Motoring up the western coast of Baja, our 65-footer was making nine knots over ink-black water. A first timer at night passages, the student at the helm, wide-eyed and disoriented, compared the experience “to riding a giant worm through Space Mountain.”
Night passages can be tricky but once you get the hang of them, they may become a highlight of extended coastal or ocean cruising. Here are five tips that will make your first overnight cruise a breeze, even if you’re out with only a skeleton crew.
Rules & Preparation
Before the sun even sets, you need to have the boat prepared and you should discuss basic rules with your crew. The engine(s) should be in good working order and all navigation and communication electronics should be functional. This includes radar, AIS and the latest charting software installed on the plotter. Test your running lights and get the latest weather and tide report.
Refresh the batteries in your flashlights and headlamps, put binoculars close to the helm and prepare jack lines on deck so you can tether yourself to the boat if you need to move about on deck. If yours is an exterior helm, wear PFDs with harnesses and personal locator beacons (PLBs).
Set rules or night orders for the crew and adhere to them. For example, nobody is to leave the cockpit (or pilothouse) if only one person is on watch while the other rests. For sailors, this may require that sails are reefed prior to nightfall if squalls are expected so one person can manage the ship on her own. Monitor radar because you can see approaching squalls and can prepare before the first of the high winds reach you.
Agree when to call the captain if he or she is off watch and resting. The captain should insist on being called in case of impending collision, strange engine noise, unexpected light on the horizon, change of weather or even general doubt as to what to do in a particular situation.
What makes night cruising so different is visibility, or the lack thereof. Distances are harder to judge, fishing pots are nearly invisible, moisture and temperature changes create distortion, lighted markers (especially red ones) may be harder to pick out and their flashes must be counted for accurate identification. Mostly, even a speed of nine knots becomes frightening when you feel you’re sailing blind.
Entering a new harbor at night is particularly dangerous and most people will time their departure to arrive and enter a new destination at first light. If you get there early, stand off if weather permits and wait. Part of the problem with new harbors is light pollution. You may be facing a bevy of lights including navigation markers, other boats, shore side traffic lights and other unlighted hazards. Picking out the right set of channel markers against a tricky background can be a challenge and anchored vessels with no lights can be especially tough to see.
Be sure to preserve your night vision, which relies on the rod cells in your eyes that can take over 20 minutes to adapt back to darkness after a flash of light. Use flashlights with a red filter and keep light use inside the vessel to a minimum. Keep your plotter on a nighttime (less bright) setting.
A watch system is imperative and the best ones will depend on the number of crew and their experience, the conditions and the vessel. Sleep deprivation affects decision-making and therefore safety and performance. In fair weather and with the assistance of an autopilot, most people can manage longer watches even at night. If the passage is rough, it robs you of energy although it may keep you awake.
If possible, try out a few different watch systems like three on/three off that can work well for couples. This doesn’t allow for three solid hours of sleep however since you have to add in time to get below and into a bunk, then get up and dressed, go to the head, have a snack or coffee, read the charts and then take your next watch. Some people take shorter watches during the night or in inclement weather if hand steering which can be hard on the arms and shoulders.
The person on watch should take care to be respectful of the rest the other is trying to get. Keep quiet if moving about on deck or getting snacks in the galley. When changing watch, take the time discuss with the oncoming watch what transpired during your time at the helm. Has the weather or barometric pressure changed? Has traffic increased? Has the engine developed a sputter or has the bilge pump been running frequently? Discuss your position, course and velocity made good and distance covered. Review the log together. Point out any vessels on the horizon and give the new crew time to have a drink and properly wake up. Confirm they’re ready for duty before leaving the con because they are now responsible for the ship and your life.
Long hours at the helm can be tedious even in the daytime but add darkness and it’s a dangerous mix especially for short or singlehanded passages of more than two consecutive nights. Staying awake can take real effort. Some people load up on caffeine but then it’s hard to sleep when it comes your turn. Breaking up the watch helps. Make sure to do a 360-degree scan of the horizon every 15-20 minutes and pop your head out into the breeze to keep yourself alert.
On calm passages, light exercise or yoga in the cockpit can do wonders. Music or books on tape help as well. Reading is tricky. You must do it with a red light if at all and for some people, it’s an instant sleep aide. If the noise doesn’t keep the off-watch crew awake and it’s calm, move about, stretch or sing.
Have a proper meal (not too starchy because that will entice you to sleep) before nightfall or keep a prepared meal that only needs heating at hand. Have snacks ready and if it’s cold, keep hot drinks available. A pot of hot water in a thermos can make coffee, tea or instant soup and eating will most definitely keep you awake by giving you something to do. Besides, who doesn’t like a chocolate treat at midnight?
If you arrive at or near your destination while you’re on watch, refer back to your set rules as to what to do. Do you stand off and wait for light? Do you wake the captain? Is the harbor entrance safe to enter and do you know where you will anchor or tie up once there? Are you sure you’re at the right harbor? That last one is no joke. People have been known to pull into anchorages that may resemble their destinations if only because the crew is tired. Also, if the weather is deteriorating, discuss a bail-out point or a safe haven to wait out the storm and the night but don’t be so anxious for the trip to be done that you choose a sketchy anchorage.
Night Passages Can be Fun
All of the above sounds a bit ominous but you may just find that the quiet of a nighttime passage is peaceful and having a few hours to yourself under a starry sky or on moonlit water is enchanting even if you’re not a night owl. With proper preparation, you as the prudent mariner might just learn to love overnight cruising.
For more, read 10 Tips for Boating at Night.