As the sun kisses the horizon and fills the sky with translucent colors, the first star of the evening makes an appearance. It is still light, but the day is quickly giving way to the night and within a few minutes darkness envelops the boat. The horizon then disappears and a disconcerting feeling of “lost” takes hold.
Night riding is the bane of “big crossings,” and mentally preparing for it is only half the battle. Our internal clocks create an urge to curl up and sleep, but dosing off while on watch can be a death sentence. It is a “Catch 22,” so to speak. We know there is nothing but blue water ahead, but in one small moment a ship can be in our path spelling imminent danger (and we all know this happens with some frequency, no matter what time it is).
It is a hard to describe the feeling of being at the helm in the dead of night. Riding the sea with your vision impaired by lack of light tends to make you feel off balance; it can throw off your equilibrium more than the true motion of the boat. Your normal is soon abnormal, as your eyesight is hard to trust. The radar screen and the chartplotter become your only companion and hold your attention tightly—yet what’s just outside the vicinity of the wheel remains unknown.
The boat gliding along creates an odd sensation. Every now and then the white froth from a small wave flashes beside you and is momentarily visible. But for the most part there is not a thing to see until your eyes adjust to the inky dark water. In the meantime, you struggle to find something, anything, to rest your eyes upon. It is like driving in the fog—relentless and tiresome.
During the daylight hours we have an enhanced (although false) sense of security, because our vision helps us to process whatever is “out there.” When an object reveals itself, we can make decisions based on what we see in the light of day—things make sense. At night, though, it’s a whole different game.
The sound of the darkness is very loud, and your eyes will play tricks on your mind if you let them. If blips on the radar stay on screen for very long they really get the adrenaline going. Zooming in and out on the equipment to confirm the illusion wreaks havoc on the nerves. The GPS shows very little movement even though you know you are making way. The minutes become hours, and the hours become precious as you await first light to arrive.
Once the days and nights meld into each other, you may spot fictitious land at a distance, but it doesn’t take long to realize the land mass in question is a cloud bank taunting you. Even if there is crew to help share the load, grabbing a few hours of sleep here and there can wear on your sanity.
And yet if you can settle into the rhythm of the boat and get beyond the fear, sailing at night is magical. If the abundance of stars doesn’t fire your imagination, maybe a lone shooting star will. The occasional satellite progressing across the sky and disappearing into the horizon helps you remember you are far from alone, even when the isolation of the night makes you feel that way.
Why do we do this? To get to the other side … and we have no other options on our agenda. We are “cruisers.” We are “sailors.” We are “tars.” We have a common bond and a love of the sea. The thrill of pulling into a long-sought anchorage or port never ceases to delight or disappoint. A deeper appreciation for the smallest things (like a bed and a pillow or solid ground) lend great meaning to our experiences and help us grow exponentially. From point-to-point or port-to-port, sometimes a night sail is the only way to get there—wherever “there” may be.
Debbie Lynn and her husband are currently cruising in the Caribbean, making their way to the British Virgin Islands
MHS Summer 2015