What is it like to sail at night?
A question that so many people ask when they are thinking about going sailing either on an adventure sailing holiday or when gaining more experience and moving from perhaps Competent Crew or Day Skipper to more advanced sailing qualifications.
A huge percentage of people who sail ONLY sail in the daytime.
It can be daunting to think about the implications of night sailing.
Will I be able to recognise the different lights?
How can you be safe?
How do you NOT crash into other boats or the rocks?
How do you work out where to go?
Is it scary?
How can you see what you are doing?
Assuming you haven’t taken a gigantic leap and gone straight from day sailing to single handed ocean crossings then there will always be someone else on board, if you planned right most probably several people! A skipper, first mate and several other crew to share the responsibility to keep safe watch and make the important decisions about course and ensure the yacht is being sailed safely both day and night. This could put you in the position to enjoy one of the most ethereal and unique experiences available to humans on this planet. The chance to be mid ocean with no other humans (crew excepted) for possibly hundreds if not thousands of miles, moving with the wind and currents under the most phenomenal dark skies. I say currents not tides because mid ocean the tidal effects are not so relevant as when sailing closer to shore. Think of the Gulf Stream, the Agulhas Current, the California Current to name a few, all constantly circulating the waters of our oceans and helping to regulate the temperatures on this fragile planet. I digress, that is definitely the topic for another blog. Where was I? In the middle of the ocean looking up at the darkest sky with no man-made light in sight other than the navigation lights on deck and perhaps a gentle red glow from down below decks. Sat huddled on deck with your watch mate next to you, watching the horizon for the signs of other boats or hazards. Those sometimes hard to decipher lights that indicate the presence of more humans. There are some basic rules of the road to learn, easy to find either in books of Collision Regulations, Col Regs, in short to sailors. These help you to identify and learn the meanings of the lights, which vessels show which lights and how to determine if the lights mean danger or not. If you are not sure what they mean then the best thing to do is say to your watch buddy “hey, can you see that over there? I can see lights, what do you think that means?” That solves the first problem, to start with you are not expected to always know the difference between a pilot vessel and a 50m dredger not under command but the fact you saw the lights and spoke up means that someone who does know can be alerted and take the necessary action. Talk to your skipper and other sailors who have more experience and ask them to help. Once you get the basics red on the port side (left) and green on the starboard (right) white on the aft (at the back) the whole world of lights will start to unravel. Flashing lights with different frequencies for buoys and cardinal markers all start to make sense and the world of Col Regs starts to be second nature. TOP TIP If you see something, a light or flashes or hear a sound when on watch speak up, share the information never assume someone else has seen or heard it.
When I was sailing across the oceans during my adventures staying safe was always paramount and a major worry for my friends and family on shore. At night especially and for my mind, always day or night wear a GOOD serviced life jacket that meets the recommended standards (another name for lifejacket is PFD, Personal Flotation Device.) It should have a crotch strap, hood and light and if you can a personal MOB1 personal locator beacon. Have a 3-point tether attached to a suitable hard point or jackstay on deck and use it especially at night. If you take your safety seriously at night there is time to sit and enjoy the horizon to horizon stars, the endless Milky Way and possibly see more shooting stars in one night than you probably have in the rest of your life. IT IS INCREDIBLE! No words can describe the vastness, the complete night sky there just for you. One night the moon so bright and the atmosphere cloudless and the moonlight bright enough to read by, the next the sky blanketed with low clouds and everything so dark that you can’t see the bow of the boat or even make out the faces of your crew mates. Those nights when it is dark and you hurtle headlong into the abyss it is so important to always maintain a good watch, not just with your ears listening out and your eyes on the horizon all around, behind as well, but also using the equipment on board, AIS, radar, compass and depth sounders just to make sure that the abyss ahead of you really is clear. Modern technology is incredible but used with old fashioned eyes and ears really does help make sure you are safe. TOP TIP Always keep a good look out for potential danger Oh and also sunsets, shooting stars and dolphins.
