N is for Night Sailing

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.

This is what we were doing before that night sail.

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.)

Andrew at the helm. Don’t you love the flying laundry on the back stay, and the scrub brush and bucket? Oh, those were the days! Circa 2009

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.

A man happy with his adventure.

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.

Here’s Ruffles (Thanks, alert reader Dave Calhoun). I believe this male orca is no longer with us. We are so glad we got to see him.

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.



15 thoughts on “N is for Night Sailing

    • Yes, debris is a constant danger, particularly up here with all the logs and deadheads. We are on alert for that all the time. When I can’t see at night, it’s a fearful thing. But so often, yes, it’s lovely!

  1. Melissa,

    I also enjoy night sailing- especially at sea. It has been a few years as it doesn’t get dark enough for long enough up here in summer to really call it night sailing; that is best savored in winter…

    Regarding safety, I break it into several realms [each nothing more than another aid to navigation]: electronics and using our 5 senses with and without enhancement.

    As you already mentioned, RADAR is your friend; day and night.

    An AIS transponder is also helpful so others can see you, and you those who choose to [or must] transmit. We even keep ours on at anchor [in addition to an anchor light and small deck lights] so you can see us when ghosting in to anchor at oh dark thirty… in the fog…

    I had a similar experience to what you describe [engine out; sailing into anchorage] I will mention to demonstrate the importance of listening.

    I was ghosting toward an anchorage with barely a breeze, the moon playing hide-n-seek with the clouds, and lots of brash ice from a glacier around the corner. I was using my sense of hearing to identify the [mostly invisible to me] icebergs snap-crackle-popping as I slalomed between them on my way up the bay to anchoring depth. I finally got there by towing the boat [11 tons…] rowing my dinghy… [I had to get there before the tide started going out, and the boat with it…]

    Other audible safety enhancements include sounding the correct signals in low visibly [e.g., automated fog signals from a VHF via PA horn on mast.] And even more importantly, the flip side: using the PA horn as a microphone to ‘listen’ ahead of you via your VHF radio(s). Very useful in all low visibility situations…

    Today, our 4G RADAR picks up most ice and other small, floating objects [e.g., even most crab pot floats…] so life is slightly easier now…

    For visual acuity, FLIR technology is finally approaching the realm of [almost] justifiable pricing for recreational boaters…

    And I think the commercial fishing guys have it right with their bright lights high in the rigging… We are planning to add a pair of LED light bars on our bow sprit [10k lumens] to remove some of the tension while gunkholing in the darker seasons… [This in addition to our 1200 lumen flashlights on our PFDs and our 5MCP hand-held flood lights.

    I suspect you have most if not all of this at your disposal already, but wanted to run down our list just in case it is useful.

    Safe sailing.



    • We do, but would be glad to know which flashlights and flood lights you use. Unfortunately, I have a hearing disability and I cannot rely on hearing things that are at a high frequency. I can, however, hear when the engine is doing weird things, sometimes before Mike(who has preternaturally good hearing) does. The lack of hearing is both a blessing and a curse. We have an AIS receiver so we can see others, but we do not transmit our own signal. I found that on the overnight sail this summer I was super focused and alert and was exhausted at the end of my shift because I never let my guard down. Check radar, check visually at 360 degrees, check GPS/AIS , then back to radar. I had my Kindle in the cockpit but never touched it. It felt like flying blind. Fortunately we know these waters pretty well. Were we somewhere we were not familiar, it would have been even worse.

      • Hi Melissa,

        I agree: Sailing in the blind can be a tranquil experience, but it is not soothing or relaxing for me… Wait until you have a whale, sea lion, etc. surface next to your peaceful cockpit watch at oh-dark-thirty and blow/bark. It will wreck your next off-watch rest period…

        I’ll provide some brief answers/comments to your questions and am happy to elaborate if you need more info…

        RE: Hearing [listening for sounds on the water in the the dark… few high frequency sound producers that are threatening…] you will be surprised how well your PA horn works as a focused, amplified microphone You can hear people talking, waves splashing on rocks, etc…

        RE: Flashlights: I could just list what we use, but given the plethora of models available, I will be describe our strategy and decisions [a briefly as possible…]

        It seems flashlight manufacturers produce new designs every week. We go for functional and robust, with a price-point that works for us.

        We have tried many models of the small, aluminum, waterproof, LED units and have standardized [compromised] on the Nitecore EC-20 [http://amzn.to/1YBiXWi] It is an amazing bundle of power and capability in your pocket. [4 brightness levels, so it can be used for a work flashlight too. SOS and strobe (for debilitating an aggressor…)] I recommend standardizing on one flashlight of this type so they all work the same… [The on/off/adjust logic is different on every flashlight of this ilk, and we don’t need to be fumbling around in the dark……]

        If I could make one design change to this light, I would make the single control button glow in the dark… [A stripe of luminous paint around the barrel where the button is- leaving the rubber button black- also works…]

        We try to standardize our battery types. [ I’m composing a new page for our ‘Stuff we have and use’ section of our blog that will have the details you never wanted to know…]

        Sneak preview re: Battery types onboard: We prefer to avoid devices with built-in proprietary rechargable batteries when possible. We prefer rechargable Eneloop AAA, AA, C, and Panasonic 18650- the battery for this and all our other small flashlights… PSL Don’t buy cheap 18650 batts…]

        Battery links [shopw wisely: prices are all over the place…]
        Eneloop: http://amzn.to/1r6Fhgj
        Panasonic 18650 ‘ [http://amzn.to/1SLyVsj] Note: Always buy the ‘Protected’ version of this battery. [Thermal/overcharge protection built-in.]

