Normally, when weather and work permit, I head out for a sunset cruise around 6:30 and return to the dock two hours later, before the last light has left the sky and after the breeze has died out. Julie usually cant get back from her job in time to change and eat and get to the marina, but the weather was so delightful that this time she didnt mind rushing after her 45-minute commute.
We reached the marina a little after 7:00, about half an hour before official sunset. Out on the bay, we spotted a solitary sail, raising the hope that the wind was still there even if it appeared dead calm in the marina.
"Lets leave the sail up anyway," Julie said. "It's beautiful in the light of the setting sun and pretty for the people on shore to look at." The lack of wind didnt bother them. The cool evening air and placid water were enough, plus they had an endless list of work-related matters to discuss as we cruised along.
Even after we motored beyond the sheltering arms of land, the wind didnt make its appearance. Usually, the wind accelerates around the point, making itself known with a strong gust once the boat passes that headland. This time, only a few cats paws appeared, just enough to ease the boom a bit. Julie had the tiller, and she and her friend chatted as we putt-putted north.
The sun had set, leaving just an orange glow to the west. To my surprise, a land breeze began blowing. I let the sheet run as the wind filled the sail, and turned off the engine to enjoy a broad reach through the twilight as the running lights cast their red and green and white glows around us.
We could hear Canadian geese honking before they appeared above the land to the north. The cluster of dark shapes rose high above the treeline, and then sorted itself into a long line as the geese swooped down to fly south just a few feet above the water.
"Why do I have to set a course?" she asked. "Id rather just go where the wind takes us."
"Well, there is that body of land up ahead," I replied. "Well have to turn once were near the buoy." I bit my tongue, and tried to relax.
We continued along, Julie feeling her way on how to adjust the tiller to keep the sail filled, until it was time to jibe and head east for more open water. The boom crossed and I sheeted in the sail a bit until we were on a course that would take us south of the flashing red light that marked the southern end of Simmons Point. I interrupted their conversation to advise Julie we would need to keep south of the buoy, and nudged her from time to time to return to the course as she and her friend continued talking.
It was a moonless night, and the twilight was quickly fading to dark. The distant lights of the homes on Red Cedar Point and the flashing red buoy north of the point were the only guides to the location of the shoal in between. Julie took us through a tack when the lights of the homes were a few hundred yards away, and we began beating back west. Overhead, the Milky Way was coming into focus. Linda spotted a satellite or a high-flying plane tracing a course through the midst of the thick cloud of stars.
Julie went below to rest on the bunk and I took over the helm, putting us on a course for the buoy off Simmons Point. Yards away from the light, we either ran aground or were stopped by the tidal current. We got free by jibing and heading south before tacking to the west again. After sailing along on this course for a while, trying to make it past the shoal off Goose Creek Point to the south, I noticed that a large, brightly lit home on the north shore was staying put on our starboard quarter. Wed run aground again. Raising the centerboard and falling off, it was difficult to tell in the dark if we were making any headway or not. Low tide was just a few hours away, and more shoals awaited us between here and the marina.
As we neared the marina, Julie poked her head up and asked why we had been motoring for so long.
"Were still stuck. Ive been trying to get off this shoal," I lied. "You said youd be willing to jump in and push us off. Are you ready?"
When she came up from the cabin, Linda and I couldnt keep straight faces. Julie accused us of laughing, and we confessed.
Back at the dock Julie said: "That was a really beautiful sail. Sailing is good for you, I think. Years ago, you would have been much more fussed about running aground and everything, but tonight you were so calm, and just dealt with things as they came up."
During the sail, I thought I was going to bite through my tongue for being so uptight, but I had enjoyed it. Perhaps sailing does help instill some patience. Id never sailed at night before, but so long as we dont go out again when the tide is falling, I think well be sailing at night quite a bit in the future.
Interpreting Nav Aids
While sailing at night brings its own beauty, it also brings its own challenges. Buoys and day marks don't just blink random colors at random intervals, and instead flash a set series at set intervals noted on the chart. Knowing the light characteristics of navigation aids in the area will help to keep you orientated on the water after the sun goes down and the stars come out. A basic treatment follows:
A green flashing light should be kept on the port side when entering from seaward. These are odd numbered. A searchlight can work wonders when approaching a buoy to discern its number.
A red flashing light should be kept on starboard when entering from seaward. (Red, right, returning is a useful memory crutch in the US, although it should be noted that abroad, the system of buoyage may have its own set of navigational marks and rules.) Red markers are numbered evenly.
A white light flashing Morse code A (one short, one long) denotes a safe water mark, and will be fixed to a red and white vertically colored buoy and labeled with an alphabetic letter.
Isolated danger marks will also flash white, although they will do so in a pair of flashes, two flashes every five seconds.
Yellow lights mean a special mark and are common up and down the Intra Coastal Waterway. Them may also have a red or green square on them, indicating what side to keep that mark.
For a more thorough treatment of Nav aids, check out Chapman's Navigation and Piloting, or The Annapolis Book of Seamanship.
Touching Bottom by Bruce Caldwell
One Sublime Passage Through the Night by John Kretschmer
The Joy of Night Sailing by Sue and Larry
Buying Guide: Binoculars