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Don’t be afraid of the dark

2017 July 1

Sailing at night is a special treat but requires a different skill set than daysailing

Sailing at night is challenging, rewarding and dermatologist approved. Gliding through the dark under the stars can be a surreal experience. And you don’t have to go very far from the harbor for the experience. It is a different world that requires new skills and awareness to be fully enjoyed. 

In the daytime you see other boats, trim by looking at telltales and sail shapes, know where the lines are and know your sailing area by experience without a chart. Many coastal wind patterns provide a nice downwind return to the breakwater and harbor, and the sun lights up everything. Many daysailors are not very skilled with detailed navigation using GPS because they can see where they are going. Likewise, radar has become less of a navigation instrument and is now used by most recreational sailors in limited visibility as an anti-collision tool. It is a good idea to build skills with these devices, but not rely solely on them.

Sailing at night is a unique pleasure that all sailors can enjoy with a bit of preparation and know-how.
Billy Black photo


Sailing at night requires a different way of thinking. It’s easy to lose your bearings even in an area that is familiar. At night, even if you are just two or three miles offshore in familiar waters, things are very different. What happened to that breakwater? How far away are things? How close is that light? Where’s my chart? How do all those numbers and letters on the chart at night relate to what I am seeing? How come I am sailing into the wind? 

Know the lights

Let’s start with the simplest observation. If you are sailing offshore in the daytime, there is the sun and ambient light all around. At night, however, in most metropolitan recreational sailing areas when looking ashore there is no light behind you. All the light is coming from civilization on shore. That dependable breakwater is just a dark silhouette. Most people think breakwaters are higher than they really are, and believe that it will block the light from land and the silhouette will stand out. Not true. Breakwaters are actually not very high at all, and the lights from houses, streetlights and even cars on the street shine right over them. So your most used landmark in the daytime is blended into a dark band of shoreline. Silhouettes don’t provide the visual scale clues we need to determine distance, so the shoreline becomes a dark line of compressed distances. You need a different way to find that breakwater and harbor.

This is where a chart comes in. You need to know what those numbers and letters mean at night. The USCG Light List (free download available at www.navcen.uscg.gov) has excellent examples of how the same marks and buoys look in daytime vs. night, and what the associated data means. 

Lights on marks and buoys come in many configurations and colors and it can be difficult to memorize all of them. The most practical thing is to memorize a few and keep a handy reference on board. If you look at a harbor chart you will see that the lights you probably care about are red and green. 

As you enter the harbor, the red blinking lights will be to starboard (red right return) and the green blinking lights to port. From a distance, however, you may be able to see some lights over the breakwater in the harbor as well as the typical lights on the breakwater or entrance. You determine which light is which by the blink rate indicated on the chart. Typical blink rates are six seconds, four seconds and sometimes two and a half seconds or even one second. So when you are looking to the shore and find a flashing red or green light, you need to time the interval between blinks. This is very awkward using a watch at night. The solution is to use a repeatable verbal technique such as “Elephant” or “Mississippi” for counting the seconds. Practice, practice, practice. You don’t want to be timing an unknown four- or six-second light and come up with five seconds. Once you can absolutely match the lights with the chart, you have a plan for navigating safely. 

Safe navigation is one thing, but you also need to be wary of other boats while you are staring at the land searching for marker lights. Remember that lights ashore blink and lights on ships are steady. There are two light factors leading to possible collisions. The first is that the ship itself may not be illuminated. Usually only the red/green/white navigation lights are on. If the other vessel is between you and the shore it could be just a silhouette and you may not see it at all. Conversely, if you are between the shore and the other ship, you are the potentially unseen silhouette. 

Once you have determined that there is another vessel out there, the light configuration as defined in the collision regulations must be used to determine your actions. We all know our own light configurations, so it is easy to figure out what to do with another recreational vessel. It is a good idea to memorize typical commercial vessel light configurations you are likely to encounter in your area, especially fishing vessels, and of course keep a handy reference on board.

The second general problem at night is it can be difficult to determine distance to a point source light. That red bow light out there could be a half mile away or two miles away. It’s hard to tell. Even with shore lights, it is sometimes surprising to realize that you are a lot closer than you thought. 

Mind your safety gear

Safety gear is even more important at night than during the day. Life jackets should have strobes attached. Harnesses, tethers, jacklines, high-powered flashlights and even pocket flares are important to have and should be used. Set rules for the crew. If you have a full crew, create watches with at least two people on deck at all times. If you’re shorthanded, create a rotating watch system with one person on deck, one awake but down below to stay warm and keep an eye on navigating, and a third person sleeping. Don’t leave the cockpit unless it’s absolutely necessary and make sure someone else on board is awake and aware that you’re going forward. Clip in to jacklines and wear something reflective or at least light colored. 

Imagine attempting a man overboard rescue in the dark with 4-foot seas, cold water, 20 knots of wind at 8 knots boat speed. Even with strobe lights, radios and Type I life jackets, the odds are not the best. Bottom line: Stay on the boat, and the best way to stay on the boat is to be attached. Most skippers require everyone to be attached with harness, tethers and jacklines anytime the person is out of the cabin at night. Some even rig an attachment reachable while emerging up the companionway ladder so that they are attached as they step into the cockpit, and can detach when in the cabin. 

Improve your skills

Hanging around the harbor and enjoying the tranquility at night is one thing. Setting off on an overnight or multiday passage requires elevated skills and knowledge. Night sailing is part of the more advanced standard sailing courses from certified schools. If you can take such a course, you will learn a lot.

There are four rules to night sailing that should be kept in mind: 

1. Try to avoid entering an unfamiliar harbor at night. 

2.  Stay on the boat. 

3.  Know your location and route.

4.  File an accurate and meaningful float plan.

As an example, let’s say that you are taking your good-sized sailboat to an island 40 miles away for the weekend. If you have enough quality crew, you could leave Friday night, conduct two-person watch shifts and arrive at Saturday dawn for breakfast. Keep the same watch schedule on the way back, except arrive back Sunday night and enter your familiar harbor.

Prepare for the night watch

It’s also especially important to be weather aware when sailing at night. Dark skies do not allow sailors to see the weather coming as easily as during the day, so find good forecasts, track them to make sure they are shaping up the way you expect them to and update them frequently. Before the sun sets, get the boat cleaned up and ready for what the weather may bring overnight. If the wind is forecasted to increase, reef when it’s still light out just to be safe. If a headsail change is likely, try to do it in the daylight, or at least set up changing sheets and have the sail somewhere easily accessible. Clean up the lines in the cockpit and make a mental note of which sheets and halyard are active.

When navigating, use all tools available, double check and log clearly and frequently on paper. Always have at least two active lookouts. It is especially important to keep a close eye in shipping lanes, where it can be helpful to have multiple sets of eyes watching the horizon and keeping track of AIS targets. 

With today’s communication capabilities, a vessel may provide information about the float plan every hour or so via text, email or a logging transmitter. Even if it is not received in real time, the last position will be more important than the much later non-report of a safe arrival.

Overnight voyages are a unique opportunity to see stars, and to look around the big disk and feel the sense of vastness and uncrowded freedom not available in our everyday lives. So go out at night. Take your time. Pay attention to the lights, charts, landmarks and other boats. Go under power the first few times so you can focus and have fun. Then learning how to raise, lower and trim sails at night can add to your enjoyment and time on the water. It is another wonderful world. 

Elbert (Ash) Ashbaugh has taught sailing for more than 25 years all over the world. He currently is the affiliate representative for the American Sailing Association.