Navigating either during the day or in the dark on modern boats is not quite so daunting as it was in ‘the olden days’ we now have GPS, reliable compasses, radar, VHF radios, satellite phones and various other techy ways to work out where we are and if the passage plan has been done, we should also know where we are going. We know how fast we are going, which direction we are pointing, how deep it is, what the air pressure is doing what the temperature of the air and sea are and what the current weather forecast is. All this modern tech doesn’t take away the need for good seamanship, watching the sea, the clouds and weather, keeping an accurate and frequent log that records the changes in all those variables, not only is it recommended, but the log is also a legal document that records life onboard. That said if you do things right sailing at night is no different than sailing in the day. Use the information available by both modern and traditional methods to frequently plot where you are, then point in the right direction and keep going according to your passage plan and the prevailing winds. One of the most traditional ways of working out where you are is using a sextant to take a sight. This can be done both day and night using a celestial body, the sun, moon or known star and an accurate time, a few very whizzy mathematical calculations and seafarers both in olden times and now can pinpoint a very realistic position. This method of Celestial Navigation is something all Skippers who have reached Yachtmaster Ocean will be able to do if necessary, if the GPS goes wonky or often just for the fun of it. TOP TIP Keep a frequent log and make sure you plot or record your position regularly, just in case the GPS goes wonky and you need to use traditional navigation techniques. That way you will always know where you are.
Seeing in the dark does not always need carrots or even a bright torch. A head torch with red light is best if needed, worn around the neck so you don’t dazzle your watch mates, but it is amazing how our eyes respond to the dark if given a chance to acclimatise. It is called night vision and after a few minutes of darkness (about 20 I think) our eyes adjust to be able to see. It obviously varies from person to person, but it is incredible to be patient and watch and see how after a few minutes it is possible to see. Good practice if you do need to use a white light for trimming or some other reason is to call out to the deck crew so those who need to can protect their night vision, especially the helm or those on active watch. A quick shout of ‘White Light!’ is enough for people to close their eyes and avert their head. Red lights are always used down below as red light doesn’t destroy night vision the same way white light does. TOP TIP Always have a head torch that goes to red first, so you don’t accidentally dazzle your crew mates and wear it around your neck. I can’t tell you how many people have been close to needing their PFDS when they emerge from the companionway head torch blazing on their foreheads right into the on-deck crew’s eyes…. GRRRRRR Pet hate. Also, you are less likely to lose it when it’s around your neck.
Sailing at night can be scary if you haven’t thought about all the things above, but if you have done everything in your power to stay safe, to know where you are, where you are going and to take precautions not to crash into something then sailing at night is one of the most incredible experiences that a normal human can experience without heading to space. It is possible to appreciate the feeling of the sheer vastness of the universe, to see the stars and planets, the Milky Way. To feel the power of the ocean, its rise and fall, its motion, never ending, soothing, raging, awe inspiring. To live alongside ocean creatures dolphins playing at the bow in the dark, jellyfish, the bioluminescence glowing astrange bluey lurid green in the crests of the waves and in the wake from your sailing boat. The tiny luminous eyes of squid as they are thrown up in the waves, the stink of a whale’s breath it t blows in the distance, the ‘ACH WTF’ called from your crew mate as they are hit on the shoulder by an errant flying fish, then the pant wetting laughter as you realise the silly fish is caught in the hood of their foulies. The crew mates that you lie on deck looking up at the stars with putting the world to rights, chatting about everything and anything, the random pop quiz, the ghost stories you tell, the steaming hot chocolate that you sip at 2am. The secrets shared, the ever-lasting friendships made.
PS I didn’t mention the very occasional night on board that it is cold and raining, foggy and cold and wet and cold and wet and rough and oh cold and wet and cold. That is all for another blog about how very occasionally sailing can be cold and wet. Heather x