Sailing at night is a magical experience. Dark and still, phosphorescence in the wake, an expanse of stars reflecting off the black sea and, if that’s not enough, a chance to watch the sun rise over the water.
Night sailing is not without its difficulties, though. Approaching wind and storms cannot be seen, moving around in the dark on deck becomes challenging and navigational skills are put to the test. Here are some things to keep in mind as you venture into the dark.
Ready to go
Although intimidating at first, if you are well prepared it can be smooth sailing. The first rule of sailing at night is to slow down and enjoy the journey. If you’re going too fast, you might not be able to maneuver quickly enough to avoid a collision with an unlit floating object.
Before sundown, the boat should be prepped to go. Night watch shifts should be determined, engines checked, loose objects stowed away, all safety equipment, lights and torches checked and placed within reach. It’s also recommended to recheck the weather, take the sail covers off and have halyards at the ready. Snacks and drinks on hand at the cockpit for the nighttime journey will be much appreciated by the crew.
Dressing for darkness
It can get cold on the water from dusk to dawn, even in the hottest destination. Your enjoyment of sailing after dark can be affected by what you wear. Layers are the best, with a spray jacket on top; being cold and wet in the gloom is nobody’s idea of a good time.
The most essential item is your lifejacket. If you tend to forego it while the sun is up, then make sure you don it before sundown. Also, attach a personal beacon to it for any nighttime man overboard scenarios. Just as important are lifelines attached to crew and boat and especially the sailor on watch.
Visibility is key, a waterproof headlamp able to light the mast and parts of reflective material. Don’t forget a whistle and a sharp knife.
It takes a while (about 20 minutes) for our natural night vision to kick in and that’s when the magic begins. Although a good spotlight should be handy, you dont want to be constantly shining it as this will affect your eyes’ ability to adapt to the changing light. That said, there are times when having a high-powered light on board makes things much safer. Situations that benefit from a good light are when coming into a harbour, reading a navigational aid or identifying something foreign in the water.
There are established light display standards for nighttime navigation, and these apply to both vessels and navaids such as channel markers. If you know the navigation light patterns, you can identify any type of vessel and its activity, as well as determine where to safely enter and exit a harbor at night.
The restricted visibility that night sailing involves makes a lookout paramount. Sailing by the light of a full moon makes things easier but without the moon its pitch out there! Several factors will determine your watch system, like how many people on board, how challenging the circumstances are, how long the journey and personal preferences. You can do some more research on different methods, but starting off with two hour watches is recommended.
Unless you can navigaitate by the stars, reliance on electronic aids at night is a given Take care that your waypoints are clear when you plot your course for the night. Fortunately, there are more tools than ever to enhance or supplant our vision when navigating at night. GPS/chart plotters, detailed electronic cartography, advanced radar, thermal imaging, night-vision scopes and spotlights not only increase the safety factor but also inspire enough confidence to enjoy boating after dark.
Once these basics have been covered and you feel secure about the procedures on your boat, you’ll be all set to enjoy the sublime experience that is sailing at night.
By Merryn Wainwright