When strategies for sailing at night are discussed among cruisers, opinions differ quite a lot. Many cruisers divide the night into watches of varying length to be able to react immediately to wind shifts, reef ahead of squalls, and look out for obstacles, while others rely fully on their electronic warning systems and just go to sleep. Some boats take on crew before longer passages, even though this means less privacy in a situation where nerves are strained already. We have done all our passages (14 days across the Atlantic, 23 days to French Polynesia, lots of one-week trips) shorthanded and have found a system that works quite well for us.
On boats with lots of crew it’s not a big deal to have someone on watch all night. But on cruising boats, with only a couple on board, striking a balance is important. Long shifts are great when you’re snuggled into your berth, but out in the cockpit the hours can stretch unbearably when it’s rough, cold or rainy. The schedule should ensure periods that are long enough for one person to gain adequate rest, without exhausting the person on watch. We have found that a 3-4-4-3 (hours) system works best for us, but in rough conditions we shorten the watches.
Maneuvers at night
Unless the weather is very stable we reef before dusk to avoid nightly maneuvers, because there’s few things as unpleasant as stumbling sleepily out of your berth into a dark, wet night for an overdue reef. If a maneuver is necessary at night we try to give the person off watch a few minutes to get their bearings and to talk about all the steps, because mistakes happen easily when you’re in a drowsy state and can’t tell left from right. Better a short delay than let a routine job turn into an emergency situation.
We try not to drain the batteries during the night and only have the usual instruments and a small chartplotter in the cockpit on all the time. Since we acquired an AIS transceiver our night watches have become less stressful, as the confusing lights on the horizon have turned into ships with a call sign and a trackable course. Some crews run their radar to see upcoming squalls, but we rely on scanning the sky for dark clouds that hide the stars.
Strategies to stay awake
In rough weather, around shipping routes or close to land, there’s enough going on to keep the person on watch alert. Sailing far offshore with no rocks or freighters on a collision course, boredom and sleepiness becomes the enemy. Far away from light pollution, star gazing is great entertainment on clear nights. Take the chance to get familiar with the constellations using a star-simulation program!
Reading with the help of a flashlight can be tiring and it takes a long time for your eyes to adjust before you can scan the horizon. Audiobooks are a good alternative to keep the mind occupied while preserving your night vision. When the sonorous voice of a reader threatens to lull me to sleep, I switch to energizing music. During our Atlantic crossing our wind steering broke and the hydraulic autopilot was too dodgy for constant use so we ended up steering by hand in two-hour shifts. Listening to heavy metal was the only remedy to falling asleep and after a while I started to think of the guys from ‘System of a Down’ as additional crew members—that’s what sleep deprivation does to you …
Munching is another strategy to keep you awake. We always prepare a goody-box with treats for night watches, nibble cookies, nuts, down liters of cocoa and even gain weight on longer passages. On cool nights, a thermos jug with hot water to prepare tea and instant soups helps keep up the morale of the shivering look-out.
When everything else fails, the focus gets blurred and our eyelids feel like they weigh a ton; we get out the egg timer. Ten minutes of power napping followed by a quick scan of the horizon is much safer than dropping from exhaustion.
Getting enough sleep
We have one strict rule on Pitufa: Never leave the cockpit without a harness at night. This rule gives the person off watch the peace of mind to relax and doze without worrying and listening for events outside. The sea-berth should be near the center of the boat where the movements are less pronounced and narrow enough to wedge yourself in with lots of cushions to keep you from rolling around. Some people find that the familiar noise of the boat underway helps them fall asleep, but light sleepers should wear ear plugs to find some peace and quiet.
Dragging yourself out of the berth in the middle of the night takes some effort, but sitting in the cockpit with myriads of sparkling stars above and an unknown tropical paradise ahead can make a night watch enjoyable. Being alone on the ocean, in touch with the elements and surrounded by nature, is an impressive experience—especially when you’re well rested and have a mug of hot cocoa to keep you company.
Birgit Hackl, Christian Feldbauer and their ship’s cat Leeloo are currently exploring the Pacific aboard their yacht Pitufa.