Sail changes in the dark require good understanding from all crew about what might go wrong, and a high level of teamwork to identify and sort out problems before they escalate. Pip Hare shares some of her recommended techniques for successful sail changes at night

Before dark

As routine, discuss what sail changes may be required overnight then set up as much as possible before dark. This helps minimise snags and should include checking sheets are correctly run, sails are well packed and ready to come on deck, spinnaker halyards are not tangled and on the correct side of the forestay for the next hoist.

When working with multiple halyards I often separate them before dark by attaching the higher one at the base of the shrouds and the lower at the base of the mast. That way any halyard can easily be identified with confidence it is not tangled. If storing at the base of the shrouds, remember to check the halyard has not swung behind the spreaders before each hoist.

Regardless of conditions ensure you’re ready to reduce sail quickly: halyards should be flaked, ready to run. Remember a quick drop would be essential in the event of a man overboard. Beware overstuffed halyard bags. I coil halyards and tack lines as large figures-of-eight and hang them over a winch during the night rather than put them in pockets.

Separate the up and down ropes for any snuffers, making sure everyone is aware which the down rope is – you could mark it with a piece of white tape. Running the down rope through a snatch block on deck is also a good safety measure for drops in the dark.

This allows the foredeck team to pull up on the snuffer line so if the spinnaker suddenly re-fills they’ll not get pulled off their feet. For furling offwind sails put the furling line onto a winch so it’s ready to bring in under load.

At the change of watch, make sure the oncoming crew know which ropes are where in the cockpit.


Particularly when working with spinnakers in the dark, good communication is essential – quite often the bow team are the only people who can see problems unfolding.

When on the bow ensure you’re facing towards the cockpit (remember to turn off your head torch) to communicate a problem, and keep instructions short and clear. Fold down large coat collars so your words are not muffled.

Avoid using words that can be mistaken and try to be precise with your instructions – eg I’d say: “’Drop spinnaker halyard one metre’ instead of ‘ease it a little’.”  Assume the cockpit team can see nothing.

It’s best to agree one person who will run the manoeuvre, if sailing double-handed this will often be the person on the bow.

With a larger crew chose someone in the middle of the boat who can relay information between helmsman and foredeck. Helmsmen used to taking control in these situations may need to learn to step back.

During the manoeuvre

Make life as easy as possible by sailing low and reducing the apparent wind for furling headsails, dropping or snuffing a spinnaker – even when racing keeping the foredeck as flat and wave free as possible will often result in a quicker manoeuvre and a gain overall.   

When reefing, drop the traveller and over sheet the jib. This will encourage the mainsail to back-wind with the minimum amount of mainsheet released while keeping the boat relatively flat.

Use luminous clutch labels and white or luminous whipped marks in ropes to identify when halyards are at full hoist and where reefing positions are. Avoid using red twine as this cannot be seen under red light.

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Think through the pros and cons before using the lights, if you can get by using natural light it will be best for everybody. Deck or steaming lights will help foredeck crews to see and be seen which is an important safety consideration. However, if there is a problem above the spreaders this will not be seen if using deck lights and crew working with their backs to the light can create shadows exactly over the spot where they’re working.

Head torches equally have their downsides – they can easily blind others, including the helmsman. When buying a head torch, chose one with a red filter and several settings for brightness. I use a red light as standard, switching to white for details or if greater distances need to be seen. Set a white light to the lowest brightness required for your job.

Don’t underestimate the reflection of bright white lights off a white deck – even if looking forward a head torch can kill the night vision of those behind you. Before turning on a white head torch, warn the crew around you and always avoid looking directly at anyone else. If working with a head torch down below, try hanging it around your neck so if someone talks you don’t have to worry about turning to answer them.

Invest in a high powered, focussed torch capable of illuminating the top of the mast, look for something over 500 lumens.


Going forward at night presents a greater risk so use harnesses and stay clipped on using the shortest practical tether. Some manufacturers now supply safety lines with luminous gates on the carabiners so crew can check at a glance that they are properly attached.

In the event of a man overboard, immediately mark your position on a GPS – if the MOB button on your instruments is not backlit consider marking it with a luminous sticker or just a piece of white tape.  Make sure your searchlight is close to the helm and fully charged. Practice MOB drill regularly, always keep equipment in the same place and check lights on all lifesaving equipment regularly.