should have appropriate clothing for keeping dry and warm while on deck. Crew on watch should also have easy access to food and drink. Stash a cache of popular snacks in an easy-to-reach locker and leave out a thermos of hot tea or coffee for those who need a pick-me-up in the middle of a long graveyard watch.

If you and your crew are warm, well fed and feel secure about the procedures on your boat, you’ll be all set to savor and enjoy the very special experience that is sailing at night. 

Photo by Oriol Clavera (top); by Tor Johnson (bottom)

Related

180615-01 Lead

A Dramatic Comeback in the Volvo

After winning three of the last four legs in the Volvo Ocean Race (and coming in second in the fourth), Dutch-flagged Brunel is now tied for first overall with Spanish-flagged Mapfre and Chinese-flagged Dongfeng following the completion of Leg 10 from Cardiff, Wales, to ...read more

MFS-5-2018-Propan-SP02

Tohatsu LPG-powered 5hp Propane Motor

Gassing it UpTired of ethanol-induced fuel issues? Say goodbye to gasoline. Japanese outboard maker Tohatsu has introduced an LPG-powered 5hp kicker that hooks up to a propane tank for hours of stress-free running. Available in short-, long- or ultra-long-shaft versions, the ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell.Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.comThink Deeply When chartering, I am always maddened to be told that the echo sounder is calibrated “to depth under the keel, plus a bit for safety.” Such operators seem to imagine that the instrument’s sole ...read more

180612-01 Landing lead

Painful Sailing in Volvo Leg 10

It’s looking to be a case of feast or famine for the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean fleet as it continues the epic struggle that has been Leg 10, with it having been all famine thus far. Painful is the only word to describe the light-air start in Cardiff, Wales, on June 10, as the 11-boat ...read more

01-13_07_180304_JRE_03695_4605

Tips From the Boatyard

Within the Volvo Ocean Race Boatyard sits a communal sail loft which provides service and repairs for all seven teams sailing in the 2017-18 edition of the race. The sail loft employs only five sailmakers who look after 56 sails in each stopover. If you’re thinking, “wow, these ...read more

sailCarwBasicsJuly18

Sail Care for Cruisers

Taking care of your canvas doesn’t just save you money, it’s central to good seamanship  Knowing how to take care of your sails and how to repair them while at sea is an important part of overall seamanship. The last thing any sailor needs is to get caught on a lee shore with ...read more

Ship-container-2048

The Danger of a Collision Offshore

This almost happened to me once. I was sailing singlehanded between Bermuda and St. Martin one fall, and one night happened to be on deck looking around at just the right time. The moon was out, the sky was clear and visibility was good. Still, when I thought I saw a large ...read more

New-MHS-Promo

Multihulls on the Horizon

Fountaine Pajot New 42The French cat powerhouse has been on a roll these last few years, cranking out new models that not only replace their older line but take a step forward in design and user-friendliness. The New 42’s “real” name had not been revealed as we went to press, but ...read more