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Old 01-05-2003
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John Kretschmer is on a distinguished road
Making Landfall at Night


Landfall at night is not for the faint of heart, and unless conditions are benign, is best left until morning.
As a delivery skipper, I make landfalls for a living. That's one of my favorite lines and it's actually quite accurate. Landfalls define a voyage. Landfalls close the deal. Afterwards, landfalls are like bookends, they support all the events and the story that make up the passage. Technically, at least according to Chapman's Piloting, landfall is defined as "when land first looms," but that is too vague. For me, landfall is when the passage is complete. When the boat is at last secured in the slip or swinging to a well-set anchor, and I can let my guard down and breathe easy.

Making landfall is both romantic and distressingly businesslike. While those thin, dark lines on the distant horizon, those steady blue, rolling horizons can send your spirit soaring, those same distant rocks will sooner or later also create a level of stress as you finally approach the harbor or anchorage. If you are making your approach after dark, in an unfamiliar harbor, the stress level goes way up.

I recently completed an offshore training passage from Annapolis to Antigua. A crew of five were aboard helping me deliver a Hylas 49 sloop while making their first offshore passage in the process. We cleared Annapolis the day after the country failed to elect a president and made a swift, 10-day, 1500-mile-plus passage to the Caribbean. We had stiff southerly winds as we cleared the Chesapeake Bay, but fortunately they clocked to the SW just in time to escort us across the Gulf Stream.


After a long passage at sea, the lure of landfall is irresistable.
A cold front chased the warm breezes away and sped us on our way with a steady Force 7 flow from the northwest. After three rollicking days of running under headsail alone, the high-pressure system overran us. The entire crew (including the skipper) enjoyed a couple of calm days, motorsailing across the Sargasso Sea. The easterly trades arrived near latitude 23 degrees North, and after three vigorous days of close-reaching, the bright loom of St. John's, Antigua meant landfall was imminent. Or was it?

After 10 days we were all ready for a hot shower and meal that would'nt require the use of both hands and feet. Eating with the boat heeled and bucking is always a challenge. You need one hand to direct the food toward your mouth and the other to hold your plate in place and both legs are required to keep your body supported in the cockpit. With the wind forward of the beam, the hatches had been closed for days and our floating world was dank as wet clothes were strung about the cabin like an unkempt laundry. We were all ready for a break.

There was one small problem however. I have this habit of not making landfall after dark in a strange harbor. Although I have sailed to Antigua many times, and could sail into English Harbor or Falmouth Bay at any time of night, we were bound for the marina at Jolly Harbor on the island's west coast, a harbor I had never entered before.

"I have this habit
of not making landfall after dark in a strange harbor."

Maybe I am getting less cautious, which is not a good sign, or have just succumbed to the fact that with GPS and other electronic marvels, the long-standing conservative seamanship ethos has been altered. For reasons I can't explain, we continued to make all speed toward Jolly Harbor. It was clear we would be in a position to make our approach around 2200. The crew was excited about making landfall, and in some ways they viewed the upcoming maneuver as part of the curriculum. When I casually mentioned the possibility of heaving-to for seven or eight hours until daybreak, the response from all hands was distinctly unenthusiastic. They had a point, not only were the conditions conducive to making an after-dark landfall, but we were well-equipped with the latest navigational aids. Besides, we were all dreaming of cheeseburgers and cold beer.

Making the decision to enter a strange harbor at night should be put to three-part test. First, do conditions warrant the approach? If a large or steep sea is running, or your approach might put the boat onto a lee shore, or, there is poor visibility, then you must abandon the idea at once. If you have any doubts about the conditions, wait for daylight. In our case, although it was a moonless night, it was clear and starry night. Most importantly, as we closed the harbor we came into the lee of the island which translated into calm seas, and, in the event of any mishap the easterly wind would blow us back out to sea, not onto the rocks.


Any time there is reduced visibility, there's a heightened priority on knowing where you are, and where any dangers lay.
Second, do you have confidence in your position, have current harbor information, and a large-scale harbor chart? We had three GPS receivers aboard and all were in agreement down to the hundredth of a mile or so. We also had confirmed our position with a twilight star fix and were plotting LOPs with a hand-bearing compass. I had two new guidebooks, Doyle's and Street's, that each described the approach in detail. I also had the excellent Imray-Iolaire Antigua chart updated to March 2000.

Third, do you have a bailout plan if everything goes awry, and I confess, this troubled me a bit. Although the approach to Jolly Harbor is rather straightforward, once you clear a shoal called Irish Bank, you have little room to the south or north before encountering shallow water. However, because we were in the lee, and the water was rather shallow, we could always drop the anchor in two or three fathoms and either regroup or wait until daylight to continue the approach. I made sure the anchor was ready to deploy.

Once I decided to make landfall, I chose a very conservative approach route. Jolly Harbor is positioned south of St. John's, about midway down the west coast of Antigua. The shoreline is indented with bays and jutting peninsulas, but it runs more or less north and south. Instead of plotting a waypoint on the GPS and steering toward it, I chose a safe meridian and a danger bearing. Steering toward a waypoint can become confusing, especially as you near the mark and the cross track corrections become more significant. Also, steering around shoals requires plotting several waypoints, increasing the possibility of errors as you follow a dot-to-dot course.


Ahhh. Land at last. A meal ashore, showers, and sleep are likely to follow.
A careful inspection of the chart revealed that if we stayed west of 61 58' W. longitude, we would be well clear of all dangers, particularly unlit Sandy Island and the prominent wreck stranded on Weymouth Reef just south of it. The winds were from the east, so we were able to reach south with good speed and control. It is easy to follow a meridian. We would hold the course until we crossed Latitude 17 06' North, at which point we would round up and douse all sail.

A danger bearing is an old navigational trick that is useful in all types of coastal navigation. By noting the angle of a prominent light or landmark that keeps the boat clear of a hazard, you can take periodic bearings and proceed with confidence. Unfortunately, our danger bearing was not as helpful as I had hoped because we could not easily discern any of the St. John's Harbor approach lights and instead had to use a distant radio mast on top of a mountain south of the harbor. Still, I made note that as we followed the meridian south, if the red light maintained a bearing of 334 Magnetic or less, we would clear Sandy Island and Weymouth Reef at a safe distance.

Just as we crossed 17 06 N, we dropped the main and rolled in the headsail. We continued south under power until we came to 17 05 N and then turned due east and proceeded cautiously at about 5 knots. It was just over 2.5 miles until we would pass due north of Irish Bank. Once past the bank, we would steer south for .5 miles or until we were at latitude 17 04.5' and then proceed east again. This would keep us clear of the shoals surrounding Five Islands. Hopefully at that point we would be able pick up the red and green channel markers leading into Jolly Harbor.

Everything went according to plan and we actually picked up the lights earlier than expected. Working as a team, we conned our way into the harbor, using the spotlight to illuminate each succeeding marker and keeping a steady eye on the depthsounder. An hour after we began our approach, we tied up at the fuel dock. Although the landfall had been well-planned and executed, we made one slight mistake. By proceeding slowly and cautiously, we arrived too late to have that long dreamed of meal ashore.


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