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.
|THE BRITICAN EXPERIENCE - A WEEK-LONG BLUEWATER CRUISING EXPERIENCE|
|During Merrill's Britican Experience he learned how to book out and into a different country, what it's like to fly a mainsail, genoa, and staysail, how to anchor, tie onto a mooring ball and dock up at a marina. And unfortunately/fortunately Merrill managed to experience what it was like to ride out a surprise tropical storm. If you'd like to experience what it's truly like to live and cruise on a bluewater sailboat, come join us for a week. Check out our availability here: Click here for more information.|
Lovely article! We did one very memorable night sail towards the end of November 2013 from Brixham to Falmouth which I wrote about at the time. You might like to read it…..
“After an “interesting” (for interesting read gruelling!) 17 hours at sea, we arrived safely this morning in Pendennis Marina, Falmouth Harbour; our passage here was, however, not without some moments of high drama and almost indescribable beauty.
We had been at sea for barely 2hrs and it was already dark, when the engine failed at 6pm. David had spotted a lobster-pot in the water and had shut the engine down to a tickover, to minimise the risk of the lobster-pot’s tether getting snarled up in the prop (as I described in a previous post) but the engine stopped dead, and despite some encouraging words from me (under my breath I hasten to add!) steadfastly refused to re-start. While I attempted to maintain the set course (and steering under sail is vastly different from steering while motoring) David hoisted a sail and we continued on our way but at a vastly reduced speed.
Fortunately David was able to re-start the engine at around 9pm and although there was no particular rush we were anxious to complete the voyage, especially as the expected four hours to negotiate Start Point was stretched out to 5½ hours.
Despite having all the appropriate clothing and life-jacket it was bitterly cold on deck. I sat beside David at the helm until way past 1am, until he insisted that I went below for a warm-up and forty winks, as he had already cleared one of the saloon berths and placed pillows and blanket there for the purpose. Although I had prepared flasks of boiling water to make drinks while on passage it would have been impossible to do so with the pitching and rolling of the boat in a very choppy sea. Many of the carefully-stowed items normally packed away during a voyage ended up strewn across the saloon and galley. Mercifully nothing got broken but there was one hell of a mess to clear up once we were safely moored!
At 3am David whistled me up on deck to see an amazing spectacle. Being several miles off-shore and with no artificial light, in pitch darkness, the stars were all visible to their best advantage with the moon shining on the water; if that was not a beautiful enough sight, suddenly leaping in and out of the waves on both sides of the boat was a huge number of dolphins, somewhere around 50-75 in all. They must have been alongside for at least an hour; I’m only sorry that it was impossible to take photos, but it’s a sight I shall never forget! I returned below until 4am and then took over the helm so that David could go below and get warm and have a sleep. He encouraged me to navigate using the stars, and it was a lovely thing to be able to do – so with Orion’s belt on my port side and the cluster of stars known as Pleiades dead ahead I was set to take us into Falmouth, at least five hours away! There is something very special about night-sailing and I know that David feels it too. It was a wonderful experience to be out on the sea entirely on my own with no other vessels in sight, while humming the occasional sea-shanty, at the same time wishing that I was tucked up in a nice warm bed!
We were due to reach the entrance of Falmouth Harbour at around 9.15 this morning, so I gave David a shout just before 8 so that he could wake up and get ready to navigate around the harbour and into a mooring. Just at that moment a lone dolphin on the port side of the boat leapt out of the water and disappeared, as if to say, “There you are – you’re safe now. Goodbye”.
Once moored David and I had coffee and tea respectively; David lit the diesel fire and I went to bed freezing cold and woke up 3hrs later still freezing cold. Although there are shower facilities here I felt very disinclined to venture out into the cold but washed my hair and had a scrub down at the sink in the galley, bummed a shirt off David as I don’t have a clean one, (must do some laundry tomorrow) and started to feel human again. David is giving it lots of zzzzzz’s on the saloon berth opposite me – we’ve just had a lovely meal of jacket spud with lashings of butter and sausages in baked beans followed by tea and coffee and I don’t suppose it will be too long before we turn in – although I think I spotted a can of barley wine in the chiller that might just have my name on. End of a perfect day… “
Kim Brown says
What a story Lindsay! Thank you so much for sharing…I wish everyone could experience a night sail as it truly is AMAZING!
Thank you, I’m glad my post “got through” x
I just love night sailing. There is something so serene about sailing under the stars and being alone out there. The world slows down and belongs to you. It is your time with nature, with your thoughts, with the stars. The best bit is that you cannot see just how big those waves are as you fly along with the sails out and engine off.
Personally I would rather sail at night than the day on long passages.
Kim Brown says
I also like the fact that it’s easier to see boats at night! Smiles 🙂
Beautifully put! I have never tried night sailing, but I will I am sure. You made it sound so interesting and amazing! I love this phrase: I felt so grateful to enjoy the simplicity of our amazing planet – I think it says it all about what you felt 🙂
We have just came back from our week of training course of sailing and I totally felt in love with it! Having a boat and escaping the 9-5 life is pretty much on agenda now. It is going to take us few years before we can put everything into the place, but I know it is going to happen and I really am looking forward to it! Next year we are going to be a part of a crew (I am hoping we will be sailing in Mediterranean) and I am sure I will be loving it as much as I have our week spend on a yacht recently!
Alan Duffy says
Great read. It reminded me of my first night sail as it was also a moonless night. My watch started at midnight, there was three onboard but only two of us could sail, it was to be a three hour watch. The sailing conditions were perfect and the stars truly amazing. When my relief came up I told him I would do a double watch I was enjoying it so much.
Have also been in bad weather in Bass Strait at night in 9m+ swells from astern. No moon or stars because of the cloud cover. Couldn’t see a thing pitch black, but then the cockpit would light up, and then cold water everywhere. The light came from the reflection of the stern light as the top 2m of the wave had broken behind and then would dump into the cockpit, it then went back to blackness. I was surprised that i wasn’t scared, but knowing that every time the cockpit glowed I had to hold on tight became tiring.
Simon Brown says
Two great experiences Alan! And I can related to both. We hit a storm off of Morocco at night with no moon. The only time I could see was when the lightning flashed across the sky. I’m not sure I wanted to see – we were either flying down a massive wave or going up one. It wasn’t fun…I never want to do it again…but it was an experience – one I will never forget. Thanks for sharing 😉
Brian Stewart says
Being an ex RNZ Navy sailor – non dib dab I never did sea watches but slept all passages. I am sure that when the opportunity will arise frequently when I get myself a cruisers boat in two to three years. Hoping to get a catamaran. At this stage it’s looking good with all things gong to plan.
To enjoy the splendour of nature at its best is something that I so look forward to as I really miss being at sea.
Cheers for that aarticle. Great reading again
Simon Brown says
Thank you for your comments Brian. I hope that things start going to plan for you – anything can change in a second 😉 Best wishes!
Helen Harkola says
Lovely, Kim…thrilled at your ability to share your experience with such sincerity and candor the beauty of creation experienced in your night sails. You put wind in my sails and light up my life! Grandma
Simon Brown says
Thank you so much Grandma. I hope you had a wonderful birthday. Big love and kisses to you and grandpa 🙂
Zarih Sundberg says
What a great article. Stillness and darkness can do wonders for the soul it seems.
Kim Brown says
Thank you Zarih – we’re just getting ready to do a night sail tomorrow. It will be the first one for a couple months. This past year we’ve had many night sails without the moon. I have to say that I prefer a little bit of light to no light! Hehehehe. Thank you for commenting 🙂