Unfamiliar landfall at night - SailNet Community
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post #1 of 52 Old 04-01-2008 Thread Starter
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Unfamiliar landfall at night

I was looking through our log book the other day, re-living some of the trips we've made and came across a couple of situations where I wonder if I made the right decision. Both instances (you see, there were only two occasions since we bought the boat when I might be able to second guess my superb seamanship ) -- both instances involved a landfall and entry into a strange harbor at night. All ended well in both cases, but a happy ending is no proof that you made the right decision.

I'd be interested in SailNetters comments on the subject.

The rule of thumb of good seamanship when making a new landfall or entering an unfamiliar harbor at night for the first time is that it's generally better to heave-to, spend one more night at sea and then enter in the morning.

But what if the weather is deterioriating, or your crew needs to catch the morning flight, your spouse is seasick, or you've just been at sea for a week and you're thinking it sure would be nice have full night's sleep tied to something hard? Do you risk an unfamiliar landfall or harbor entrance, or play it safe and heave-to?

Examples from our recent experience -- we left Newport bound for Cape May mid morning and spent the day and that night at sea. Sailing on the next day the winds were light, and by sunset of the second day we were still 20 miles away from our destination. Winds and seastate were moderate. If we kept going our ETA inside the breakwater was midnight. Go for it, or heave-to? A similar situation in a different circumstance: at dusk on the 31st day at sea, at the end of a 4800 mile passage we're 25 miles from Hilo, Hawaii. Hilo is on the windward side of the island, protected from the tradewinds / swell by a reef and breakwater, rocky shorelines everywhere. Boat's is good shape, crew's feeling fine and really looking forward to a stiff drink. If we go for it, we'll be tied up an hour or so after midnight. Or, if we heave- to, we have to beat back against the trades for a few hours to get a few more miles off the lee shore, keep watch at sea one more night and then we won't be in until the late morning the next day.

What are the things a skipper should consider in making this type of decision? If you decide to go for it...how do you prepare the boat and crew? What do you do before the landfall, what procedures do you use during the approach to make your way into a strange harbor at night?

Comments anyone?
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post #2 of 52 Old 04-01-2008
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Billy...good topic. I have been in just two situations like yours over the years and both times we stayed out till daylight and then made our entrance. In one case it was most uncomfortable to do so and a 40ft. power boat that left the inlet at daybreak was pooped and sunk shortly thereafter.
I might take a chance on a straightforward, ClassA inlet that is well marked in settled weather...but there is usually just too much sensory deprivation and interference at night to take a chance. Ultimately each captain must make the choice for the safety of the crew and boat based on his best judgement...but I would only enter an unfamiliar inlet at night if I felt I would be in danger of losing the boat by staying out and had a better chance to make it inside.

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post #3 of 52 Old 04-01-2008
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I have never been in this situation, but I have been close enough to have given it serious thought. I would agree with Cam about it being each captains decision based on the circumstances. If it was a well marked entrance with very few potential dangers and a calm night with a nice big moon I wouldn't hesitate to go in. If on the other hand it is a tricky, narrow dog leg entance and the wind is up and it's raining, I would have to have an emergency on board to risk giving it a try. I don't think this is one of those things that you can set an ironclad rule about, too many variables. Good subject to bring up though, you need to have thought about it in advance in order to make the right decision when the time comes; the temptation to go in would be pretty strong after a long, hard passage.

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post #4 of 52 Old 04-01-2008
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When working in the Gulf of Mexico, it seemed that every time I had to enter an unknown port, it was at night and most of the time raining or foggy. I relied on good charts, radar and Good Navigation planning in order to enter an unknown port. The vessels I captained were 110' to 210' steel hulls. The companies that those vessels were chartered to, expected us to provide excellent service and timely arrivals in the ports and offshore at the platforms. The excuse of never been there before and wanting to wait for daylight would have gone over like a lead balloon.
But the main thing is if you can plan your arrival at daybreak then do so. But you still really need to get out the charts for that area, the light list, the Coast Pilot (USA) or Sailing Directions (Rest of the World) and Tide and Current tables. The after perusing them carefully and doing the tides and Currents, (sail vessels are more susceptible then power vessels are to Tidal actions ). Work out your way points, gleam the land marks from the charts and Coast Pilot and work out your plans for entry or departure.
Just an observed point here; It seemed that the first few arrivals and departures at a new port was always at night for me. So I'm use to it.
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post #5 of 52 Old 04-02-2008
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With a chart plotter and radar entering an uncomplicated port or harbour at night is not a problem. Where it gets tough is when there are "local Knowledge" things that you are not aware of. Entering small bays and anchorages can be challenging but plotters have made it less so. I try and time my arrivals for daylight but would enter most places after dark if neccessary. A good coast pilot or local guide book is a huge asset in most cases.

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Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
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post #6 of 52 Old 04-02-2008
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Boasun has it right. If you have all the tools and know how to use them and are entering a commercial harbor you can do it safely unless weather is very severe. However when it comes to entering an unlit non-commercial harbor at night especially if there are rocks, coral heads, sand bars etc that you have to observe - stand off till you can see.
That's how we do it.

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post #7 of 52 Old 04-02-2008
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I make it a rule now, but I have chanced it once.... at Bangor in Northern Ireland and I nearly finished up a reef in flat calm and in a pale haze. The entire Irish Sea was like a mirror. You do not see shoal water in flat calm; reefs don't shoal in flat calm.

The other time, at Gardenstown in Morayshire, Scotland, we waited until morning, and were content to see the harbour in daylight. It is an awkward approach.

I was far happier in the second case, despite the three hour wait. The crew slept, and I paced slowly up and down on the wee jib alone. It was cold, but very bearable after the Northern Ireland heart-stopper.

It is not worth it there guys. It really isn't. Not for a strange harbour, at night. How different it all looks in daylight.

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post #8 of 52 Old 04-02-2008
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If it is a small harbor, unless you have someone aboard with pretty good local knowledge of the area....I generally don't recommend making a nighttime landfall. There are just too many ways to get royally screwed for it. For instance, what if one of the buoys has a light out or has dragged..

Large commercial harbors are going to be a bit less risky to enter, but still can have some nasty surprises for you. Entering in the daytime is probably a better bet, even with a large commercial harbor.

A few years back, a friend of mine was making an approach to Rockport, Massachusetts and it was about three in the morning when he arrived off the coast. He was tired and mis-read the buoys and brought his boat over the submerged breakwater that protects Rockport harbor... did a pretty good job on the bottom of his boat... but didn't hole it fortunately. The two buoys that mark the breakwater are on the ends and you're supposed to go around them, not between them, which is what he did.

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Last edited by sailingdog; 04-02-2008 at 01:45 PM.
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post #9 of 52 Old 04-02-2008
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SD - That is a fairly large breakwater. Your friend is very lucky to not have holed his boat.

Did he have a CP?
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Yes, he had a chartplotter on the boat, but the boat lost most of the electrical power due to a bad battery.... and he was using a very beat up paper chart under less than optimal lighting. It was pretty much high tide, and he went through a pretty low area of the breakwater.

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Originally Posted by Alden68 View Post
SD - That is a fairly large breakwater. Your friend is very lucky to not have holed his boat.

Did he have a CP?

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her going when she oughta fall down, tells you she's hurting 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

—Cpt. Mal Reynolds, Serenity (edited)

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