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
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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Night sailing passage plan
Start with a detailed passage plan. Think about sight lines, wind and wave direction, where will lights pop up or sink below the horizon. Where will you be at dusk and dawn, will the weather bring rain, cloud cover or perhaps fog? What are areas of heightened risk – draw them on the chart, break them down for clarity. Pore over pilot books, talk to others to make your visual reference as detailed as possible.
Ideally take the crew ashore, draw breath and talk through the passage plan as you run your finger across the chart. You’re aiming to paint a lasting picture so keep repeating the passage of your finger as you add layer upon layer of information. Explain the limitations of darkness and the ship’s routines to mitigate them. Underline that casual daylight references such as wind and wave direction should be given more attention.
Setting a reliable passage plan is key when sailing at night. Photo: Richard Langdon
The heavenly bodies and even clouds can be used to avoid becoming compass blind. Steer with all your senses and be guided by periodic glances at the compass. The fact that these senses are inherent is illustrated by the steadying effect of asking a wildly erratic novice to close their eyes. It’s as if a primal gyro has been switched on as they steady up.
Give responsibility by asking one of the crew to take the forecast and relay it, another to go over your tidal calculations, another to organise the snacks and so on. Further this by having everyone take turns at filling in the hourly log and plotting the position. Breaking a passage into watches makes the handover of information essential.
Wake the oncoming watch with at least 15 minutes in hand. Welcome them with a hot cuppa and a general overview as they don their equipment. As they make their way on deck check safety gear and that hats and gloves are to hand. They must clip on before leaving the companionway and finding their feet. The off-going helm should stay by their replacement until dismissed. The new watch leader requires a formal handover of the boat set-up, visual references and chart updates.
Contrary to common misconception, navigation is often clearer during the dark hours due to the pinpoint accuracy and identification of navigational aids. What is clear at night can degenerate into a smudge with the coming of dawn. So make sure that the last fix of the night is exemplary for this could be the crucial fix from which all dead reckoning will follow. The flip side is that a city’s gaudy background can make identifying navigation lights very challenging.
Hot drinks and snacks will help crew stay warm and awake on watch. Photo: Richard Langdon
Staying awake when sailing at night
Tiredness inhibits all senses, silently eroding safety and decision making. As darkness calls for as much alertness as you can give, so your body winds down, no matter how hard you fight it, to provide less and less attention as the night unfolds. A good watch system helps – two five-hour watches during the day to give a longer sleep backed up by short night watches. If a watch is really exhausted I will stand in as skipper to allow cat napping. Should broader exhaustion set in consider shortening watches, heaving to, anchoring up, or a revised passage plan.
Seldom does a landfall mesh with a watch system so consider extending the approach watch to ensure a well-rested watch for harbour approaches. If you are able to step outside the watch system, plan your sleep to be alert for decision points; headlands, tide changes, passing fronts or land fall. A clear understanding of when, where and why the skipper should be called will empower the crew to maintain alertness and resist the temptation to retreat into their hood.
Encourage movement, from press-ups to regular helm changes and scanning the horizon from the cap shrouds. Rotate the watch through plotting the hourly position, providing hot drinks, snacks and boiled sweets. Anything to maintain engagement and spacial awareness.
It might sound daft but be overt about no question being a silly question, particularly at night. The crew are your eyes and ears so encourage them to express any concern or intuition. Reward it by establishing the cause of their concern to provide a learning experience and safety check.
Make a cup of tea ready for the oncoming watch. Photo: Richard Langdon
Night sailing watch routines
The most important entity on a boat is the crew, so spend your money on good clothing and personal equipment before being tempted by the latest gadget.
Watch for early signs of seasickness or hypothermia and take immediate action. Being on watch is a duty, so reduce talking to essential information; if feeling divorced from the elements drop your hoods and remove hats. Allocate quadrants of responsibility, scan the horizon by turning your head to improve hearing and other senses; open your mouth. Sporadically weave the boat to alter shadows, motion and noise. Walk up to the bow and stand there for longer than feels appropriate, as long as you’ve told someone you’re going up. You’ll be surprised how different things look, sound and feel up forward.
If it’s particularly dark or foggy I often turn off the navigation lights and run with the tricolour for short periods if motoring. This cuts glare and can be aided by posting a crew member on the bow if there is lots of shipping about. Periodically turn off the engine for a listening watch, even if sound isn’t necessarily directional in these conditions. If you have a plotter and radar below, put a crew member below and turn off the deck instruments.
