Many new cruisers are often scared of sailing through the night. They plan passages from one place to the next only sailing by day. Sailing at night is actually far easier and even more calming than it is during the day. Read on as I related an experience we had during a night sail.
At midnight, my husband, Simon, came into our cabin and softly shook me awake.
He quietly groaned with a tired voice, ‘Kim, it’s midnight – time for your watch.’ I spent five minutes lying in bed allowing all my systems to activate.
A ‘watch’ is when you sit in the cockpit and keep a look-out for other boats (usually for a set amount of time during the night), trim the sails, and ultimately make sure you’re heading in the right direction avoiding any kind of collision. If you don’t have autopilot, a watch also includes steering the boat!
Back to me being woken up – when I’m woken from sleep in the middle of the night it takes me quite a bit of time to reorient myself back to wakefulness.
I’m definitely not one of those people that can jump out of bed, so I thought sailing through the night wasn’t going to be easy.
Earlier that evening, Simon made dinner. We enjoyed chicken, purchased from a farmer/butcher in Sicily, over noodles with a sweet and sour sauce. Ethnic sauces and seasonings are not easy to find in Italy – I was directed to a small Asian shop by a lovely friend when visiting Sicily’s second-largest city, Catania, and stocked up on noodles, curry paste and sauces.
After dinner around 8 pm, I said goodnight to Simon and my daughter, Sienna. Sleep is so very precious to me so getting some rest before my watch enabled me to thrive during my three hours of early morning solitude rather than crash and burn. (And I really can’t afford a crash!)
As I lay in bed I could hear a jar or bottle rolling in our galley (kitchen) cupboard.
For ten minutes I tried to convince myself that I could fall asleep with the noise but eventually, the jar won. I got up and found a new non-rolling home for it. For some reason, I can sleep through the autopilot adjustment noise, the foam sound that the water makes when it washes away from the hull, the creaking of the boom when it’s not constantly filled with wind and the hard flapping of the sails when they occasionally flap and flutter with too few knots of wind but I can’t handle a rolling jar – or anything rolling around in a cupboard!
Once the rolling jar was contained my mind started to wander.
Before drifting off to sleep, I remembered a conversation I had two days prior with lovely Turkish women concerning sailing through the night. A bunch of boats we met during our winter stay in Sicily happened to all be at the same bay – Taormina Bay, which is on the east side of Sicily just below and north of Mount Etna. Five of us girls left the boats, took a train to Catania, enjoyed the market, lunch, and loads of great conversation.
The Turkish woman expressed her thoughts about sailing through the night. She explained that she didn’t like the darkness – it really scared her. She arranged with her partner to sail up until midnight, as she felt okay until then but afterward didn’t feel comfortable. Her partner would then take over and when the sun started to come up, she would be woken to do another watch.
During her discussion it got me thinking about sailing through the night.
It seems that there are no rules. You do what works best. Another girlfriend explained that she just can’t sail at night alone; being alone, not being able to see scares her, so the arrangement she has for long sails is for her partner to sail at night and she sails during the day.
And it seems like professional crews do three hours on, six hours off depending on how many people are on board.
Considering my serious bought with seasickness I didn’t do any night sails during the first year of our around the world sailing adventure!
We always had a crew member with us so I wasn’t necessarily needed. Instead of sailing into the moonlight, I laid in bed trying to sleep through the passage.
Now that we’re three months into our second sailing year on Britican, and Simon and I are the only competent sailors, I’ve had to up my game. Sienna is only five so we still have a while before she can chip in!
During rough conditions, I take an anti-seasickness drug to help me and when conditions are calm (10 – 15 knots of wind, 3 – 4 sea state) I avoid the drugs. Ultimately I don’t want to take drugs at all – I don’t like the side effects, as they can be just as bad as the seasickness!
After a bit of discussion about what would work best, I decided to take the sailing through the night midnight to 3 am shift.
Simon doesn’t sleep that many hours anyway so he was happy to start off at night and finish the early morning shift. So, we ate dinner, I went to bed, Sienna went to bed and then Simon woke me at midnight.
I then did my ‘watch’ and woke Simon at 3 am. He carries on until I wake up in the morning, watching the sun come up, and I wake around 6 or 7 am to once again take over. After a discussion and coffee, Simon goes back to bed for a nap, and perhaps throughout the day, I’ll take a little catnap in the cockpit.
Life not only slows down when you’re doing long passages, but your routines change completely.
When we’re anchored near land there’s always something to do – something that has my attention. Either there’s a ruin to see, groceries to get, friends to visit, or articles to write. While sailing, especially sailing through the night, there’s very little to do – mainly because I simply can’t do it!
My day-to-day activities change; my sleep patterns change, my eating routine changes… Life seems more present – you observe how you feel and then go with the flow. When you’re tired, you sleep – when you’re hungry, you eat and when you’re in awe with the beauty surrounding you, you simply sit in awe – taking it all in.
Speaking of awe, last night’s night sailing through the night was a magical moment for me (and thus inspired me to write about it).
For my first time, I did my midnight to 3 am watch in the pitch black. There was no moon and making out the horizon was almost impossible. Simon debriefed me with, ‘I haven’t seen a ship or any lights all night. It’s very dark out. A couple of dolphins jumped up along the side of the boat and scared the crap out of me. I heard the splashes and eventually made out their silhouette. Other than that, we have light winds across the beam (side of the boat) and all is quiet.’