        We have several chargers, but I really like the 12VDC/110VAC Nitecore DigiCharger line. [http://amzn.to/1r6CUd8] It handles all of the above batteries and has smart logic with digital read-out. [Charger technology keeps evolving too, but these are still current design and logic…]

        RE: Handheld spotlights: Practical Sailor recently did a review that is worth a read in my opinion. [http://www.practical-sailor.com/issues/37_33/features/Finding-the-Bright-Spot-Marine-LED-Spotlights_11217-1.html]

        We have the usual assortment of LED pistol grip hand-held spotlights. We toss the ones with built-in rechargeable batteries as the batteries approach end-of-usefulness…

        Our favorite is a heavy-duty, waterproof, adjustable focus [i.e., spot to flood] Cree LED model stocked by our local hardware/frontier outfitter store for under US$50. [We are not on the boat right now so I will have to get back to you with the make and model… I will be making a trip to that store in the near future…]

        It uses regular C cells, so fits our strategy of using standard, vs. proprietary, rechargeable batteries. We use rechargeable Lion Cs in it for good performance.

        Sorry for the length, but I don’t know how else to share what we use without providing the why so you can make your own choices…

        Cheers! Bill

    • I bought a loudspeaker for the Standard Horizon VHF radio which I was just thinking I should install this spring. It will be especially handy has a signal during the fog. I know that they can also be used as a microphone but was unsure of how beneficial that feature would be. It would be great to be able to have the ability to amplify the voice of someone shouting from onshore or a nearby by boat.

      • Hi Mike,

        I have had a few PA horns on various boats over the years. Some perform better than others as microphones. My subjective sense is the somewhat larger, rectangular models perform better than the small, round profiles for this use. [Surface area related?]

        Regardless, I have no difficulty hearing waves on rocks/beaches from 1/4+ mile off while motoring.

        It also facilitates conversations between the pilot and fore-deck in inclement conditions if you don’t have wireless headsets… [Even when the wind is howling so you wouldn’t otherwise hear the person working the ground tackle on the bow, nor they the helms person…]

        Another piece of equipment to spoil us… Enjoy.


        • Thanks Bill. I will make the installation of that horn my next project. I am hoping I can find a location that will protect the horn and perhaps already has a penetration in the mast. Perhaps the hole for the deck light can do double duty.

          • Mike, I was lucky on our present boat. The PA and air horn fit nicely under the shelf style radar bracket on the mizzen mast- and a wiring conduit was already there [and it had room!] for the radar and deck lights.

            Best wishes with your install.



  2. Night sailing, particularly on moonless nights bashing to weather, serves to heighten all of one’s senses. It generally entails closer attention to navigation with more frequent updating of our deduced reckoning position with GPS confirmation at each watch change. Our recent addition of an AIS transponder added another layer of security, at least when dealing with commercial shipping. Our biggest concern were the various forms of fishing gear off the coast of Mexico. Even during daylight hours, some of it can be difficult to spot; at night it becomes impossible. Our solution was to follow a course further off-shore in an effort to avoid most of it.

    One of our most memorable night sails was coming north from San Blas heading to Mazatlan. It was a crystal clear, moonless night with a light breeze and a sea surface like oil. The conditions were such it was as if we were sailing in space. The boundary between the heavens and sea was nearly impossible to discern due to the stars reflecting off the surface of the sea. The phosphorescence in our wake and that made by nearby fish we disturbed only added to the beauty and magic.

    It’s always good to hear from the experience of others. Save for the Pacific coast of Baja, there is generally not much fog to deal with in the semi-tropics and tropics. Sailing the Pacific Northwest, both fog and deadheads would be our concern.

    Fair winds and safe passages.

    • We agree that fog and deadheads are a concerns. We didn’t ever have radar until we bought Galapagos. Mike believes fog is a menace of conscious intent out to get him, he hates it so much. We loved having the radar on board, even though we were able to avoid fog this summer. I agree that all senses are heightened when sailing at night and glad to know that should we choose a more offshore route, we can avoid most of the fishing stuff off the coast of Mexico. I’ve read many accounts of how ubiquitous that is and it does give me pause for concern, even in the daylight, as you say. I am looking forward to the nights where the sea and the sky are seamless and peaceful. Mike looks forward to that as well. Thanks for your comment. We will remember to stay offshore when possible.

  3. I’ve only sailed at night a few times – the first was very nerve wracking, the other times were fine. We don’t have radar or AIS – would be nice to get one (or both) of them as it would probably make me a lot more comfortable out there.

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