From the August 2008 Issue of 48° North by Diana Jessie
“I like cruising, but I don’t want to sail at night.” Okay, but how far will your boat sail in the daytime? There’s winter daytime and there’s summer daytime. How fast can you sail? If you plan to go to Mexico or just as far as San Francisco, you might need to rethink the trip.
We are all a little timid about the dark but it is something we get used to. We discover that monsters don’t hide in the closet or under the bed. Those creaking sounds aren’t really bad guys creeping up the stairs. There are probably a few of us that still aren’t certain about those things that go bump in the night. Whatever holds us back from night cruising needs to be put to rest.
First, spend a night on the boat at anchor. It is essential to learn how it feels, how things look, and how secure you are. If you spend all night wide awake, listening for trouble, then spend a few more nights at anchor. Be sure to put up an anchor light at sundown and remove it at dawn. After a while, the things you hear every night become familiar and you’ll sleep through the noise. What will wake you is something you haven’t heard before or something that is very loud. Check out the cause. Just a change in wind direction will make things sound and feel different. Be sure you have an anchor bridle of heavy line so you take the strain from the anchor. If you don’t, chains will bang and clatter all night.
Let’s jump ahead to being underway at night. In your planning, make sure your boat is ready for night sailing. Do all of the navigation lights work? Does the dinghy hanging on the davits obscure the stern light? Can the red port light only be observed from port and the green starboard light only from starboard by other vessels? If you are motoring, do you have a steaming light on? Down below, are the interior lights red so that the person on watch can see without being blinded by white light glare? Are the screens on the radar and the plotter dimmed to reduce glare? The issue of glare is serious. When standing night watch, it can take 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the lack of light. If you have to go below, don’t use normal lighting. Carry a small flashlight with a red lens and your eyes will not need to readjust.
Review the light signals of ships if you are going to be underway at night. If you are close to land, review the various light signals you should be able to see. Sometimes lights on land aren’t working, but when cruising U.S. and Canadian waters you will usually find lights in good repair. Making a landfall in the dark is very risky. If you reach an unfamiliar destination before dawn, heave to and wait for daylight. Those on land or in harbor go to bed without thinking about boats at sea. Moored dinghies don’t have lights, local fishermen rarely have navigation lights, and landside traffic lights conspire to confuse night time sailors.
One of the lessons many Northwest sailors have learned is that, although there are harbors of refuge down the coast, when you need shelter, getting into a harbor at night is very dangerous. Most of our harbors along the coast are closed in bad weather. Storms from the Pacific bring big winds and huge waves. Getting through a relatively shallow channel filled with breaking waves is not something to try in the dark. Although uncomfortable and scary, standing off well away from the surf line out of danger or continuing with shortened sails may be better choices. Even in daylight, harbor entrances can be very difficult.
Standing watch at night requires some trial and error. For two people it can be exhausting. Shorter more frequent watches might work better at night and longer ones during the day. We have had success with four hours on and four hours off at night. We share two six hour watches during the day. It is physically and emotionally easier to live with. It allows you a variety of times of day because there are five watches in a 24 hour period. One day you stand a six hour watch and a four hour watch, and the next day you stand a six hour watch and two four hour watches. Confused? Write it down on paper to see how you would rotate.
We are very cautious about night sailing and at the least provocation shortened sails at sundown. Sometimes it proved to be very uncomfortable without sufficient sail to keep moving. However, when things got very windy after dark, it was reassuring to feel the boat sail on her lines.
In bad weather, night watch can be difficult. If you need to change sails or reef sails, you probably need an extra set of hands. Then our practice at night is to have the off watch person sleep on deck. The noise in the boat interior combined with sound sleeping makes getting a partner on deck very difficult. The other option is a string on the toe of the off watch that you can use as a signal.
On the plus side, which you will miss if you don’t sail at night, is an endless universe filled with life. The stars and occasional moon create subtle lighting while the whales, dolphins, seals and fish speed by leaving brilliant trails of phosphorescence. The sky changes constantly and it is easy to see how early cruisers were secure with stars as their beacons. The noise of your own wake is a special kind of music whether you are making four knots or ten knots.
Setting out on a short sail in familiar waters just as the sun sets is an excellent starting point. You will probably spend most of the night awake, but you can always sleep-in the next day.