He then added, ‘Oh yeah, look up!’
Although my eyes were still adjusting to the pure darkness I looked up and my heart almost burst with awe.
The stars were so bright and beautiful…and there were so many of them! I looked around and almost felt frightened due to the difference in my expectation. I looked around and shouted out, ‘Oh-my-gosh – did you see the Milky Way?’
Instead of seeing a light thick strip cloud-like image, you could see more depth in the Milky Way – it looked massive, expansive, and glowing with beauty.
My stomach had butterflies and my heart was full of complete awe – never had I felt so overtaken by the views I experienced.
And it didn’t stop there – there were stars in the sea too!
Before Simon dropped down below to find his soft space on the saloon sofa (I’m brave, but not brave enough not to have him close by!) I again yelled out, look at our wake! Did you notice the glowy things?
While looking over the side, stars would form and leave just as quickly as they came. They were small dots of phosphorus (I’m not sure what they are actually, but they glow in the dark. Perhaps it’s a type of plankton?)
So I had stars in the sky and stars alongside the boat.
After what felt like an hour of being totally present and absorbing the night sky I looked at my watch and discovered only ten minutes had passed. I thought, ‘Crap, I have 2 hours and 50 minutes to go! What am I going to do now?’
I really wanted to sit and admire my surroundings.
So, I consciously listened to all the sounds – the seafoam rising up and ebbing away through each wave we passed through, the dark waves hitting the hull, the light warm wind blowing past my ear, the boom creaking with the inconsistent flow of air and the sails occasionally deflating and reflating again.
And what about the smells when sailing through the night?
On the port (left) side of the boat, when I put my head around the spray hood I could smell diesel, the whiff of a salty sea dog, and humid ocean smell. On the starboard (right) side of the boat, I could smell a sprinkle of olive trees, remnants of our earlier dinner, and freshwater dew.
Closing my eyes to allow undisturbed smell was unnecessary.
I seriously couldn’t see much at all so my nose went into hyperdrive. As my watch went on and my stomach started to wake up I even started to smell the food I was thinking about. I smelled fresh tuna with wasabi, ginger, and soy sauce (earlier that day we had a school of tuna with us for over an hour!) And at one point I smelled a fillet mignon.
How did I feel? How did I feel to do a night sail with no moon?
When I first started sailing through the night I thought I’d be scared. I also thought I’d feel like a speck of dust in a massive desert, but to my surprise, I didn’t feel fear and instead of feeling insignificant I felt connected with life.
You’d think that seeing a hazy horizon with nothing but a massive pool of ocean for 360 degrees would make one feel tiny, but I really didn’t feel tiny at all.
At times I just felt love…I felt love for life, love for the Earth, and love for having the ability to experience the freedom to cross a sea using wind as my fuel.
And then I heard a massive splash on the port side of the boat!
My heart started to race and my inner coach piped up with, ‘Kim, it’s probably a dolphin that’s come to greet you. Take a few deep breaths, pull out some courage, and move over to the port side and take a look.’
And then ‘Scardy Kim’ started to yell out, ‘That was a massive splash – it could be a whale! And if it’s a whale, what if it doesn’t see us and we ram into it?’
In the end, my courage suppressed ‘Scardy Kim’ and I peered out over the port side of the boat. I wanted to say, ‘Hello, who’s there’ but then realized I was being a bit silly.
Partially relieved and partially disappointed whatever was there wasn’t there anymore.
After an hour or so I became tired. I felt the need to do something to keep myself awake. First, I read a bit on my iPhone. I have a Kindle app on the iPhone and just reduce the screen brightness in the settings area. It’s small, easy to hold, and works great at night.
When my eyes were tired from reading I gave myself a foot massage – it felt great and used up a good 15 minutes. Feeling ambitious I did a bit of stretching, head rolls, and massaged any areas of my shoulders that felt achy. Some cookies were near our plotter so I enjoyed slowly eating two of them with a swig of water.
To my delight, I checked my watch and it was 2:45 am – almost time to wake Simon up!
Throughout my watch, I would do normal things like reading but every few minutes I’d look up to check for boats/lights, and once again I’d get a spike of awe when seeing the stars. For three hours I went from feeling normal to feeling elated by my surroundings.
I felt so grateful to enjoy the simplicity of our amazing planet.
At 3 am, I woke Simon, gave him a debrief, and jumped into my bed ready to enjoy SLEEEEEP. I couldn’t have gone to bed feeling more fulfilled.
So…is sailing through the night scary, exhilarating, or boring?
My answer is all of the above. Sometimes it’s scary when you can’t see a thing and hear a splash. Other times it’s amazing when you breathe in the massive amount of stars and when the ‘watch’ gets towards the end it can sometimes be a bit boring.
No matter what, I am grateful for the experience – overall, it’s flat out freaking amazing.
Join us to test out sailing through the night!
Quite a few of our Britican Experience guests spend a week to 10 days with us wanting to give night sailing a go. At first, it can be a bit daunting but we’ll show you how to prepare and provide you with the experience you need when you have your own boat. Find out more here about our Britican Experiences.
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