Pete Goss provides an in depth guide to night sailing to help you get the most our of your boat when the sun sets

Night sailing is bread and butter to an ocean sailor and often crucial to coastal passage making, be it to catch a tide, avoid bad weather or simply to eat up delivery miles in preservation of precious cruising time at the destination of choice. It is an essential skill and, like anything in life, it needs to be learned and then honed with training and experience.

The dark hours don’t need to feel threatening. Some of my most memorable moments at sea have been thanks to the magic of darkness as it blankets distant clutter to bring an intimacy with nature that eludes us under the harsh spotlight of the passing sun.

Sound seems to carry as the gentle chuckle of the bow forging its path carries to the cockpit. The hull’s motion is celebrated by the glow of a swirling phosphorescent wake. Waves seem to be accentuated and smells become evocative on the damp air. A moonless night sky descends to wrap us in a blanket of bright heavenly bodies, untarnished by light pollution. Conversely a full moon can cast its own spell – there is nothing like the magic of sailing down the reflective path of a moonbeam.

A few hours of night sailing can hugely extend your cruising range. Photo: Richard Langdon

Perfect memory

Two weeks after rounding Cape Horn during the Vendée Globe I have a vivid memory of perfection. Earlier that day we had transitioned from a frustratingly fickle area to the blissfully consistent trade winds. The cloying cold became a memory as thermals were shed to welcome the refreshing joy of a deck shower. Flushed with the relief and optimism of surviving the Southern Ocean I had a rare four-hour sleep.

I awoke to find that darkness had ushered in a world of magic. Aqua Quorum quivered with joy as she surfed across building seas. The deck, speckled with spots of phosphorescence cast by surging water had come to life. Mesmerised, I sat on the companionway bubble, the only dry spot on board to be surrounded by a super pod of dolphin. Swirling streaks of phosphorescence around and under the boat marked their playful antics. It was a moment, too special to be caught on film, that has never left me.

Having become seduced by the intimate beauty of the night, it’s not unusual for me to gift the off-watch crew a full night’s sleep as I see it through to dawn. This comfort in the dark hours has taken time though. My first night sail was  sailing across the Channel with my parents and I struggled as benign conditions became threatening with darkness.

Teach crew to use the moon, stars, clouds or (fixed) lights to help hold a steady course at night. Photo: Richard Langdon

My seasickness was accentuated and we seemed adrift in a void with no points of reference. Ships offered little sense of size, direction or proximity and rather than reassuring me, the few flashing lights on the coast seemed to taunt me. Even the colour-coded ropes lost their individuality as I fumbled about trying to make sense of this new world.

Having subsequently introduced many to night sailing I have realised that my reaction was common, so I thought I might share a few reflections on how to compensate to make night sailing safer and above all more enjoyable.

The moon provides a fair amount of light at sea. Photo: Richard Langdon

Night sailing spacial awareness

The visual horizon, reducing with darkness, needs to be replaced by the projection of spacial awareness. If you struggle with this break it down to focus on each of its components and layer by layer it will become a reliable comfort, effortlessly adjusting for tide, wind, waves and the quirks of your boat.

Couple this with a clear mental chart, created like a dot-to-dot picture linking available references from lighthouses to buoys, the looms of civilisation and even the passage of a ferry whose course offers a straight line reference between two ports.

The outcome can be remarkably accurate and I test mine by putting a circle of estimation on the chart before plotting our position. It won’t stand the test of measurement but it can offer a sense of reality which is both reassuring and can counter errors. A gut feeling that ‘that just doesn’t feel right’ can save lives.

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