Sailing at night can be a sublime experience—stay on your guard, but enjoy it.
It’s hard to beat reaching over an easy moonlit sea, especially when land is miles away and you haven’t seen a ship all night. It’s a different story close to shore. There’s plenty of traffic along our more populated coastlines, and pilotage can be intricate, so sailing at night can feel like plunging down an unlit highway with no headlights. These are real concerns, so it’s understandable that many skippers avoid a first brush with darkness for as long as they can. Sooner or later, though, any of us with ambitions to cruise beyond our home waters must face up to sailing overnight.
Respect for darkness—if not fear of it—is embedded in our genes, and increased anxiety is default mode for inexperienced night sailors. Accepting this defuses most of the emotional impact. Otherwise, not being able to see much isn’t as bad as it seems. We know in daylight, with the exception of buoys, charted hazards, the odd fishing marker and other vessels, there is nothing to hit. The chances of running into a stray container must be as remote as a tree falling on your car. More significantly, who can honestly say they’re constantly looking for half-sunk perils on a daytime passage? No one, because experience has shown we don’t need to do that.
Navigating after dark
The process of piloting in deep water is the same at night as in the daytime. Once clear of channels and buoys, it’s down to GPS fixes checked against estimates, distances and courses to steer. The only difference is that lights are unambiguous. You’ll spot a nun’s blood-red wink long before you can confirm a daymark in daylight. Even lighthouses are easier to identify.
Harbor entries by night: If there are no navigation aids to guide you into your chosen port or anchorage and you’ve never been to the place before, my advice is to go somewhere else. An electronic chartplotter is a comfort, but if it fails when you are committed to a strange unlit harbor after dark, your situation is not enviable. Beware of pilot book assumptions such as, “The fairway is bound to be clear.” It may be anything but.
Pilotage plans and looking out: Entering a known harbor in daylight, a pilotage plan is probably unnecessary. Arriving toward midnight in pitch darkness is an altogether different proposition. For example, spotting sectored leading lights through a dogleg can be a challenge, especially when one of them is lost in a parking lot full of burger stands. A set of pre-planned bearings, courses and distances can save the day. It also pays to have all hands on deck looking for those lights. Four pairs of eyes have a 400 percent better chance than one.
The trick is to use the boat as a gunsight. As you make a turn on your planned route, aim your bow down the bearing of the next light or range, even if it isn’t exactly the right course. Tell the crew, “OK, occulting green light dead ahead. Who can see it?” Someone will, and it might not be you!
What do you see? There’s no substitute for experience when it comes to identifying the lights of other vessels. If you’ve never sailed at night, try to make your early passages with others who have. AIS is a godsend, but smaller commercial boats aren’t obliged to use it. A fishing boat may show the correct lights, but they may be obscured by working floodlights. Other ships are often so ablaze with lights it’s impossible to discern their running lights, and in some cases it is very hard to make out their heading without radar. This is typical, and it’s never in the books.
Watch the background: Seeing ships is easy with an open horizon. Close inshore, it can be hard when lights on the water merge into those ashore. When a line of shore lights could be hiding danger, you have to look for anything moving relative to them. Train your eyes, and get your crew looking, too. Don’t forget your binoculars. Sometimes they gather enough light to show the form of the vessel.
Your own lights
Check your nav lights before dark. The last thing you want is to be hanging under the pulpit in the pitch black, a screwdriver in one hand and a bulb in your teeth as the USS Missouri bears down on you in a 6-foot sea.
And please, please use the correct light combinations as prescribed in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, aka Colregs. Some sailors dress their yachts like a Christmas tree with running lights (red and green forward, white stern light aft), a steaming light halfway up the mast, and—horrors—a tricolor shining above that. We’re quick to complain about fishing craft, but the sailboat described is lit either for crabbing (port side) or trawling (starboard). She brings us all into disrepute.
Tricolor or not?
Masthead tricolors are useful out at sea. They save power and can be seen at greater distances. Unfortunately, they don’t help an observer determine how far off you are. Deck-level lights do this better. In calm coastal waters, therefore, favor deck running lights and take the hit on your batteries. You’ll likely soon be motoring or alongside anyway. If you do night passages regularly, swapping out your power-thirsty running lights for LED units is an easy and relatively inexpensive upgrade.
On single-night passages or on “half-nighters” especially, folks tend not to run a formal watch system. Everyone needs rest, though, especially the skipper, so don’t hang around on deck getting cold and seasick. Turn in and, if you can’t sleep, at least read. It may not revive you like four hours in the land of Nod, but it’s a rest.
It doesn’t take much for competent crew members to stand watch alone in open water and fair weather, given they understand the agreed night orders. Skippers should rest when not needed.
This is the crunch for an off-watch skipper. The secret is having confidence that those on deck understand when to call you. The trigger might be a ship entering the three-mile radar ring or anything closing on a steady bearing. It could be a change of wind, a nasty-looking cloud or arrival at a waypoint. The final word must always be, “Absolutely anything that leaves you in the slightest doubt. Never hesitate to give me a shake.”
The whole system runs on mutual trust, and the skipper must put on a brave face when disturbed for nothing. Even a muffled “Tut” will make the watch-keeper hesitate next time around.
Even if buoyed up by a lifejacket, if someone goes overboard in the dark, it will probably prove impossible to find them. Insisting on tethers, at least outside the cockpit, will ensure you don’t lose anyone in the first place.
Flashlights & SAR
A flashlight in the cockpit has endless uses. A pocket AIS transmitter with an inbuilt strobe light has only one. However, the device can be passed on like a relay baton. Should a solo watch-keeper capable of switching it on fall overboard, he will be found by you or the SAR people. Ideally, all crew should have their own flashlight and a lifejacket equipped with a strobe and whistle.
This is a watch-keeper’s best currency, so don’t shine flashlights in their eyes. Night vision can be blown away on one trip to the head or the galley. The irises work independently, however, so if you shut one eye before going below and keep it shut until you surface again, it will maintain “night status” as if by magic.
Your night vision can also be ruined by a full-face blast from a chartplotter, so turn the backlight down low rather than using a potentially confusing “night palette.” It works well and saves power. Better still, turn it off when not in close proximity to shore.
Finally, enjoy! A night sail can be a sublime experience.
DOING IT AFTER DARK…
Words of advice from seasoned sailors
“Start with the attitude that night sailing can be fun and a special experience and something to be looked forward to—this will reduce the stress levels. Be extra thoughtful about the stowage plan, especially on deck, before setting sail—you don’t want to be having to deal with loose objects in the dark if the weather pipes up.”
—Nigel Calder, author of The Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual
“Make sure every crew member has a small flashlight, small enough to hold in your teeth so that both hands are free to work.”
—Don Street, sailor and author
“Turn your damn instruments off! You’ll never fully enjoy a night sail staring at a chartplotter screen—figure out your compass course, put the cover on the plotter and pick out a bright star out ahead that’s along your course to steer for, and enjoy the darkness! It’s far easier to steer by a fixed star than it is by a wandering compass—and it keeps you at one with the universe.”
—Andy Schell, SAIL Contributing Editor
“Even in fair weather, I almost always shorten sail for the night, usually the mainsail, since a roller-furling genoa can be quickly reefed from the cockpit by one person. As a cruiser, I’m not as concerned about losing a half a knot as I am about getting caught, tired and short-handed, by a wind increase or squall in the dead of night.”
—Tor Pinney, solo sailor and author