What do you need to know regarding night sailing? Aside from understanding how to sail and plan passages, you’ll need to be able to accurately read the weather forecast to determine the best time to leave. Assuming you have those basics down, what else is involved in night sailing?
Let’s assume you’ve been sailing for a while, but only during the day. An opportunity to do a three-day off-shore sail has come up. How can you best prepare?
Sailing under the stars, with the moon (and your plotter) as your guide, and the gentle lapping of waves against the hull is incredible. Night sailing is a captivating experience that offers a unique perspective on the sea.
In this post, I’ll delve into what to expect during a night sail, covering everything from watch schedules and safety protocols to the mesmerizing beauty of the night sky.
1. Night Sailing Watch and Sleep Schedules
A fundamental aspect of night sailing is the division of time into watches. Typically, sailors alternate between shifts to ensure continuous monitoring of the vessel. This schedule allows for proper rest while maintaining vigilance on the water.
Different captains have different styles. On Britican, we used a variety of watch schedules depending on how many people were on board. If it were just me and Simon, we’d do three hours on and three hours off. We’d do three hours on and six hours off with three people. And when we had four people, we’d do two hours on and six hours off OR three hours on and three hours off with two people in the cockpit simultaneously.
Since we often have non-experienced guests on board, we’d never leave them alone on a night watch until they felt comfortable. We had three experienced captains and three novices when we crossed the Atlantic. Simon created a watch schedule that ensured each watch had one experienced and one non-experienced sailor.
Our routine has always been to eat dinner together with all crew, and then after dinner, the watches started when it got dark. Before leaving port, everyone would know the watch pattern so they could prepare by taking a nap.
Over the years, we’ve discovered that the first night is difficult. It’s hard to stay awake, and when you finally get to sleep, it’s hard to fall asleep. The second night is very difficult! But on the third night, your body seems to get into a rhythm, and from there on out, it’s relatively easy.
2. Safety Protocol
Safety is paramount during night sailing. Proper use of navigation tools, life jackets, and harnesses is crucial. Additionally, all crew members should understand communication protocols and emergency procedures.
Above and beyond pre-passage safety checks and following standard safety protocol, we have a few extra rules during night sails. They are as follows:
- Everyone in the cockpit or on deck must have a life jacket, safety harness, and a personal EPIRB (GPS tracking device).
- Anyone who needs to leave the cockpit for any reason must get someone else up on deck, even if they’re asleep. If someone goes overboard and there’s no one there to see it, chances of recovery are slim to none.
- No peeing off the side of the boat! Men that have been lost to the sea are often found with their fly undone.
- If you’re having trouble staying away, wake someone up so they can relieve you. Or, at the very least, set the alarm on your phone to go off every 15 minutes.
3. Understanding Lights While Night Sailing
Navigating the darkness requires understanding various lights – from the lights on other ships to coastal and channel markers. Recognizing the significance of these lights helps sailors make informed decisions and avoid collisions.
There have been several times that lights have freaked me out! Once, off of St Lucia, a cruise ship was several miles ahead of us. At first, we were following the ship, then it turned to starboard. Navigation lights on a cruise ship are impossible to find – it’s one big mess of lights! Not long after the boat went to starboard, it turned 180 and went in the other direction.
After being confused, I eventually woke up Simon to ask him how to avoid a cruise ship that doesn’t know what it’s doing.
In the end, Simon enlightened me that the ship was circling outside its next port of call. It was early, and I had to wait for daybreak to enter the harbor.
Another freaky incident was when we were in the Ionian Sea. I was on night watch enjoying the stars and phosphorescence in the sea (sea stars), and to my surprise, I saw a string of lights appear on the horizon, flash a few times, and then go out. I felt as if we were sailing into a net of lights.
Simon, once again, relieved my fears and explained it was a fishing net and nothing to worry about.
A funny light story was over the island of Guadalupe. Once again, I was enjoying the night sky and feeling the freedom of being alone while slicing through the dark sea. I then noticed a flood light over the northwest tip of Guadalupe. It seemed massive, and I couldn’t understand why Guadalupe needed such light at 3 am.
The light grew, and eventually, I realized it was the moon! It might seem like I’m a moron, but when you’re on the water at night, it’s hard to understand what you’re looking at.
4. Weather Considerations
Weather patterns can change at night, affecting wind speed and direction. Preparing for shifts in weather conditions is essential to ensure a safe and smooth sailing experience.
Before the sun sets, we check our weather reports and determine what sails we want to use. If there is any chance of squall activity, we’ll put at least one reef in the main. Putting a reef in reduces the amount of sail. Our headsail can easily be furled into a reefing point or entirely, so we usually start with the whole sail out.