Use red light below to protect night vision and help others sleep. Photo: Richard Langdon
Contrary to common misconception it takes 20 minutes to gain your night vision. Red light is preferable but it still affects it.
Rather than red lights below I prefer red head torches to reduce light emission and ensure it is focussed. Remember red light can blank out colour definition on your chart.
A waning moon calls for greater light discipline as the nights get darker. Modern cockpits can suffer from screen blindness so don’t be afraid to put the cover on electronics and have a dedicated crew member looking as the others turn away.
Teach the crew to use their peripheral vision when scanning the horizon for it is much more sensitive. Once your periphery picks something up the eye will be able to focus on that to which it was blind. It takes practice to focus just above the horizon but is a revelation when you get the hang of it. If your direct sight still doesn’t pick it up use your binoculars.
There is nothing more damaging than a smoker flashing up their lighter. Ban smoking at crucial times, at others ask them to both mask their lighter and warn the crew before ignition. The smoker must face aft and draw behind their raised collar and hood.
Recognise that life goes on below so have porthole curtains and drop in the washboards where appropriate.
Change helms regularly, take your hood down, and look out from different points of the boat to remain alert, and avoid developing blind spots. Photo: Richard Langdon
Darkness can bring a change to perspective so extra care needs to be taken when judging distance. I can’t offer any simple tips here apart from suggesting extra time spent on looking at landmarks and using your spacial awareness, binoculars, fixes and radar to correct any anomalies.
From hard experience I have found that on a very dark night a lone navigation buoy with nothing around it to offer perspective can jump from seemingly afar to right under your nose. During a training course for the British Steel Challenge I was off watch when we glanced off a hoofing great Trinity House navigational mark which I had laid down as a turning point. I didn’t hear the collision thanks to a lumpy night and being tired. It was dawn before a very sheepish mate woke me with the news.
In truth I thought it was a wind-up until I looked over the bow to be shocked by a large dent. I just couldn’t believe that four keen trainees under a Mate with thousands of miles including a circumnavigation could simply sail into such a big, well-lit buoy.
I interviewed them all separately and they all swore that they had watched the buoy from afar. All were confident of their position when it suddenly appeared under the bow with just enough time to throw the helm up.
I have since experimented under similar conditions to experience the same phenomena. On a very dark night I will always leave extra room and put a spotlight on the buoy from afar, ensuring that others have turned away with their eyes shut. It’s something that I have found to be remarkably consistent so beware.
The absence of a visible horizon makes seasickness more likely. Photo: Richard Langdon
Remember that seasickness is accentuated by darkness so be minded if you know someone is susceptible. Issue seasick tablets or even stand them out of the night watch, for an ill person is useless and needs looking after.
Darkness inhibits balance so be extra vigilant about clipping on and press home the ‘one hand for the boat and one for yourself’ mantra. This is particularly important as decks at night are often slippery with condensation.
Before any deck work have a team-talk to walk through the order of events and who will do what. A fun training exercise I used to great effect on the British Steel Challenge was to blindfold the crew on a quiet day to practise reefing and even putting the spinnaker up.
Equipment you need for sailing at night. Photo: Richard Langdon
Night sailing equipment
It’s important to have binoculars that have a wide lens to draw in as much light as possible. I have found that image stabilising seems to have a greater effect at night. Beyond that there is thermal imaging and IR scopes. My wife Tracey’s dream would be a FLIR Scope. I have yet to use the more exotic scopes on a boat but know from the military how remarkable they can be.
AIS is wonderful as it gives course, speed and risk of collision with vessels festooned with so many working lights they blank out their navigation lights. Radar is also an excellent aid to seeing beyond the darkness but once again it can inhibit night vision.
I like to provide the cockpit with a proper palm stopwatch with a neck lanyard for identifying lights. Wristwatches incapacitate both arms and are often lost in the confines of wet weather gear and thermals.
Don’t forget the ‘opposition’ are suffering from the same challenges so be ready to aid them by running a spotlight over the sails. Worst case, you might flash it directly at the ship’s bridge or ignite a white hand-held flare to avoid collision. Powerful LED torches are readily to hand in your pocket and have negated the constraints of an electric lead of older searchlights.
