The idea of combining sailing and the dark of night can be unnerving, particularly for people who aren’t used to the experience. Others consider night sailing to be especially rewarding. In fact, it is my favorite time to sail. Extend a sunset-sail until well after dark, to watch the stars appear, maybe even catch a moonrise out over the sparkling sea.
The pleasures of night sailing don’t come without certain inherent difficulties and concerns. The most obvious aspect—the lack of light—calls for prudent seamanship and a careful, attentive approach to navigation. There are plenty of obstacles that are difficult to see under full sun, much less in the dark of night: a mooring line or a little sailboat that’s lost her running lights can make for a startling encounter.
Night sailing does not have to be dangerous. There are many tools available to help the nocturnal sailor on his journey.
• strobe lights or personal locator beacons, which are clipped onto each lifejacket;
• a portable spotlight kept handy;
• a radar reflector, each of which offers a degree of additional security.
• A simple but iron-clad, rule is that every crew member must wear a safety harness and clip to the jacklines when not in the cabin.
There’s no shortage of products available to aid night sailors, but it’s still essential that each member of the crew is familiar with the boat.
• Knowing the location of all through-hulls, for example, or the whereabouts of the bilge pump handle, can save important minutes when dealing with trouble in the dark.
• Another simple device is a small L.E.D. headlamp with a red lens. Keep it in your pocket and wear it whenever you need a little more light.
• The red lens preserves night vision, and its elastic clip allows the use of both hands—invaluable when jibing a spinnaker in the dark.
One obvious benefit of being comfortable with night sailing is the increased distance you’ll be able to travel in your craft. With long-distance cruising in mind, it’s helpful to plan far in advance of your trip, and ensure that you and your crew understand the specific challenges that overnight passages present. Many sailors tend to be active at the outset of the journey, but find themselves sunburned and tired, with a long night of sailing still ahead. Set up a watch rotation, and stick to the schedule, to avoid fatigue.
There are plenty of obstacles to be on the look out for after the sun sets. Some boats will have proper running lights, others will have symbolic running lights, and still others will have none and trust only in the whimsy of fate.
Unexpected rough weather requires good decision-making, and tired crew can be prone to errors. Outfit each bunk in your boat with lee cloths, to ensure that the crew can sleep safely and securely en route. While you’re at it, also consider whether you have sufficient sleeping room for the off-watch crew. It is possible to sleep on the cabin sole, but no one’s going to argue that it’s the most comfortable place to catch a few Zs.
As the light fades around you, and you flip the switch to turn on your running lights, notice how the quality of the water changes and turns reflective.
• Sighting objects like other boats, buoys, or rocky breakwaters, becomes a matter of discerning flashes and shadows against the sky and sea.
• When you encounter lights, pay close attention to the colors and the frequency of flashing (or even isophase flashing), and note whether the lights are fixed or mobile.
• Everything looks different on a darkened sea. The shoreline dramatically changes, particularly in urban areas where a thin black sliver of beach sharply contrasts with the bright lights behind it.
• Even the familiar interior of the boat takes a slightly foreign quality, with the portlights black, and only a few low, red lights glowing. The act of moving around the cabin takes on hushed “Don’t wake up the other watch” tones.
Although the temperature is generally cooler, the weather is often calmer or at least more predictable after sunset. The typical strong afternoon sea wind, along with the corresponding chop, often fades to a gentler breeze and a smoother sea by dark, flattening into calm well before morning’s vivid, gradual return to daylight. Still, conditions can change rapidly, and it’s prudent to be under-canvassed at night. If there’s any question about reducing sail, it’s best to take care of it while there’s still daylight and while full crew is awake and alert. If you discuss sail options in advance and have a practiced crew, sail changes can be completed quickly and efficiently.
The appeal of sailing at night can be difficult to explain, but a moonrise over a tropical island is a good place to start.
To the uninitiated, the special appeal of night sailing can be difficult to explain. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of focusing on the small world within the limited view, in contrast to the dramatic display of reflections, moonlight and stars, that helps foster a heightened awareness of the quiet environment. Perhaps also, night sailing gives the trip a slightly stronger sense of purpose. You realize that you’re not just out for a day sail, but continue toward your destination when most boats have turned for home, and most other people have gone to bed. There’s a certain private satisfaction in experiencing this secret, almost stolen, sailing time.
If you haven’t yet experienced being under sail at night, note the moon’s phase, and check your running lights, then plan to go out for an extended sunset sail. See for yourself how different your usual surroundings can seem while sailing through the dark, gliding along with the moon as your guide.
By Patrick Keilen