If you’ve never sailed at night then you’re really missing out on one of the most magical and soulful sailing boat experiences possible. The stillness of a star-lit sea on a cloudless night can be a contemplative adventure that distills the very essence of pure sailing.
However, it does raise challenges. How well do you know your yacht’s layout in the dark? How do you anticipate the squalls and gusts if you can’t see them?
In this guide, we’ll look at a few hints and tips to help make your night sailing experience safe and secure.
Night Vision while Sailing
- If you’ve been wearing sunglasses all day, allow up to 40 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. Night vision relies on rod cells in the eyes. They can take 20-40 minutes to adapt to darkness.
- Ensure your navigation screens are dimmed and turn off any unnecessary light-emitting electronics.
- Use a red bulb in your flashlight if possible. If you’re using a white bulb then avoid shining the light directly at the rig, as the reflected light will destroy your night vision.
Food and Clothing while Sailing at Night
- Don’t forget that no matter where you are sailing, it always gets cooler at night to ensure that you wear adequate warm and dry clothing.
- Store hot drinks and food within easy reach of the cockpit.
Safety Equipment while Sailing at Night
- Ensure all crew members wear a lifejacket and harness whenever they are on deck at night. Make sure everyone is aware of the clip-on points and jackstays. Even if you are sleeping in the cockpit, don’t go forward without someone else clipped on and awake in the cockpit.
- Review your man overboard procedures and ensure the light is attached to the horseshoe/DAN buoy. Check before you commence the voyage.
- Any crew member on watch should be equipped with a red bulb flashlight, a knife, and a personal EPIRB/AIS locator.
- Ensure that all gear is carefully stowed away. Set up lee cloths and check that all seacocks that need to be closed are closed.
- Test any communication equipment before leaving.
Night Watch while Sailing at Night
- Set up a clear watch schedule to ensure all crew members have adequate rest and breaks. If there are only three people on board, a three hours on-six off watch system will ensure all crew has adequate rest time whereas a four-man crew could operate on two hours on four hours off system. Brief your crew thoroughly to ensure that everyone knows and understands the watch system and what your expectations are.
- Make all crew members aware that they could be called onto the deck at anytime.
- Never post an inexperienced crew member on watch alone. Pair them up with a more experienced member of the crew.
- The retiring crew should give the new watch a briefing on sea and weather conditions, hazards or traffic in the area, and any relevant information as to the state of the boat. Remember the crew member taking over the watch may have only just woken up. Ensure they are awake enough to carry out the watch- your life is in their hands!
- Rest. Don’t be tempted to stay up all night star-gazing on deck. Even if you don’t sleep, rest in your berth to ensure you are fresh and awake for when it’s your turn on watch. Set an alarm for about 15 minutes before your watch period is due to begin and get some food and drink.
- Be considerate to your off-watch crew. Tether deck hooks and rattling pans in the galley; sound travels farther on a still night. If you’re running a generator, consider timing it to be split over two shorter watches rather than over one long watch. Alternatively, charge batteries in the afternoon and watch your power consumption so you don’t need to use the generator at night.
- Don’t get lost in a book whilst on watch. Keep your head on a swivel and simply enjoy the experience of steering the boat and the sights and sounds of the night. Scan the horizon every 10 to 20 minutes. Check the radar and AIS and make proper log entries.
Seamanship at Night
- It’s a good idea to make your first night sail in familiar waters with a full moon to aid visibility.
- Under Rule 25 of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, a sailing vessel must exhibit both red and green sidelights and a white sternlight. The craft under 20 metres can combine the prescribed lights with a tricolour lantern near the top of the mast.
- Rule 23 states that a sailing vessel under power must exhibit sidelights, a sternlight, and a white masthead/steaming light forward. Make sure your ensign isn’t draped over the stern light. Test all lights before leaving and make sure you carry spares for all lights.
- Identify any navigation marks that have light characteristics using your charts. For quick reference, make a note on your passage plan the sequence of expected lights. Work out a clear bearing from the navigation lights and make a note on your passage plan to avoid hazards. Plot a series of GPS waypoints and use the “navigate” function to follow a reference guideline.
- Although it is easier to see other vessels at night, it is also easy to confuse the distances involved. Assess a vessel’s intentions by keeping a good watch and adjust your path accordingly. Keep a close eye on your radar and AIS but don’t rely on them solely. Fishing boats tend to have unpredictable movements and lights so be vigilant when on watch.
- Don’t run at 100%. Most skippers operate at 80% capability at night. This will help minimise any disruptions and will ensure a comfortable ride.
- Base any sail adjustments to be made by each watch on your crew’s experience.
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