Use the steaming light for less invasive illumination, or better a dim, ideally red, torch. Photo: Richard Langdon
This is a difficult one that is best addressed by developing an intimate feel for your boat such that she can talk to you through feel alone.
Of course you should always sail within your ability and comfort zone but at the same time don’t be frightened of the dark. I personally wouldn’t change the way I sail between night and day. A boat should always be sailed well, for it not only reduces risk by making your destination earlier but also ensures the boat is happily responsive and able to talk to you. An underpowered hull will wallow to make deck work and moving about below riskier. It will also make extra leeway and tend to wander about the course to compromise navigation.
Get to know your boat, train for night manoeuvres by walking it through with the crew. Have some fun with blindfolds. I see no reason why the spinnaker should come down at night, for nothing that influences how the boat reacts is lost with light. A well sailed boat has a jaunty aura that lifts the crew’s enjoyment and alertness.
Should complex manoeuvres be required such as gybing the spinnaker I prefer to turn on the steaming light as opposed to the deck light which you can’t see beyond. Talk the manoeuvre through and slow it down by pausing between each step. Before you know it, night sailing will be like bread and butter. Always remember to give the horizon a good scan before turning on the steaming light.
You can use deck lights for sail trim and foredeck work, but it will completely blind you to anything outside the boat. Photo: Richard Langdon
Use your instruments of course but I find that a masthead windex is a great aid at night for it is clearer as it relates directly to the mast and sails. Trimming is generally easy at night if you have preserved your night vision. If needs be, a member of the crew can shine a weak torch at the tell tails while everyone else protects their night vision.
On racing boats I have seen a dim light shining up the headsail from the deck but this seems dangerous to me as it has to affect night vision. There are glow in the dark tell tails but I’ve found these wanting.
Don’t let instruments divorce you from your senses. It pays dividends to remove your hood and woolly hat to get a proper feel for the wind.
The only ground I would give to sail setup at night would be to give extra weight to the forecast. If you know the wind will shift early on I might shelve the spinnaker and sacrifice a few miles by poling out the headsail. I might also delay shaking out a reef until the watch change. This would only be when cruising though.
Sailing solo at night is possible, but requires a higher degree of caution and less ambitious plans. Photo: Richard Langdon
Short handed sailing at night
I wouldn’t start with the premise that night sailing should be avoided, because it is quite safe and can offer the best of experiences. I would, however, make allowances if short handed or sailing with novice crew. If it feels like risk is elevated, make a proper risk assessment, which should include the possibility of breaking the trip into day sails where possible. I would also consider a delay when sailing two handed if both of you are ground down and at a low ebb.
If single handed I have a very loud alarm much like an egg timer and will judge my cockpit naps against the risk of collision. This can mean as little as five-minute naps for a ship can come over the horizon at a fair old clip so look at the shipping lanes, make a judgement. If five minutes feels risky then you just have to suck it up and stay awake with coffee, music and exercise, or whatever it takes, as long as it doesn’t wake the off watch.
If you are very tired when two handed, keep reducing the watches until they’re workable. I was once reduced to 20-minute watches. The golden rule is to get relief if you’ve stopped functioning properly.
Under pressure I personally don’t mind one of the on watch having a cockpit nap provided they are covered by their buddy. The reality is that two exhausted people are no more efficient than one that has had a nap as the boat works towards topping up a depleted sleep reserve through bad weather or some other perfectly acceptable reason. A lack of discipline or being hungover is not acceptable. The boat shouldn’t leave under these circumstances – that is what a conscientious skipper is for.
It’s worth having both crew awake when sailing in or near traffic lanes or separation schemes. Photo: Richard Langdon
Fishing hazards at night
We’ve all been faced with an erratic fishing boat that is seemingly continually correcting any of your course changes back to a collision course. The reality is that they are focussed on fishing and are completely distracted from lookout duties.
This scenario is always compounded by a plethora of working lights which drown out their navigation lights. If there is a blessing it’s that their speed will be low thanks to the drag of their nets. This is where binoculars, radar and constant use of a hand bearing compass come into their own.
When passing in close proximity to a fishing boat I will always start the engine and leave it ticking over just in case drastic action is required. Although fishermen seldom respond to a VHF call, it’s worth a try. Other shipping are much better at responding and helpful, particularly when crossing a busy shipping lane. AIS is hugely helpful here: not only can they see you but you can identify a ship’s name for your VHF call.
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