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A Little Night Magic

Perhaps the one time you can go sailing and leave the sunscreen at home. There's plenty of good sailing to be had after the sun goes down.
After three weeks of soggy, chilly, overcast conditions, a high-pressure system ushered in a perfect weekend for sailing last summer. When the weather continued into Monday, I e-mailed my wife Julie at work and suggested a sunset cruise, along with her friend who had been waiting for a chance to sail.

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 can’t 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 didn’t mind rushing after her 45-minute commute.

My fair-skinned wife can’t tolerate long hours on the water under a bright sun. She’s often said she would rather sail when it’s stormy, overcast, and raining—conditions that don’t appeal to me. So, I thought that sailing at night might be a good compromise, although I privately had misgivings about navigating in a shallow-water bay at low tide after dark.

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.

For sailors lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, night fall brings an increase in wildlife activity from fish and birds alike.
A young heron, its spiky head feathers and large yellow eyes making it look like a punk rocker, was perched on the end of the boom and casted a wild look at us. After chasing it off and thanking it for not leaving any messes, we hoisted the sail and motored out of the windless bay toward the open water. The sailboat we’d seen earlier had disappeared, and there were few signs of any breeze in the offing. I cautioned Julie and Linda that there might not be any wind.

"Let’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 cat’s 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.

While it's sometimes tempting to go where the wind blows, as light wanes you'll want to make sure your navigation skills are up to par.
I suggested to Julie that she set her course for the green flashing light of the buoy ahead.

"Why do I have to set a course?" she asked. "I’d rather just go where the wind takes us."

"Well, there is that body of land up ahead," I replied. "We’ll have to turn once we’re 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.

Sailing under clear skies away from city lights, you may start to feel a little Carl-Sagan wonder creeping in.  Add the phosphorescence twinkling in the wake, and every sailor becomes part philosopher.
Among the most magical elements of night sailing are the surprising flashes and glimmers of green phosphorescent lights in the dark water. Small jelly fish and other critters, when stirred by the passage of the boat or the dropping of an anchor, flashed and glowed, rivaling the stars in the sky and creating the illusion that we were suspended in space.

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. We’d 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.

"We dropped the sail and tied it, motoring into the wind, hoping I could keep close enough to the heading set by the buoy to avoid the shoals. Once we were past them, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed for the lights of the marina. "
I raised and dropped the centerboard, testing the depth of the water beneath us, and motored away, feeling gratified when the large home finally moved past our stern. Linda helped me pick out the green buoy against the lights on shore, and I used it to set my course for the marina. We dropped the sail and tied it, motoring into the wind, hoping I could keep close enough to the heading set by the buoy to avoid the shoals. Once we were past them, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed for the lights of the marina.

As we neared the marina, Julie poked her head up and asked why we had been motoring for so long.

"We’re still stuck. I’ve been trying to get off this shoal," I lied. "You said you’d be willing to jump in and push us off. Are you ready?"

When she came up from the cabin, Linda and I couldn’t 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. I’d never sailed at night before, but so long as we don’t go out again when the tide is falling, I think we’ll 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.


Suggested Reading:

    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

Last edited by administrator; 02-05-2008 at 03:47 PM.
Bruce Caldwell is offline  
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