If we plan on sailing downwind at any point during the night, we will set up a gybe preventer. This is an extra line attached to the boom to ensure that the wind can’t get on the wrong side and unintentionally smash the sail to the other side.
5. Anchoring or Mooring at Night
Sometimes, nightfall might necessitate anchoring or mooring. Properly executing these tasks requires familiarity with the area, depth, and bottom conditions.
I’ve never enjoyed anchoring at night, but sometimes it happens. More often than not, conditions on the sea became too much, and we head to land to seek a safe refuge. One time our engine started to leak 1/2 way through a three-day passage. As soon as we saw the issue, we immediately turned to land, and 12 hours later, we anchored at 4 am.
During one of our Sailing Lifestyle Experiences, our guests asked if we could anchor at night. I explained that it was not something I was prepared to teach, just like going out intentionally in a storm.
Ironically, we planned our 48-hour passage and went 2 knots faster than expected. Our guests got their wish. We attached to a mooring in Falmouth Bay, Antigua, at 2 am. Fortunately for our guests, we’re familiar with the bay and knew the anchorage well.
After hitting a terrible storm off Morocco and sailing for a few days south to the Canary Islands, Simon and I entered the marina in Gran Canaria around 3 am. I couldn’t tell what was a traffic light, on land, versus the navigation lights, on the water. We had to rely heavily on our plotter and went very slow. Talk about stress city!
What else do you need to know about night sailing?
6. Interpreting Radar Data
Radar is an invaluable tool for night sailing, helping sailors detect nearby vessels, obstacles, and weather changes. Understanding how to interpret radar data enhances navigation accuracy.
A couple of years ago, we got a new Doppler radar. Our last radar was not that great. The new one is priceless. We’ve been able to sail around squalls effectively! When Simon and Len sailed from St Martin up to the Bahamas, they dodged several small storms with the help of radar.
Also, at night it can be a bit disconcerting to think bad weather might be coming, but you don’t know. With radar, you’re never caught off guard. You can see squalls coming, how fast they are approaching, the direction, and how long it will take to go through one.
It is invaluable to know how to read the radar and effectively make good decisions from its output.
7. Food Preparation for Night Sailing
Sustenance remains important during night sailing. Preparing meals ahead of time and having easily accessible snacks ensures crew members stay nourished and energized.
I’m often amazed when people tell me that they read one of my provisioning articles or used my long-passage preparation checklist, which changed their world. Many new sailors don’t realize the importance of preparing meals in advance. Even when we crossed the Atlantic Ocean, I had 23 meals prepared for dinner. Cooking on a boat is not easy, and sometimes it’s impossible. Knowing you only have to heat a healthy, nutritious meal makes the journey much more manageable.
At the very least, it’s essential to pack the boat with ready meals, cups of soup, granola bars, fruit, etc. Have onboard things that are easy to get, heat, and eat.
Eating food can often be one of the day’s better activities.
Before we took our very first voyage, on Britican, from Palma de Mallorca, Spain, to Gibraltar, I had to go to the grocery store and get a bunch of frozen meals that were easy to heat and eat. The grocery store was foreign, and very little was in English, so I had to rely on the picture.
Had I known better, I would have never purchased a tuna fish lasagna, but boy, did it taste good when the cockpit was cold and my body was shivering.
8. Embracing Nighttime Beauty
Sailing at night unveils an array of stunning sights – from glorious sunsets and moonlit waters to the enchanting glow of phosphorescence and playful dolphins. Witnessing the celestial wonders of the stars and even catching a glimpse of the International Space Station adds to the magic.
Night sailing offers a unique and captivating experience that unveils beauty and serenity. From mastering watch schedules and safety protocols to marveling at the wonders of the night sky, it’s an adventure like no other.
Are you ready to embark on this extraordinary journey under the stars?
If you’re captivated by the allure of night sailing, it’s time to turn your dreams into reality. Book a lifestyle sailing experience with Simon and immerse yourself in the magic of the sea at night. Witness breathtaking sunsets, gaze at the stars, and feel the gentle embrace of the ocean’s nocturnal beauty.
Simon only offers two long passage sails yearly, so contact us today to embark on an unforgettable nighttime sailing adventure. For our next PASSAGE Experience, visit: https://sailingbritican.com/liveaboard-experience/
Other Articles & Videos about Night Sailing
- Get a video example of an Overnight Sailing Trip during one of our Sailing Lifestyle Experiences.
- Read, Sailing Through The Night – Is it Scary, Exhilarating, or Both?
- Review, 13 Benefits of Doing a Long Sailing Passage
- Read, 20 Tips For Provisioning For A Long Sailing Trip
- Read, How to Buy a Boat and Sail Around the World
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