I have a love/hate relationship with night sailing. When the moon is full and there aren’t many clouds, it’s simply lovely. But when I can’t see anything, I get very nervous about it. I guess that’s pretty normal. Maybe everyone feels a little anxious about sailing at night. We’ve done a few overnight passages and for the most part, they’ve been fine, even enjoyable.
On the way home from Barkley Sound this summer, we did an overnight passage as there isn’t really any good place to stop between Barkley Sound and Neah Bay. We didn’t want to cross into the U.S. and were heading toward the Gulf Islands for a few days. So we decided to just go for it and sail all night. It wasn’t our first overnight passage and it’s a good thing because it was really dark out there. The cloud cover made me very glad to have working radar on Galapagos.
Our first overnight was aboard our Cal 34, Moonrise, and our son Andrew was also aboard. We were, as usual on the last day of a summer cruise, at the south end of San Juan Island just as the sun was going down. I believe we’d spent too much time whale watching, not really being ready to go home. (That always seems to happen to us on our cruises in the summer. We seem to wait until the very last minute to leave the islands.)
If you aren’t familiar with our waters, the south end of San Juan Island has no protected anchorages of any kind. The western shore is hundreds of feet deep, right up to the rocks. The southern shore, while anchoring depth, is completely exposed to the strait with its high winds and swells. We had the choice of going around Cattle Point at a bad time with wind and tide (no thanks) or crossing at night. We decided to go for it.
It was a great crossing! We had about 20 knots of wind on the beam, really big swells on the aft starboard quarter, and we were screaming along with a double-reefed main and a shortened headsail surfing down the face of the waves. It was actually pretty sweet, even though hand steering was required the entire time. It was intense. Moonrise was in her element and, frankly, so were we.
To prepare for that crossing, even as relative newbies, we knew we had to have a protocol and rules and that everyone had to follow them. As the mom, who is equal to the captain when it comes to safety when a kid is on board, my rule was two people in the cockpit, jacklines and harnesses deployed at all times. No one leaves the cockpit. We agreed to two hour watches. Everyone did their jobs and we just had a ripping time.
You knew, of course, that something would probably go wrong. And of course it did, and of course it was the engine. We were almost across and turned on the engine to help push us through the wicked current around Pt. Wilson so we could have a straight shot into the anchorage. Our plan was to get through the current, drop the sails after we rounded the point, and anchor for the night. We were hoping the wind, which was coming in from the Pacific Ocean, would die down as we rounded the point.
Halfway through the current the engine made a loud grinding noise, and died. It would not start up again. Let me tell you, when it’s night, and the wind is up and you are close to the coast, that’s not the time you want to troubleshoot the engine.
Taking stock of the situation, we agreed we’d just sail into the anchorage, one person would drop the hook, and another would backwind the sail to set the anchor. We were wrong about the wind. It was actually worse as we rounded the point. But regardless, we put away the headsail and sailed in with the wind behind us, one person on the bow keeping a lookout for boats at anchor without anchor lights. There are always people who fail to put up anchor lights and there is a special place in boater’s heck for them.
We got lucky, avoided the dark boats, dropped the hook and set it and all fell into our bunks for a long sleep. The next morning, that engine started like it had never seen any problems at all. We still don’t know why it failed. That mystery remains unsolved.
I hope all of our night sails go as well as the ones we’ve had so far. Really, sailing at night is just lovely. My biggest anxiety is not being able to see other boats, like fishing boats, especially once we head south.
Got any suggestions for making night sailing safer?
This post is part of the A to Z Challange. To read from the beginning, go here.