A Yachting World special report on how to prepare and enjoy sailing at night. Photos by Tor Johnson.
Sailing through the night brings its own rewards: a contemplative stillness, phosphorescent trails through a star-lit sea, the soul-warming sunrises. But it also raises challenges – if you cannot see gusts and squalls approaching, how quickly can you react? How well do you – and the rest of your crew – know your yacht’s layout in the dark?
We asked some experienced long-distance cruisers, many of whom have sailed extensively in the tropics – experiencing much longer hours of darkness than northern hemisphere sailors who only venture offshore in summer months – for their night sailing advice.
Romantic though sailing into the sunset may be, heading into darkness requires careful preparation. ‘Bones’ Black, who owns and skippers Emily Morgan, a Bowman 57 charter cruiser, says: “We do a great deal of night sailing, be it from island to island in the Caribbean or transatlantic passages. When doing overnight island-hopping we plan to arrive at the next destination in daylight, especially if we have not been there before.
“We prep the boat, all sail covers off, halyards attached, engine checks and of course we recheck the weather – if we are in tidal waters we would double check the tides too. We also prepare the cockpit by putting a good torch, hand-bearing compass, binoculars, bottle of water and spare safety tether to hand.
“Then we sit and have a decent meal to relax before we set sail. We also prepare a meal for later as it’s common to feel a little queasy at the start of a passage if it’s a bit lumpy and the last thing you want is to go below to start cooking.”
Erik Lindgren, currently cruising his Baltic 56 in Fiji, says: “Spirit V is by design a very fast boat. This means that we cover good distances without pushing and without using too much sail at night. Our night set-up includes bimini down, sprayhood up, one or two reefs in the main depending on the risk of squalls, lifejackets are worn and we are always clipped on, AIS transmitters in lifejackets and PLB in foulweather jackets.”
Paul Frew, who is sailing his Oyster 575 Juno around Europe with his wife Caroline, says: “We are very cautious offshore. We have a golden rule never to leave the cockpit at night, so we will delay a pole gybe until daylight even it means heading a few miles off course. If for any reason we do need to leave the cockpit the on-watch crew have to call me and we all clip on.
“I have an offshore checklist that we always review before any night passages. I keep a high-powered 24V torch in the cockpit and an anti-collision flare in the companionway. Radar is always on at night and AIS alarms are checked before dark.”
Once underway every skipper applies the same golden rules, summed up by Will Downing, skipper of the Hanse 575 Ximera: “Lifejackets obligatory; lifelines attached even if you are sleeping in the cockpit; don’t go forward without someone else awake in the cockpit and clipped on.”
Erik Lindgren adds: “We never, ever leave the cockpit while on a single watch. Sail area is reduced during the night – if hit by a big squall – by furling the jib. The off-watch sleeps on the saloon sofa.”
John Dyer, who sailed his First 47.7 Exocet Strike on the World ARC, says: “While on night watches we always take a view on likely weather conditions and reef accordingly before it’s dark – always easier to shake reefs out than put them in.
“We also use head torches and use the red LED to preserve night vision.”
Top tip: Night vision relies on rod cells in the eyes, which take 20-40 minutes to adapt to a change of light
Bones Black says it’s also important to brief new crew joining the yacht on what to do if they have concerns. “We tell our crew always to wake Anna as skipper or me as first mate at any time. I would rather get up and check something out, be it a strange noise or a light on the horizon in good time, rather than at the last minute when it could be a problem.”
Conversely, when all is going well, being considerate of your off-watch crew is important – tether hooks dragging on deck and rattling pans in the galley sound incredibly loud at night. If you need to run a generator, consider timing it so it so the noise is split over two watches.
Your choice of watch system depends on several factors – how many people there are on board, how mentally and physically draining the conditions are, and personal preferences – some people find it hard to sleep down below during the day, for instance, while others prefer a short night watch and a longer day off-watch.
Fact: NASA studied the sleep patterns of solo ocean racing sailors to see how extreme sleep deprivation affects decision making and performance.
Will Downing comments: “I am a firm believer in the four-hour sleep rule of REM. Most people sleep for four hours, then two hours, then one hour, with waking moments (or close to) in between. If there are only three people on board, a three-hours-on six-off watch system means you will definitely get that four hours of sleep. Two hours on and four off is not four hours of sleep. Once you’ve brushed your teeth, had a snack, gone to the heads and maybe read for a few minutes, you’re lucky if you end up with just three hours.
“Even better is a four-person shift pattern with two hours on and six off. It’s not long on duty, but long on the old shut-eye. I have always found that the crew are better humoured, easier going and just plain happier!”
Black agrees: “There are so many different watch systems you could run, but they depend on how many crew you have. If it’s just Anna and me we do three on and three off during the night, and four on four off during the day to catch up. If alone on watch we steer for about 20 minutes, looking around the horizon all the time, then have a look at the AIS and radar.
“If there are three people we do three on, six off and steer as much as we can to keep busy. When concentration starts to lapse the autopilot goes on for a while and a drink and a few nibbles help.
“If we have a full complement of six crew we run three on, six off with two crew on each watch, this means the crew on watch can steer for half an hour then swap.”
For an even more in-depth look at this topic and plenty of others, see our Bluewater Sailing Techniques feature and video on night watches and routines offshore
Equally important is how you hand over between watches. Downing says it’s worth taking your time over the watch change.
“When you finish a shift in the middle of the night and are yearning for your pillow and some well-earned rest, remember that the person coming on watch has only just recently woken up so take time to chat with them, offer them a hot drink, talk about the weather and the shipping.
“I always finish with asking: ‘Are you awake enough to do this?’ Remember that your life is now in their hands!”
For the person coming on deck Downing suggests: “Read the log. It’s nice to know they saw dolphins and a mermaid, but more important that they heard a rattle from the engine or that the temperature felt like it dropped several degrees very quickly.”
Getting through it: Creature comforts to get through the night
“As we normally have three or four crewmembers on long passages we adopt a mother watch. Desert Island Discs downloaded from the BBC is our favourite distraction!”
Paul and Caroline Frew, Juno
“Listening to music helps pass the time – but I am always being told off by Anna for singing along while she is trying to sleep. We also have what we call the ‘excessive calories box’ stuffed full of sweets, breakfast bars, chocolate bars and anything else we can find. There is nothing like the sight of your watch mate appearing at 0300 with the box to raise morale.”
Bones Black, Emily Morgan