Thursday, April 25, 2024
HomeBoatSailing at Night Part 1: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Sailing at Night Part 1: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

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Are you afraid of sailing after dark? Many sailors are. They figure that if they fall over the side at night they’ll never be found or that they’ll make a mistake and steer the boat onto the rocks. There is really no need for such fears. With a little practice and some of the newer gizmos you can put to sea at night without trepidation.

Getting Used to Sailing at Night
Going sailing at night can be a lot of fun. Stars are more visible than on shore. The moon rises with wonderful majesty from the eastern horizon and your boat leaves a trail of white frothed foam that makes a night sail something special. If you are lucky you will have a pod of dolphins swim at the bow making night time sailing totally enchanting.

You’ll also find that everything seems to be different at night. Even though weather conditions haven’t changed, the sea may feel rougher and the wind stronger. Things seem to be more concentrated. For example, in a strong breeze on a dark night you may seem to be sailing down a tunnel.

Practice first
If you have any doubts about night sailing, practice by sailing in the evenings on moonlit nights. Sail during the late afternoon and then up to about ten-o-clock at night. Gradually stay out later and later, until you feel confident about sailing until dawn. You’ll find that you feel most tired between the hours of 2am and 4am. This is when the body is at its lowest ebb. It’s natural to feel sleepy at times, which is why mariners set up watch systems.

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Night Vision
If you are coming on watch in the dark, first get your night vision. Vision needs time to acclimate to the darkness. It takes about 20 minutes to half an hour after being in a brightly-lit cabin for your eyes to see in the dark with maximum efficiency. This means that you should get on deck early and become acquainted with the darkness before you take the helm. Once you can see relatively well in the dark, look only at red lights such as those on the compass. Turn your red instrument lights down very low with the dimmer, so that they will not hamper your night vision. Use only red lights in the cabin at night to help preserve night vision. This also means using only red lights when rousing the off watch. Once you have your night vision, don’t go near bright lights unless you really have to, because it will take another ten to twenty minutes to get your night vision back.

Helming in the Dark
When hand steering at night, don’t stare at the compass and rigidly hold the boat on course. Watching the compass can mesmerize you and help you fall asleep. As John Masefield said, “All you need is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” Look for a star in front of the boat and try to sail toward it. Check your course on the compass or you will gradually follow the star eastwards as it moves across the heavens. (You can also sight on a cloud if it is overcast, but you will need to check the compass more frequently because clouds move faster than stars.)

Dusk, it’s time to set the watch
Dusk, it’s time to set the watch

On a sailboat, feel where the wind is coming from and keep it there in relation to the boat. Occasionally, check astern. Your wake will tell you if you are veering off course. Don’t shine the flashlight back toward the cockpit or you will ruin the night vision of the helmsman.

Safety First
Make it a rule that everybody wears a harness (and is clipped on) or lifejacket when on deck at night no matter what the conditions are like. On a powerboat at night, I recommend that you wear a lifejacket. If you wear a harness and fall over the side you could get dragged under the boat when it is moving at speed. If a crew goes forward, one of the afterdeck should keep an eye on them to enable an immediate response should something unexpected happen.

It also helps to give every watch member a flashlight or strobe and a whistle attached to their lifejacket. Should they fall off the boat the flashlight or whistle could help you find them. Personal EPIRBs and transponders are also useful to have onboard at night.


Four hour watches
12 midnight to 4am – Middle watch
4am to 8am – Morning watch
8am to 12 noon – Forenoon watch
12 noon to 4pm – Afternoon watch
4pm to 6pm – First dog watch
6pm to 8pm – Last or second dog watch
8pm to midnight – First watch

Swedish System
12 midnight to 6am
6am to 10am
10am to 2pm
2pm to 6pm
6pm to midnight

Alternatively this system can start at 2am instead of midnight. This makes the night watches slightly less strenuous.


Roger Marshall has written 14 boating related books including his latest, Fiberglass Repair Illustrated.

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