Oddly enough, the thing that comes to mind most when I think about sailing at night is, of all things, light. While cruising with my mom and dad on their Cabot 36, I stood my very first solo night watch as we crossed the Gulf Stream from Florida to the Bahamas. It was around midnight and the water was flat calm, just like back home in Canada on the little lakes where I first learned to sail. While motoring along (OK, so it wasn't actually night sailing), phosphorescent lights suddenly began bouncing around in the bow waves and our power wake unrolled a shimmering carpet of stars. It was the first time I'd ever seen anything like it.
On a more recent night sail, I recall dancing lights of an entirely different kind. It was about 3 a.m., and Larry and I were about six miles offshore, sailing down the New Jersey coast just off Atlantic City. Having spent a considerable amount of time in Atlantic City over the years working at the Sail Expo boat show, I was never particularly taken with the flashiness of that nightlife town. But out on the water that night, it was a breathtaking display! Each tall hotel casino had its own little light show going with colored lights covering every square foot of the buildings, displaying constantly changing patterns. I felt a long way away from my former life that included "working the shows," but I toasted my past colleagues with a mug of hot chocolate. Then I settled comfortably into my watch, as the lights of Atlantic City passed down the starboard rail.
But sailing at night takes some adjustment. Larry and I have found that if we haven't done a night passage for a while, we're a little uneasy at first. It takes us both one watch to orient ourselves again, after which we seem to quickly fall back into a night-sailing rhythm. We've found that as long as we get a good rest on the off-watch, the experience can be very enjoyable and has many rewards. All the fireworks ever seen on July 4 pale in comparison to the shooting stars and moonlit skies beaming in the undiluted skies.
It's common to have trepidation before and during one's first night jaunt. In fact, if you don't have a little anxiety, you're probably not taking it seriously enough. Without that big overhead light (the sun), you have to rely on a whole different set of skills and senses to guide you. Lights on other boats and navigational aids are the primary sources of reference.
At night, depth perspective and ability to judge distances are greatly altered. In general, lights are much farther away than they appear to be. This takes getting used to. I remember one night when Larry, convinced that a brilliant strobe light on the horizon was right ahead of us, spent most of his four-hour watch on high alert. He thought it had to show up on the radar. But, in fact, it was just an incredibly powerful tower light more than 20 miles away.
Although radar can be a nice thing to have if you're doing a lot of night sailing, it's by no means necessary. You will almost always see the light of another boat long before it shows up on radar. (Of course, as required by international law, each type of vessel carries unique lighting.) Radar is very helpful in telling you exactly how far away a light is and how fast it may be moving.
Sometimes other traffic may seem to be heading your way. If you're not sure, it's best to call the vessel on the VHF, identify yourself, your boat type, speed, and heading. Night traffic tends to be commercial. Talk to the captain to coordinate your passing course.
I don't want to mislead you into thinking that all night sailing is fantastic. There are times when there's not a light to be seen anywhere, it's cold and you're just counting the minutes till your watch is up. That's when you learn just how slowly time can move, and when I have to slap my face or sing at the top of my lungs to stay awake.
Once you're comfortable sailing through the night, you can be more flexible with your cruising plans. With the right weather window, you could get to your destination with one long passage instead of numerous day-legs. Sailing a night passage also makes it possible to spend more time at your destination before having to return.
If you haven't tried night sailing, you should. It doesn't have to be a long passage to points afar. It could be just a few hours sailing your local waters after dark. Whatever the body of water, there are ethereal moments awaiting. And just when I think I'm alone out there, a school of playful dolphins, illuminated in the phosphorescence, will begin darting under and around the boat. They let me know that this nighttime stuff is all just part of everyday life at sea.
Tips on Sailing at NightTry your first night sail in familiar waters. This will help you make sense of lights, etc., if you already know where markers and shorelines are. Study your chart in daylight hours, so that referring back to it at night is easier. If you have a choice, try your first night sail while the moon is full. The moon can greatly illuminate an otherwise dark shoreline and will make your sail more comfortable. Let your eyes adjust fully to the dark. This means no bright lights in your cockpit, or below on the boat. (It can take as much as 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust back to natural lighting after exposing yourself to bright white light.) If you don't already have a red light for chart table work, get one. Another trick is to buy some of that red acetate film, used to temporarily repair brake lights, sold in auto supply stores. Cut out pieces to place over the lens of your chart table light, overhead light, flashlights, and even some of the brighter instruments you have in the cockpit. Use your spotlight sparingly! If you must use a light to identify markers, make sure you hold the light up high and away from your decks and sails to reduce the reflected light that can have ruinous effects on night vision. As always, keep your VHF radio tuned to Channel 16. Keep a small flashlight in your pocket with red lens tape covering. Keep a pocketknife for emergencies in your pocket. Have a good pair of binoculars handy. Clean the windshield of your dodger well before nightfall for best visibility. Familiarize yourself with the nighttime lighting configurations of various commercial vessels, other recreational vessels, and especially for your own boat. Keep a reference guide handy. (Available from the Coast Guard) It can get very cold at night sometimes, even in the warmer climes. It's important to dress warmly, and particularly, have something to wear that cuts the wind. Ideally your cruising boat will be set up with good weather protection that helps keep you warm and dry. A thermos of hot coffee, tea or hot chocolate, along with a sweet, energy-boosting snack will help with the long watch blues. (See Sue & Larry's Cookbook for some ideas) If passage-making, force yourself to rest on your off-watch. Falling asleep when you are on watch can be very dangerous. Reef down at night. You might not be getting every bit of speed possible out of your boat, but you'll run into fewer problems with changing conditions, in the long haul. You won't feel like you're going slow though. The sensation of speed is much greater in the darkness. Have jacklines set up on your boat, and harnesses for each crewmember. On Safari, we have an absolute, no holds barred rule that we wear harnesses and tether ourselves to the boat at night. There is a certain comforting feeling as the off-watch person, knowing that your partner will still be onboard when you wake up. Whenever possible, plan your landfall to coincide with daylight hours. Enjoy the beauty of all that night sailing has to offer.
- - S. H. and L.H.